When I think of “muscular Christianity,” I don’t immediately imagine the “body as temple” theologians, as Clifford Putney has called them. Yes, the Luther Gulicks gave the movement intellectual heft. And yes, it was Gulick who encouraged the Presbyterian minister James Naismith to invent basketball—or as I like to call it, “That Sport Lebron James Plays.” All good stuff, really. But when I think of muscular Christianity, my first image is Billy Sunday.
Theology meant little to the revivalist. Instead, Sunday was more concerned with putting some muscle on to Jesus. “Lord save us,” he prayed, “from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.” In Sunday’s eyes, Jesus “was the greatest scrapper that ever lived.”
Sunday represented a side of muscular Christianity that was thoroughly fretting the so-called “feminization” of Christianity. With each call to fling a “fastball at the devil,” Sunday sought to pull the faithful into his manly zone of influence.
While baseball was a national obsession in Sunday's time, it's a cure for insomnia now. Indeed, for many young men walking in to my classroom, ultimate fighting has become the sport of choice. I don’t watch mixed-martial-arts (MMA), nor do I understand its appeal. But it is popular. And as you might expect, MMA is developing an evangelical edge.
Jason David Frank is a rising star in MMA circles who first gained fame starring in—wait for it—the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Frank, a sixth-degree black, is also co-owner of Jesus Didn’t Tap, a MMA merchandising company. In ultimate fighting, “tapping out” is lingo for forfeiting a fight. “Jesus is the only one that truly didn't tap,” Frank says while describing the company's name. “They say, ‘Oh, he was nailed to the cross so he couldn’t tap.’ Well, you can verbally tap, you can verbally cry, ‘I quit! I give up!’ That's not what he did. He got crucified for all our sins.”
So this incarnation of Billy Sunday might not swing a bat, but he does beat the snot out of people—in the name of Jesus. “When I'm in the cage, I'm full of rage, I'll ground, pound, kick you in the face, but it's all good ‘cause I’m in the right place. The power I get is driven from God, so don’t be mad, it’s just my job.”
Frank isn’t making money from this venture yet, and he might not. But the message seems to Christianize America’s “neo-macho” discourse. Journalist Richard Goldstein coined the term “neo-macho” to describe the sustained rebellion against feminism that only amplified after 9/11. Then, the eloquent Toby Keith united a nation, singing, “Justice will be served/And the battle will rage/This big dog will fight/When you rattle his cage/And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A./‘Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.”
Neo-macho man is certainly still with us. He tells us that our pickup truck isn't complete without a RAMBOX to “carry your tools” in. And for the evangelical version, he's amused when a preacher says something about Jesus being a “scrapper.” But he really likes it when that preacher punches someone in the face (instead of turning the other cheek).