Talladega Nights, John Wayne, January 6, and Jesus
by Martin Thielen
September 1, 2021
Five weeks ago, during the last week of July, I watched again the movie Talladega Nights, researched a book called Jesus and John Wayne, and listened to four Washington DC Capitol police officers recount their experiences during the January 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol. All three of these experiences converged into this month’s post.
You don’t expect a crude comedy about NASCAR racing starring Will Ferrell to raise issues about the identity of Jesus Christ. However, Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby does exactly that. In the funniest scene of the movie, NASCAR racer Ricky Bobby, along with his family and best friend Cal, gather for a dinner of Domino’s Pizza, KFC, and Taco Bell. Before they eat, Ricky offers grace. He begins his prayer, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” He then proceeds to thank baby Jesus for various blessings, including his “red hot smoking wife Carly.” As he prays, he continues to repeat the phrase, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” His wife Carly interrupts him and says, “You know sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.” Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”
Ricky Bobby continues his prayer, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers, with your tiny balled-up fists.” His father-in-law angrily interrupts, “He was a man. He had a beard!” Ricky Bobby snaps back, “Listen, I’m saying grace, and I like the Christmas version best!” Ignoring the conflict between the two men, Ricky Bobby’s best friend Cal says, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt. It says like, I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too.” One of Ricky Bobby’s sons says, “I like to picture Jesus as a Ninja, fighting off the evil samurai.” Cal then adds, “I like to think of Jesus with giant eagle wings and singing lead vocals for Leonard Skinner with an angel band.”
Ricky Bobby returns to his prayer, saying, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, who doesn’t even know a word yet—little infant, so cuddly but still omnipotent.” He then thanks baby Jesus for all his NASCAR victories and the millions in prize money he has won. He concludes grace by saying, “Thank you for all your power and grace dear baby God, Amen.” Immediately after the prayer, Cal says, “That was a hell of a grace, man! You nailed that like a split hog!”
Count on Hollywood to deal with important religious issues in such an irreverent yet hilarious way. That scene in Talladega Nights, irreverent as it is, raises a major theological question. Among the many competing options, which version of Jesus is accurate?
Jesus and John Wayne
One day after watching Talladega Nights, I researched a 2020 best-selling book called Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Although I haven’t yet read the book, I listened to an interview of the author on a podcast. She claims many white evangelicals are drawn to aggressive, “militant masculinity.” As a result, they created a John Wayne Jesus: a powerful, patriarchal, authoritarian, gun-toting, chest-beating, butt-kicking, alpha-male savior.
Of course, virtually everything in the Gospels affirms the exact opposite of a John Wayne Jesus, but why let biblical facts get in the way of your desired Jesus? So, in order to support their John Wayne narrative, they turn to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, along with the vengeful warrior image of Jesus in the book of Revelation during end times. According to Du Mez, that’s the preferred version of Jesus many evangelicals hold on to.
January 6, 2021
The day after I researched Jesus and John Wayne, I listened to four Washington DC capitol police officers tell their stories about the January 6 assault on the U.S. capitol. On that awful day we vividly witnessed the “John Wayne” version of Jesus—on steroids—as members of the violent mob conflated Trump and Christianity.
They carried “Jesus Saves” flags, Christian flags, Bibles, shofars (Jewish ritual horns), and pictures of Jesus wearing a red MAGA hat. They wore T-shirts that said, “Trump is my President, Jesus is my Savior.” While the insurgents violently attacked police officers, erected gallows, and chanted about hanging the vice president and speaker of the House, some members of the mob prayed to their patriot Jesus as they ravaged the capitol. In the end people died, and democracy took a massive blow.
A few days after watching Talladega Nights, researching Jesus and John Wayne, and listening to DC capitol police officers share their testimony about the January 6 domestic terrorist attack on the capitol, I wrote the following entry in my journal:
It dawned on me (again) this week that whatever Jesus you want, you can find or create, even if you have to twist the Christian faith into an unrecognizable pretzel. You want a benign, nonthreatening, Ricky Bobby Christmas baby Jesus? No problem. You want a militant masculine John Wayne Jesus? No problem. You want a flag-carrying, second-amendment, God and America patriot Jesus? No problem. You want a Trump-loving MAGA Jesus? No problem. You want a white nationalist Jesus? No problem. You want a Black Lives Matter social-justice Jesus? No problem. You want a 1960’s hippie flower child Jesus? No problem. You want a communist Jesus? No problem. You want a capitalist Jesus? No problem. You want a pro-LBGTQ Jesus? No problem. You want an anti-LBGTQ Jesus? No problem. You want a liberal Democrat Jesus? No problem. You want a conservative GOP Jesus? No problem.
I’m coming to the sad opinion that religion rarely changes people’s values, worldview, politics, or behavior. Rather, we use religion to baptize and bless whatever positions we already hold. Our God language simply reinforces and gives cover to what we want to believe. We can always find a biblical text, a faith perspective, or even a church to confirm whatever politics or worldview we already believe in: left, right, center, or even QAnon crazy.
And I’m certainly not immune from this. I want a centrist Democrat Jesus with progressive theology. I can easily find that version and then feel self-righteous about following Jesus. For example, I love it when Jesus teaches about grace, love, mercy, justice, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and welcoming the stranger. And I love it even more when Jesus condemns the religious-right fundamentalists of his day, calling them vipers and hypocrites. Preach it, Jesus! However, I’m not nearly as enamored with Jesus when he warns against laying up treasures on earth. I’ve spent decades laying up treasures in my 403b church pension plan and Roth IRA. And I sure like my tax-free clergy housing allowance.
I’m still trying to form some concluding thoughts after this week’s strange convergence of pop culture, politics, and theological reflections. But here’s my tentative take. If Jesus doesn’t challenge my worldview, values, politics, and daily life, and if he doesn’t make me uncomfortable on a regular basis, I’m probably not taking him seriously. Instead, I’m likely using my preferred version of Jesus to reinforce what I already believe, just like Ricky Bobby, the militant masculine John Wayne Jesus crowd, and the January 6 MAGA patriots.
Therefore, like every other Christian, I need to go back to the Gospels and read the old stories of Jesus again and again with clear, open, and honest eyes. Even when he challenges my comfort zones, beliefs, politics, and practices. Especially when he challenges them.
Trying to follow Jesus is so damn inconvenient sometimes.
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