Tales of Sporty Violence, Obligatory Doughnut Consumption, Pull-Up Contests, and Other Evangelical Things from the Midwest

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."

Christian mixed martial arts imparts life lessons to those with an open heart. Rock City MMA owner and 4th degree Black Belt, Nathan Kirby also runs 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.”


Fascinating! Quite a difference from say the Assemblies of God in the 1930s and 40s was printing testimonies of boxers delivered from that lifestyle--which prize fighting was considered a vice-filled vocation
Mark T. Edwards said…
WWJS (Who Would Jesus Strangle)?

Wonderful research and project here! Our 5 year-old is in "Christless" karate, which seems much more in keeping with the "meek and lowly of heart" Savior than does the Jesus of MMA.

Do these Christian MMAs get pushback from other MMAs or dojos, in your findings?
Unknown said…
I've yet to uncover any direct antagonism that secular MMA gyms might have against explicitly Christian ones. However, UFC commentator, Joe Rogan, has publicly rebuked the idea of a UFC chaplain. Also, two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion, Frank Mir, has called religion "the retarded stepchild of philosophy." There are many individual examples like these, but as far as institutional pushback, I haven't seen it yet. It's actually Christian MMA that has been doing the pushback. Particularly with regard to voiding some martial arts of their Eastern philosophical import, and revising them within a Christian framework.
Kelly J. Baker said…
This makes me think of Promise Keepers recent marketing campaign that portrayed men as knights dressed in modified sports gear.

Additionally, have you seen the Key & Peele skit about Ultimate Fighting? A Christian fighter is key for their parody.
Unknown said…
Yes! This stuff does share a kind of family resemblance to the PKs. A key difference, though, would have to be with the use of martial metaphor. The image of a Christian warrior is taken to a whole different level in Christian MMA. And I'm pretty sure that Key and Peele skit got its inspiration from UFC fighter, Diego Sanchez. He's a really intense guy, to put it mildly, who possesses a great deal of religious fervor.
Mark T. Edwards said…

Don't know if you've come across this movement, Adam, or how relevant a form of muscular Christianity it would be for your project.
Unknown said…
I didn't! That looks great. Thanks for the reference. And the Christless karate mention. I hadn't heard.
Amy said…
Adam: Great project! I can't wait to read more.

Unknown said…
"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." This is so very helpful. I am trying also to sort through the ways that submission, domination, and redemptive suffering are playing out in forms of American neo-Calvinism, from the John Piper-loving Acts 29 superheros to the Tim Keller-loving Fellowship/Family public intellectuals. There are common themes, I think, whether the appointed man is scruffy/cool or wearing a bow tie. (This is for a book on muscular Christianity in the U.S.) I so look forward to reading more of your work!
Unknown said…
Glad to here you've got a book coming out on the subject. For as often as muscular Christianity is mentioned, there's surprisingly little scholarship on it. Someone certainly needs to pick up where Clifford Putney left off. There's so much to be said! Glad to know I've got another conversation partner too. I'll be in touch. I'd love to here how your project is coming together.
Unknown said…
I say that Christianity is constantly transforming. There are other people who shares their faith to others and somehow influence other's faith. However, it is really great to have Christian UFC fighters. Martial arts leads to discipline, it is up to the person what he does with his skills.

By:Books for Evangelism

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