The Air Jordan had always been on the fringe of my American pop cultural awareness, but the sneaker’s allure escaped me until a movie was made about it. Air (2023) made me feel like I was finally hearing the story I had never been told. The film dives into the magic of Nike’s sneaker, from its groundbreaking design to its status as a symbol and even a tool of protest, as its color scheme defied NBA rules. But what fascinated me most was how the concept of a sneaker line tapping into a player’s identity echoed the way we invest religious images and objects with a special, almost mystical, power.
. . . the sneaker transformed from a mere commodity into a sacred artifact, endlessly replicable, and deeply cherished by those who idolized the athlete.
Watching Air, I was struck by how a film’s underlying spiritual themes can suddenly come into sharp focus, as when Matt Damon delivers his powerful monologue during the movie’s climactic scene.
It’s the early ’80s, and Nike’s basketball shoe division was struggling to keep up with Converse and Adidas. In the midst of this, we meet Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, played by Damon, boldly gambling to secure an exclusive sneaker deal with the young Michael Jordan. In the eleventh hour, he delivered a spontaneous, heartfelt speech, hoping against hope to dispel Jordan’s doubts about Nike. By drawing parallels between Jordan’s journey and his own experiences, Vaccaro desired to ignite a sense of self-belief in the young rookie, who was considering a contract with Adidas, his preferred brand. Vaccarro’s words touched on the transcendent, connecting Jordan’s path with divine providence, infusing his quest for greatness with a higher purpose.
The surprise of Damon’s extraordinary performance in this pivotal scene opened my eyes to the subtle religious undertones woven throughout the film, which suddenly became unmistakably clear. From start to finish, Air consistently employs the language of cinema to depict the supernatural, whether through the enigmatic figure of Michael Jordan, whose face we glimpse only in historical footage, or the awe-inspiring shoe bearing his name.
What set Nike’s marketing strategy apart was its ability to create a unique bond between the athlete and those who proudly wore the brand. Crafting a shoe around Jordan’s foot symbolically transferred his charisma to adoring consumers. In this way, the sneaker transformed from a mere commodity into a sacred artifact, endlessly replicable, and deeply cherished by those who idolized the athlete.
The film treats the Air Jordan with a reverence befitting its cultural status, and the sneaker’s portrayal brought to mind how holy relics elicit similar feelings, offering a tangible link to transcendence through the imprint of a remarkable individual’s body.
Throughout history, the veneration of holy relics has served as an important expression of faith, and the most revered are those connected to the bodies of saints. Examples include the incorruptible body of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a French visionary who witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes during the 19th century. Her body, remarkably preserved despite the passage of time, has served as a testament to the divine. Another significant relic is the Holy Hand of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which holds a special place in religious history. A symbol of unwavering faith, this relic has passed through empires and kingdoms, offering solace to the faithful and a direct link to the early days of Christianity. Perhaps the most famous is the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. This linen cloth bears the faint image of a crucified man, and for centuries, it has captivated believers and scholars alike, symbolizing the profound sacrifice of Christ.
Commodities are sacralized for commercial gain. To miss this is to risk becoming entangled in an endless cycle of desire propagated through the values of the marketplace
Whether they be the preserved body or a fragment of a saint or martyr, an object once possessed, or something touched by them, for many Christians, venerating these relics has served as a means of bringing the faithful closer to God. Such sacred relics, present in Christianity and across religious traditions, are believed to channel spiritual energy, carrying the essence of the deceased, and extending their presence beyond mortality. It’s thought that the mere touch of these relics can impart blessings, facilitate healing, and establish a direct connection to the divine.
This phenomenon finds a parallel in the Air Jordan, where wearing sneakers associated with a celebrity athlete allows the wearer to step into the larger-than-life identity of the figure who has worn and endorsed the brand. In doing so, the consumer’s desire for recognition and acknowledgment by others is partly quenched by sharing in the revered status of Michael Jordan. Such consumer goods effectively act as tangible bridges, connecting people to their objects of admiration. But a critical distinction emerges: the individual’s worldview is unchallenged, bound up as he or she is by consumerist fantasies, whereas intercession before God through the holy relic is meant to be transformative. It is a means of transcending the limited, ego-based self.
In the society of the spectacle, religious veneration is supplanted by self-worship. How does this come about? Though not immediately apparent, dedication to celebrity athletes like Jordan or Cristiano Ronaldo—in fact, any celebrity with a product line referencing their body (e.g., Kylie Jenner or Rihanna’s cosmetics)—signifies a quest for personal expansion by joining with the very essence of that celebrity through the medium of the body. This process of projecting the celebrity’s image onto oneself for the sake of self-promotion culminates in a form of self-idolatry. The commodity that serves as the means for this fantasy is a golden calf. The Air Jordan’s bodily connection to Michael Jordan heightens its significance, giving it the supernatural qualities of the holy relic. Enchanted by its style, we inadvertently drift into false worship as we use it to redirect the celebrity image onto ourselves.
This parallel between consumerist fantasy and religious practice is telling. It illustrates that regardless of beliefs, a spiritual impulse resides at the core of each of us. The theology of Air demonstrates how consumerism feeds on that impulse. It is the misdirected yearning for the divine that propels the elevation of a mere sneaker to the status of an icon, wherein the subject and his or her object of devotion are joined.
But images and objects do more than reify accepted norms. They also have the power to suggest the unknowable, encouraging us to contemplate the mysteries of existence. Great art, both religious and non-religious, does this. The spiritual dimension of aesthetic experience lies in its capacity to transcend the ordinary, evoke feelings of awe and wonder, prompt moral and ethical reflection, encourage community and communion, and facilitate personal transformation and renewal. All of this contributes to greater awareness of the world and one’s place in it. This experience relies on the power of art to transport us beyond its material existence, so that once we’ve been invited into the image through the beauty of its form, we enter a liminal space of discovery.
The concept of an image as a gateway to the unnameable, much like the function of an icon, carries profound spiritual implications. Instead of fixating on the image itself, this perspective invites us to look beyond the tangible, recognizing it as a conduit to the ineffable. It shifts our focus from idolizing the material representation to embracing the contemplative potential it holds. In doing so, the image becomes a window to the mysteries that lie beyond our immediate perception, inviting us to engage in a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the divine. This approach underscores the transformative power of contemplation, guiding us toward a greater sense of the sacred dimension in our daily lives.
In stark contrast, the images in advertising tend to offer pleasure and assurance, prioritizing comfort over contemplation. Our hunger for safety, leisure, and diversion often leaves little room for the development of spiritual wisdom, which is elusive in a world obsessed with the material and the immediate. Rather than being transported through the vehicle of form, we become trapped in it. The image or object becomes a fetish.
The Air Jordan has transcended its role as a mere sneaker to become an iconic fashion symbol. In the process it has come to exemplify the way commodities are imbued with the power to enhance our ego. Unlike the holy relic that serves as an intermediary for transformation and spiritual growth, the “sacred” commodity offers no such potential for personal evolution. Instead, it encourages worship of an imaginary self. It pulls us further into an illusory realm of superficial appearances that we mistake for reality.
Commodities are sacralized for commercial gain. To miss this is to risk becoming entangled in an endless cycle of desire propagated through the values of the marketplace—to become fixated on fleeting desires and superficial values, to become bound by the allure of certain images or the promises they convey.
Yet our tendency to fall into this trap is a reminder of how much we crave meaning, and points beyond the realm of consumerism. It highlights the intrinsic human need to find purpose and significance, even when it may seem elusive within a world dominated by the imperatives of the market. Of course, it’s also true that we’re in constant communion with the spiritual dimension through the material world, and we find solace in the exquisite beauty of the created order. Ultimately, it’s true that we need images to help us access and express the spiritual.
But in the midst of being drawn to a commercial image or object that promises transcendence, we have a choice. We can succumb to temptation or redirect our attention to the origins of the spiritual references woven into the product’s advertising and promotional materials. This reflective process enables us to break free from the cycle of consumerism. We can liberate ourselves from its web and instead contemplate the yearning for meaning and connection that resides within us. Critical thinking around commodity images also guides us in questioning whether these advertised promises can genuinely satisfy our longing for something beyond the material world, or if they merely serve as mirrors reflecting our desire for meaning and purpose. While the initial pull of images with transcendent claims may be strong, understanding their context in consumer culture can empower us to break free from their grip and embark on spiritual self-inquiry.
Relating Air Jordans to holy relics in the way Air does suggests that these everyday objects, like those worn by a saint or martyr, can serve as a gateway to transcendence. But rather than accept the market’s manufactured transcendence, a simulated experience that entices us with the promise of something deeper, only to keep us trapped in consumerism, we can be subversive. The market exploits our need for inspiration, belonging, and aspiration in the effort to cement brand loyalty. What if, attending to the spiritual impulse that advertising taps into, we fixed our attention at its root? What might we learn?Air’s parallels link the consumer object to the higher purpose of the relic, suggesting the search for God in the things we create or wear. If we can look through the images and objects we cherish, we might benefit from more than just their material or symbolic value. By approaching them with a deliberate, mindful attitude, we can use them as tools for self-reflection. Then, like the holy relic, the objects of our ordinary world may become instruments for gazing into the unknown.