The Super Bowl as Religious Ritual (Yawn)

200px-Super_Bowl_logo_svgIn its nearly half-century of existence, the Super Bowl has moved to the center of U.S. culture.  It is far from the global event the Football (Soccer) World Cup has become, but it nonetheless achieves a kind of global attention, not least because of its putative status in American culture and American media.

It is this status that is worthy of note. What, exactly *is* this status?  Is it a mere sporting event?  Is it a central cultural ritual?  Is it religious?  Is it a kind of ‘civil religion’?  Each of these, and permutations of them, are deployed each year by various pundits seeking to explain or interpret it to itself.  It is clear that it is not merely a sporting event.  What is interesting, though, is how commonplace it is now to claim some larger or deeper status for it.  In particular, its association with religion appears to be a particularly tempting notion.  (Though not, apparently, for the networks which carry it, as in this incident from a couple of years ago).

This struck me earlier in the week while listening to NPR. Their long-time sports voice, Frank Deford, devoted his commentary to the Bowl and to the place of football in American culture.  It was a pretty banal argument, and at its *most* banal, included these words referring to the Bowl as

“This Sunday’s quasi-religious spectacle, that celebrates our adoration of the sport as much as the sport itself…”

This association with religion came across as taken-for-granted and mundane.  And I think that is what is notable: how absolutely passé it is to be shocked at the idea that something like the Super Bowl might stand in for something like “religion.”  This implies, perhaps, both a measure of the rise of the Bowl’s status, and of the declining fortunes of religion.

What most commentators miss is what most cultural scholars and observers know: that the issue is not how something like the Bowl might achieve absolute or canonical status, but how various readings of it (from “mere sport” to “consequential religion”) are brought into discourses about it and to what ends.

In recent years, it has seemed to reach a higher level of significance at times like the 2002 contest, where commemoration of 9/11 was at the center, or in 2006, in New Orleans, when post-Katrina symbols were proffered.  Other times, it is more of a strain to pull it into that kind of status.

At the same time, though, it is rife with voluble and effervescent “cultural religion” or what Gordon Lynch calls “the Sacred in the Modern World,” symbols of patriotism, masculinity, domesticity, bourgeois values, valorization of market values, etc.  Significant as well is the attention paid to it.  It is a major moment of gathering for the U.S. audience, and that alone is important, justifying its status as a major public “ritual,” if only a ritual of of subjective performance.

It seems to be what theorist Nick Couldry has called a moment of cultural “thickening”—a largely mediated occasion where cultural discourses, struggles, negotiations, and symbols aggregate and coincide.  We can learn a lot by looking at those moments of thickening.

With that in mind, my colleagues and I at the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture, intend to try a ritual of our own. We’re going to tweet the Super Bowl this year with the hashtag #cmrcbowl.  We’ll be looking for, and commenting on, the event, looking both for its ritual implications, its invocations of cultural, “sacred,” or culturally-significant values, and for meta-discourses of the Super Bowl as “something beyond.”

Read along if you like!  Again, that’s #cmrcbowl.

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