The Gospel According to Ricky Bobby

There Is No Inside Track to Lasting Happiness

Guest Contributor / 9.17.21

This article is by Drew Colby:

In the now classic film Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, we meet a man with two first names who lives by the ethos “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” He was born in the back of a Camaro driving 116 in a 45, and his first words were “I wanna go fast.”

As luck would have it Ricky Bobby ends up a racecar driver and he quickly climbs the Nascar ranks acquiring sponsors like Wonderbread, Powerade, and Big Red chewing gum. Before you know it, he and his best friend have both found fortune and fame. He’s married to a woman he describes as his “smokin’ hot wife,” and together they have two boys who they named Walker and Texas Ranger.

One classic scene is set around the Bobby family dinner table. On the table is a buffet of fast food which Mrs. Bobby says she’s been “slavin’ over for hours.” There, gathered around the family table, Ricky Bobby begins to pray.

Dear Lord Baby Jesus. We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to thank you for my family: my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome striking sons, and my smokin’ hot wife. Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the $21.2 million dollars that I have accrued over this past season. We thank you for your power and your Grace, dear baby God.

Mrs. Bobby interrupts mid-prayer with a theological controversy.

“Hey, sweetie, you know Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.”

“Well, look, I like the Christmas Jesus best,” Ricky says. “When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-up Jesus, or Teenage Jesus, or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

Ricky’s best friend Cal says “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt ‘cuz it’s like I wanna be formal, but I like to party. I like to party so I like my Jesus to party too.” Walker says he likes to imagine Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai, and Cal comes back with visions of Jesus sporting angel wings, “singing lead vocals for Lynard Skinnard.”

Finally Mrs. Bobby shuts it down, “You know what I want?” she says, “I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.”

Jesus and his disciples once traveled to Caesarea Philippi, a city named after Caesar Augustus, the emperor. There, a river flowed out from the mouth of a cave. It was a place devoted to the Greek god Pan and Herod built a temple to the Emperor there (breaking multiple commandments). The rock face at the foot of the mountain also had temples carved out for the worship of Zeus and Hermes.

There, surrounded by a fast-food buffet of gods, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, “Who are people saying that I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets.”

Jesus then turns the question directly to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly declares, “You are the Messiah.”

“Shh!” says Jesus. Ordering them not to tell anyone.

It wasn’t necessarily unheard of to call someone the messiah in those days. Messiahs had appeared in past revolutions ready to stand up to the empire in ways Herod and Phillip didn’t. Many people had grown weary of being last. They wanted a messiah to come and make them great again, make them first in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the world. So they had their swords at the ready to go fast until they and their messiah stood victorious in the winner’s circle.

“Shh!” Jesus said. But then he declares to them quite clearly, “The Messiah must undergo great suffering, he must be rejected by his own people, and be killed, and after three days he will rise again.”

To this, Peter turns to Jesus with a “Shh!” of his own.

After “Bobby family prayer time” ends, Ricky Bobby goes on a winning spree.

Everything is going great — until he meets a new foe, a Frenchman who has come to America to challenge him.

Ricky Bobby loves the challenge, but come race day his “first or last” ethos gets the best of him. Ricky pushes the car too far and he crashes spectacularly. It’s a long enough crash that NASCAR takes an Applebee’s commercial break in the middle of it. By the time they get back to the race it’s clear the crash, the loss, has broken something in Ricky Bobby and he’s left flailing around the race track in his underwear on National television. It’s hilarious.

The failure and losses keep coming as all Ricky’s “first or last” friends abandon him. His wife, his sponsors, even Cal. He’s left suffering under the rejection and the death of not just his career but his identity.

With a single prediction of his death and resurrection, Jesus demolished Peter’s revolutionary aspirations. Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from his journey toward Calvary, but Jesus would have none of it, rebuking Peter with a sharp:

Get behind me, Satan! Listen! If you want to follow me you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. Anyone who spends their life racing to win, racing to get out of life alive will have wasted their life. Those who want to keep their life will lose it. But those who lose their life for my sake, will find it. If you want life, then pick up your cross and follow me.

It’s not hard to see a parallel between Peter and Ricky Bobby’s fast-paced, winner take all view of modern life. “If you ain’t first you’re last.” If you aren’t winning the revolution, then what’s the use of being a Messiah. We want a Jesus who fulfills our stringent expectations — whether its baby Jesus, tuxedo Jesus, ninja Jesus, or classic rock Jesus. So we place Jesus in the happiness business, just one more product on the fast-food buffet of an unbalanced diet.

The Messiah who shows up in Jesus is not the Messiah people expected. People expected the Messiah to take up the sword, and lead them to victory, to get them to first place, and fast! Instead, shockingly, when the Messiah comes, he comes not for political or military victory, not even for happiness. He comes to suffer. He is rejected. He dies. He takes up not the sword, but the cross.

“It is necessary,” Jesus said, “It is necessary that the Messiah does this.”

And he’s right, because there is no inside track to happiness. Ricky Bobby was wrong. Happiness can’t come from winning alone because no one wins forever. Happiness only goes so far. No matter how fast we drive we cannot escape the reality of crashing and burning, suffering, rejection, death.

After the death of Ricky Bobby’s career and life’s work, when he’s lost it all, it’s his mother who takes him in. She starts making him and his sons go to church. With her in charge, things start to move in a different direction and Ricky Bobby gains a new perspective on himself, a new self. He finds a way to deny his “if you ain’t first you’re last” self, and then he gets back into racing.

In the final race of the film, he loses. He’s disqualified (in a most hilarious way). At the end of the race someone else stands atop the podium with a trophy in his hand. But the movie ends out in the parking lot where Ricky Bobby meets up with his family after the race, and they decide to go for a fancy meal at the Applebee’s.

The Ballad of Ricky Bobby illustrates an important truth, that in this life there is no inside track to lasting happiness. Such a thing does not exist. Not for us, not for Ricky Bobby.

Instead, what we have been given is a Messiah. We’ve been given God, revealed in the One who was willing to be born in last place. We have a Messiah who took on suffering, and rejection, and the cross, for us. We have a Messiah who is willing to die for us even when we reject and deny him, and race right past his ways. It is this Messiah who was raised on the third day, proving that in his name even the way of the cross has become a way to life.

Jesus doesn’t promise success, prosperity, or even happiness. But what he does  give is himself and invites us to follow behind him, and take up his cross with our own in faith. Lose your life, he says, and you will save it.