Earlier this week the NY Times put out an article reporting on the “resurgence” of masculine Christianity through MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) church sponsored ministries. After reading the article and some of the responses (here and here)I’ve read I thought I’d share my thoughts.
First thing that struck me reading the article was the “sensational” aspect of the subject material. MMA has been growing in popularity and acceptance as a sport but has yet to shed its violent and unregulated beginnings. Couple that with Christians participating in a “questionable” activity and you’ve got yourself a story. That this is a “movement” I find questionable even given the purported 700 clubs/classes/ministries. (Honestly I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that a lot of that number aren’t really participants but fans of the sport.) Even so, it isn’t shocking that something that is gaining popularity within the culture is finding an expression within the church.
Secondly I think it important to sit back and address what MMA really is. It’s mixed martial arts. MMA isn’t guys with a death wish wanting to beat each other Tyler Durden style, but rather it takes many different forms of martial art and combines them into an effective fighting style. MMA seeks to take the best from boxing, ju-jitsu, kick-boxing, grappling etc. and actually is amazingly malleable to an individual persons physic and comfort. (Historical note: Bruce Lee was actually the first major proponent for mixed martial art training) There is in fact no difference between someone taking MMA classes or Karate classes, or boxing lessons if a person is looking for a means of exercise or personal defense. All of these examples strengthen both the body and the mind and do in fact promote greater self control not less. Any martial art if taught properly teaches that anger in a sparring match/fight is stupid, and that losing control is dangerous BOTH to yourself and your sparring partner. (Personal side note: I’ve seen volleyball matches that were more violent and hurtful in anger and even spite than sparring competitions.) Now when you get into competing on an amateur or professional level the discussion broadens.
A part of the difficulty in addressing issues such as this is an American Evangelical presupposition of evangelistic intent. There is a remaining undercurrent that runs through evangelical thinking that an activity be it vocation, avocation, or hobby is valuable only in its effectiveness or intent in evangelism. The double edge of this way of thinking is that the easiest way to validate an activity is to make it a “ministry” with the intent of “reaching the lost”. The problem that comes in this way of thinking is that an activity isn’t judged on its own merit but on its effectiveness in communicating the gospel. This is where distortion comes into play as sometimes an activity or vocation that doesn’t communicate the gospel is “shoehorned” into doing so. There is pressure to “redeem” an activity in expressly spiritual terms where there might not be an evident immediate spiritual benefit. One comment I read that responded to the NY Times article asked whether churches should “promote” seemingly violent sports such as MMA, boxing, or wrestling. My answer is it depends on what the church is “promoting”. Is it promoting a means of fellowship or promoting a message of the gospel through the lens of the activity? There is a big difference between promoting and supporting Christian members in an activity and promoting an activity as being “Christian”. This difference and pressure in American evangelicalism at least should provide some understanding for some of the quotes in the article. I’m not saying they’re right, nor am I saying that the gospel isn’t being distorted, I am saying that we need as a church to be clear on what the gospel is and what it isn’t. I’m saying that when we are acting to declare the gospel we should specifically do so and that when our actions do not specifically declare the gospel we should be clear as well. Can a professional boxer, MMA fighter, football athlete, soldier, electrician, construction worker, etc., reflect the nature of Christ in their field through their actions and attitude? Yes I believe so. Do these vocations themselves accurately reflect or communicate the gospel or the nature of Christ? The answer is no and we shouldn’t stretch the gospel or the vocation to do so.
Then there is the purported “macho” Christian male movement. On one side I have no idea where this comes from and if this “movement” isn’t yet again the article’s writer attempting to make the story bigger than it really is. On the other side, there is I think a bit that can be learned from even an extreme “macho” perspective in response to Church trends.
Dorathy L. Sayers once said that the church had “effectively pared the claws of the Lion of Judah”. If in her day the claws were pared, today they may be surgically removed. Last year I read an article in which Matt Redmond (Singer/songwriter/worship leader) admitted that even in his worship songs most of the attributes of God that were emphasized or praised were more feminine attributes. “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” has come to personify the whole of the personhood of Jesus in many evangelical minds. For years a God of peace and love has eclipsed a God of justice. Some might call this a “feminization” of God, I rather think of it as a “domestication” of God. In most of the ways we perceive or portray God, God is at best…tame. As God’s primary role has become lover, provider, and promise keeper so to have men’s roles mirrored this trend. I’m not saying that God isn’t all those things, nor that men should not reflect these aspects of God’s character, but where in our modern sensibility is God the warrior, or God the just judge that powerfully executes justice? Where is the God whose power (capability) and goodness make us just a little frightened? I’m indebted to Kevin DeYoung’s message at NEXT 09 where Kevin points out that people were afraid of Jesus. To meet Jesus was to meet omnipotence under control but still experience something of the omnipotent. Are we teaching men not only to be gentle but powerful, to be capable, courageous and confident in their faith? Or as Jonathan Eldridge once put it is the church’s message to men, “behave”? C. S. Lewis in an excellent article entitled “The Necessity of Chivalry” described the chivalrous ideal of the knight as a man “stern to the nth and meek to the nth” not a happy melding of both. I recommend the article for further reflection but if there is a trend in evangelicalism we would appear to me that we seem to prefer both men (and God in many ways) be “meek” and view “sternness” as brutish. I’m not saying that men shouldn’t be meek but “sternness” also carries with it attributes of God’s character. Lewis states that the making of a “knight” is art, perhaps what is most needed is an appreciation and reclamation of that art form.
As misguided as the Christian MMA advocates may be in their over emphasis of masculinity I can see how they might hit a nerve especially in the “lost” demographic of 18-35 year olds. Thank God at least they are attempting to minister to/attract these men, something much of evangelicalism has seemingly thrown up their collective hands it frustration or apathy. Much of American Evangelicalism seems content to wait till these men “settle down” and get married to deal with them. This in fact may be the biggest turn off for this demographic, that in many churches there seems to be no role or message for them unless they are married. Much of the message to this demographic can be boiled down to “don’t have sex”, “get married”, and “Why are you so immature?” These “MMA ministers” are at least engaging young men in a way that isn’t immediately condescending and shows them that there is more to being a Christian man than confessing sin and failure. Reaching out through interest at least shows a willingness to listen and minister where guys are at.
Again I don’t think there is a “macho” men’s movement swelling up in the Christian community. In one sense I wish there were because I think there are real theological questions that would at least be confronted. Would I personally participate in an MMA “ministry”? I’d probably try it out and perhaps train, but I would probably not fight exhibitionally. Are there deeper questions to both the MMA issue and to what it means to be a Christian man? Absolutely.