Everyone is loving to hate Pastor Joe Nelms’ oft-viewed prayer to open a recent NASCAR event. I couldn’t even find an articulate condemnation—something with conviction like, “High priest of consumerism breathes oil-addicted Empire’s last pious gasp.” On offer was only the inevitable autotune remix and haughty snickers. The twitter hashtag might as well have been #howdarehenotbelikeus?
We cultured despisers seem to leave Pastor Nelms four recourses: He should 1) not invite God into the recreational aspect of his life at all, 2) bring to it an artificial solemnity that is clearly out of step with his mode of enjoyment 3) prophetically overturn the NASCAR tables with new urbanist fury (a practice which Christ reserved for religious occasions), or 4) he should take to enjoying lacrosse or polo (and watch his ministry disappear).
Why not apply our ample training in appreciating other cultures to this especially robust portrait of vernacular American faith? The prayer begins, “Heavenly Father, You said ‘in all things give thanks,’ so we want to thank you tonight for these mighty machines.” Pastor Nelms naturally assumes that the “all” in “all things” includes car racing. He then goes on to give thanks for multiple car brands – which both lends the prayer poetic specificity and avoids the impression that it was sponsored by one brand in particular. “May they put on a performance worthy of your strength tonight,” pleads Pastor Nelms, who—when he hears the roar of an engine—knows that God’s power far exceeds it. More lamentable, it seems to me, would be to think God couldn’t measure up.
But the real point of contention comes when Pastor Nelms gives God thanks for his “smokin’ hot wife.” “What an idiot!,” ran the self-righteous commentary, “Hasn’t he seen the prayer to Baby Jesus in Talladega Nights?” I fear the joke, however, may actually be on those of us who assume Pastor Nelms hasn’t. To be sure, Pastor Nelms might be unconsciously regurgitating the film, which—it needs be admitted—would be rather scary. But it’s also quite possible (and far more likely) that by referring to his “smokin’ hot wife,” he was not boasting, but intentionally alluding to the film, thereby brilliantly undermining our lopsided American caricatures of female beauty which insists that smokin’ hot = thin blond Talladega bombshell.
You see, Pastor Nelms is wise enough to know that his wife indeed is beautiful whether or not she fits American stereotypes of beauty. And rather than sanction disrespectful youth (as in Talledega Nights), Pastor Nelms’ wife’s daily goal—we learn from her testimony—is to be Godly, and to raise Godly children who might one day follow in the path of ministry themselves.
Of course, one might rightfully take issue with the prayer’s conclusion: “in Jesus’ Name, boogity, boogity, boogity, Amen.” Though perhaps this flourish can be forgiven a man who is at heart a traditionalist. According to his church’s website, “we are a simple country church that continues to preach and teach form the King James Bible and sing from the old hymns of the faith.”
Make no mistake: The prayer to Baby Jesus in Talladega Nights continues to be a devastating send up to any Christian who would fall into its line of fire. The prayer rightfully skewers the worst aspects of baptized consumerism, lust, an idolatry of victory, Feuerbachian projections onto the Godhead, and the refusal to “honor thy father and mother” (just like the Bible does). I’m just not so sure, as everyone else seems to be, that Pastor Nelms is one of them.