Today’s guest post comes from Miles Adam Park, my good friend and fellow doctoral candidate in Religion at Florida State University. His research focuses on gender and bodies among 20th-21st century American evangelicals. Adam recently returned from a trip in the field for his dissertation on Christianity and mixed martial arts.
Tales of Sporty Violence, Obligatory Doughnut Consumption, Pull-Up Contests, and Other Evangelical Things from the Midwest
By Miles Adam Park
As it so happens, the sound a human femur makes when broken is not unlike the sound a chocolate bar makes when you break off a piece. But not a cold chocolate bar. One slightly above room temperature. Sort of a soft, muffled snap. The sound a human voice makes when experiencing a femur break is much louder. Indeed, the vocal utterings were largely incoherent at first. Lots of vowel usage. The unmaking of the world, I thought. Elaine Scarry. The audience was completely hushed at this point, listening and looking with a kind of disgusted interest. Then, words. “Dude, what the &*#%!” Trainers, cornermen, and the ring doctor rushed into the cage to attend to the young fighter. More profanities followed. “Shhhhhh,” one of the attendees whispered to the broken fighter, giving him a towel to bite down on. The expletives subsided. As he left the cage, splayed out on a stretcher, carried by his opponent and two EMTs, the injured fighter raised both his hands high. The audience cheered. Sportsmanship incarnate. Later that night, after winning the title by choking his opponent until he was forced to signify defeat, the victor stood in the middle of the cage for his televised interview. First and foremost, Kevin “the Bully” Parker proudly proclaimed, he would like to thank God for his victory. The audience cheered louder. Victorious faith evidenced. ShoFIGHT XXVI in Branson, Missouri. Where two or three gather in His name, so it goes.
And as it also happens, two or three gather in His name quite often for such things in these parts. Thanking God for a win is the tip of the iceberg. Just south of this Branson event, only weeks before, Christ Mixed Martial Arts gym hosted a women-only self-defense course, “Kick Like a Girl.” Should any more femurs need breaking, this is where godly women could learn. Providing “a Christ centered alternative to traditional martial arts,” Christ MMA additionally offers classes in “Christjitsu.” In this “full-discipline, spiritual martial arts program,” “Fighters for Christ” are trained “in the art of spiritual warfare against the evil forces in spiritual realms, while teaching them how to master and control the most important functions of the mind (intellect, emotions and will) according to God’s divine purpose and word.” The forging of hard-bodied, strong-souled Christian warriors is the idea. And many are being forged. A city away, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a comparable mixing of religion and sport occurs at Rock City MMA. As the gym owners describe in their “About Us” section,
"We believe that when you feel beat down in the cage of life, or you feel the grinding pressure of ground n pound at work or at school, the skills you have acquired through MMA training will bring you victory. Knowing that Jesus, your ultimate Cornerman, is there to bring you water in between rounds, gives us hope and courage to fight another round. We want to fight the good fight of faith. Knowing that with God beside me, we can accomplish anything we set our mind to."
Kingdom Promotions, “bringing the highest quality MMA entertainment to Arkansas.” Motivating and inspiriting “through training, scripture, teamwork and a family environment all the while having a servants heart [sic],” for the last two and a half years, Kingdom Promotions has sought to bring “Mixed Martial Arts to the public in a professional, progressive and positive way.” The potential uses of Christian mixed martial arts, physical or otherwise, are sundry.
Broken femurs, Christjitsu, weigh-ins at Hooters, and much, much more. Perhaps the most spectacular of all the combinations of martial arts and Christianity that I was privy to during my travels took place in Ozark, Missouri at one of the largest Assembly of God churches in the United States (with almost nine thousand average Sunday attendance). Last month the church hosted a men’s conference, “The Fight”—a two-day event, which had a substantial showing of about 2,700 men. Click here for a short promo video.
As I made my way to the several-thousand seat main sanctuary, news of arm wrestling and push-up contests echoed over the speakers. Should one’s physical prowess prove superior, free merch could be had. The winner of a pull up competition just won free tools, I heard. Maybe I should’ve stretched before coming. Following an opening video compilation of dudes doing Jack Ass kinds of things, the first speaker took the octagon-shaped, chain-link backed stage/ring. Introduced by height and weight, Stovall Weems, lead pastor of Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, appeared to be in peak preaching condition. “A scripture for men,” Weems’ message focused on John 3:16. “We [read: men] are all created to fight,” he claimed. “Welcome to life; therefore, welcome to pain.” An expert on fighting and pain took the stage/ring next. UFC fighter and The Ultimate Fighter alumnus, 265 pound heavyweight Justin “The Viking” Wren. After Wren demonstrated a few wrestling/judo moves and gave testimony to his recent conversion, the crowd made their way to the church’s gym to watch some live professional boxing matches. The evening’s worship ended with a flurry of fists. Click here for a brief highlight video. (Unfortunately, blogger will not let me embed a Vimeo video into the post, but at least watch one of them, trust me).
As the conference began again the following morning, the offerings took a turn from boxing, the “sweet science,” to sweets. Feeding the thousands, young women handed out free donuts at the church entries. I declined, walking away towards the main sanctuary. Having not been able to fulfill her function, however, the spirited donut girl jostled me about how this is a men’s conference and men should eat donuts. I smiled back. Now questioning my masculine status, I sat listening to the first speaker of the day. He opened: “What I love about being Christian is that I don’t have to be a nice boy.” “We were born to fight,” he continued. His suggestions were biologically premised. Talk of neurology and human anatomy peppered his monologue. There is a discernable teleology to Creation, as it were. The speaker went on, “If you’re not using the Word of God … you’re turning into flab.” I made my way to the church’s not-for-profit Starbucks after the sermon. It was next to the gym. I got a muffin. They were out of doughnuts.
Contemporary muscular Christianity is taking a turn here. And I don’t mean to suggest that this is a regional phenomenon. See this Las Vegas ministry, Fight Church, for instance; or this one, Victory Mixed Martial Arts, in New York; or this forthcoming documentary, Fight Church (not to be confused with the brick-and-mortar gym/ministry in Vegas); or the much-talked-about clothing line, Jesus Didn’t Tap. I could go on. Altogether, such religious expressions are formulated around and thrive because of an assumed preponderance of an idea—the idea that physical vigor and spiritual sanctity are incompatible. Christian mixed martial arts is a corrective. One could say the same of this new version of muscular Christianity as the old—that it’s a reaction against feminization, that there is a commitment to health and manliness, that there is a re-masculinization of Jesus and Biblical interpretation, etc.—and I would. But what is most unique about this religious culture, both within muscular Christianity and evangelicalism more broadly, is its appropriation of controlled violence and authorized fighting. Head Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Driscoll, put it best, saying:
"I don’t think that there’s anything purer than putting two men in a cage … and just see[ing] which man is better. And as a pastor, as a Bible teacher, I think that God made men masculine; He made humanity male and female. […] Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion. […] And we either allow that in a way that’s violent and inappropriate … or we put it together in as a viable, legitimate sport and let men be men and do what men do."
The “reality” of ultimate fighting is up for grabs here. The Octagon is a place for the “real,” and has always been promoted as such. Its perceived reality is derived from its lack of rules. Its lack of rules results in pain. And pain is key—be it in the form of a direct experience, a commoditized presentation, an empathetic solicitation, or otherwise. Back to Elaine Scarry. In her words: “what is quite literally at stake in the body in pain is the making and unmaking of the world.” Insert Christianity. Delete “human cockfighting.” Christian mixed martial arts creates worlds as it destroys others, providing religious sanction and interpretation for a new range of action, thought, and experience in the “fastest growing sport in America today.”