Director Bryan Storkel, the man behind Strictly Background and Holy Rollers, delivers another rocking documentary, this time exploring the world of Christians promoting MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and using it as a vehicle for personal and community transformation. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Storkel launched the film that examined several churches, pastors, and MMA fighters as they navigated the role of the ring and the message of Jesus Christ.
The main subject is Paul Burress of Victory Church in Rochester, NY, where MMA is currently illegal. Following in his father’s footsteps, he shepherds the church with a message that mixes Scripture, Christian axioms, and fighting, like this: “As Christians, what is our focus? If our focus isn’t on God, our focus is off. Sometimes in this world, we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations? …Sometimes, in life, you take shots.” Another pastor, Preston Hocker, focuses in on Christ’s love, even while training for the ring: “Christians need to stop turning people off from Christ. We need to show people God’s love.”
So far, pretty middle of the road, right? There are the watchful fathers overseeing their young pastor friends, the power of the message and the Scripture, and even the dissenting voice of Father Durrell, who sees the fighting as the antithesis of the Scripture (“Cage fighting is about hating each other”) seems to be blowing smoke through the first third of the documentary. There are even UFC fighters you’ve potentially heard of who talk about their faith, from Jon Jones, who talks about being advised to tone down his faith to be more marketable, and Jason Haddon, who says his number one goal is to glorify God and to make him known.
So far, I’m channeling Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior here: the ring is a place to work out your issues and make the world right.
And then we run into John Renken, a former MMA fighter, who is now the pastor of Extreme Ministry in Tennessee. We watch him take his children to a gun range to fire automatic weapons, leaving the children and guns unattended while he fires others. He proposes that “Western Christianity has feminized men… Biggest problems in our society today is that we lack a warrior ethos,” before laughing at his children for crying when hot ejected cartridges cause them to bruise and bleed. “I don’t have a problem with aggression at all.”
Wait, is the film saying that some people’s aggression in the ring doesn’t stay in the ring?
It’s hard to say. Renken is also the pastor shown wearing his gun in his waistband during church; the one who says the liberators’ cross means sometimes you’ve got to kill someone and that the Crusades were misrepresented; the one who says we shouldn’t be anyone’s whipping post per the Scriptures; and the one who challenges another gym owner to a fight when the man ‘insulted’ his wife on Facebook.
But still, Renken is sort of the far extreme the film represents. Sure, the other pro-fighting pastors talk about vigilance, preparation, and the battlefields, citing spiritual warfare texts in the Bible. Frankly, both sides see the Scripture proposing their elements about peace and warfare, and use it to prooftext themselves. (There are a few, like Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan, former MMA fighter-turned-Christian apologist, who says the two things, faith and fighting, aren’t compatible.)
The final straw for me presented by the Storkel’s film was the kids.
Sure, we watch the crowd get amped up (it’s Maundy Thursday as I write this, and I thought about the crowd calling for Jesus’ head on Good Friday), and we see the pastors enter the cage and get their tail kicked. But when Burress’ teenage daughter gets abused in the ring, and twelve-year-old talks about ripping an eleven-year-old’s head off in the name of Jesus, there’s something… terrifying about this. When the absolute sadness is in the losing children’s eyes (and they are children, not ‘mighty men of valor’) and the disappointment is depicted in one boy’s father’s voice, the violence becomes that much more sickening. And it gives me pause, and not just about MMA.
I love watching football, but I wouldn’t let my sons play. I’d use a football analogy in church, and I’ve served as chaplain to a football team. I enjoy competing in sports, and have coached kids’ teams, and I know we can all get carried away.
So, where’s the line? Where can we draw it when it comes to competing against someone in a contact sport, intent on stopping them while succeeding ourselves? Where can we establish that a sport or a film or a [fill in the blank] is a platform that attracts so we can shout God’s name versus a situation that causes people to move farther away from the heart of worship and love?
Again, I’m left intrigued, entertained, challenged, and engaged by Storkel’s subject and his bipartisan presentation. It’s not a documentary just to educate or to ‘fill a niche.’ This is to draw us in, to make us think and pray and discuss, to challenge us to live out our vision of Christ-following that we would truly embrace the kingdom of God.