Gavin Stone and The Sunday Night Wars: D-Generation Evangelical
Is World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) getting into the evangelism business? In summer 2015, WWE purchased the worldwide rights for the soon-to-be-released Christian movie The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. The feel-good film is a project of Harvest Bible Chapel’s Vertical Church Films and features WWE hall of famer Shawn Michaels, who is an evangelical Christian. A Christian movie, even one that features one of its greatest performers of all time, certainly seems like a strange investment for the WWE. Ask yourself if Vince, Linda, Shane, and Stephanie McMahon are genuinely interested in propagating and promoting a Christian worldview. The members of the McMahon family are pro wrestling royalty and the long-time operators of the world’s most successful sports entertainment promotion. The McMahon’s are the majority owners of WWE and control the lion’s share of stockholder voting power. They are currently on top of the wrestling world, but there was a time not long so ago when their company almost folded. In the late 1990s, in order to preserve the struggling WWE and win the “Monday Night Wars” against Time Warner’s well-funded World Championship Wrestling (WCW) machine, the McMahon’s became smut peddlers. During what has since become known as the company’s “Attitude Era”, the McMahon’s changed the professional wrestling industry from a cartoonish enterprise designed to amuse families to a racy form of entertainment meant to stimulate the hormones of carnal young men. Their raunchiest superstar during the Attitude Era was none other than The Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Micheals, co-leader of the “D-Generation X” stable.
The Attitude Era
“You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your songs, talk about your John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your @**” Stone Cold Steven Austin
During the Attitude Era, the WWE featured a satanism-themed wrestling stable known as “The Ministry of Darkness”, not to be confused with “The Brood” which was a vampire-themed stable. There was a porn-star themed wrestler called Val Venis, whose catchphrase was “Hello Ladies”. A pimp-themed wrestler known as “The Godfather” was accompanied to the ring with his stable of scantily-clad prostitutes (to whom he referred as “hoes”) which were promised to opponents who could beat the Godfather in the ring. The Godfather, who was marketed as a fan-favorite “face” character, later transitioned into “The Goodfather,” a member of a heel stable known as “Right to Censor”. Right to Censor lampooned the real-world fundamentalist Christians who objected to the sexualized content of what used to be a form of family-friendly entertainment. Edge, “the rated R superstar” once simulated sex with his storyline girlfriend Lita in the center of the ring. “Bra and panty” matches, in which the victor was the first woman to strip her opponent’s clothes off, were a regular feature of WWE shows. The most most vulgar Attitude Era entertainers in all WWE, however, were the members of the stable known as “D-Generation X” (DX). The leaders of DX were Hunter “Hearst” Helmsley (currently the real-life husband of Stephanie McMahon) and Shawn Michaels. Their catchphrase was “suck it.” Their stablemate Road Dogg simulated sodomy on his opponents before performing his signature finishing move. DX stable members X-Pac (Sean Waltman) and Chyna (Joanie Laurer) later became involved in hardcare pornography outside of wrestling. The popularity of DX was only eclipsed by that of beer-swilling anti-hero Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Bras and panties won the day. WCW’s market share began to degrade as…excited…young men began to tune into WWE programming. WWE claimed victory in the Monday Night Wars when the McMahons purchased WCW on March 23, 2001 for $3,000,000. Smutting it up (in conjunction with the effect of disastrous WCW management) saved the WWE. Economic and political realities eventually turned the WWE away from profane storylines. As cheap hardcore internet pornography became readily available, mainstream purveyors of “soft” TV and print sexuality found that they had a product that was no longer in high demand. Even Playboy magazine no longer features nudity. Linda McMahon set her sights on a US Senate seat in Connecticut in 2009. Running as a Republican, she could not be seen as a viable candidate if her family’s company continued it’s Attitude Era business practices. Linda could no more participate in storylines such as the one that saw her husband force his kayfabe mistress Trish Stratus to bark like a dog and strip nearly naked. So, the WWE cleaned up its act and began presenting “PG” story lines. McMahon lost the election but is soon set to serve in the cabinet of President-elect Donald Trump, himself a WWE hall of famer.
How Much for That Testimony?
“Everyone has a Price” Ted DiBiase
Perhaps, with its acquisition of the rights to The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, the WWE has turned over a new leaf. Some of its wrestlers seem to have done so. Professional wrestlers live most of their lives on the road and, as a result of the temptations inherent with such a lifestyle, often end up addicted to drugs and involved in promiscuous sex. Many die before they reach old age. It’s not uncommon for professional wrestlers to turn to painkillers to kill the physical pain that results from a lifetime of taking bumps in the squared circle. Sting, Lex Luger, Ted DiBiase, and Shawn Michaels are all counted among the WWE wrestlers who have, after the peak of their wresting careers, turned to Christianity and reformed their sordid lives. They even have books for sale to tell about their turnarounds. Lex Luger published his testimony in Wrestling with the Devil. Ted DiBiase, who helms an itinerant preaching ministry, published his testimony in Every Man Has His Price: The True Story of the Million Dollar Man. Shawn Michael told his story in Wrestling for My Life: The Legend, the Reality, and the Faith of a WWE Superstar. Many of them can be found sharing their testimony on Christian television (while simultaneously plugging their books). Recently, the WWE itself released a video featuring Shawn’s testimony…and plugging his new movie, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.
The professional wrestling industry is a combination of two difficult crafts: athletics and acting. After years of taking abuse on the mat, night after night, even the best professional wrestler’s athleticism diminishes. His body simply breaks down. Yet, his acting skills remain. The best professional wrestlers, such as Shawn Michaels, are experts at using their acting skills to generate what the wrestling industry calls “heat.” In the simplest terms, heat is a crowd reaction to the show. One of the best ways to generate heat is for a heel character to turn face, to turn from bad to good. Evangelical Christians love a good face turn; they love a good redemption story. Nothing generates heat in evangelical circles like an emotional testimony story followed by a “sinner’s prayer” invitation. There is no better heel turn than when a drug-addicted, promiscuous, transient pro wrestler turns to Christ. It seems to be the case that this real-life “face turn” always happens when a wrestler’s best days in the ring are behind him, after racy storylines are out of the question due to physical, not spiritual, limitations. The transient actor becomes a transient evangelist. He publishes a book. He speaks in churches, at Christian colleges, and even on Christian cruises, as Luger and DiBiase have been know to do. In the case of wrestling and Christian salvation, Jake “the Snake” Roberts famously made art imitate life. Roberts is one of the all-time great heels, inside the ring out. In 1996, Jake the Snake Roberts’ wrestling gimmick was that of a John 3:16-proclaiming born-again Christian who had turned his life around from the abuse of alcohol and drugs. He even went around the country preaching. In real life, Roberts was just as wretched as ever. Christians who see washed-up pro wrestlers sharing their testimonies on nefarious evangelical networks such TBN have every reason to suspect that these men are still plying their heat-generating trade At the same time, no one can blame baby face wrestlers who truly turn into regenerate baby Christians for not having all their theology down or knowing that evangelical networks such as TBN are, at best, shallow enterprises. One thing is for sure, the evangelical world is full of money-grubbing, profit-motivated preachers who are putting on a show. In that way, the evangelical industrial complex is not that much different from the wrestling business. History shows that Vince McMahon will do almost anything for a buck, whether it be stripping women nearly naked or dressing his wrestling talent up like born-again Christians.
The Christian Movie Industry
“Hands off the Merchandise” Shawn Michaels
Car companies often insist in making a full line of cars, even though some models are far less profitable than others. General Motors knows that single people are less likely to buy a high-dollar Suburbans than are large families. Thus it offers smaller sedans and coupes. It doesn’t want to exclude an entire demographic from their product offerings. It wants to make sure to put forth offerings to get everyone on the lot. People who never come on the lot never buy. The entertainment industry knows this, too. Hollywood has figured out that there are some forms of entertainment that Christians simply won’t pay to see. Thus, secular movie studios seek to make a full line of movies. The same studios that produce rated R fare produce tame movies intended for Christian audiences. Ticket revenue for either both come in dollars. The New York Times recently published an article entitled “Secular Hollywood Courts the Faithful” It’s author wrote:
On the surface, Hollywood is a land of loose morals, where materialism rules, sex and drugs are celebrated on screen (and off), and power players can have a distant relationship with the truth. But movie studios and their partners have quietly — very quietly, sometimes to the degree of a black ops endeavor — been building deep connections to Christian filmgoers who dwell elsewhere on the spectrum of politics and social values. In doing so, they have tapped churches, military groups, right-leaning bloggers and, particularly, a fraternity of marketing specialists.
Ask yourself, “When was the last time my pastor recommended a movie from the pulpit?” The chances are, it wasn’t too long ago. Woodlawn, War Room, October Baby, and God is Not Dead likely come to mind. The latter two are two of the worst movies that I’ve ever seen; both were recommended, during church, by former pastors of mine. Christian movies are often marketed along with companion bible studies and sermon outlines the way kids movies are marketed with action figures. According to the New York Times, movie marketers “are writing bullet points for sermons, providing footage for television screens mounted in sanctuaries and proposing Sunday school lesson plans. In some cases, studios are even flying actors, costume designers and producers to megachurch discussion groups.” The makers of Woodlawn produced an eighteen minute video explaining their “Christian Blockbuster” evangelism strategy. (A former pastor of mine played this video during Sunday service when Woodlawn was being released.) Basically, Christians can buy movie tickets to the Christian movies that they make. The financial success of these movies will make them marketable, as “blockbusters,” in foreign markets. The secular movie industry will essentially pump the gospel into foreign lands. All American Christians have to do is buy tickets…or invite their friends to the movies and to later sermons at church about those movies. It’s entertainment for the sake of the kingdom.
Christians need to take a hard look at whether their pastors or shepherds or salesman. Christians need to decide whether their church buildings are chapels or theaters. Surely pastors can come up biblical sermons without the sake of Hollywood. Surely, the WWE hasn’t come up with the latest movie for Christian youth groups. Hollywood and the WWE clearly serve money. What does it say about a church, its leadership, and its members if they do the same? Are servants of mammon vying for your dollars and time on Sunday morning and Sunday night? Are Christians nothing more than marks for the film industry?
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.