What Sports Would Jesus Watch?

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In one of my seminary classes dealing with gender issues and Christian faith, we read Chuck Palahniuk’s remarkable Fight Club.  Interestingly, this was the one male-oriented book we read for the class (like most gender classes, “gender” really means “women”).  I recall the women in the class, including the professor, being horrified at the popularity of the story and the movie.  Many questioned how people could be attracted to such naked violence.  There was poo-pooing all around until I brought up the fact that many people in the room like violence in a form that most of us consider innoccuos: sports.  The point was valid; even ardent pacifists that I know enjoy inherently violent sports like hockey, football, and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Thanks to a post over at Sherdog, I found the following quote in a piece by Adam Groza at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California (which I’d never heard of until reading this post):

UFC and MMA amounts to violence porn, a term which has been applied to movies with wanton violence such as “SAW,” where violence is not part of the plot, it is the attraction. Violence for violence’s sake, as opposed to instrumental or redeeming violence, desensitizes the viewer to the graphic horror of watching two people pummel each other for the sake of entertainment. UFC and MMA offer exactly the kind of violence condemned in Psalm 11:5. Ezekiel 7:23 decries, “the city is full of violence.” Why are Christians supporting violence in the city?

I think the comparison of SAW is ignorant and egregious.  I can’t stand the SAW franchise, but that is a matter of taste more than morality.  Futhermore, what Groza calls “violence for violence’s sake” I would simply call honest violence.  Much of the attraction of our favorite sports stems from the violent aspects: fights in hockey and wrecks in NASCAR come to mind.  UFC fighter (and compelling wordsmith) Chael Sonnen makes this point about football:

The UFC is the only thing that has violence that isn’t fraudulent. Football…they put up these end zones, but you take the end zones out people will still come. You take the tackling out, and it’s gonna be a ghost town in those stadiums. UFC will tell you what you’re going to get – straight ahead – and you can buy a ticket if you like the ride.

Groza goes on to say that the UFC exploits women because of the ring girls.  I suppose he’s never seen cheerleaders at any other sporting events? Another glaring omission is any mention of boxing.  Anything true about the violence of MMA – if you know the sport – is even more true of “the sweet science.”  And yet, for numerous reasons, people who are horrified by MMA still see boxing as a gentleman’s game.  Such views only showcase a lack of exposure to the emerging sport.

I think Groza has a point when he shares some of the more disturbing examples of churches using MMA to market evangelize.  While some churches host sporting events like Super Bowls and some will have basketball leagues and even karate classes, as a pastor I would not be comfortable making a UFC pay-per-view a churchwide event.  However, I think there are many things an individual Christian can do that a church ought not sponsor (like watch reality TV, for instance).

This is another example of a severe bias against MMA in the larger culture, and more evidence that the sport has yet to arrive.  From an ecclesial perspective, it is true that Christians should always hold a critical eye to their society; that much in Groza’s piece is useful.  But if MMA is untouchable because of its violence, so are many other of America’s favorite pastimes.  In other words, if one argues that MMA is anathema for the church, then we can only say that a larger blindspot has been uncovered.

6 thoughts on “What Sports Would Jesus Watch?”

  1. You had some really interesting points here. I also discovered Groza’s “editorial” and was not quite as open-minded as you were. I thought he had a real vendetta against MMA and had actually never experienced it or had no real idea about the sport. I’m a BIG MMA fan and a devout Christian. For him to insinuate that the two could not co-exist really upset me. Check out my blog. I appreciate how you approached it.

  2. The question for me and it really is a non-rhetorical question is whether humans have an ontological need for violence. I loved playing football perhaps for the same reason that I love splitting firewood. There’s something decisive and satisfying when you get a good hit in football or when you hit a log with the right force in the right place and it splits. I think that there’s some innate quality inside of me as a human, possibly as a male-gendered human, that needs to be expressed. Something would be missing from life if we just sat around and drank tea all day. That’s always been one of my basic fears about heaven: that it will be boring as hell.

  3. Hello Pastor Mack.

    Thanks for responding to my comments on your blog at Art of Manliness.

    I have a question: I wrote a book on the psychology/philosophy of the martial arts, and I’m currently working on a follow-up book specifically on issues that arise when Christians participate in the martial arts.

    You talk about the disconnect between Christian ideas about MMA and boxing. Do you happen to know of any theological work that has been done looking at the ethics of Christians boxing?

  4. Groza’s point, it seems, is that the distinguishing mark of MMA among sports is that it is a sport OF VIOLENCE rather than a sport WITH VIOLENCE. Violence doesn’t make football fun. Flag football is fun. Violence doesn’t make hockey fun. PeeWee hockey is fun (and no fighting is allowed). But MMA without violence would be a staring contest… which isn’t fun. If you are attracted to MMA, you’re attracted to violence. And if that’s true of you, shouldn’t you be worried?

    1. Stadiums are not filled to watch flag football or PeeWee hockey. At its core, MMA (mixed martial arts) is merely a combination of martial arts generally accepted (such as wrestling, boxing, karate, jiu-jitsu). I see no logical reason why the sum of the parts should somehow be morally perilous. Most who watch MMA and can only see violence have never really payed much attention to the sport, or to the athletes involved (many of whom are former college and/or olympic athletes, like current women’s champ Ronda Rousey who medalled in Judo). At any rate, it seems like straining a gnat to declare the violence in MMA problematic while not being concerned with the commercialism and sexism of so much professional sports. We routinely excoriate corporate fat-cats for making their millions, but give a pass to people whose contribution to society is putting points a scoreboard. Amazing.

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