Super Bowl XLVII: The Great American Morality Tale
The final score in this year's Super Bowl was surprisingly close, given Baltimore's domination in a lopsided first half: Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31. Another score was also very close: 52% to 48%. In an NBCnews.com poll that asked if the halftime show was "too sexy," 52% responded, "Yes, children were watching," while 48% said, "No, it was entertaining." With 108 million people watching the flashy ads and halftime extravaganza, the Super Bowl has become more than a mere football game. It's a cultural event that reflects the spirit of the nation.
Following Janet Jackson's breast-bearing display at the 2004 halftime show, Beyoncé's strutting, lioness-like growling and unabashedly sexy striptease held little shock value. Far more surprising was the Dodge Ram Truck commercial -- arguably the most compelling ad of the Super Bowl -- featuring a voice-over of Paul Harvey delivering his famous 1978 speech, "So God made a farmer." Sure, the evening was full of many colorful genuflections after great plays, but I don't recall God's name ever being directly invoked at the Super Bowl!
There is a curious juxtaposition between Beyoncé's evocative halftime lap-dance mannerisms and a television commercial portraying a Midwestern farm family gathered around the table with heads bowed in humility, saying grace before dinner after a long day of laboring in the fields. These contrasting images reveal the underlying polarization in American society that defines the current "culture wars."
America is notoriously schizophrenic about sexuality. Two distinct tributaries flow into the mighty river of American sexuality: one has its source in the Judeo-Christian and Puritan tradition of modesty, chastity, marriage, and sexual propriety; the other derives, more recently, from the boundary-breaking 1960s tradition of body-bearing, free love, cohabitation, and equality of all forms of love. The narrow split of 52% against the halftime show versus 48% approving of it reflects this national schizophrenia and is similar to the split on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
This tension between Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies -- between reason, restraint, and spirituality and emotion, excess, and Eros -- is an ancient one that continues to be played out on today's football gridirons. Barbara Ehrenreich, historian and writer, observed in Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, that football remains one of the few outlets for what she calls "collective exuberance" (together, interestingly enough, with Chassidic Jewish groups that celebrate ritual events with ecstatic dancing and singing). Originally, Ehrenreich notes, collective exuberance was a communal spiritual experience of intense joy shared amongst celebrants within religious groups. Surprisingly, early worship in Catholic churches was more like today's Southern Baptist or African-American prayer houses, with exuberant singing and dancing in the aisles.
However, these ecstatic states, often fueled with alcohol, could get out of control, tempting worshipers to challenge clerical authority and engage in improper or wanton behaviors. Over time, the Church began to formalize the service, prohibiting spontaneous dancing and relegating it to the church courtyard. Gradually, dancing anywhere on church property became too threatening, so the Church established various "saint days," in which congregants could have a day off from work, enjoy unencumbered intoxication, and freely engage in "dancing in the streets." It wasn't unheard of for participants to wander off behind the bushes to engage in sexual activity.
Due to these excesses, civic authorities began to impose further restrictions until these ecstatic participatory celebrations morphed into today's more structured parades. Only registered marching bands or floats can participate, with most people passively observing from behind police barriers. The rare surviving examples of collective exuberance are the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, rave dances -- and, of course, American football games, with their intoxicating pre-game tailgate parties, half-nude men bedecked with body and face paintings, and the quintessential communal eruption called "the wave," in which successive groups of spectators rise, yell, and wave their arms.
Contemporary expressions of collective exuberance are devoid of any real spiritual connection. Aside from increasingly rare religious communities that fuse holy rituals with joyful, ecstatic singing and dancing, we are today left with secularized and typically degraded forms of "collective exuberance" expressed by fans of the home team rather than by people of common faith.
Back on the playing field, what distinguished the 2013 game was not so much Beyoncé's bacchanalia half-time show, with its singing, dancing and revelry -- although it did push the envelope on the Dionysian dimension of a football game. The unique feature is that in addition to the presence of Dionysus -- the Greek deity of intoxication, ritual madness, and ecstasy -- the traditional Judeo-Christian God made what may be the first Super Bowl appearance, reflected in images of traditional American farmers and the values they embody.
Due to the amazing comeback effort of the 49ers and the Ravens' heroic battle to hold on to victory, Super Bowl XLVII will be remembered as a classic football game. But even more memorable will be the morality tale that we take away: will our society be content with the secularized and sexualized form of "collective exuberance" so evocatively expressed by Beyoncé? Or did Paul Harvey's refrain of "God made a farmer" hint at the American people's yearning for a resurrection of the traditional values of spirituality, modesty, and restraint that for centuries built and sustained American culture? At last count, the "score" -- 52% to 48% -- was very close. Yet the game is hardly over.
Robert M. Schwartz, Ph.D. is president of Cognitive Dynamic Therapy Associates, assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and author of Holy Eating: The Spiritual Secret to Eternal Weight Loss.