Wrestling the Bible
A lurid sunset sky; gaunt, black and white pictures of ruined buildings and human skulls scattered on a battlefield. A portentous voice warns of coming judgement. Bible references flash across the screen—no words, simply the references: Jeremiah 30:3, Joel 2:31, Zephanaiah 1:8, Revelation 16. We see images of the sun turn to darkness and the moon to blood. "No soul shall be saved," intones the voice. "The heavens will shake, the earth shall be laid bare ... it's going to be a triple threat match for the world heavyweight title."
As some readers may have recognized, what I am describing is the promotional video for Armageddon 2003, one of the major events in the annual calendar of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), Vincent McMahon's empire; this empire is reputedly worth over 1 billion dollars and claims over fifty million regular viewers worldwide. For those less familiar with the phenomenon, the interest of the WWE for its fans is not simply in watching large half-naked men beating each other into submission in a variety of ingenious ways (so ingenious that they can return the next week without so much as a bruise on them, having been left apparently for dead the week before). Just as important are the lurid plotlines that take place behind the scenes, where the cameras just happen to catch the athletes and their coaches in "candid" moments. It is not enough for the real star wrestlers to be able to hold their own physically. Skill in verbal taunts and in making devious alliances is just as important. The vendettas, love affairs, and family betrayals make any soap opera seem tame and lead to such gripping billings as "the world's first step-daughter/step-mother grudge match'" and "Scott Steiner versus Test; If Test wins, he gets Scott and Tracy's services; if Scott wins, he gets Tracy."
What has all this to do with biblical studies, you may ask? A surprising amount, is my answer. Not only do implicit and explicit biblical allusions abound in wrestling in a way that is culturally intriguing, but my contention is that the popularity of both the Bible and wrestling stems from their ability to engage similar basic human reactions to perceived justice and injustice.
Roland Barthes, in his classic essay "The World of Wrestling." makes the crucial point that the essence of wrestling is what he calls the "spectacle of excess." The basis of this spectacle, Barthes tells us, is "Suffering, Defeat, and Justice." Of these, the key point is Justice. To quote Barthes again, "Justice is ... the embodiment of a possible transgression; it is from the fact that there is a Law that the spectacle of the passions derives its value."
As Barthes makes clear, the Law in question is not to be equated with the official rules mediated by the referee. What really excites the public is the cheat who claims the support of the rules to save his own skin, diving for the ropes to break a hold that his skill will not let him break, but quite prepared to punch and gouge behind the referee's back. The referee's function is to be the embodiment of the blindness of official justice. It is the audience that become the outraged witnesses of a breach of the rules. The manifest disregard of the rules in any WWE match is actually the condition for Law to become visible. They are then primed to condone any act of revenge on the part of the wrestler who has been the victim of such cheating. This may break the rules, but it restores the Law.
The vindication of Law through the condoned breach of rules that Barthes is describing is something known to storytellers from time immemorial, biblical ones included. I cannot now read the book of Judges, for instance, without casting the characters in a WWE extravaganza. Samson could readily be transplanted to the wrestling ring. Strong, popular, able to smart-talk his way out of situations and to set up provocations to his enemies (remember the riddle and the way in which he sets fire to the fields), over the top yet justified in his vengeance (burning his impertinent father-in-law's house, showing off by carrying the gates of the city to the top of a hill), able to beat off overwhelming odds—yet not invincible. Women and betrayal bring him down. Degraded and blinded, cheated by Delilah and taunted by his enemies, he can still bring the house down with one mighty effort.
Throughout Judges, and indeed in Genesis and in Samuel/Kings, narrative shapes and moral outcomes that offend a strict sense of fair play but take delight in the cunning trick, and the effective revenge, are played out. David himself, in the book of Kings at least, often operates by rules that seem closer to the WWE than to the Beatitudes. He has that charismatic charm, and indeed the way with words, that makes a star of the ring. These are popular narrative forms, popular heroes. After all, these are stories that had to live through retellings, and they give good value.
In the great story of wrestling that shapes Israel's identity as a culture in Genesis 32, a mysterious masked figure (the tradition of masked wrestlers carries on to this day) wrestles Jacob till the break of day. Against all the odds Jacob prevails, even though his opponent cheats by dislocating his hip. Jacob is the arch fast-talking subverter of the rules who has the tables turned on him time and again and, unwittingly, ends up by fulfilling the divine plan. By a remarkable, and I suppose accidental, coincidence, this story enacts the archetypal conflict of professional wrestling, where a wrestler whom the crowd is meant to warm to, called a "face," is pitted against the bad guy, known as a "heel." "Heel" and "face"—Jacob at Peniel. The man named the "Heel" claims he has seen the "face" of God.
Jacob is also involved in the other story that brings wrestling explicitly into the Bible. In Genesis 30, the childless Rachel, jealous of her sister Leah's fertility, induces Jacob to sleep with her maid Bilhah, who can then give birth on Rachel's knees. This happens twice. Rachel calls the second child Naphthali, which means "I wrestled," because, she explains, "With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed." The sisters wrangling for their common husband's favors are not an edifying, but an understandable, couple, quite easily imaginable as the pretext for a bout in the world of the WWE.
Much the same could be said for episodes from a wide range of ancient and folk literature. The Iliad and the Icelandic Sagas, for instance, show the same delight in cunning revenge and wordplay. I want to go on to claim a more particular link between the WWE and the Bible, however. In some intriguing respects, I suggest, Vince McMahon is God or, perhaps more accurately, Yahweh is Vince McMahon. There are aspects of the character of the God of the Hebrew Bible that come uncannily close to those displayed by Mr. McMahon. Vince McMahon, just like the biblical God, is owner, creator,and final arbiter of the spectacle—and at the same time a character who appears on stage in that spectacle. The twist is that the ultimate guarantor of justice is himself involved in the spectacle of excess.
In McMahon's case, there is a key moment that inaugurates this duplication of roles: the great betrayal in Montreal. In brief, the champion wrestler of the day, Bret Hart, had fallen out with Vince and was leaving the franchise. By custom, the wrestler who is leaving leaves the title behind with him. Bret had been drawn to lose his title to another wrestler, Shawn Michaels, whom he despised. Vince had agreed that honor could be saved by an arranged disqualification. However, when Sean Michaels pinned Hart at the point when the disqualification was due to be enacted, McMahon, who was at ringside, instructed the timekeeper to ring the bell after only a count of two, thus ensuring Hart's defeat. Bret Hart can then be seen going to ringside on live television and spitting full in Vince's face. By all accounts, he then followed Vince back to the dressing room and assaulted him.
What this did was bring the boss into the action as the subverter of the Law. Commentators ever since have wondered whether this incident was staged or real. This question goes to the heart of wrestling with its mysterious concept of "kayfabe," the unwritten code that prevents wrestlers from revealing the choreography and fixing of results that are determined by the writers. Real or staged, commentators on WWE see this as the crucial moment when McMahon "broke the third wall." His stroke of genius was thenceforth explicitly to bill the WWE as "sports entertainment," obliquely admitting that the heroes of the ring were actors who played out a drama that he, Vince, had shaped.
What grew out of the Montreal event was a double Vince: Vince, the actual power behind the scenes, and Vince the character, who was now to be seen in apparently candid shots arranging matches to do down the crowd's favorite wrestlers; he would also appear in the ring himself to slap down any upstarts. Furthermore, not only Vince but also his entire family are involved in WWE. His wife, son, and daughter are all on the payroll of the company, and family dramas become enacted in the ring. Even the commentators appeared to be shocked, however, when his daughter Stephanie, given the control of the Raw franchise, defied her father and was then called out by him in the ring for, I quote, "the first ever father-daughter 'I quit' match." The spectacle of the then nearly sixty-year-old Vince, in remarkable physical shape, beating up his own daughter in front of her mother's eyes is seriously disturbing, especially as the rules of this particular match mean that victory is won when your opponent explicitly says "I quit."
Yet, shocking as this is, it is far from the "first ever" father-daughter match. Wotan and Brunhilde come to mind, and the Iliad at one level is just such a contest between Zeus and his daughter. Yahweh in his solitary sovereignty might seem to be exempted here, but have you read the books of Lamentations or Ezekiel? Daughter Jerusalem takes a fair pounding from her father Yahweh, and again the rules are "I quit." The solitary Yahweh has to come into the ring with Israel. Precisely because there is no divine family for Yahweh, he has to appear on stage with his own creations to fight these things out. As Vince snarls to his wife in one of their many in-ring encounters, "This isn't business anymore, it's family." Israel is not business for Yahweh, it is family—that is the tragedy and glory of their intertwined tales.
How different is Vince's entry into the story in Montreal from the fatal moment when Yahweh himself steps down to walk in Eden in the cool of the evening and becomes embroiled in a still controversial argument with Eve over death, the settlement of which might be seen as the bedrock of the whole subsequent plot of the biblical narrative? Did Yahweh set Eve and Adam up? Who is in control and who is the embodiment of Law, rather than of the official rules, in the biblical story? This step into the garden, or the ring, generates a double Yahweh, Yahweh as character and Yahweh as supreme guarantor of the narrative, with complex literary and theological consequences.
Some readers may be thinking, as I began to suspect myself, that this comparison is getting rather far-fetched. Truth, or kayfabe, is stranger than fiction, however. A new story line has recently emerged in WWE, where Vince announced that he was going to make the life of the same Shawn Michaels, a known Christian wrestler, "hell." As part of the vendetta, Vince challenged Shawn to a tag-team match against himself and his son Shane. Shawn's partner, however, was to be—God. On April 17, 2006, Vince announced the birth of a new religion, McMahonism, in which he is Lord, Master, and God of all sports entertainment, and challenged God to show up if he had a problem. Mysterious explosions foiled his attempts to beat up Shawn Michaels, at which point Vince announced that he would send his "only begotten son Shane" to fight Michaels next week. This culminated in a match on April 30, 2006, where God was formally announced as Michael's tag-team partner only to be denounced as a "quitter" by McMahon when he never turned up. Ultimately, Shawn Michaels beat up both his boss and the boss's son, but only after he was defeated in a match by precisely the same tactic that defeated Bret Hart, a defeat Michaels, of course, played a part in. This time, however, Mr. McMahon makes explicit the fact that he is bending the rules to do to Michaels what was done to Hart.
Truth and fiction here meld, as they do when Yahweh in Ezekiel 20 finally reveals that the laws he gave were bad laws, designed to horrify Israel. At the end of that chapter, after a great rhetorical outburst by Yahweh culminating in the threat of unquenchable fire, we find a strange comment in Ezekiel's own voice: "Ah, Lord God! They are saying of me, 'Is he not a maker of allegories?'" At precisely the point where God reveals the fictive nature of his own laws and seems to assert his absolute power, the issue of fictionality, of make-believe, is explicitly articulated by the text in a troubling breach, perhaps, of the divine kayfabe. Is that power, too, a fiction?
I contend that some of the most disturbing aspects of the God of the Hebrew Bible are structurally related to the mixed position of the author/character that is the strength, but also the weakness, of Vince McMahon's dominance of Sports Entertainment. What is intriguing is the line between fiction and fact that the author-as-character can set up, manipulate, and even fall victim to himself. We need to be alert to the way in which the demands and constraints of storytelling and the constant need to reawaken an audience's interest will shape a character. When that character is presented as the structuring feature of the story-shaped world, the consequences for those involved in the story can be incalculable. Vince McMahon's tussle with God is precisely a struggle over who controls the story and who embodies the Law.
It is in the areas of most difficulty to liberal and rational biblical scholarship—apocalyptic, the supernatural, especially the demonic and the allure of violence—where the WWE draws on the Bible and illuminates it by recapitulating some of its most characteristic structural tensions. On such matters, it may be that the highly paid and highly skilled analysts and manipulators of American popular culture who have made WWE such an international success may have more to contribute to understanding the outrageous and enduring cultural power of the Bible than the tweedy denizens of biblical academia.
Hugh S. Pyper, University of Sheffield
Note  "Le monde o? l'on catche" in Mythologies (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1970 ), 13-24; "The World of Wrestling" in Barthes: Selected Writings (ed. Susan Sontag; London: Fontana/Collins, 1983), 18-30.
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Citation: Hugh S. Pyper, " Wrestling the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=569