When asked to describe his film, director Nathan Clarke said in an interview, he likes to say it is “everything you expect from the title and everything you don’t.”
The part that I expected was the kitschy, local color documentary about guys who embodied the paradox of trying to combine the uber-testosterone filled personas of theatrical wrestling with the meeker, quieter demeanor outside the ring associated with evangelical Christianity.
The part I did not expect was the subtle, probing examination of modern American Christianity and the tendency of its adherents to conflate performance with true spirituality.
That’s not to imply that Wrestling for Jesus is a particularly editorial film. It’s not. Clarke stated that audiences at various screenings have responded quite differently to the film’s principals, speculating that the reason for this may lie in his attempts to let the participants speak for themselves. There is one moment in the film where you hear Clarke’s voice. When Gary Rucker (who wrestles under the name Matt Cruz) shows his trophies and pulls out one he was awarded from his peers for being “most-Christlike,” Clarke asks him what it means to be Christlike. Rucker’s answer is what is commonly referred to as “documentary gold.”
Viewers don’t have to be particularly astute to ponder how his response reflects on Rucker, but it wasn’t until I had finished watching the film that I really thought about what it said about those who gave the award to him. Rucker’s persona in the wrestling league is one of hero–the film explains that professional wrestling is scripted around obvious heroes and villains–and it is hard to look back on the scene in retrospect and not come away with a notion that, paradoxically, it is the performers themselves who have the hardest time discerning between what is authentic and what is make believe.
The difficulty in distinguishing person from performance is less overt but just as striking in the representation of Timothy Blackmon who wrestles under the name of T-Money. Through most of the film’s first half, his Christian script is as polished as his wrestling script. We see him in a couple’s Bible study, praying before matches, urging potential participants in the Wrestling for Jesus league to sublimate career and self-advancement to a higher purpose. When his personal life takes a turn for the worse, though, his rhetoric becomes as confused as Rucker’s. Life has shown him that apparently all the “stuff” he has been preached does not “really work.”
Still, if all the film were doing was giving Blackmon enough proverbial rope to hang himself, it wouldn’t be nearly so thought-provoking. The question of whether or not Blackmon’s pre-crisis faith was authentic, shallow, or an outright facade is not nearly as interesting as are the implications for whatever answer we make to it.
In one of the film’s most interesting, if opaque moments, a post-match altar call brings people to the side of the wrestling ring to give (or, more commonly, to “rededicate”) their lives to Jesus. While heads are bowed, a young boy looks up and stares into the camera. He holds the gaze of the camera for a good ten seconds or so, quite long enough for the viewer to become a little uncomfortable, before bowing his head again.
Here again, Clarke’s light editorial touch allows us the grapple (no pun intended) with questions rather than getting slammed with prefabricated answers. Why are we uncomfortable at his looking into the camera? Is it not because we have our own, unarticulated scripts that people are supposed to follow that make it easier or harder for us to judge whether their faith is authentic?
Through most of the first half of the film, I wanted to be on these guys’ side. I’m different, I thought than the midwestern lady Clarke described in an interview who called them all “monsters.” One shouldn’t have to give up everything he enjoys to conform to a suburban, middle-class conception of Christianity. But then Blackmon moves within the space of a year or so from being ready to “die” for his wife and family because it’s a man’s role to love his wife as Christ loved the church to saying that sometimes you just need to “start over” and it’s best to “move on” Then, I thought, well, maybe my script is more inclusive than another’s, but doesn’t there have to be something other than performance–other than saying the right things and being convincing when you do–that is the hallmark of a Christian life?
Clarke said in an interview that the first five year’s of his work as a documentary filmmaker were about learning techniques and technology. Years six through ten were about understanding the importance of story. What he is learning in his second decade as a documentarian is how to recognize or bring out “honesty” and “authenticity.” The director, particularly of documentaries, has a lot of power to shape the material, but Clarke’s vision is to capture those moments, not manufacture them.
Sometimes, of course, those moments of truth can be painful. Clarke described the film as being analogous to looking in a funhouse mirror for many Christians. The more I think about that analogy, the more I like it. The image reflected may be distorted, elongated, out of whack, easy enough to dismiss and giggle at.
But it’s also slightly disturbing because we know that while it is distorted, it’s still, well…us.
Disclosure: Clarke works for Christianity Today, and the writer is a frequent contributor to that company’s film reviews. This review was not solicited by CT.