Military-Entertainment Complex

Before the Super Bowl on the last Lord’s Day, Andrea and I read from James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.  There is a section of the book that evaluates several ‘secular liturgies’ of our day.

Consider the rituals that constitute the opening of a professional sporting event such as an NFL football game or a NASCAR race, even if only viewed on television.  In a massive space thronging with people, eager for the beginning of the event, a crowd of a hundred thousand people can be brought into remarkable placidity by the exhortation, ‘Please stand for the national anthem.’  Like parishioners who know all the motions of the Mass by heart, these fans instinctively and automatically rise together.  They remove their caps, and many place a hand over their heart as an artist or group sings a rendition of one of the world’s most affecting national anthems, laden with military themes such that those singing it are transposed into battle, the identity of the nation being wrapped up in its revolutionary beginnings and legacy of military power.  Perhaps even more importantly, this rehearses and renews the myth of national identity forged by blood sacrifice.

The sounds of the anthem are usually accompanied by big, dramatic sights of the flag: a star-spangled banner the size of a football field is unfurled across the field by a small army of young people whose movements make it undulate as if blowing in the winds of battle, proudly defiant, but almost dripping with blood in those red lines across it.  And almost always, the concluding crescendo of the anthem – announcing that this is the ‘land of the free’ and the ‘home of the brave’ – is accompanied by a flyover from military aircraft, whether the searing slice of F-15 fighter jets across the sky or the pulsating presence of Apache helicopters chugging across the air space of the stadium.  The presence of the aircraft has a double effect: it concretizes the militarism of the anthem and the flag while also making the scene something that is felt, as the sounds of the jets or choppers is a kind of noise one picks up in the chest more than the ears.  A crowd larger than many American cities then erupts in cheers and applause as this ritual of national unity has united even fans of opposing teams.

I’m suggesting that this constitutes a liturgy because it is a material ritual of ultimate concern: through a multisensory display, the ritual both powerfully and subtly moves us, and in so doing implants within us a certain reverence and awe, a learned deference to an ideal that might some day call for our ‘sacrifice.’  This is true not only of professional sports; the rituals of national identity – and nationalism – have been almost indelibly inscribed into the rituals of athletics from Little League to high school football.  ‘As is well known,’ Stanley Hauerwas once quipped, ‘Friday night high school football is the most significant liturgical event in Texas.’  The imagination couples these spectacular displays at professional sporting events with the simplicity of the anthem and color guard at a high school football game, and together they build up a story of national unity forged by battle and sacrifice.  Over time, these rituals have a cumulative, albeit covert, effect on our imaginary.  And together, I’m arguing, these constitute liturgies of ultimate concern…

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 105-106.


Smith makes some fascinating observations and helpful arguments in this book.  It’s important to be aware of what’s happening to us in these cultural practices.  What has really captured our imaginations?

I couldn’t find yesterday’s version, but here is the 2011 video production that played before the Super Bowl.  I think Smith is onto something here:


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