The Gospel According to Philly (and other false gospels)
After the Eagles won the Super Bowl, we Philadelphians began preparing for our parade that was fifty-two years in the making. The big story from the parade was about Offensive Lineman Jason Kelce’s profanity laden speech concerning the Eagles and Philadelphians being underdogs. Kelce gave this speech on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, aka the Rocky steps, a mere fifty yards from the Rocky statue, commemorating Philadelphia’s iconic underdog.
For outsiders, this speech may have sounded like a drunken rant by a guy who probably would have thrown snowballs at Santa Claus during the 1968 Eagles game against the Vikings at Franklin Field. For someone like me, whose family goes back generations in Philly, his speech had a completely different meaning. In my mind, as I listened to Kelce I realized he gave a revival sermon in the Philly Gospel to the millions of onlookers. In fact, the entire parade was a celebration of this gospel.
As a Christian growing up in Philadelphia I was catechized in the true Gospel and the Philly pseudo-gospel. Like Augustine, I had one foot in the city of God and another in the city of man. For those of us who grew up in Philadelphia in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Philly was a gritty place with a huge inferiority complex because we saw ourselves as an after thought between New York and DC on the I-95 corridor. The movie Rocky 1 captures this gritty atmosphere perfectly. Philadelphia was not the type of place you moved to, it was a place you were born in.
Over the last ten to fifteen years this has changed as waves of “hipster immigrants” have flooded in gentrifying large swaths of the city. For those of us who were born, raised, and worked in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the city, we found a role model in Rocky Balboa.
We lived vicariously watching him on the silver screen and we relished his unimaginable victories against overwhelming odds. Like Rocky, we wanted to quiet the voices of all who would call us underdogs or who looked down on us. We were taught to fight our way up the ladder of success just like Rocky. It did not matter if the show boating Apollo Creed stood in front of us, or if it was the massive perfection that was Ivan Drago (Rocky 4) you just kept on fighting and you never ever gave up, no matter how bad of a beating you received.
Two lines from Rocky movies capture this mentality. The first line is taken from the first Rocky movie when Rocky told Adrian he did not think he could win the fight. “Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” The second comes from a conversation between Rocky and his son in Rocky 6, “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” Both of these lines encapsulate the Philly Gospel. We taught to value ourselves by how hard we fought, how much we could take, how far we could go, and it did not matter what other people thought about us because we knew we were not just bums from the neighborhood if we were still standing. Our value was rooted in our works righteousness of taking a beating and surviving. It actually becomes a source of pride.
There can be a synchronization of the Philly Gospel with organized religion as well. This is captured in a scene from Rocky 2 when Rocky visited Father Carmine before his big fight so the priest could provide him with some assistance from God in the form of prayers. On the surface it may look like Balboa is a devout Catholic, but the theology of Rocky shows that God helps us as we fight the good fight. We are the working to earn our worth and God is helping out.
I was catechized in this gospel more than most. I attended Sylvester Stallone’s old high school, Abraham Lincoln in Northeast Philly. After Rocky 2, the movie where the Italian Stallion finally became the Heavy Weight champion, Stallone donated the gloves, trunks and robe from the movie to our school. They sat in our trophy case and they were brought out for pep rallies and speeches by our principal when he wanted to inspire us to be like Rocky and keep fighting no matter what people said about us. When we walked by the gloves, trunks and robe in the trophy case we knew what they represented. If a kid like Stallone could go here and make something of himself when no one thought much of him, we could too.
As I stood at the Eagles parade I recognized that this gospel was on display. First was the procession of the priests, the parade of the Eagles players who personified the Philly Gospel, a team that overcame critics, adversity, and all the odds. The players were greeted by chants of “BLEEP Tom Brady.” That is code for we just knocked out the elites who took us lightly. Then there was the call to worship, we all sang Fly Eagles Fly. Then various members of the team took to the podium and spoke about how much they loved this team and this city. The message was clear throughout, “we” all just won the Super Bowl! As if to prepare the crowd for the sermon, members of the team who had worn dog masks during the season to show that they were underdogs, got up and barked like dogs and the crowd barked with them. Then the “Reverend” Jason Kelce came to the pulpit in the vestment of the Philly Gospel, a Mummers costume. He told the faithful that the Eagles personified the Philadelphia spirit of the underdog. He then gave them absolution for their rowdy behavior at sporting events and closed with a chant taken from English Soccer where the fans sing about how no one likes them and they don’t care.
After the sermon, there was the benediction, the crowd sang and danced to Gonna Fly Now, the Rocky anthem. After the parade I asked people in the crowd what they thought about the speech, they all told me they loved it! I asked my Christian friends who grew up in Philly what they thought about the speech. I received the same answer every time, “loved the sentiment disliked the language.”
Since this experience at the parade I have thought about how every culture has a counter gospel of sorts. So, I have begun asking my students at the seminary, “What is the competing gospel in the community where you grew up or now serve?” For some students it’s the upper middle-class gospel of going to college, getting a good job and moving to the suburbs. For others it’s an inner-city gospel where success is based on how tough a person is during confrontation. Everyone worships something, therefore, knowing the counter gospels that we were reared in can help us with our own spiritual struggles. Even though my catechism in the actual gospel overtook my catechizing in the Philly Gospel, both had an impact on me. I have learned that my salvation and my value before God and humanity is based on the work of Christ not my ability to take a beating. But at times one gospel competes with the other in my heart, mind and, soul. Perhaps this is why I tear up when I hear Nothing but the Blood and the Anthem from Rocky.
Dr. Mark Draper is the track mentor for our Historical Theology track– part of our brand new Doctor of Theology degree at Evangelical Seminary.