Wrestling and Religion: We Know It’s Fake and We Don’t Care

Last week, filmmaker Max Landis posted a wildly popular digital short on YouTube entitled Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling. The premise of this “somewhat-mostly-accurate educational parody film,” as he calls it, is that what people think professional wrestling is, it’s not.  Its rich storytelling and epic, almost mythological, canon is generally obscured by that ever present question from baffled non-fans, “You know it’s all fake, right?”

georgiawrestlingI’m not going to lie – I absolutely love professional wrestling. Since I first laid my adolescent eyes upon the masked Mr. Wrestling II on Georgia Championship Wrestling in the 1970s, I became a dyed in the wool fan of the unique blend of physicality and scripted performance that has come to be known as “sports entertainment.” From the cultural impact of Hulkamania in the 1980s, through the downturn of the industry in the mid-1990s, to the explosion in popularity of the WWF vs. WCW Monday night wars, I excitedly ordered the pay-per-views, attended the live events, and fantasy booked storylines as any self-respecting fan should.

Despite whatever you might think about pro wrestling, it possesses an undeniable cultural currency. In the past several weeks alone, World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) flagship television show Monday Night Raw has welcomed a series of celebrities, including The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart who continued his verbal feud with smarmy villain Seth Rollins, in the buildup to Wrestlemania 31, where 70,000 fans will gather this Sunday at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

Professional wrestling, much like organized religion, operates within its own system of internal logic and rules. To the uninitiated outsider, the inability of a wrestler to prevent himself from bouncing off of the ropes (perhaps gravity operates differently within the squared circle) or a suplex inflicting damage only on an opponent despite both bodies slamming into the mat, might appear as strange as, say, walking in on the ceremony of holy communion (without the chair shots, of course) with no understanding of the purpose or meaning behind the ritual.

Max Landis points out that the bizarre internal logic of the sport is incidental to fans because, ultimately, wrestling isn’t about wrestling—it’s about constructing mythology and meaning. We know it’s fake, and we really don’t care. The often strange and peculiar logic of religion serves the same function, I’d argue, and the catcalls of  unbelievers—“You know it’s fake, right?”—miss the point entirely.

And then there are those who do think it’s real, who can’t separate fantasy from reality. Those fans who believe that The Undertaker is an actual undead wizard who conjures lightning (or those faithful who agree that God wants Creflo Dollar to have a $65 million jet.)

A week doesn’t pass that I don’t see a viral Facebook post regarding a seriously ill child who is sure to die from cancer unless thousands of people pray for healing (It’s difficult not to imagine God in heaven, watching the prayer ticker anxiously while muttering, “Come on, folks, just ten-thousand more prayers and I can save that little girl!”) This is often accompanied by an inspirational credo, something like: “Faith may move mountains, but prayer moves God.”

This view of prayer breeds some seriously twisted theology, one that gives God credit for the rain, but no blame for the drought. Meaning, if our fictional sick child happens to be cured, then praise be to God. If not, well, the church just needs to be sure to pray more.

In the 1993 film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is being comforted by his friend Harry after his wife, Joy, has died from cancer. Harry says, “I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis responds,

“That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”

Lewis gets that a Creator swayed by every request from the created (petty or otherwise) is worthy of neither worship nor petition. God is not a cosmic gumball machine, dispensing tasty treats when prayerful coins are inserted into a magic slot.

So yes, wrestling isn’t wrestling, it’s a meaning machine.

Similarly, what is considered prayer by a lot of Americans is actually not prayer at all. The admonition of Jesus to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” is a Stone Cold Steve Austin double-barreled middle finger to misguided social media prayer-a-thons that seek viral ‘likes’ in the hopes of manipulating God, rather than the kind of sincere introspection that, as C.S. Lewis knew, changes us at a fundamental level.

21 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I watched wrestling from the cow palace on TV a few times when I was younger, around 1960. The show was sponsored by a used car dealer, and he would have a car at the rink to show off between matches. They were nice cars, but one week he brought an older car to show he also had less expensive cars at his lot. That week one of the wrestlers freaked out. He was upset about something, and started jumping on that car and denting in the roof. Then he got really mad, and grabbed one of the sledge hammers they had there, and totally smashed the windows and doors and everything on the car. The sponsor was lucky that didn’t happen on a day when he had one of his better cars out there. It was a memorable week. I don’t remember anything else about the wrestling back then.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I don’t know how you could judge what actually is or is not prayer. When you try to do that, you might be getting into an area that you know nothing about.

  • reido56@gmail.com' Gideon says:

    Ah, Steve Austin. That brings to mind an old shirt I wore a long while ago. It was black with “John 3:16” on it in white letters. (No, I didn’t buy it for myself. I don’t remember now whether it was a gift from a relative or a prize from some church teen event.)

    Everywhere I went, it occasionally led to unprovoked compliments from complete strangers. I doubt any of them had ever heard of Austin. So, the “Austin 3:16” piggybacked on the well-known religious reference, then a “parody” shirt was made that piggybacked on Austin 3:16 by uncreatively replacing the catchphrase with the religious reference itself…and thereby became popular among those who had no idea that the shirt was a parody of anything else. Yeah, symbols are strange sometimes.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if Holy Communion had chair shots though? I might actually go to church.

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    I really loved this article and the analogy to wresting. Something I will need to think more about… thanks Jess

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    in the history if studying the human body no one has ever found a ‘soul’ or any way to send a signal outside the body to space. there are no transmitter cells, or gps devices so god can see you, or a way to float outside your body. science does say that its all in your mind/brain. its all electrical currents, blood flows and chemicals. prayer is something ppl do for themselves, so they will get that feeling the brain gives you. You can get that same feeling by showing generosity and kindness and it will actually help someone besides yourself. and you dont need god for that.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Maybe prayer can also be a groupthink kind of thing. Powerful emotions can be unleashed when a group is allowed to run wild. This has also been seen in non-human primates.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    “allowed”, that word should scare everyone. who is to say who is allowed and who is not, other than the law.

    I realized yesterday while watching a nature program on chimps and apes, that even in those groups there were bullies, narcissists, and psychopaths who preyed on the others and even killed to keep his superiority. they also got drunk on rotten fruit.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    Prayer is like the approach described in The Secrett, or the scene in Peter Pan where the collective wishes of the children will rescue Tinkerbell. It is the idea that if you want something hard enough, somehow reality will conform to those wishes. The only difference is that prayer is more indirect – you try to influence a Being that controls reality. The advantage, as Frazer observed in The Golden Bough, is that the intermediary being cannot be fully controlled, so there’s a ready-made explanation for when things don’t work. It is what distinguishes the magical thinking in The Secret and Peter Pan from religious thinking.

  • robert.m.jeffers@lonestar.edu' Rmj says:

    And yet we still speak of “mind” and “body.”

    Tell me, where is “mind” located? What transmitter cells contain it? I could as well say, as David Hume did, that no one has ever found an explanation for how “I” can perceive the touch of the keyboard I type on, the sound the keys make, or the sight of these words appearing on the screen before me.

    And yet somehow “I” do. Who is this “I” who is doing this? Where is it housed in this too, too solid flesh?

    Dualism runs deep. And, oddly, it originated in Western culture with Plato, not with religion. It was Socrates who first espoused this notion of a “soul.” Not Paul (who was never so Hellenistic), not Jesus (ditto). It gained currency in Christianity with the Neo Platonists, a few centuries after those two fellows.

    And we still can’t shake it off. Maybe we should; but we need an alternative concept.

  • robert.m.jeffers@lonestar.edu' Rmj says:

    All I remember about “professional wrestling” was that my grandfather, a devout Primitive Baptist and lay preacher himself, loved it.

    I have fond memories of watching it on TV with him when I was very young.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    I think science knows those answers now, for those willing to look. as far as an alternative concept, how about ‘we don’t know’?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The alternative concept is coming, but needs a few more decades. It will be artificial intelligence, and probably some mix of the mind with computers or the internet, and living beyond the lifespan of the brain. Don’t think about it too much yet, it will take plenty of time to get used to.

  • repegs87924@mypacks.net' Anton says:

    I must be missing something. How is professional wrestling a “mythology and meaning machine” like religion? I really don’t get it.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It doesn’t matter if it is fake, people still like it. It tells a story of heroes and villians, and there is temptation to stick around to see how it ends.

  • repegs87924@mypacks.net' Anton says:

    Thanks, Jim, so it’s like a comic book? Doesn’t mythology usually offer an explanation of something or attempt to bring “meaning” to something?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Illusion works at least as well. When you have to fall back on ancient scripture, illusion is probably better.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    “I” is an illusion of the brain. It is an overlay of all the other processes inside skull to give the illusion of “one”. An interesting read:

    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/from_divided_minds_a_specious_soul/

  • finnpa@comcast.net' Philip Finn says:

    You left out the part where both wrestling and religion require a foe, a nemesis to thwart and ultimately vanquish to authenticate any meaning they might have. Wrestling is the more moral, modern, and civilized of the two, the “enemies” meet regularly between bouts to rehearse lest they inadvertently harm one another, and no wrestler truly believes the vestments, motions, or words they say each week have any genuine power or significance. When a “foe” loses their life, it is by the unlikeliest and rarest of accidents, and sends the entire wrestling community into mourning. And unlike religion, wrestling requires no extra-legal or extra-judicial power or exemption, wrestling never pretends not to be a for-profit business, and its property and proceeds are taxed.
    Religion, on the other hand, requires even the most casual spectator to believe it’s all real – the costumes, the hairstyles, the props and the scripted speeches all have power. And every religion has and continues to kill people. Lots of them, even their audience, like some production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” gone mad.
    Clearly not something any decent, sane human being would participate in, expose their children to, or suffer to inflict upon a civilized society.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Religion is a zero sum game. If one religion gains converts, some other religion lost them. If donations go up, someone else’s donations went down. As a few people decide to just drop out of the religion game, the religion has to convince the remaining ones to have more babies.

  • equaltime@hotmail.com' EqualTime says:

    I’ve said it this way – religions have created a God which enjoys the luxury of heads I win, tales you lose. If someone temporarily beats cancer, it was prayer, if cancer wins, iit was My unquestionable Will, and don’t worry, you’ll be together in the next life. How does God ever lose with that predicate?

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