Friday, February 2, 2007

Religion & Rasslin’

In years gone by, I was a regular viewer of professional wrestling.

There, I said it, and I feel better.

When I was attempting to grow up in the 1960s, Channel 11 in Atlanta aired Georgia Championship Wrestling following the 11:00 p.m. newscast on Saturday nights. I’d stay up to watch. My other opportunity to watch the grapplers was on Saturday afternoon; a station in Columbus had a show featuring the same wrestlers. Fred Ward, who was the promoter of the Columbus matches, would always welcome viewers and issue a special greeting to “all our shut-in friends” for whom he would express his hopes that they would “be up and at ‘em real, real soon!” My favorites during that era were Joe Scarpa (who later wrestled as Chief Jay Strongbow), El Mongol (who was supposed to be from Mongolia but who operated a Mexican restaurant that was advertised in the printed programs handed out at the matches, so I’m a little suspicious as to his real nationality), and the tag team of Ray Gunkel and Buddy Fuller. The hated bad guys included Paul DeMarco, Nick Bockwinkel, and the masked tag team called The Assassins.

I constantly badgered my father to take me to see one of the Friday night wrestling cards in Atlanta, which was fifty-five miles away. I would beg and plead; I would cut the ads out of the newspaper and leave them where he could see them. He always said no. “I’m not going to drive all that way and spend all that money to see that fake stuff,” he would sniff. Hope arrived in 1970 with the opening of the Sports Palace on Highway 341 just on the Barnesville side of Griffin. The Georgia Championship Wrestling performers were to appear there every Saturday night. They put up posters announcing the card all over town. And it was only a fifteen mile drive! Knowing that he had lost his major excuse for not taking me, I approached my father triumphantly: “We can drive twenty minutes and see live wrestling,” I told him. He said ok. So one Saturday night he took me to the Sports Palace. I have two memories of that night. One is of one of the Assassins hitting Bobby Shane across the chest with his forearm. The masked wrestler would strike Shane who would go crashing down to the mat. But every time Shane was struck he would spit up in the air as he fell back, like he was trying to make it appear that one of his teeth was being knocked out. This happened repeatedly; I wondered how many teeth Shane thought we’d believe he had. My other memory is of my father laughing through the whole show. I never asked him to take me again and he never offered. I did go several more times, usually with my Uncle Dock and my cousin Rudy. They took it more seriously than did my father.

Of course, my father was right; professional wrestling was and is, to avoid the negatively weighted term “fake,” choreographed and scripted and the results were predetermined. It should not be taken seriously.

How seriously, then, should one take professional wrestling when it is combined with the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ? That very hybrid showed up in a documentary about evangelical Christianity currently being aired on HBO called Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi. Pelosi, who is the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, produced, edited, and wrote the film. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I do not subscribe to HBO and I have not seen the movie. From what I read and hear, Pelosi spoke with such evangelical leaders as Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, and Rick Scarborough. She also delved into the, shall we say, offbeat side of the movement, including an excursion to a gospel miniature golf course and to evangelical professional wrestling matches.

In a press release, Scarborough, the president of Vision America, whose stated mission is “to inform, encourage and mobilize pastors and their congregations to be proactive in restoring Judeo-Christian values to the moral and civic framework in their communities, states, and our nation,” criticized the documentary as painting evangelicals in a negative light. The Christian Wrestling Federation (CWF), on the other hand, trumpets on their website (www.christianwrestling.com) their inclusion in the HBO documentary. The CWF’s mission statement, found on their website, says in part, that “the CWF is a group of talented athletes using amazing feats, athletic ability, and entertaining stories to share the gift of Jesus Christ…. The Bible says we are to use unique and different ways to reach people for Christ. This is what the CWF is all about... reaching people in a unique way….” Another Christian wrestling organization, Ultimate Christian Wrestling, based in Athens, Georgia, was the focus of an ABC News story in December 2005. The show on which ABC reported featured as its climactic event a drama of apocalyptic proportions, portraying the fate of the various wrestling characters on Judgment Day. That night, according to the story, some two dozen fans made professions of faith. (The story can be read at http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1426365.)

What are we to make of all of this? Many Christians are no doubt embarrassed by such spectacle; the whole thing may strike us as tacky. Still, some would say, what difference does it make how the audience is attracted and how the message is presented, just as long as the Good News is proclaimed? The verse that the CWF displays on their internet home page, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), could be used to make that very point. Granted, the Apostle Paul did not have professional wrestling in mind when he said that, but neither did he have in mind Christian rock music, Christian drama, Christian comedians, or, for that matter, Christian orchestras, Christian television evangelists, Christian mimes, Christian liturgical dancers, Christian cowboy churches, Christian Gregorian chants, Christian movies….well, you get the idea. It seems to me that most of us are open to creative means of communicating the gospel unless that creative means doesn’t match up with our sense of what is in good taste.

On the other hand, others would argue, in some sense the medium is the message. What kind of message is communicated, then, through such a violent medium, even if it is choreographed and cartoonish violence? Furthermore, granting that Paul spoke of the foolishness of preaching the cross, does that in any way justify an effort to communicate such holy and ultimate truths through such an exceedingly ridiculous vehicle? I can still hear the words of the first pastor with whom I ever worked, Rev. William L. Key, who once said to a group of young ministers, “The church isn’t a circus and the Lord doesn’t need clowns in the pulpit.” Preacher Key didn’t comment on clowns in the wrestling ring.

Can we get so far out there sometimes in trying to communicate the Good News that the message becomes distorted beyond recognition? That question is not just about Christian professional wrestling. It may also apply to quite a lot of things that we in the church are doing nowadays in order to try to be “relevant.”

Of course, discussing such issues can prompt the outbreak of a battle royal. I hope that I won’t be disqualified from the match for raising the question.

2 comments:

The Beast said...

Playing in a Christian metal band, I have wrestled (pardon the pun) with much of what you have written here.

The area I know I am completely uncomfortable with is cohersion techniques, similar to what takes place at the so called "Judgement Houses." I am a huge Halloween fan, but these places "scare the hell" out of kids to make bogus professions of faith. I am thankful for the people who have genuniely found Christ through a Judgement House, but those kinds of tactics have no place in evangelical thought and practice.

Mike Ruffin said...

Thanks for the comment. You are right that coercion is always inappropriate. It was a good pun, by the way.