And the Prime Minister sucks ice cream in the company of a happy band of children, while a naked man, sores on his neck, lies for days in Washington Boulevard gnawing chicken bones. . . . And there’s a kung fu movie in every town. . . . And there’s dancing in paradise.
-Bruce Cockburn, “Dancing in Paradise,” World of Wonders
But the barons in the balcony are laughing, and pointing to the pit. . . . And we’re workin’ it.
Don Henley, “Workin’ It,” Inside Job
I teach Sunday School for children in grades 3–5. As I prefer less cerebral pedagogies, I try to engage my young charges in more tactile experiences, requiring them to act out various scenes from the Bible. The week before Super Bowl Sunday 2022 we learned about young King Josiah (2 Kings 22–23), who began his reign at age 8 (the same as some kids in our class) and was recorded as “doing what was right in the sight of the Lord.” He was a good king, who in due time set about repairing the house of the Lord, which, as it turned out, required more destruction than building. When renovations uncover the long-lost book of the law, which is read aloud to good King Josiah, he tears his clothes, “for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book” (2 Kings 22:13b). After inquiring of the Lord, Josiah cleans house, smashing, destroying, and burning the rather impressive array of idols that have accumulated in and around the house of the Lord. Idolatrous priests are deposed, male temple prostitutes have their houses demolished, and the high places of false gods are crushed to dust. And this is just the PG version. The rest I can scarcely read to a group of 8–10-year olds! They’re banning books with far tamer content from public school libraries in several states.
The Sunday morning after the Super Bowl, I gathered my class outside the church building where, after donning safety glasses and armed with sledgehammers and such, we collectively demolished a bunch of old junk that had accumulated at my house. Sunday school kids smashing idols just outside the house of the Lord. What zeal!
The irony is that for all of this symbolic destruction taking place on our church lawn, some of our most potent false deities enjoy protected space inside the house of the Lord. What of the moniker “Super Bowl Sunday”—an event that is frequently included on church calendars? What of the youth parties we advertise from pulpits and host in celebration of this dubious event? What of adult members who deem this a public good requiring little Christian reflection? Is the Super Bowl not one of our idols? For the most part, our twenty-first century idols are not made of wood and stone. They’re constructed of more sinister stuff.
Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci employed the concept of cultural hegemony to explain how we clamor for, legitimate, and enthusiastically support, the very things that oppress us.1 In effect, we lobby on behalf of the idols that do us harm. Gramsci’s concern is frequently captured in Sally Kempton’s phrase, “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”2 How do you smash a Super Bowl, especially when to do so would require a dismantling of the universally embraced and mutually reinforcing hegemonies of social class, gender, violence, consumerism, nationalism, civil religion, and race? Difficult to deconstruct? Sure. But Josiah did it, and with no small disruption to “business as usual.” Josiah didn’t give an inch. No Asherah-pole-themed youth parties on temple grounds under his tenure. Josiah burned it down.
Idols are those things in creation that point us away from God and the ways of God. Reading Josiah’s story in 2 Kings, Christians should find themselves rooting for Josiah. Few, if any, of us would argue in favor of the cultic practices the good king sought to eliminate. But I’m guessing that average Judeans under Josiah’s rule had, over time, gradually merged their idolatrous practices with their more orthodox religious observance without really noticing the stark contradiction we see with clarity centuries later. That’s the thing about idols. The most dangerous are not the obvious ones, but rather, the ones we take for granted. And my vote for the largest, most pernicious, most celebrated, most supported, hidden-in-plain-sight, idol of our age is the Super Bowl.
By celebrating that which kindles God’s wrath, idol worship advances the idea that God does not matter. What we bemoan as the secular world is the progeny of idolatrous practice. Lose track of the book of the law; gradually move in the altars of Baal; submit to the rule of a new priestly order; go on with life. And teach your children to do the same. The Super Bowl packages together a vast collection of cultural practices that historic Christianity both opposes and laments.
The packaging here is key to understanding how the Super Bowl is invisible as an idol. Disaggregate various components of the Super Bowl package, and the opaque becomes visible. Were I to approach my church with a plan to watch Victoria’s Secret commercials with the Youth Group, or to celebrate the life work of Snoop Dogg (the 2022 SB halftime show headliner), serious questions would rightfully be raised about my suitability to teach the aforementioned Sunday School class. Package those same items into the larger Super Bowl and they become cleansed of iniquity—or at least more palatable. Likewise, excise a few suspect items such as the half-time show, the cheerleaders, or commercials with overt erotic content, and it’s easy to believe that purity has been restored to this sacred event, and consequently that other components, including the competition itself, would require no intervention by a modern King Josiah.
Though by no means comprehensive, I offer the following disaggregation of select Super Bowl components from the larger event that, I believe, kindle God’s wrath and help pave the way to a secular world where God does not matter and we do not care. I focus primarily on Super Bowl 2022, when the LA Rams played the Cincinnati Bengals, but reference other Super Bowls as well. My comments are organized under the headings of Social Class, Race, and Gender—three social forms that combine to produce the stratified order we take for granted in our society. I conclude by briefly explaining how a poststructural critique of the Super Bowl can help redirect and focus our collective gaze, and by so doing kindle a little more of Josiah’s zeal (in us), and a lot less of God’s wrath (against us).
Part of my motivation for what follows stems from a growing unease that the sociological analysis and critique that I offer my Christian college students (among other things, I teach sociology of sport), and which animate my conversations with colleagues, finds little traction in the places we live—home, church, school, community. Not only do we consume the Super Bowl—I think we should, just not as “fans”—we believe in it, support it, subject it to only the thinnest of cultural critique, and promote it as a public good worthy of a perennial spot on the church calendar. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and Super Bowl Sunday.
While we are quick to repeat mantras such as “taking every thought captive for Christ,” our almost unqualified support of spectacles like the Super Bowl reveals a deep allegiance to secular liturgies that call our creedal commitments into question. Although we bemoan the encroachment of secular culture and voice alarm at the fading of Christian presence in a post-Christian society, we clamor for, and easily incorporate into our Lord’s Day practice the most secular of secular entertainment. Shirl James Hoffman wrote that “When religion runs up against sport, it is usually religion that gets shoved out of the way.”3 If we, the people of God, uncritically accept the Super Bowl as consonant with our theologies and faith commitments, what secular practices could we possibly rule out of bounds or teach our children to avoid?
In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K. A. Smith explains that we can think of some of our secular rituals as liturgies.
Our thickest practices—which are not necessarily linked to institutional religion—have a liturgical function insofar as they are a certain species of ritual practice that aim to do nothing less than shape our identity by shaping our desire for what we envision as the kingdom—the ideal of human flourishing. Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately. By ultimately I mean what we love “above all,” that to which we pledge allegiance, that to which we are devoted in a way that overrules other concerns and interests.4
Sociologist Phil Davignon’s recent book Practicing Christians, Practical Atheists: How Cultural Liturgies and Everyday Social Practices Shape the Christian Life, extends Smith’s work on liturgies to further explain how everyday practices in work, education, shopping, and other parts of our lifeworlds transform practicing Christians into practical atheists who have internalized secular ways of thinking and being.5 Davignon’s work examines ways in which modern forms of culture influence Christians who are striving to live faithfully. As though anticipating my critique of the Super Bowl, the cover on Davignon’s book displays a fan raising his arms in triumph against the backdrop of a sports stadium.
Although Smith and Davignon both draw extensively on the images of malls, shopping, and advertising, neither book develops “big” sport as a primary site of liturgy formation. In fact, the word “sports” cannot be found in either index. And so, to further extend their excellent work, I want to suggest that our engagement with, and allegiance to commercial sport—epitomized in the Super Bowl—functions as, perhaps, the best and most prominent example of a secular form that profoundly shapes and directs our Christian hearts.
The Super Bowl, more than any other event on the planet draws together consumerism, eroticism, entertainment, gambling, violence, hegemonic gender displays, celebrity, and heady nationalism into a liturgical expression that has captured our hearts and minds like no other. Accordingly, I invite you to join me in peering into the quasi-religious Super Bowl liturgy, and then you can judge for yourselves whether it meets the good King Josiah standard. Should we party on, or should we smash a few things and maybe rent our garments a bit? What should I tell the kids in my Sunday School class about the Super Bowl and Super Bowl Sunday?
An original version of this article first appeared in the Journal of Sociology and Christianity.
- Antonio Gramsci, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, 1st ed., New world paperbacks, (New York: International Publishers, 1973).
- Sally Kempton, “Cutting Loose,” Esquire, July, 1970.
- Shirl J. Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), xii.
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation, Cultural liturgies, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009), 86-87.
- Phil Davignon, Practicing Christians, practical atheists: How cultural liturgies and everyday social practices shape the Christian life (2023).