Sunday, April 26, 2009


(This piece was accepted for publication by the Wittenburg Door in the fall of 2007; the issue in which it would've appeared, however, has never seen the light of day due to the magazine's financial difficulties.)

Kenneth Hoagland--a.k.a. "Jacob," the founder and public face of Evangelical Wrestling Entertainment--is bloody (figuratively, for once) but unbowed as he faces the reporters assembled to discover why he has called this press conference. "EWE has run the course and fought the good fight," Hoagland eventually says. "But now, to quote someone with whom I think we’re all familiar, ‘It is finished.’"

At this moment, clean shaven and dressed to the nines, Hoagland is barely recognizable as his pro-wrestling alter ego: a bearded, loin-cloth-girded "Israelite" whose EWE "stairway to heaven" match with the mysterious, masked "Angel" was supposed to be the climax of the much anticipated tithe-per-view extravaganza Armageddon. Instead, the event has been cancelled--and with it, apparently, the entire EWE operation.

"I mean, the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, right?" Hoagland continues, his voice trembling. "So, like, blessed be the name of the Lord. Any questions?" But before any of the reporters can say a word, Hoagland bursts into tears. When he finally collects himself, he apologizes, pulls a handkerchief bearing the EWE logo from his blazer pocket, wipes his eyes and blows his nose. Loath to put the besotted accessory back into his pocket, he holds it for the remainder of the press conference, waving it with absentminded nervousness like a flag of surrender.

Hoagland’s fortunes weren’t always this bleak. Indeed, his many nay-sayers and detractors notwithstanding, it looked for a time as if his unlikely enterprise would succeed. Originally relegated to TBN’s late-night ghetto, it quickly earned a semi-weekly primetime slot with an audacious (some would say ingenious) combination of evangelism, sound doctrine, and violence--violence that even at its most obviously choreographed was seldom for the squeamish.

There was, for instance, the notorious "head on a platter match," during which "Herod" defeated "John the Baptist" by hitting him over the head with the platter when the referee was distracted by the dancing of Herod’s sexy manager/valet "Salome." Although the post-match beheading was halted when a dressing-room’s worth of "baby faces" (i.e., "good guys") led by Eutychus ("Master of the Sleeper!") rushed into the ring and literally saved John’s neck, many seated at ringside swear that some genuine neck-slicing had begun.

Similar controversy arose when, after defeating a series of Israelites in both single and handicapped competition, "Andre the Goliath" faced the "Boy Named David" in a no-holds-barred match (a stipulation that was necessary to allow for David’s climactic use of a slingshot and stones). Although that post-victory beheading was not televised, David often carried a frighteningly realistic Goliath head by its hair into the ring during subsequent matches, up to and including his much-hyped showdown with the "Rebel Absalom."

But violence wasn’t EWE’s only thorn in the flesh. There was also the matter of insensitivity, with feuds between the midgets "Zaccheus" and "Bildad the Shuhite" and the immodestly dressed lady wresters "Rahab" and the "Whore of Babylon" coming under particular fire. Others questioned the quoting of "imprecatory Psalms" by angry wrestlers in the broadcasts’ frighteningly realistic interview segments. And, while EWE touted itself as "non-denominational," many perceived a distinct anti-Catholic bias in the "heel" (i.e., "bad guy") known as "Torquemada the Inquisitor."

With such high and volatile "negatives," it’s somewhat surprising that EWE lasted as long as it did. One insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that the organization "would’ve folded even sooner if not for the influence of the many former members of the Power Team [an internationally well-known troupe of itinerant Christian weightlifters] for whom EWE served as a de facto halfway house between Christian showmanship and getting a real job."

Perhaps the best known of the former Power Team members was "Samson," a muscular behemoth who entered the ring carrying the jawbone of an ass, accompanied by "Delilah." Prominently featured in a regular succession of "squash" matches against various "Philistines," his winning streak was broken when Delilah betrayed him with a post-victory kiss that was actually a sign for the many Philistines whom Samson had defeated to ambush him and shave his hair in the middle of the ring. Since then EWE broadcasts had included brief "hair-regrowth" updates, leading many to expect a revenge match that would literally bring the house down.

Despite its controversial reputation, however, EWE remained untainted by at least two common ministry-identified transgressions: financial mismanagement and altar-boy molestation. "Keeping honest ledgers was the whole point of having [female tag-team champions] the Mighty Widows chase [male tag-team contenders] the Money Changers from the ring," says EWE spokeswoman Stephanie Glass, "right when they were on the verge of beating [male tag-team champions] Paul and Silas." Similarly, Glass says, taking a public stand against sexual perversion was the "point" behind the decision to turn the Sodom and Gomorrah battle royal into a "lights out" match by ending it with (simulated) hell fire and brimstone.

But several problems proved perpetually challenging and eventually impossible to solve. First, there were the storylines. Because most of them were based on well-known Bible stories, there was seldom if ever any doubt as to their ultimate outcome. No matter how good a fight "Abel" put up against "Cain," for instance, everyone knew that Cain would win. (Admittedly, casting the former WWF superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts as a guest referee was a clever touch.) And when EWE tried to introduce lesser-known Bible characters, there was usually confusion. (Many viewers, apparently unfamiliar with Judges 3, mistook the match between "Ehud" and the 500-pound "Eglon" to be a match between Jonah and the whale.)

Second, there was sometimes doctrine-based confusion over how to determine winners. One traditional method, that of a wrestler’s using an excruciating hold to make his opponent "submit," was problematic because "submission" is widely understood by Christians to be a prerequisite for victory. As for the venerable "pin fall," would pride have to go before it and thus prohibit baby faces from ever pinning their adversaries? Then, having won, would a victor have to be immediately declared a loser because "the first shall be last"?

"It may sound overly Calvinistic," admits Hoagland at the end of his press conference, "but maybe we were doomed from the start.

"I mean," he concludes, "the ultimate heel is Satan, and while we had many wrestlers who could play him, we never found anyone who could play God."

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