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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