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In an effort to bring young men to church, some Evangelical ministries and churches are embracing Mixed Martial Arts. Excerpt:
Mr. Renken’s ministry is one of a small but growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts — a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles — to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low. Mixed martial arts events have drawn millions of television viewers, and one was the top pay-per-view event in 2009.
Recruitment efforts at the churches, which are predominantly white, involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in. Other ministers go further, hosting or participating in live events.
The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”
I know, I know, it’s easy to laugh at this stuff, or to be appalled that a brutal sport is used to sell Christianity (check out the pious Orthodox Christian who is an MMA star). But do read the whole story. These religious leaders are responding, however clumsily, to a real, felt need among young men. For many of them, church has become effete, something for women, and not a place where masculine virtues are also celebrated, and masculine impulses restrained and channeled for the good. Christianity has become a nicey-nice bourgeois religion; who wouldn’t rebel against that? As one person interviewed in the story puts it, we have legions of young men who were abandoned by their fathers and raised by their mothers, and who are adrift, not knowing how to be men, or to handle their masculinity — and who are being failed by the church.
To be sure, the idea of bringing MMA to the promotion of Christianity is bizarre to me, and I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. But I believe the desire to do so comes from an important place, and that we need to both honor that and to learn from it. Consider this passage from the novel “Fight Club”:
The mechanic says, “If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?
How Tyler saw it was that getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention at all. Maybe because God’s hate is better than His indifference.
If you could be either God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?
We are God’s middle children, according to Tyler Durden, with no special place in history and no special attention.
Unless we get God’s attention, we have no hope of damnation or redemption.
Which is worse, hell or nothing?
Only if we’re caught and punished can we be saved.
“Burn the Louvre,” the mechanic says, “and wipe your [expletive] with the Mona Lisa. This way at least, God would know our names.”
If religion gives you no way of being male except to deny — as distinct from sublimate — your normal masculine instincts, then many young men will want nothing to do with religion.
As I see it, religion has to find a healthy balance between the masculine and the feminine. It seems to me that in the West, despite the protestations against patriarchal forms in traditional expressions of the faith, our religious practice is highly feminized. In my years as a Catholic, I could never quite figure out why, for all the outward masculinity of our religion, the feeling of it from the inside was almost entirely feminized. The homilies I’d often hear would sometimes drive me to despair, literally, because they never asked us to do anything other than be nicer to ourselves. I think there’s something within men that wants a challenge, something to overcome, something to fight, especially within ourselves. This is no bad thing — but it can easily be a bad thing if it is either denied, or channeled into a destructive expression.
For some reason, this hasn’t been my experience in Orthodox Christianity — and I have yet to figure out why. Orthodoxy is in many ways quite feminine — yet it is also palpably masculine. I’m not sure how they do it, but I can tell you from my own experience, they do it. Frederica Mathewes-Green, the Orthodox convert and writer, has suggested that Western men respond to the focus in Orthodoxy on asceticism, self-discipline and self-overcoming. Orthodoxy is not a religion that wants to coddle you. It does want to comfort you in your suffering, but it also expects you to struggle to rise above yourself. I suspect too that this is one reason why Islam has such powerful appeal to men.
The discussion I’d like to see us have in the comboxes is not to play a blame game on masculine vs. feminine religion, but rather to discuss ways of practicing a healthy masculinity into American religion. I’d especially like to hear from people who struggle with the way masculinity is treated by the churches. What has your experience been like?