“Jesus never tapped out” is a phrase you’ll hear a few times in the documentary “Fight Church,” and it’s confirmation that Christianity has seeped into the mainstream—and vice versa. From arena-sized places of worship to faith-based box office hits to even modest churches boasting sound and light shows, being a Christian is practically cool, and with the addition of mixed martial arts, enticingly dangerous. Director Bryan Storkel has made the intersection of Christianity and offbeat niches something of a specialty, helming “Holy Rollers: The True Story Of Card Counting Christians” (review here) and producing the Bible Belt true crime tale “Little Hope Was Arson” (review here). While the films may walk in the realm of religion, they don’t push an agenda, with the filmmaker seemingly genuinely fascinated by the contradictions of contemporary Christian life. That’s true too of “Fight Church,” co-directed by Oscar winner Daniel Junge, which delves into the growing number of “fight ministries” across the country that combine the word of God with roundhouse kicks.
If the first rule of Fight Club is to not talk about Fight Club, the opposite is true for the pastors/pugilists who get in the ring, yet still tend to their flock each Sunday. Pastors Paul Burress, Preston Hocker and Nahshon Nicks are fighters who truly believe, in a rather interesting reading of the Bible, that mixed martial arts fighting can be used to express one’s faith and spread the word of God. All three work tales of their battles into their services. But as the documentary unflinchingly points out, once they are in the ring or the cage, the only object at hand is to brutally beat the opponent, believer or not. And while a handful of real-life UFC fighters presented in the film claim to be using God’s gifts to achieve their highest potential, allowing them to circumvent the New Testament teachings of love, tolerance and non-violence, in practice, the relentless punches, kicks, throws and blood speak at a much higher volume than their professed faith.
All that being said, the trio aren’t ignorant of the challenges this radical approach of ministry takes. For Burress, he’s suffered ten concussions, and while he has retired from the ring on the advice of his doctor and concern from his wife, training other fighters day in and day out has made the allure of fighting once again hard to resist. As for Hocker, his path to MMA seems to be split between religious concerns and husbandly duty to protect his wife from any harm, a new fear instilled in him upon learning an acquaintance had been murdered. As for Nicks, his small congregation seem equally fixed on his win/loss record than anything Godly he might have to say. And for all three, they find themselves delivering weekly sermons heavy on fight metaphors. Where does sharing God’s lessons end and self-promotion begin? It’s a tough line, though harder for some than others.
One who is entirely unapologetic for embracing the the visceral thrill of MMA into church life is gun-packing former fighter-turned-preacher John Renken, who boldly asserts, “Western Christianity has feminized men.” Granted, his is an extreme view, but it’s not hard to see how certain strains of Christianity would be sympathetic to his world view. One where he takes his clearly terrified young children to a gun range for target practice, chastising them when they cry, and laughing when they get injured. He wants the “warrior ethos” instilled in his followers, and pushes a Crusader-like mentality (he thinks the Crusades wasn’t all that bad). But other folks of faith don’t quite agree with the edgier Renken or the more moderate Burress, Hocker and Nicks. For Father John Duffell, it’s quite clear: there is nothing in the Bible to justify any man of the cloth getting into the ring and beating another man bloody. And he’s joined by Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan, a former MMA fighter and man of faith, who has a genuine conflict between his beliefs and running a gym that trains people to fight. Unlike everyone else in the documentary, he’s the only one to pause and give it considerate thought, before making a surprising decision on how to live as both a Christian and a fighter.
“Fight Church” profiles each of these men with minimal interference, or editorializing, allowing their actions to demonstrate where the line is between sermonizing and fighting. But one does wish the filmmakers had been a bit tougher, particularly when it comes to some unasked questions that deserve to be floated. It’s a disappointment we don’t hear from congregants about their thoughts on the crossover between MMA and the Good Word, or even if they support weekly offerings going to this kind of event, instead of toward more churchly concerns. It’s the kind of question that could be asked to the pastors directly too—are they really fulfilling their obligations of standing behind the altar by fighting? Doesn’t the church have more pressing needs with the community? This line of inquiry certainly would’ve added more texture to the documentary.
However, “Fight Church” is still one of the few (only?) windows you’re likely to see on the growing world of MMA/Christianity crossover. And Storkel and Junge largely get it right, taking the viewer into a truly unique, and not oft-documented place, remaining observant of their subjects, but never critical. And that objectivity is the ultimate strength of “Fight Church,” a film that doesn’t attempt to make one side or the other submit to any preconceived notion, but rather gets in the ring and watches how it will play out. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Boston Independent Film Festival. “Fight Church” is now available on VOD.