I know why I wanted to see Fight Church. Watching it was sure to give me that strangely delicious feeling that comes from watching or reading something that sets you off on principle. I went to the movie anticipating irritation; but I admit I was fascinated and even at times, empathized with the characters in the film. And after I sat down with one of the directors, Brian Storkel, I was only more intrigued.
Directed by Storkel and Daniel Junge, Fight Church recently debuted at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. It follows the stories of several pastors who participate in and encourage mixed martial arts (or MMA) fighting in their ministry and in their churches. Some of the pastors even hold MMA training camps and tournaments for their congregations. MMA, for those of you who may be similarly uninitiated as I was, is a full contact fighting style that involves grappling, punching and kicking your opponent. The contradiction between the message of love and peace in Christian texts and this encouragement of violence is the hook of the film. As one former fight club pastor puts it, “Can you love your neighbor as yourself when you are kneeing him in the face as hard as you can?” The film has generated a decent amount of press on this point; even inspiring Stephen Colbert to take a punch at the premise.
In my anticipation of Fight Church, though, this wasn’t what I was worried about. Truly, witnessing people get beaten to a bloody pulp is stomach turning; during the film I had to look away in many of the key fight sequences. But it was the motivations underneath these fight ministries that concerned me. After all, the title of the movie is an allusion to the 1999 film Fight Club, a film famous for the unreliable lead narrator, and ultimately split personality played by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Edward Norton plays the half of the character who is no longer respects himself as a man, he is weakened by the domesticity of his life; rendered impotent (in some cases literally) by the trappings of American corporate life and suburbia. It’s only when he exists as the overtly masculine Brad Pitt, that the lead character can have good sex, stand up to his boss, punch his friend in the face—in short, feel truly alive.
Renken is shown proclaiming that Christian men were meant to be “warriors.” His training scenes are interspersed with shots of his sermons on the Biblical differences between men and women.
Fight Club is a statement about the emptiness and banality of modern life. But it is also proclamation about maleness and masculinity: men are not really men who live in a world that demands that they wear khakis and meekly attend boardroom meetings. This feature of Fight Club is why I was so wary of Fight Church. The rejection of modern society as somehow feminizing and emasculating—together with megachurch culture and overlaid with religious imperative—this, I was sure, I was going to cringe at.
I walked away from the film realizing was that there was plenty about these fight ministries that is unsettling, but also a surprising amount that I found compelling. One of the pastors in the film, John Renken, was outspoken along the lines of a muscular Christianity that I had anticipated. During the movie, Renken is shown proclaiming that Christian men were meant to be “warriors.” His training scenes are interspersed with shots of his sermons on the Biblical differences between men and women. But for several of the other pastors, this was hardly the focus of their sermons or their arguments for the good of MMA. Many of their points about MMA are common to any discussion about kids and sports. According to the fighting pastors, the kids and teens who participate in the fight ministries are taught discipline, and given healthy outlet for their pubescent angst and supervised setting to socialize with their peers. And indeed, the training scenes in the film were hardly indistinguishable from watching high school wrestling or rec club karate.
When I asked two of the fighting pastors (who were present for the film premiere’s Q&A) and also in my conversation with Storkel, it was clear that gendered readings of these fight clubs were not foremost on their minds. One of the pastors, pointed out, for instance that they have women in their training camps. Of course the presence of women doesn’t allay my concerns that this is a negatively gendered activity, but I thought it was a good corrective to my assumptions about their motivations and their narratives around this activity.
When I spoke with Storkel, I was impressed by the balance that he and Junge struck in making the film. The audience for independent documentaries is perhaps likely to be critical of conservative Christian subculture, and so I appreciated the open and empathetic framework that the directors built for the story. That the film doesn’t overtly criticize or lampoon these fighting ministers, I believe is commendable. In the end, Storkel told me that he wanted to tell the story of these pastors such that “if he could make people who thought that Christianity, or MMA (or both) were crazy and weird, but nonetheless empathize with these men, then he had succeeded.”
Thank you to Brian Storkel for being interviewed about the film.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
Image from Flickr via MartialArtsNomad.com