The first rule of Fight Church is…

Are Jesus and Tyler Durden the same person? As reported in this New York Times article, it seems that a small but growing segment of the Christian evangelical movement in the United States is latching on to just such a concept. In the article reporter R.M. Schneiderman describes how some “predominantly white” evangelical churches are hosting events aimed at 18-24 year old men, events which “involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in.”

When I was in seminary in the late 1990’s some of the guys came back from a Saturday night run to the video store with a VHS tape of a UFC event. We gathered in the R.A.’s room with our snacks and beers and watched in mingled horror and exhilaration as a series of mismatched pairs of very athletic men clambered into the octagonal ring and beat the living shit out of each other.

It was fascinating, after years of reading about such things in ancient historical contexts, to witness a real life blood sport. It was interesting afterwards to ponder the social and existential implications of such a spectacle, it’s very existence and the audience who was drawn to it. At no point, however, do I recall anyone in the room observing any parallel with the blood-smeared action on the television and any aspect of the Gospel message. How far we have come in our faith from ten years ago, I guess.

I have noticed over the past decade a growing push for an overtly masculine expression of Christianity, originating in the evangelical movement but readily visible in Catholic circles who consider themselves more ‘traditional’. The Men’s Movement which Robert Bly made (in)famous twenty years was grounded in concepts of Joseph Campbell-style myth and ritual and lay well outside any religious conceit. Now it seems that ritual masculinism has received its baptism in blood.

The article quotes Ryan Dobson, a pastor and son of Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson: “The man should be the overall leader of the household. We’ve raised a generation of little boys.” And what better way to demonstrate this masculine leadership than with spectacular displays of brutal violence? That will certainly show those women and children at home what they can expect, should they have any notion to disrespect the Christly head of the house.

I wonder if it is a coincidence that Dobson’s words echo the character Tyler Durden’s statement in the movie Fight Club: “We’re a generation of men raised by women.” Lines of dialogue from the 1999 film have become a popular gospel of masculinity among my generation, and it is just this demographic that the churches in the Times article are noticing they are missing. The explanation for why this is the case: churches have become to feminine. As Schniederman tells it, “Men ages 18 to 34 are absent from churches, some pastors said, because churches have become more amenable to women and children. ‘We grew up in a church that had pastel pews,’ said Tom Skiles, 37, the pastor of Spirit of St. Louis Church in Arnold, Mo. ‘The men fell asleep.’”

The seminal question of the 1999 film (and the novel by Chuck Palahniuk upon which it is based) is this question: “How much can you know about yourself, [if] you’ve never been in a fight?” Having a strongly Christian background myself, as well as having watched Fight Club scores of times, I just don’t see how the question can lead to anything like the Gospel message as I have received it. Mixed martial arts as a sport has grown much more mainstream over past decade (at my last job my manager proudly went to all her son’s fights), but once these churches draw young men in for evening festivals of testosterone and violence, how are they going to bridge the (to me considerable) gap between Friday fight night and Sunday morning worship, let alone weekday Christian living?

If contrived masculinity is requisite to attract American men to churches that “have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility,” I think the problem is with the false engendering of religious principles. Painting Jesus as a brawny ass-kicker for His convictions is hardly going to lead to a community where charity and love prevail. When I think about the religious experience that these ‘fight churches’ might achieve, I can only think of the words of the Narrator from Fight Club:

“When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.”

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