It has occurred to me that the lessons I glean from Talladega Nights could be drawn from Scripture, so why reference a film? The short answer: I think it’s important to recognize that Christians are not the only people who are telling stories about God. The Bible offers the final and authoritative word on who God is, yet we live in a world (and always have) in which God is diminished and distorted. Understanding the ways in which God is distorted and, perhaps more importantly, the ways in which we contribute to that distortion, seems to me to be good reason to study the culture as well as studying the scriptures.
With that in mind, enter Talladega Nights….
Sitting around the table with his family, Ricky Bobby (played by Will Ferrel) begins to say grace to “baby Jesus.” About halfway through the prayer, Ricky’s wife suggests that it is “rather odd and off putting to pray to a baby” and says that she wants him to “…do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow.” Ricky continues to pray to baby Jesus, prompting an outburst from his father-in-law about Jesus growing up (“He was a man!”). Ricky explains that he likes “Christmas Jesus” (as opposed to “teenage” or “bearded” Jesus). Continuing to pray to “8 pound, 6 ounce newborn baby Jesus,” Ricky Bobby makes sure to thank God for the “$21.2 million…love that money!”
The scene (which I’ve described selectively above) is admittedly over the top…that’s sort of the point. Yet as Moliere said, “The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” Though I would not suggest that Talladega is attempting to amuse in order to correct Christian behavior, this scene in the movie can still “correct men by amusing them.” As Christians I think we can approach this scene with more than a righteous indignation or dismissive attitude…we can approach it as a theological narrative (see my post entitled “All Narratives are Theological“) in which God is being misrepresented and ask ourselves if we are similarly misrepresenting God in our own individual or corporate lives.
There are at least three lessons or “corrections” to which the prayer scene points:
- We don’t get to pick the Jesus we like best– Again, while I would assume that most Christians wouldn’t wring their hands trying to choose between “Christmas,” “teenage,” and “bearded” Jesus (the obvious choice is bearded), I think that we do need to avoid “picking and choosing” when it comes to the way we think about God. Tying God too closely to one of His attributes is not unprecedented in church history. For instance, Marcion overemphasized “love” which led him to ignore the whole Old Testament and parts of the New. We don’t get to decide which aspects of God we like best and give ourselves over to, for instance, being truthful, but not loving. Ignoring aspects of who God is or highlighting some while diminishing others isn’t all that different from praying to “Christmas Jesus.”
- God is not a genie…He doesn’t grant our wishes just because we rub his bottle the right way– This lesson comes from the comment made by Ricky’s wife (“…do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow”). When we pray, it is certainly appropriate to ask God for success in our various endeavors. At the same time, we need to recognize that God isn’t sorting and shifting our prayers based on how “good” we “do” them. In prayer, we seek to participate with God and what He is doing in the world. So, while we know that the “prayer of the righteous person has great power as it is working,” we also know that when “we don’t know what to pray for as we ought…the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Ultimately, prayer is not a way for us to somehow involve God in our agendas, but to submit ourselves to God’s agenda.
- Success is not God’s authorization of everything we do– This final lesson comes from Ricky’s expression of gratitude for the “$21.2 million…love that money!” There are many instances where God gives wealth or prominence to those who misuse it because (a) they don’t recognize that the gift is far less important than the giver and (b) they don’t have an impulse to give away what God has given in service to the kingdom. As a community, it seems that there is a tendency to look upon those who have more prominence, success, money, etc., and to consider them to have received a heavier dose of God’s blessing because they are doing something right or inherently deserve God’s blessing. I’m sure that there are instances in which those who have received much, make much of God, but receiving much is not an authorization of one’s lifestyle. Such seems to be the point of Matthew 5:45: “… for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God loves whether we love Him or not and there is not a one-to-one correlation between what we do and what happens to us (Jn 9:1-7).
So, while it is an unlikely source for theological lessons, in this case it seems to me that comedy offers some important corrections. Perhaps it may also serve as a reminder that we aren’t the only one’s who are trying to tell the world who God is.