Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sacred Spinebusters, Transcendent Toe Holds: The Confluence of Religion and Professional Wrestling (Part Two)

Ask any wrestling aficionado about the greatest wrestlers from the last quarter century and one name you will consistently hear is “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, the wrestler discussed at the very end of part one of my series on the intersection of religion and professional wrestling. With the charisma of The Rock, the wrestling skillset of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, the masochistic daring of Jeff Hardy, the microphone skills of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the eye-candy good looks of Chris Jericho, Michaels was the proverbial total package, possessing in abundance every trait of the superlative professional wrestler with no discernable deficiencies.

Shawn Michaels also converted to Evangelical Christianity toward the tail end of his wrestling career after coming to terms with his own self-destructive habits and crumbling family life. As Michaels explains in his autobiography, Heartbreak and Triumph, when he accepted Jesus into his heart, he felt at peace for the first time in his life. He finally experienced lasting relief and joy – something he only felt in fleeting glimpses during his wrestling career.

Michaels’ story – the wrestling megastar who converts to Evangelical Christianity – is surprisingly not terribly unusual; in fact, it is common enough that within the booming industry of professional wrestler autobiographies, an informal sub-genre of Christian autobiographies has emerged. Here, such wrestling legends as “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Lex Luger, Sting, “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff,“The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff, and Road Warrior Animal recount their journeys from wrestling stardom to salvation, stories that all seem to have the same narrative flow: ascent to the heights wrestling fame and fortune; plummeting into the depths of substance abuse and infidelity; finding Jesus, peace, and fulfillment; and then exiting the mainstream wrestling stage.

Many of these superstar wrestler converts also trade their wrestling fame for second careers as speakers on the evangelistic circuit appearing at churches, Christian conferences, and youth rallies. Here, they recount their life stories and implore their listeners to accept Christ as they did – and then hawk their autobiographies at tables set up near the exits as the audience files out.

Wrestling legends exploiting their fame for evangelistic purposes presents a confluence of the worlds of religion and pro wrestling quite different from what I explored in part one of my series, namely,World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) and Total Nonstop Action’s (TNA) use of fictionalized representations of religion – religious gimmicks and storylines – to further the entertainment and profit-generation goals of these big-time wrestling corporations. In the case of the wrestlers-turned-evangelists, by contrast, the instrumentality flows in the opposite direction: here, it is the religious who enlist pro wrestling in the cause of winning souls.

In what follows, I probe more deeply into this usage of pro wrestling for sacred purposes. The story of the wrestler-turned-evangelist, however, is only one part of a much larger narrative – one that mostly transpires far removed from the glamour of the mainstream wrestling stage, in the much smaller, much less visible world of independent pro wrestling. To introduce more fully this larger narrative of the religious use of professional wrestling and the much less visible world of independent pro wrestling, I turn to a wrestler very much at the center of both, “Mr. #1” George South.

Read the rest here

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