Alissa's note: thanks to Mark Moring for this guest "Watch This Way" post!
I find it a fascinating coincidence that Fight Church, a new documentary about preachers who hold “fight clubs” at their houses of worship, was released on Netflix less than 24 hours after controversial pastor Mark Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill Church.
Driscoll had drawn criticism for his loose tongue and penchant for tough talk, including revelations that, while trolling online as “William Wallace II,” he complained that America is a “pussified” nation because its Christian men aren’t manly enough.
Christianity Today referred to Driscoll as “Pastor Provocateur” in a 2007 profile, and noted (metaphorically) that “he’s still brawling today.” His comments in a 2009 documentary called Fighting Politics kept that reputation intact: “I don’t think there’s anything purer than two guys in a cage—no balls, no sticks, no bats, no help, no team—and just see which man is better,” Driscoll says in this clip. “As a pastor and Bible teacher, I think God made men masculine. . . . Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion.” He argues for letting “men be men, and do what men do. And let other fat lazy men sit around and criticize them while watching.”
Such machismo is echoed by some of the pastors in Fight Church, a compelling look at the world of cage fighting “ministries” and the preachers who engage in it. Exhibit A is John Renken, aka The Fighting Preacher. A former MMA (mixed martial arts) professional enamored with The Crusades, Renken believes he is “literally fighting the good fight and teaching our youth a radical and fulfilling new life where feet, fists and faith collide.”
In one particularly disturbing scene, where Renken takes his young sons to a shooting range, he might as well be channeling Driscoll when he says, “Western Christianity has feminized men. We’ve taken away their God-given attributes of aggressiveness, of competitiveness. We expect men to be prim and proper, to be polite all the time. And to never respond with aggression and force—almost like they act like females.”
He’s just getting warmed up.
“The vast majority of problems we have in our culture today are because we don’t have a warrior ethos. We have a bunch of cowards. A warrior ethos, if properly developed, will help our society.”
While spouting off, he’s also teaching his sons how to shoot guns. When one of his boys, maybe eight years old, fires a pistol, he gets hit in the mouth by a shell, splitting a lip. When it bleeds, Renken laughs at his son. When the boy bravely asks for another round with the pistol, Renken refuses, “because you stopped when you got hit in the mouth and started crying about it.” He laughs at his son again; the boy walks away in tears.
I found myself wishing one of Renken’s high-caliber guns would kick back and break his nose.
Renken is hardly alone in preaching this gospel of violence. All of the fighting pastors in this film believe that Scripture, including the teaching of Christ, is on their side.
Paul Burress, a pastor in Rochester, N.Y., says “fighting” is “one of the only sports mentioned in the Bible”—he cites the Genesis passage about Jacob wrestling with the man of God. (Somehow, I don’t see Jacob and the angel trading bare-knuckled punches in a locked cage.)
And then there’s Preston Hocker, a Norfolk, Virginia, pastor who says that when he got married, he realized he didn’t have the skills to protect his wife if someone attacked her. So he tried cage fighting, and fell in love with it. He says the first time he punched an opponent in the face, “It was exhilarating. I just wanted to keep doing it.” Hocker, who wears a cape bearing the words “Pastor of Disaster,” also believes that fight training is a form of “worship.”
And then there’s Nahshon Nicks, a pastor/fighter from Florida who sees fighting as “a vehicle to bring souls to Christ.” In a sermon on spiritual warfare, Nicks says he won’t wait for Satan to “throw the first punch. I’m going to be the aggressor.” And, “You better put your foot on his neck! Somebody shout, ‘Jesus!’” His congregation obliges.
The night before, Nicks had just beaten the crap out of a guy in a locked cage, a sweet young man with a Southern drawl who also claimed to be a Christian. So, how does the metaphor of spiritual warfare gibe wit dat? With bashing a brother’s face in?
Another scene exemplifies the strangeness of it all. When two fighters simultaneously (and, presumably, accidentally) knee each other in the nether regions, the fight is called off as both men crumple to the canvas, curled up in pain. Moments later, in the locker room, the guy is holding a bag of ice on his, um, tender area, when Burress comes in, lays hands on him (but not there!) and prays for him: “Thank you that he’s OK and that he’s walking, Lord. I pray there’s no damage, because nothing swells up manlier.”
You know you’ve hit entered the theological twilight zone when a pastor prays for a parishioner’s testicles after a cage fight in the church’s fellowship hall. It’s definitely a what-the-heck moment.
But here’s the funny thing about Fight Church. With the exception of Renken, I liked every one of these guys. They’re kind, earnest men who love their families and their congregations, who take faith seriously and clearly want to do the right thing. They’re the type of guys you might enjoy hanging around . . . outside of a cage, that is.
There’s another very likeable man of the cloth, but he’s the opponent—Father John Duffell of Manhattan’s Church of the Blessed Sacrament. Duffell can’t reconcile cage fighting with his understanding of Scripture, and frequently visits the state capital to lobby for keeping MMA illegal in New York. (Today, it’s legal in every U.S. state except New York.)
“Jesus doesn’t endorse violence,” Duffell says, incredulous that any pastor could possibly embrace cage fighting. “There is no way you can support this from the New Testament.”
That was certainly my point of view when watching Fight Church, but notably, the filmmakers don’t take sides. Co-directors Bryan Storkel (Holy Rollers) and Daniel Junge have said they wanted to maintain “a completely objective tone, and to let the story speak for itself. Like the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, the film will present these incredibly provocative characters in an objective and often sympathetic light. We will ask the audience to come to their own conclusions about the connections between religion and condoned violence.”
In an article for The Daily Beast, Storkel said he was surprised to see that some audiences were drawing the unexpected conclusion: “I’ve been somewhat concerned with how quickly people will often jump on the bandwagon of the fighting pastors and agree with their justifications and methodologies. At times, I’ve wondered if we are helping feed something that I don’t completely agree with. My hope with this film is that people will join the discussion and not just retain their preconceived notions. That everyone who watches it will leave with new ideas and continue thinking about and discussing the concepts of the film for some time to come.
“As for myself, I think I’ve had my share of fighting pastors for awhile.”
Me too. But I have no regrets about watching this captivating film. You won’t either. So don’t fight it.
Mark Moring is a CT Editor at Large and a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.