“It’s physics, basically. You bend the guy the other direction than God intended.”
Or so says Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church and central character in Fight Church, the new documentary co-directed by Brian Storkel. Like Holy Rollers, Storkel’s previous effort, Fight Church is a sympathetic-but-not-uncritical account of an unconventional religious practice—that is, an entirely conventional practice which some Christians have dressed up with a patina of theological justifications and clichés. Burress’s church is one of some alleged 700 churches in the United States that have taken to the increasingly popular sport of mixed-martial arts as a form of Christian witness. Fight Church doesn’t pull its punches: “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, while at the same time kneeing him in the face…as hard as you can? is the question that the trailer poses and which the film carefully considers.
The filmmakers chart a few pastors closely, and put their justifications in a nice dialogue with a movement to keep MMA illegal in New York. The close-up on the lives of these pastors is undoubtedly helpful: it’s not easy, after all, to understand the texture of the beliefs and commitments of those engaging in practices we find idiosyncratic (at best) from a distance. And with one or two exceptions, most of the pastors featured seemed like nice guys, with supportive families and an intense sincerity about their convictions. At least as much as the film showed us, anyway. A cynic might allege that some pastors master the art of faking the authenticity required for the job, and cynics aren’t always wrong. But part of the conflict the film induces, in fact, for some Christian viewers may be to wonder how nice guys could go so far wrong.
But the filmmakers may also make their study too close to engender a proper understanding of why MMA has moved nearer the center of American religious communities. There are the occasional and expected bits about how the church has ‘feminized’ men, but almost no exploration of what this means. I was surprised, and mildly impressed, to realize at the end of the film that Tyler Durden hadn’t been mentioned at all. The narrow focus of the filmmakers leaves so many questions about MMA itself unexplored: the film almost makes it feel like MMA has always been there, rather than being itself a recent phenomenon with its own intrinsic meaning and questions. Whatever else we make about it, Fight Club found its way to a sympathetic male audience somehow. Without more broadly contextualizing the kind of life which fight clubs are a reaction against, it’s harder to properly understand the tacit and embedded reasons within the practice that those Christians who undertake it must assume. MMA itself may be innocuous, or only superficially so, but it’s easier to tell when we understand the conditions of its emergence.
That complaint aside, though, the film succeeds at doing what Storkel and company do so well: provoking interesting questions and presenting a range of opinions on them, which makes excellent fodder for thought. I said, though, that the filmmakers are not entirely uncritical: they are in a corner, and that corner is sparring with the fight church guys. The film tacitly raises the question of how children are being formed in these communities, but does not (alas) deal extensively with it. Which is too bad, because it’s one of the most troubling aspects that shows up on screen, and by leaving it tacit in the images it seems as though Storkel and company are making the critique more effective than if they dealt with it explicitly. The camera stays on one young fellow who takes a turn in the ring and sits crying afterward. While that’s an unhappy image, it’s also not so nearly as disturbing as the image of an eight-year old or so boy out shooting guns with his father (who is so amped up that he couldn’t even imagine critiques of fight churches, unlike the others in the film). Yes, he’s supervised, but it’s still jarring to see. Why are they out shooting? There is no reason given, and the viewer is left to assume that there’s a short line between the kind of hyper-masculinity that partakes in fight clubs and the violence that guns at least signify.
Of course, nothing I’ve said actually addresses the substantive question of whether Christianity and MMA inherently conflict with each other. For that, I would encourage readers to consider the most astute theological analysis of the question I’ve read, which was written by a one-time participant in the sport and which endeavors—rightly—to take its Christian advocates and practitioners seriously as dialogue partners:
During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!…
In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.
I have no way of telling whether this recounting of MMA’s effects is accurate, nor have I any reason to doubt it. But I’d note that this kind of ‘disintegration’ from the sport seems like an exaggerated form of the kind of distancing from our bodies that we experience in any sort of pain. Physical suffering has that kind of effect: we say “my arm hurts” when our pain sensors intrude on our conscious experience, rather than “I hurt.” Nor is such momentary fragmentation necessarily vicious: a person who is ‘out of shape’ may not feel like getting out of bed the day after an intensely difficult workout, after all, even though overcoming that kind of pain and the distancing from our bodies it entails may be what they need to achieve a more healthy integration. (If you ask me whether I have experience of this, I will say that I am well acquainted with being ‘out of shape’ but not so much the latter phenomenon. Draw your own conclusions.)
Still, MMA is not a workout, and whether it is licit for Christians to undertake has to involve considering how we treat our neighbor within the practice. Not every contest of strength is wrong, it seems to me: wrestling as an activity aims at throwing one’s opponent to the ground and immobilizing them. Arm wrestling is a contest of strength of an even more benign sort. Such demonstrations of strength and weakness are enjoyable to some men and women (and highly dubious to others), and while I’m strongly averse to infusing them with testosterone so that they become litmus tests of manhood, it’s hard to think of a serious objection to them, either.
Whether MMA falls along this spectrum or is of a different kind of thing is a difficult question. The fusion of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling and the aesthetics of the cage and the ring give it a gritty atmosphere (which was unquestionably pronounced in its early years, but I understand has been sanitized somewhat to reach a more mainstream audience) that seems to want to incorporate the no-holds-barred mentality of a street fight and its taboo connotations into the living room. I’m an outsider both as a viewer and a participant, but from a distance the sport seems to thrive on a kind of bloodthirstiness that aims at harming one’s opponent (like boxing) and winning submission not necessarily through immobilizing or overpowering one’s opponent but incapacitating them such that, if the defeat is serious enough, their body temporarily loses the ability to function altogether. And therein, it seems to me, lies a moral world of difference.
I’m an MMA skeptic, then, and this film doesn’t help persuade me not to be from a theological standpoint. But then, I came into it having written a book on a closely related subject, and so am in danger of confirmation bias. Take that as you will. But the kinds of justifications offered by pastors were most frequently just the sort of pragmatic, anti-theological ‘reasons’ that come up in related discussions like tattoos, which leave no room for any kind of limits on our “Christian witness” besides those which are unquestionably explicit in Scripture itself. Yes, tough guys need Jesus: but surely starting a fight club in the church basement is not the only way (or even the best) to reach them, is it? Perhaps we should think about that for a while sometime. After all, in my experience the pragmatic justification for these kinds of programs is always the least creative and least innovative. Such justifications somehow manage to presuppose the worst of the very people they’re trying to reach—namely, that they are interested in and would only be fully satisfied by a church which can slake their thirst for just this kind of practice. And they infantilize the churches that undertake them, for they cheapen the very mysteries and sanctity of holiness which they have been entrusted to bear witness to.
I come now to the end (really): the Fight Church phenomenon is really nothing more than a passing fad and will be forgotten in a decade by everyone except those laborious historians of religion on their never-ending quests to dissect the nature of American evangelicalism. So let me write the obituary now, if only for posterity: at the heart of the fight churches were both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world. Its best and most reasonable proponents (which are featured in this film) were motivated by an interested seriousness to reach their neighbor with a message that has captivated them, yet were simultaneously unrestrained by any form of moral reasoning other than that which lies on the surface of the Bible and so unable to untangle their own praiseworthy motivations from the problematic and troubling practices which they took shape within. The Christianity of the fight churches deluded itself into thinking it was strong, while it was actually weak, and into believing that in its battle for the world it had managed to overcome its brittle frailties. And when the struggle with this contradiction wore the fight churches out, they fell to the ground exhausted where they yet lie, exhausted, beaten, and alive only in the knowledge of the God who forgets nothing and those researchers who strive to imitate him.
Fight Church is a film that you should watch. It’s available both digitally and on DVD. I received access to a copy for free: whether my review is worth the money I was paid is a question I leave entirely up to you.