Taking God to the Mat: The Biblical World of Pro Wrestling
Dart, John, The Christian Century
THE LURID AND violent world of World Wrestling Entertainment, which claims an audience of 50 million worldwide, includes microphone-grabbing diatribes by rival wrestlers, "candid" camera shots from the locker rooms, the ringside connivance of wrestlers' girlfriends, and the dramatic on-screen and ringside presence of WWE owner-impresario Vincent McMahon.
This blue-collar opera, as it has been called, also draws on biblical images and themes, according to Hugh S. Pyper, senior lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Sheffield in England. Pyper says the Bible provides "a ready set of imagery ... of power, destruction, revenge and judgment.... I cannot now read the book of Judges without casting the characters in a WWE extravaganza." He was referring to the Old Testament text focused on idolatry, divine punishments and the story of Samson and Delilah.
Not that one needs a doctorate in biblical studies to catch the WWE's biblical references. A promotional video for the "Armageddon 2003" matches features chapter-and-verse citations from Jeremiah 30:3, Joel 2:31, Zephaniah 1:8 and Revelation 16 superimposed on scenes of a city in ruin. "No soul shall be saved," intones an ominous voice. Another show is titled "Judgment Day."
WWE sold millions of T-shirts bearing the motto "Austin 3:16" after "red-neck" wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin defeated Jake the Snake Roberts, who played the role of a Christian believer who was always citing John 3:16. Stone Cold trounced his pious opponent, crowing, "Austin 3:16 says, 'I whipped your ass!'" Pyper found it interesting that the Gospel citation was "turned against the Christian kill-joy."
Speaking at a meeting in Scotland of the Society of Biblical Literature, Pyper urged fellow academics not to dismiss such popular use of religious imagery. "It is precisely the areas of most difficulty to liberal and rational biblical scholarship--apocalyptic and the supernatural, especially demonic, realms--that seem to be the areas where the Bible appears in popular culture ... in terms of the monstrous and the fantastic," he said. "It is as if a dark side of the Bible in our culture is being rediscovered."
McMahon not only pushes the envelope on biblical references but breaks many of the old rules against revealing the fakery and predetermined outcomes of wrestling entertainment. Pyper said McMahon plays a role that is "uncannily close" to that of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. Like God, McMahon is owner-creator of a spectacle--in his case wrestling--as well as "a character who appears on stage in that spectacle."
Several years ago, champion wrestler Bret Hart was leaving the franchise. By custom, he was supposed to lose his title before leaving by a disqualification rather than by a defeat. Pyper reported that in the show McMahon was at ringside as Hart was being pinned, instructing the timekeeper to ring the bell ending the match after two counts instead of waiting for a third count. …