On Sundays, pastor Preston Hocker preaches the old standards like “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” at his church. But on certain nights, he enters a caged ring and engages in brutal fist and foot combat against an opponent. He is one of several men of god who are also enthusiastic MMA practitioners featured in Fight Church. And, as the film tells us near the end, they represent just the tip of an iceberg, or just the knuckle on the end of a fist, as it were. There are currently over 700 churches in the U.S. that sanction some form of “MMA ministry.”
The documentary doesn’t find it unusual that followers of a religion that preaches peace also indulge such violent entertainment without suffering any cognitive dissonance. Given that Christian institutions are often enthusiastic cheerleaders for the military in American culture, we’re used to such contradictions. But in exploring how these men (and they are all men) reconcile this contradiction in this one area illuminates how the bigger hypocrisies can exist.
It’s surreal to see the mental gymnastics it sometimes takes to justify punching people in the name of God. Jesus said that “the meek will inherit the Earth.” One man is stalwart in his belief that “meekness” means that you could beat someone up but choose not to. Similarly, another man asserts that gentleness (one of the fruits of the spirit) is “born out of power, not out of weakness” — defined by one’s ability to not be gentle, if they were so inclined. Turning the other cheek? Well would you do nothing if you came home to someone raping your wife or kids? These guys seem utterly obsessed with the idea that someone is going to rape their wives and/or children. Lip service is paid to the idea that MMA training is valuable for personal protection, but these are all thoroughly middle-class people who are in little danger of ever getting in harm’s way. All the film’s fighting takes place in the ring.
One of the fight pastors, John Renken, watches proudly as his very young sons shoot guns. He laughs at one boy when an expended shell strikes the boy in the mouth, making him bleed and cry. Renken is one of those who believe that there’s a “crisis of masculinity” in the U.S. today and that it is the source of most of our social ills. It seems that their love of MMA really stems from a belief that they are reclaiming a “warrior ethos” (their words). They all speak of wanting to “glorify God” in their actions, but doing so appears to consist of doing everything the same way as a secular fighter, only with occasional prayers and public declarations of faith.
This is the crisis of modern Christianity summed up, really. So many are sold on the idea that they are involved in an epic war between good and evil, but wars of the spirit involve very little actual fighting. Much of Christian culture involves boostering mundane activities with seriousness and battle rhetoric. You see it in the support for Tim Tebow, for instance. Any setback to his career isn’t sports as usual — it’s persecution. Branching this into cage fighting seems like a natural, if literal, extension. There are other voices in the doc that dispute the idea that there’s anything godly about MMA, chiefly a Catholic priest who’s involved in maintaining New York’s ban on the sport. But the rising popularity of “fight churches” suggests that the trend will only grow over time.
Of course, the idea of reclaiming American masculinity is not strictly a Christian one. Sports are often spoken of in warlike terms in our culture, with athletes referred to as gladiators and games as battles. So many fans live vicariously through these events, and these characters are no different. In one sequence, Renken decides to come out of retirement to fight a man who insulted his wife on Facebook, in some absurd parody of old-fashioned “honorable” behavior filtered through the exceptionally low stakes of conflict in middle American life. In one hilarious scene, he’s so beleaguered by his workout that he must take a break from an interview to projectile vomit.
Directors Daniel Junge (an Oscar winner for his 2012 short Saving Face) and Bryan Storkel (Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians) utilize the standard hands-off approach, mostly letting their subjects speak for themselves. The choice of music occasionally games the mood against the characters, though, such as the uneasy tones that play when Renken takes his sons out shooting. The production is so low-key that sporadic stylistic flourishes feel awkward. Referring again to the shooting scene, the action goes into slow motion as one boy takes aim and fires. As someone who is avowedly in favor of formalistic bravery in documentary filmmaking, I generally approve of such touches. But when they come so infrequently, they just stick out rather than add to the experience. And diversions concerning the effort to legalize MMA in New York feel more like an attempt to pad out the runtime than anything else.
Fight Church is an interesting look at Christianity and masculinity in America today and how the two intersect. It’s another doc that’s content to stick with and dig around in its subject for a bit, without ever getting too deep. It does, however, capture enough little moments that can provoke further discussion, even if it never capitalizes on them on its own.
This review was originally published on April 28, 2014. It is being reposted now that the film is out on iTunes and other digital/VOD outlets.