Christianity is the underdog religion.
Or so it wants you to think.
We love the underdog story — we know what’s coming, but we love it anyway, we can’t get enough. We love the upset, the incredible comeback when the chips are down and there’s no way but then all of a sudden the bigger, stronger, tougher, richer, better equipped opponent gets a comeuppance. History and Hollywood love this story – the Rebel Alliance, La Résistance, the Miracle on Ice, David vs. Goliath… way too many examples to list.
Madison Avenue and Wall Street love this story.
Politicians and voters and world leaders love this story.
Economists and American Dreamers love this story.
Everybody loves this story — it’s embedded in individual and collective brains and culture — a standard narrative, paradigm, metaphor, archetype.
I won’t say the Bible or Christianity invented it, but both are full of it, and their fingerprints are all over western history and culture, which can’t hurt their claim to its patent. Ancient Israel loved the story — Gideon and his 300 soldiers pared down from 32,000, David vs. Goliath, David and his ragtag band of “mighty men” …. Then Jesus came along and perfected it: the backwater small town kid, the bastard son of an unwed mother and a blue collar dad; the kid with the unexpected religious streak who hung out with a tough crowd, always on the outs with the religious elites.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46 ESV
“And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’ And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” Matthew 13:53-58 ESV
“And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Mark 2:15-17 ESV
And so it goes.
Anybody who’s ever lived in a backwater small town knows the “who do you think you are?” response Jesus got when he tried to bring his gospel to his hometown.
So he mostly stays away, gathers followers like rabbis are supposed to do, takes his teaching and miracle show on the road. But then he meets a predictable end – pisses off too many people, they make trouble with the law, and he ends up brutally executed.
But then… Resurrection! The ultimate comeback to end all ultimate comebacks!
It was “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (Max von Sydow as Jesus, John Wayne as the Centurion) – and it still is, over and over, in church and out of it – not just the Jesus story but the Rocky story and Star Wars and the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches books… and countless thousands of other variations on the same theme.
Why do we love the underdog so much? Psychologists and scientists have their theories (we can relate, they give us hope, etc.) but ultimately it’s about a reversal of power. It’s not just that the weak win out, it’s that the weak win out over the strong. The pecking order gets reversed, for all to see. That’s the part of the Jesus story the Apostle Paul particularly latched onto:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 ESV
Did you notice that phrase at the end – “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” All this putting the rich and famous and educated elites in their places sounds great, but let’s not get carried away. We need to remember who’s at the head of the table.
Once I was hosted at a swanky restaurant that didn’t take reservations by a businessman who ate a three martini business lunch there nearly every day. The line was out the door and down the block. We walked past everyone, he greeted the Maître d’ by name and our party went straight to a table.
Nice work if you can get it.
We want that. We want to be rich and famous not so much to be rich and famous (which would be nice) but to be powerful. Most of us spend life on the wrong end of the short straw. But not this time, not in the biggest stakes game ever played. This time we win. This time the weak and lowly and not so wise put those uppity elites in their place. When we were kids it was the adults. When we went to school it was the principal. At work it was the boss. And on and on – always somebody with more brass, more money, more creds, more… something, anything to put us down, keep us in our places, slap us with “who do you think you are?”
But not this time. This time it’s our turn. This time we rub their noses in it.
Our motives aren’t always so pure when we get to win.
We’re good sports, but not now, not this time. But we can be forgiven for that. We’ve been ashamed more times than we can count. About time they find out how it feels.
But this is God we’re talking about. Why is He so concerned about people being more powerful than Him? I mean, He’s God. He has a permanent hall pass, a permanent reservation where they don’t take reservations. Take a look at that other phrase — “to bring to nothing things that are.” God, it seems, has a vindictive streak. You think you’re so hot, just you wait – God will knock you down a few notches. Let’s take a look at the passage featured in Handel’s Messiah:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Read the Bible closely, and God is more like Emperor Palpatine than Jesus meek and mild, and His grip on things is more like Darth Vader keeping the Evil Empire in tow. He’s angry, derisive, vindictive, and vicious. Genocide, infanticide, rape, murder, homophobia, xenophobia… you name it, it’s on God’s rap sheet.
Christians know that – or they would if they would actually read what the Bible says about their God – but they excuse it all. They say that God is “good” and “loving” and “kind” and “merciful” — never mind that he’s got a temper – that “his wrath is quickly kindled,” that His M.O. is to “break them with a rod of iron.” Geez. Seems obvious we’re dealing with a sociopath here, but believers make excuses for God like the abused makes excuses for the abuser. He’s a nice guy when he’s off the bottle, but when he’s not… God is a nice guy when he’s not instructing His people to destroy a city and leave no survivors except the women the soldiers want to rape.
Obviously God is not exempt from “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Same for his closest associates. The story of how Solomon came to power reads just like Michael Corleone tightening his grip on the family. 1 Kings 2 ESV Thus Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, could say of Trump’s Stormy Daniels mess, “We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.’”
A mulligan. A do-over. The perks of power.
Can you spell “corruption”?
And it all gets sold as an underdog story.
Not in Madison Avenue’s wildest dreams.
That’s the blinding power of belief in action – belief when it has metastasized beyond fundamentalism, even beyond extremism, all the way to its most inexcusable, unspeakable, unthinking form.
I never saw any of that when I was a believer. I thought God’s power was cool. I thought I and my fellow Christians were cool. God’s throne room is the scariest place ever, and we got to go in and stand where it was safe.
No, not safe. Definitely not safe. More like a place of unimaginable shame, if we had known it for what it really is.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants: Gladwell, Malcolm
Psychology of the Underdog | Psychology Today
Why Do We Love Underdog Stories? Psychology Weighs In | Psychology Today
The science of why we love to root for underdogs – Vox