Tag Archives: mixed martial arts

Feminists’ Favorite Sport Should Be Mixed Martial Arts

UFC Women's Bantamweight champ Ronda "Rowdy" Rousey, courtesy rondamm.com.
UFC Women’s Bantamweight champ Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey, courtesy rondamma.com.

Forget basketball, soccer, softball, and those Olympic sports we all pretend to like every four years.  Mixed martial arts (MMA) should be feminists’ favorite sport.  Derived from a blending of martial arts such as karate, wrestling, kickboxing, and jiu-jitsu, MMA is unique in placing its female fighters and champions on equal footing with their male counterparts.  Feminists should love MMA.

The chief example of this is UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.  It was not long ago that UFC President Dana White promised we’d never see  women in the Octagon.  What changed?

Dana met Ronda Rousey.

Since coming onto the scene, Ronda has rapidly become one of the UFC’s biggest stars, commanding a crossover appeal (doing commercials, late-night TV, and movies) without parallel among her male peers.  And she’s not just a pretty face.  The former Olympic judoka has defended her title multiple times, improving her performance with each outing despite a staggeringly demanding schedule.  Also, she got it honest: her mother was an world-class judoka who later earned a PhD.  Talk about a family of accomplished women!

Compare this to other major sports leagues, where women hardly get the same platform that men do.  The WNBA cannot boast of anyone who rivals the star power of Lebron James; most other major sports don’t have a league for female athletes that even comes close to the WNBA’s exposure or popularity (which isn’t saying much).

Contrast that to MMA, where, in the UFC and other organizations, female fighters headline cards and draw pay-per-view buyers and serious sponsors.  Moreover, Rousey and her main rival, Miesha Tate, coached a season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) where they coached men and women.  How many other sports can boast that, in their first 20 years in existence, women coach men at the highest level?  Building on the success of Rousey and the bantamweight division she spearheads, the new season of TUF features an exclusively female cast introducing the 115-pound women’s division.

So in my view women, and those who care about the advancement of women (in a society that still too often treats them as second-class citizens), should be among the most vocal advocates for MMA.  In no other sport have female athletes come to occupy such a prominent position, equal to and even surpassing many of the male stars, in so short a time frame.

If you want to be in the business of rewarding activities that empower women and treat them equally, then MMA is for you.

Feminists, your sport is here.  As Bruce Buffer would say, “IT’S TIME” to give credit where credit is due.

All Religion is in Trouble…Even Atheism

It is commonplace in the rubble of the mainline denominations these days to drone on and on about the sorry state of the church in the West.  We go to workshops, blog, read books, and wallow in anxious conversation all with the same subtitle: “How do we not die?”  Not exactly a vivifying conversation.  We think the non-religious forces are winning; that secularism is successful and popular “New” Atheism is ascendant.  But is atheism doing so well?

If you actually listen to the things that atheists are saying, there is little here that is a challenge to faith of any brand, much less that of Christians.  Indeed, atheist literature and public discourse tends to be just as vain as popular Christian discourse.  So laments Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:

…it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes.

Yes, reading Hart for long periods of time will hurt your brain.  He is as acerbic as he is brilliant, which is a feat.  Nonetheless, I think his premise is hard to argue against.  Case in point: an interview I read over on MMA Weekly with Seth Petruzelli, an MMA fighter (most famous for knocking Kimbo Slice off of any serious fan’s radar) who happens to be an outspoken atheist.  He explains how his first conflict with religious members of the MMA community came on the set of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter:

The first time it actually came up was in season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter in the house. Marcus Davis, he’s a pretty hardcore Christian and a lot of the guys in the house were the same way, especially with Matt Hughes being one of the coaches. There’s a scene actually in The Ultimate Fighter house where me and Matt kind of get into an argument for about 15 minutes or so about the bible, and obviously I think the bible [sic] is a bunch of BS, and that obviously struck a nerve with him.

To be an atheist is to – “obviously” – believe that the Bible is “BS”?  That is a stronger claim than many Christians would make about the holy books of other communities.  I have certainly never taught my people that the Koran or the Vedas are “BS,” even though I would not say that these words are inspired of the Triune God.  And yes, if you dismiss the word of God as BS, them’s probably going to be fighting words (unless you’ve been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder).  Petruzelli further describes the conflict with an outspoken Christian fighter:

We kind of had an argument back and forth, with me coming out on top obviously cause you can’t argue with science. Science trumps faith in all aspects of everything. But they had group bible sessions in the house and I just kind of had a little dialogue obviously with Marcus Davis too about it, all kinds of stuff in the bible [sic].

Is this the kind of reflection that the supposedly super-rational New Atheism is producing?  At what point will the hackneyed ‘science vs. faith’ thesis be done with?  Granted, there are Christians that still have not gotten the memo that science is not something to fear.  But we’re working on it.  There are plenty of Christians working in scientific fields who are faithful people.  Christians need not shun the search for truth in whatever form.  Thoughtful atheists should see the dialogue not as science vs. faith but atheism vs. various kinds of theism, Christianity among them.  The scientific method, which, if my high school biology class was right, deals with observable, verifiable, and repeatable phenomena, can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a deity.  Even psuedo-scientific work that purports to “prove” a divine intelligence can only get us to a vaguely theistic being, not the Triune God revealed in the Bible.  Neither faith nor non-faith should claim to be provable by science.  Doing so, whether one is a Christian or an atheist, belies a fundamental perversion of what faith actually is.  To whit:

Faith to me is intellectual bankruptcy…I have faith in my fighting ability because there’s facts to back it up and that I can fight. Blind faith? Like I said, it’s intellectual bankruptcy, it’s a cop out. Tim Minchin has a great quote about this. ‘Science adjusts its views on what is observed, and faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’

Intellectual bankruptcy?  Ouch.  That aside, Petruzelli confuses confidence with faith.  “I have faith in my fighting ability because [there are] facts to back it up.”  If there are facts to back “it” up, then what you have is not faith.  As Hebrews 11:1 makes clear,  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  There may be evidence of faith, indeed, fruits of the Spirit, or the inner witness so important to Wesley and other spiritual writers, but this is not the kind of evidence that will be observable under a microscope.  It’s also just barely worth pointing out that there is no monolithic “science,” and that the work of Thomas Kuhn and others shows how often scientists disagree on, willfully distort, and ignore supposed facts.  Scientific revolutions often only occur after a long, hard fight about what indeed the science is saying.

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize Petruzelli, who, as far as I know, has no theological training.  I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh, and I like to think that I’m equally critical of poor arguments made by Christians.  He is, however, making some striking claims in a very public space, and I think that makes confrontation both fair and necessary.  The Church must have answers to such arguments, for in the years to come they will only get louder.

If only a serious dialogue with atheists was possible.  When I read folks like Nietzche, I am challenged to think about my faith, to really question its basics.  This is a service to the faithful, for our critics really are our friends.  To return to a fighting metaphor: if Nietzche’s arguments are useful sparring partners, then, by comparison, the shallow vitriol of the New Atheists can only be described as the vain thrashing of an infant fighting off a clean diaper.

We’ll let a more skilled combatant fight the closing round.  Hart expresses disdain for such a-thinking (see what i did there?) with adroitness, arguing that today’s atheists

 …lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap)…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

May God grant us the blessing of able conversation partners, and save us from shallow faith, whether it is our own, or that of others.

P.S.  For the record, I think Damon Martin’s piece drastically overstates the place of religion in the fight game.  Atheists may be offended that there are so many nods to Jesus in the cage, but beyond post-fight shout-outs and mildly offensive clothing, I don’t think there is much substantive Christianity there.  More likely is that, in an increasingly secularized world, many folks in the media are frankly caught off guard when someone like Benson Henderson (or Tim Tebow) makes public statements of faith.  Rather like the pagans of bygone (?) eras, cultural observers and elites are surprised to find a small cadre of men and women who will not sacrifice to the official cultus and, rather offensively, talk about God beyond the privacy of their own closet.

Embraced By a Macho God? The Church/Cagefighting Debate

silva franklin

Former UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva embraces former champ Rich Franklin (an evangelical Christian and former math teacher) after defeating him for a second time

From The Gray Lady: The story that just won’t go away.  In what can’t be nearly as big a trend as a front-page story in the New York Times would indicate, we learn that some churches are turning to mixed martial arts as a way of attracting the unchurched – particularly young men.  The story kicked off a firestorm of debate in the popular media and the blogosphere, and it’s not hard to see why: the combination of evangelical Christianity, violence, and hyper-masculinity is bound to draw attention.  Let’s parse this perfect storm and deal with it piecemeal:

1) Mixed Martial Arts. There is a reason this is a story about mixed martial arts and church.  A story about Karate and church, or Tae Kwon Do and church, would not be news, because such traditional martial arts are widely accepted in American culture and have been seen in many churches for years.  Such martial arts, though they can be highly dangerous, have the benefit of better PR – most people think that the board breaking, high kicks, and pajama-like outfits make for interesting spectacle and perhaps some valuable self-defense, but nothing anti-social or dangerous.  By contrast, MMA has (rightly) earned a reputation from its early days as a bloodsport or freak show, something only the most barbaric people would enjoy.  The early UFC promoters cultivated this image, but in truth it is a dinosaur.  The explosion of MMA’s popularity and acceptance in the broader culture (seen especially in the number of states that now allow and actively pursue MMA promotions) has been equally well-earned, due to its heavy regulation and increased professionalism (Dana White excluded).  The NYT article wrongly attributes this changed perception to “shrewd marketing,” which is no doubt a factor following Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC; but every informed MMA follower knows that the UFC, and the sport with it, would not have survived to see this moment without drastically changing its practices from those early days.  Thus, much of this controversy stems from an uninformed and outdated perspective on MMA.

2) Violence qua violence. Still others find the association of any kind of violence with the Church to be distasteful (at best) or heretical (at worst).  Many of the loudest and most sustained voices here are an increasing number of Christian pacifists, especially in evangelical circles.  These mostly young men and women, raised by a generation affected temperamentally by the Vietnam War, seem to be finding themselves increasingly attracted to the “radical” ethics of Christian theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and their disciples.  These folks would (or should) be just as turned off by Karate or TKD as they are the new kid on the block, MMA.  I’m curious, though: would such people see a problem, on the grounds of violence, with showing the Super Bowl?  I’m convinced that most contact sports are just as violent and dangerous as any martial art, MMA included, but merely in less overt ways.  For instance, the UFC since its inception has not seen the kind of career-ending (and life-threatening) injuries that the NFL has seen in the same tenure.

3) The “muscular Christianity” angle. Part of this story’s controversy also has to do with the unabashed Christianized machismo on display in some of the churches mentioned in this piece:

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 [pastor] Tom Skiles.

In focusing on the toughness of Christ, evangelical leaders are harking back to a similar movement in the early 1900s, historians say, when women began entering the work force. Proponents of this so-called muscular Christianity advocated weight lifting as a way for Christians to express their masculinity.

That movement is referred to now as “Muscular Christianity,” a phenomenon best described in a chapter of Stephen Prothero’s excellent book American Jesus.  It is the theological great-grandaddy of current trends in evangelical Christianity like Promise Keepers and the work of John ‘Wild at Heart’ Eldredge.

But in reality, it is a strand of Christianity that goes much deeper.  Christianity has always been a movement of at least 50% women – drawn in, at least in part, by a spiritual leveling not present in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean – and so it is no surprise that Christianity, which honored and encouraged the leadership of women, would draw a counter-trend in those societies that expected their men to be forceful and violent (which, to be frank, has been most societies in human history).  So, I’m sure that American men of the 1900’s were not the first Christians to feel the need to reassert the manly virtue of Christ, and these modern-day Christian gladiators won’t be the last.

This particular instantiation is troubling in some ways, and innocent if not endearing in others.  The gender-role angle is not particularly attractive; it represents the invasion of a bygone cultural norm into Christian family ethics.  In truth, some men are the heads of households, others not, and still others share it.  Any such model can be “Christian” (but perhaps not “American”).

But it shouldn’t be troubling that aggressive young men look to see in Jesus a little of themselves.  We all do.  This is what each and every quest for the historical Jesus has taught us (noticed in the first ‘Quest’ by Schweitzer) – when we search for the “real” Jesus, we tend to see ourselves – whether liberal or conservative, American or African, gentle or aggressive.  And certainly these young men are right to see that Jesus has been domesticated.  For most American Protestants, he’s a mild looking Caucasian with untainted robes, who hardly looks like someone who could or would fast for 40 days, chase moneychangers out of a temple with a whip, or endure torture and death for love’s sake.  Is Jesus an MMA fighter? No.  But he’s not a seminary professor, an artist, a writer, a salesman, or a blogger, either.

4) Evangelism as a problem. The fact that anyone is reached for Christ, or that anyone still believes in Jesus enough to tell others about him, is the original scandal of the world, and it remains so.  The world and its journalists will always be confused that anyone is reaching (and finding) God in Christ Jesus, whose cross is a stumbling block and foolishness.  Evangelicals have long been the whipping-boy (pardon the sexist language) for the secular intelligentsia – and no doubt this has a lot to do with why this story made the cover of the New York Times (which isn’t in the habit of running front page stories about churches doing culturally acceptable things like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked).

Concluding reflections: By way of conclusion, let us turn to a simple image: the post-fight embrace. Many, if not most, professional MMA athletes will often hug at the conclusion of a contest, if both are still conscious.  Even more telling, a fighter who knocks out or greatly damages an opponent will, following the stoppage, frequently go over to check on the well-being of his downed opponent.  This is often the case even if the two are heated rivals.

According to Miroslav Volf, an embrace is more than a polite gesture; rather, as “a herald of nonself-sufficiency and nonself-enclosure, open arms suggest the pain of other’s absence and the joy of the other’s anticipated presence.”  Only someone who is vulnerable can embrace, because “open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in.” (Exclusion & Embrace, 141)

MMA promoters and announcers (like comedian/UFC commentator Joe Rogan) like to highlight the post-fight embrace as a sign of the professionalism and respect of mixed martial artists, and they are right to do so.  But perhaps they are even more telling.  The commonality of such embraces would seem to indicate that critics are in fact wholly wrong; that MMA, as a sport is indeed violent, but it does not necessarily create violent young men.  Rather, such individuals are displaying in that moment the respect, discipline, and self-control expected of Christians at all times.  This is paradoxical, I realize, but if the cross tells us anything it is that our faith has a paradox at its very core.

But surely violent sport and Christianity ought not to mix, right?  Volf sees violence as the opposite of Christian self-understanding.  “Violence,” he contends, “is so much the opposite of embrace that it undoes the embrace.” (143)

We may have found a loophole to this otherwise profound insight.  Martial arts have been bringing people – many of them Christian – enjoyment, fitness, and community, for centuries.  Cagefighting may look different, but the effects on the participants are the same.  MMA may strike you as a strange vehicle to those destinations, and perhaps it is less than ideal, but, well – these guys aren’t going to join a knitting circle.  I’m not, of course, defending everything seen in this article, nor saying there are not potential problems (theological, ethical, and medical) with the mixture of fight sport and church.  I simply want to suggest that such difficulties are not unavoidable.  Done under the right conditions, such ministries could bear real fruit.

That being said, let the gospel be proclaimed in the language of the lost, and they will hear; then, just maybe, they will find their home in the embrace of a God big enough to handle something that makes you uncomfortable.  Perhaps Jesus would have us “suffer the cage fighters”?

Side note: Volf is profound, but my favorite Croatian is actually a cagefighter.