Thursday, February 10, 2011

Shared experience…

Last week, I heard someone suggest the following- In American culture, the last great shared cultural experience we have is the Super Bowl. Love or hate football, nevertheless the Super Bowl touches most of our lives. More than that, a majority of our culture, representing all kinds of sub-groups with little in common, will join in watching this game. The Oscars no longer draw large amounts of interested spectators. Musicians nowadays don’t gain the iconic status of previous performers. And church, well, I’m not sure that was ever a ‘broadly shared cultural experience,’ whatever we pastors tell ourselves about the ‘good ole days’! But hey, there’s still the Super Bowl, whether you care only for the commercials, or watch because “that’s the thing to do.” Indeed, it holds that much more importance in our culture because, well, nothing else unites as many people around a shared experience. Or at least that’s the theory. And if it’s true, I wonder if that says anything important about us?

It’s easy to imagine a culture in which things are different, right? For most of human history, our various societies had many shared experiences, probably because we lived so close together! When we did branch out, though, we were often united by shared systems of religious rituals, as well as languages, clothing, commerce and common cuisines. I’ve even heard historians claim that human history is the history of finding, cooking and eating food! Whatever the case, a ‘culture’ implies numerous shared experiences.

America’s a different place, though, it seems. One- we’re really big! Also, we’re not old, so we don’t have centuries of accumulated food wisdom (regionally, perhaps, but that’s different…). Plus, our nation was built by folk from other lands, who brought their foods, languages, and beliefs with them. E Pluribus Unum. In other countries, athletic events like the World Cup or Olympics consume all available cultural energy when they occur, while America still favors our version of football. Even clothing isn’t as common an American experience as elsewhere. Wait- we do have jeans- so I’ll amend the Super Bowl theory to include Levi’s!

Does that say anything about us? I’ve heard some claim it’s an example of our cultural shallowness, that America lacks the profundity of other nations, with their histories, cuisines, cathedrals and music. Call me a stubborn nationalist, but those arguments always struck me as more elitist, or jealous, than true. I wonder if, rather, that’s an expression of our cultural ease with uniqueness. Some would use the term ‘diversity,’ others might say ‘freedom,’ but whatever your preference I feel that, for better or worse, Americans celebrate, or at least value, unique people and ideas. Thus, there’s been little pressure to assimilate all the various cuisines that reached our shores. We’ve nurtured multiple musical forms (hip-hop, bluegrass, gospel, pop) to maintain their distinctiveness. Even our religions value uniqueness; there’s over 200 different American Christian denominations! Indeed, it’s no accident that our flavor, the Disciples of Christ, began on the American Frontier, committed as we are to freedom of interpretation and expression.

This comes with drawbacks, of course, like a temptation to idolize individualism, or frequent rejection of accumulated wisdom. Also, the history of American racism and segregation probably contributed much to the lack of a ‘unifying culture.’ Nevertheless, from this American’s perspective, there’s real value in the entrepreneurial instinct of our culture; it can certainly keep our religious life fresh and interesting! So perhaps it’s appropriate that attitude finds expression in a uniquely American sporting event, with all its faults and successes- watched by many people, in multiple languages, riveted by competition, repulsed by or drawn to brutality, anticipating creative commercials, often disappointed with simply another beer ad featuring slapstick humor, laughing anyway. Surely there’re more profound and transformative experiences we have available, but that a Super Bowl occupies the place it does isn’t, to my mind, a bad thing. Romans killed Christians in the Coliseum. Ancient Mesopotamians valued human sacrifices. Football looks alright, by comparison!

Or maybe I’m reading waaay too much into a game! Still, what do you think? Does the Super Bowl’s popularity say anything important about us? Would Jesus approve?

Grace and Peace,

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