Transcript for SUPER BOWL XLVII - The spirituality of football

Steve Paulson:  If you really think about it being a sports fan is really pretty weird.  I say this, as a huge Packers fan.    When they went to the Super Bowl a few years ago, I started having dreams about the Packers and watching the Packers especially during a big game.  It's the only time I ever yell at the TV, which I have to say annoys the rest of my family.  But they aren't Packers fans.  They don't get it.  I think the theologian, William Dean, would understand.  He wrote a book called, "The American Spiritual Culture: And the Invention of Jazz, Football, and the Movies."  Steve Fleming talked with him about the genius of both football and jazz.

 

 

 

William Dean:    Americans, unlike most other peoples, are comprised of people that  have been uprooted and thrown into a wilderness where there is not a long set of traditions that they can recognize as their own.  This happened even to the American Indian, who was uprooted from his or her society - and to the African American.  But all Americans are in one sense or another immigrants even if they are still occupying the land which their ancestors lived.  And this requires Americans finally to be in a position where if they are to have a culture they have to invent one.  They have to improvise one.  I move to jazz, because jazz is really more than anything else, music that is played without a composition - without a long heritage that is given to it on a piece of paper.  The genius of jazz is that the players improvise as they go.  And it's interesting to me that in America jazz was born. 

 

 

 

Paulson:  You write about John Coltrane in fact who was known for improvisation, the great jazz sax player.

 

 

 

Dean:  I take jazz very seriously.  It's not simply a form of entertainment, but it's a form of searching.  It's an active expression that finally is an act that attempts to penetrate the surfaces of the society:  to find some answer to the blues...  to find some way of coping with the confusions and dissonances we experience.  So yes, I do cite John Coltrane as a perfect example - someone who took improvisation to the heights that some people thought making for its own sake.  And near the end of his life, he said it's not for its own sake, this is improvisation that becomes annulification of music  that finally gets at something greater than music. 

 

 

 

Paulson:  Talking about John Coltrane, I think I understand what you are talking about.  I wonder though - can you give me an example of if you were to listen, can you hear him search for truth?

 

 

 

Dean:  If truth really is a recognition that we at some point or another have the slate swept clean, that we lose faith in any typical sense of the word, that we experience a kind of everyday atheism,  where simply the sound of music pretends to be sufficient, I think I can hear that.  And I think I can hear him break through that to a grounds for new affirmation.  When jazz swings, when it seems to celebrate, when it seems to discover some basis for affirmation.  I think I can hear him searching.

 

 

 

Paulson:  Along those lines, you also suggested that maybe one of the most religious areas in American life is football.  And that seems to be a contradiction. 

 

 

 

Dean:  Ah, yes, it does.  I've told the American story in three episodes, that we leave some other country where there was a prevailing set of deep and lasting traditions.  And we have occupied as a people what seems like to us at least - a wilderness, it may not seem that way to the Indians - but to the majority, it seemed like a wilderness.  And that we had somehow to gain that land through our own rough and ready acts of assertion.  And it seems to me that in one sense or another, football is a ritualization of the taking of land, violently. 

 

 

 

Announcer #1:  Fumble! 

 

 

 

Announcer #2:  Fumble ball! Pick it up!

 

 

 

Announcer #1:  Packers pick it up.  Down the sidelines. 

 

 

 

Announcer #2:  He's gone! 

 

 

 

Announcer #1:  Newsome - to the ten, to the five... touchdown -- Green Bay!  Derek Lovell with the fumble.  Newsome picks it up.  And the rookie has scored the touchdown for the Packers.  What a play!

 

 

 

Announcer #2:  I'll tell you, what a hit.  I'm not sure who hit him, Steve...

 

 

 

Announcer #3:  Wayne Simmons

 

 

 

Announcer #2:  Wayne Simmons just turned that ball loose...

 

 

 

Paulson:  So where is the spirituality in that?

 

 

 

Dean:  Out of that sort of atheism of the sheer exertion of force, we find grounds for new affirmation in what I'd like to call the third episode of American experience, which is the invention of a culture -- the invention of a spiritual tradition. 

 

 

 

Paulson:  The violence is not itself, spiritual - it is part of the search for spirituality?

 

 

 

Dean:  That's exactly right.  It's a recognition that we are alone, that we have been divested of culture, that we have entered a land without culture, that we tend to rely on this naked aggression as a way of identifying ourselves, but no in itself that has no very positive spiritual element, but it is a perfect way, I think, of recognizing that we are attempting to acquire the grounds on which spiritual definition will occur. 

 

 

 

Steve Paulson:  We can also find depth where we see only superficiality?

 

 

 

Dean:  That's right.  One of the motifs for my book is what I call the "irony of atheism."  That the radically secular culture that America is...  Finally, it has the ironic consequence of leading people to an utter switch - they find out of this naked atheistic secularism new grounds for spiritual affirmation.

 

 

 

Paulson:  That's theologian William Dean.  His book is "The American Spiritual Culture: And the Invention of Jazz, Football, and the Movies."

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