Kayfabe

Posted on November 11, 2010

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Mothers of the world, I apologize to you on behalf of your sons.  Some of us like professional wrestling.

Not me, of course- not really, anyway.  Most of my experience with wrestling comes from wondering at what age a child first seriously considers a pro wrestling career.  Where does that begin?  There must be a moment, age 6 or 7, where they stand there wearing only their Optimus Prime underwear, and think to themselves “You know, if I could go to work in just this every day, I’d be happy.  Maybe get some boots to go with it.”

I will also say this to you moms:  you are not officially qualified as a parent until you’ve walked in on your son fake wrestling a pillow while his friend shrieks play-by-play like an abandoned hiker.  This is the true rite of passage into parenthood.  There you are, a reasonable, suburban mother, standing in the doorway as your son- the one you dreamed of raising into a sensitive male with balanced emotions and turtlenecks and an appreciation for aromatherapy candles- wraps a couch cushion in a figure four leg lock and demands that it tap out or be castrated.  On that day, your tears will be real, and they will cost $7,000 in billable therapy hours to sort out.

Speaking of therapy, cutting-edge historical research now shows that Sigmund Freud gained his initial fame, not for his psychoanalytic work, but for his theorization that a male child’s most damaging trauma is the discovery that professional wrestling is all fake.  Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung disputed this point, with Jung asserting that male children are most traumatized when their parents do not buy them highly advanced video game systems for Christmas.  The disagreement escalated as the two exchanged verbal jabs, with Jung calling Freud a “cigar-chomping waffle brain”, while Freud retaliated by calling Jung “Swiss.”

The two agreed to resolve their differences in a controversial steel cage ladder match, one which the prime minister of Switzerland famously condemned, saying “nobody will ever believe this actually happened.”   Momentum in the early stages favored Jung as he twice landed his signature move, a drop-kick nicknamed “the Jungian Archetype”, which staggered Freud.  Freud swung the match back in his favor by asserting his aerial dominance from the turnbuckles, and won it by putting Jung into his patented “Collective Unconscious” headlock until Jung passed out.

Only later was it discovered that Freud and Jung had fabricated their entire feud.  They scripted their verbal sparring, choreographed their match’s outcome, and even helped each other design their colorful, tasseled costumes.  For this, these two men have since been credited with the invention, not just of modern psychology, but of professional wrestling’s most important element: kayfabe.

Kayfabe is a word which refers to the portrayal of events within the fictional wrestling universe as actual reality. In pro wrestling, it helps to think of the ring as a stage, the actions as a storyline, and the wrestlers as brawnier versions of Kenneth Branagh.

For example, if, in the context of a RawNitro Overdrive wrestling event, Wrestler 1 taunts Wrestler 2 about stealing the affections of Wrestler 2’s lady friend, and Wrestler 2 responds by telling Wrestler 1 that he has just detonated a car bomb at Wrestler 1’s house, we know that this is just a story being acted out.  It’s not real, it is kayfabe.  How do we know?

1)  We know that in real life Wrestler 1 has not stolen Wrestler 2’s girlfriend; in fact, Wrestler 1 is happily married going on 17 years.  He has written several books on how to build a strong, healthy marriage and hosted several marital seminars, leading to rumors that Wrestler 1, while capable of tearing several phone books into pieces the size of gerbil shavings, is less manly than Dr. Oz.

2)  We know that Wrestler 2’s reproductive drive has been all but amputated by years of perpetual steroid abuse, and Wrestler 1’s wife holds very little interest to him.  Wrestler 2 would just as soon be interested in stealing a Happy Meal.

3) We also know that in reality Wrestler 2, as a result of numerous flying elbow drops to the face throughout his career, can now only perform technical tasks on the level of building a paper airplane.  A car bomb is out of his reach.

And kayfabe is just one of many words unique to the wrestling lexicon.  The vocabulary of a smart wrestling fan contains phrases like ‘angle’, ‘worked shoot”, ‘legit heat’ and ‘jobber’.  Mastery of this vocabulary reveals those whose understanding of wrestling is sophisticated, as opposed to those who are ignorant.  Witness the difference below- same thoughts, different vocabulary.

Regular Person- That interview is talking about something real.  Back when Wrestler X was less successful, he changed from ‘good guy’ to ‘bad guy’ in his story line.  During his match with Wrestler Z, who has actual fighting skills, a move went wrong and Wrestler Z got hurt.  As a result Wrestler X won the match and Wrestler Z stopped pretending to actually punch him in the groin.

Smart Fan- That worked shoot referenced some legit heat.  It goes back to when Wrestler X was a jobber turning from face to heel in an angle.  During his match with Wrestler Z, who is a hooker, there was a botch on a  move and  Wrestler Z went down.  As a result Wrestler X got over and Wrestler Z broke kayfabe to give him a low blow after the bell.

Vocab matters.  The words that we say mean things, and the words that we choose can either exclude or include people in the conversations we have.  The two paragraphs above are a great example.    In the first, the words are clear; they come from a  pool of vocabulary that is largely universal in its shared meanings.  An outsider may not be interested in what is being said about wrestling, but they could at least understand the intent of the thought process.

The second paragraph is loaded with the specialized jargon of the wrestling sub-culture.  It’s insider-y to the degree that someone no knowledge of those words could never understand it, and by virtue of that, it excludes people.  It says ‘This conversation is for wrestling insiders only.  You are welcome to join, but on our terms.  You must learn our language to participate.  We will not deign to speak with you in ways that you understand.  Learn our words instead.  Say kayfabe.’

Christians should be all too familiar with this issue.  Christians have our own kayfabe language- ‘Christianese’- a linguistic set that has less in common with English and more in common with the jargon sometimes preferred by wrestling fans.  We have buzzwords, like “missional”, “spiritual gift”, “outreach”, “quiet time” and “fellowship”, words which those on the inside make perfect sense, but to those on the outside are a perfect scramble.

On the one hand, it’s understandable why exclusionary word choices like Christianese are useful- they immediately single out those who masquerade as part of a group without actually belonging to it.  There’s even Biblical precedent for it- it’s a shibboleth.

In the book of Judges, the Ephraimite tribesmen were attacked by men of Gilead.

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan.

Those that can’t say kayfabe are immediately recognized as people who are new to wrestling, or are simply pretending to like wrestling.  Likewise, those who can’t speak Christianese reveal themselves to be either new or pretending to Christianity.  Language fluency helps us quickly draw in-or-out judgments about people, judgments which help us to preserve the integrity of the group, be it our churches or small groups.  Christianese is the outward sign of membership.  Are you a believer?  Say shibboleth.

Christianese becomes a problem when we allow it to become a barrier between Christ and the world.  When we soak ourselves in church language, we sometimes forget how to speak the language of the world around us.  Our skill at Christianese robs us of the ability to reasonably tell others the Gospel.  “Jesus is the Lamb of God, the propitiation for our sins and the Second Adam,”  we might explain to a non-believer.  That sentence contains perfectly Biblical language which, to the unchurched, also sounds completely unintelligible.

God calls us out of the world so that we might also go back into it.  This double-life carries with it the implication that we will also be bilingual, capable of speaking the spiritual tongues of both church and the world.  Too often, as we we gain the ability to say shibboleth to Christians, we lose the ability to say shibboleth back to non-believers.  We lose fluency with word choices that prove to them that we are not merely members of the Evangelical Borg Collective, but real human beings with a real Savior that genuinely cares about us.

Tell us you care about us, the world asks, and then we might listen.  Better yet, show us.  Abandon your shibboleth words that demand that we come to church on your terms, and instead tell us about Jesus in our native tongue.  Say our shibboleth.  Say kayfabe.

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