THE GOSPEL, The Ultimate Death, and Hero Worship

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Several different people have told me that one of the strangest things they know about me is how I used to be a huge professional wrestling fan. It’s not the first piece of information that I tend to volunteer about myself, understanding that there’s much about sports entertainment that is undesirable (even a bit offensive) to many. Nonetheless, it’s an important part of my early years (mid 80s to early 90s). In fact, the enjoyment I get from public speaking, as much as anything, comes from my affinity for professional wrestling promos. To me, professional wrestling is a bit to modern middle class westerners like Shakespearean theatre has been to higher society for the past 400 years – scripted, live action, participatory drama.  It’s live storytelling designed to help viewers escape from the realties of their own life drama.

In my youth, there was one main character – Hulk Hogan. Hogan was this larger-than-life, charismatic individual that had his own cartoon, vitamins, action figures, video games, and a host of other merchandise. “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan, as announcers often referred to him, was a purebred good guy. He encouraged children to “train, say their prayers, and eat their vitamins” (the last of which, as mentioned, he conveniently peddled. I didn’t understand the marketing strategy at the time, but I was certainly buying the dogma that he was selling.)

blog - ultimate warrior 2The only competitor that ever really rivaled Hogan’s popularity was a bizarre character billed from “Parts Unknown” named The Ultimate Warrior. Nobody had ever seen anything like him before. He was a chiseled, 275-pound man who sprinted to the ring in fluorescent wrestling gear and face paint and shook the ropes like a madman. It was all set to this intense, pounding entrance music. The crowd would totally erupt. In fact, The Ultimate Warrior became so insanely popular, that the WWE (WWF at the time), in something of a “passing the torch” moment, actually had The Warrior defeat Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI, their major annual event (think “Super Bowl of wrestling”). Hogan losing at Wrestlemania was absolutely unthinkable at the time. But The Ultimate Warrior did it. That’s how big he had become. People had latched onto his energy, his intensity, and his omnivorous appetite for life.

And now he’s dead.

Tuesday evening, the man born James Brian Hellwig, who portrayed The Ultimate Warrior character, passed away at the age of 54. Hellwig had so bought into the ideals and values of the character he’d portrayed that he legally changed his name to Warrior. And this past weekend, at Wrestlemania XXX, he was the headliner inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. In his 50+ minute speech, Warrior addressed the criticisms that he’s received throughout his career – that behind the scenes he was something of a self-interested, egocentric loner. He mentioned how much those comments hurt and argued, “I was a good guy. I am a good guy.” People politely applauded. But the reality is that a great deal of the criticisms about the Warrior being concerned solely about himself in the business, according to those who worked most closely with him, were true. It even came out in Warrior’s infamous promos before his matches – he would talk about self-fulfilled prophecies and becoming what you want to be through determination and tapping into the warrior inside you, etc. He literally did this even through his last promo on Monday night.

But now The Ultimate Warrior, or at least the man who played that character, is dead.

I’m no longer seven years old, watching wrestling on Saturday mornings. But it’s still weird and a bit disconcerting to watch a “hero” die. It’s almost as if we believe that heroes should last forever. Hmmm. Where does that notion, which seems to exist in our collective societal unconscious, come from? Perhaps because there is a hero who IS immortal. Perhaps because there is a warrior whose victory IS ultimate. You see, life is full of appetizers that point us to a main course. But we can’t forget that they’re merely appetizers.

In our lives, we won’t stop worshipping heroes, because we were wired to do exactly that. We won’t stop studying the doctrines of such heroes, because we were wired to do that too. However, we can pick our heroes. And, as N.T. Wright once said,

“You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense”)

If that’s true, then we’ll want to be very careful that we choose wisely WHO (or WHAT) it is in life that we truly worship. In the end, this decision will determine what we become in life…and after death.

Great wrestling characters always had a way of touching a perceived social truism and embodying it. The doctrine of Hulk Hogan was that if you try hard, acknowledge God, and do “the right thing,” you will succeed in life. The Ultimate Warrior’s doctrine was that if you tap into the potential that exists inside you, ignoring the dissenting voice of the forces that surround you, you will become the warrior you were destined to be. Years later, the next major wrestling character was named Stone Cold Steve Austin. He LITERALLY trademarked the phrase “Austin 3:16” to indicate his doctrine. Sacrilegious? Yes, of course. At least he was honest that he was peddling a false doctrine though. Steve Austin embodied the spirit of disgruntled, blue-collar workers who felt oppressed, held back by “the man.” Austin’s doctrine was that you deserve better than the guff you take from your controlling, condescending authority figures. The next major star after Austin was a guy called The Rock – yes, that’s the same muscled dude who stars in all those empty plot children’s movies. The Rock’s doctrine was that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; you are destined for luxury, prosperity, and greatness if you concentrate on yourself above all else.

Are you beginning to see why I’ve always found professional wrestling fascinating? These characters personify false doctrines, humanistic ideals, and hollow philosophies…the very ones that Americans tend to swallow whole.

The truth is that everyone around you is proclaiming a doctrine in life. These doctrines, to varying degrees, are merely false gospels. One of my favorite quotes from Christian author Paul David Tripp is this:

 “Corporate worship is designed to counteract the false gospels you hear every day with the true gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

In other words, you’re constantly being indoctrinated by the world. You have to consciously choose whether or not you’re going to believe the things others confidently proclaim to you. You have to carefully think through the implications of the such doctrines. You have to decide which heroes are really worth worshipping.

blog - ultimate warrior 3False doctrine and false heroes are often appealing, in part, because there’s typically some amount of truth in what they’re saying. For instance, Warrior’s idea that there are evil forces that surround you working against you, according to the Bible, is absolutely TRUE. “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8) However, his belief that you can overcome such evil by tapping into the innate good power inside of you, at least according to the Bible, is decidedly FALSE. “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen. 6:5; 8:21) Therefore,you have to choose what from his doctrine you’re going to believe. I know LOTS of people, Christians included, who (often unwittingly) believe and practice the false gospels of experts, heroes, and family members whom they admire. You MUST think through the ramifications of those doctrines though. And when you do so, I’m convinced that ONLY the gospel of Jesus Christ will come out shining.

Here’s why: every other gospel leads to death. Without wanting to be callous here, as much as I enjoyed The Ultimate Warrior character as a child……he’s not coming back. Conversely, on the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. HE is full of truth. Similarly, everything he says must then be full of truth, even life-giving. Those concepts – truth and life – are fascinatingly connected. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Wouldn’t it simply make sense that someone who can actually come back to life would know more about life than you or me or any other heroes or experts out there. All Christian doctrine really hinges on the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:14). And if you’re still in doubt about his resurrection, I’d encourage you to attend worship on Easter Sunday. I’m fairly certain, wherever you are, you’ll get to hear more about it.

But I’ll leave you with the final public words of a now dead man. Choose. What from it will you believe? And keep using that a filter for whatever it is that you choose to believe. Is this person going to die? Maybe they’re flawed. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Then I’d better listen to what he’s saying.

“Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life what makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized…..I am The Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans and the spirit of Ultimate Warrior will run forever.”

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