Before enrolling in divinity school, I was a cage fighter—not a full-time cage fighter, not a world-famous cage fighter, not even a person for whom cage fighting paid the bills, but a cage fighter nonetheless.  Now, before I go any further, I need to be more careful with my vocabulary or else I’ll risk losing credibility. You see, real cage fighters don’t like to be referred to as such; we prefer the term mixed martial artist. And we prefer that our sport go by the name mixed martial arts or MMA instead of “cage fighting.” There is a long, sordid history behind the sport’s various name changes, and it has everything to do with public perception, influential politicians, and corporate cash (Amy Silverman, Phoenix New Times, February 12, 1998). (But then again, what doesn’t?) Given my history of participation in and love for the sport, my ears perked up last year when MMA arose as a topic of conversation in my theological ethics class.

During the course of our class discussion, one of my divinity school colleagues referred to a recent New York Times article that describes the way a number of churches throughout the United States are turning to mixed martial arts as a way to draw men into their buildings (R. M. Schneiderman, February 1, 2010). Some churches train fighters to compete, while an even greater number of churches host gatherings for men at live fights. On top of this, clothing companies such as Jesus Didn’t Tap and websites like market themselves to a crowd of Christian fight fans—a crowd that might be called a niche if it weren’t already so big.

To some Christians, this new MMA movement represents an expression of real, natural, God-given masculinity. One captain for this team is Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, who in the film Fighting Politics says, “I don’t think there is anything purer than two guys in a cage. [. . .] As a pastor and as a Bible teacher, I think that God made men masculine. [. . .] Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion. [. . .] That’s just the way men are made.”

And yet, not all Christians are so keen to adopt MMA as a spiritual discipline. Many people are repulsed by Driscoll’s comments yet respond to his sophomorism in kind. Take for example, the responses I heard from some fellow students during the course of our class conversation. “That’s the church of the rich,” one person stated from behind his Apple laptop. Not to be outdone in terms of ersatz answers, another student chimed in, “I’d say it’s the church of the bored.” That is the way these conversations tend to go—like two pugilists past their prime, both sides dance around one another, trading harmless jabs and failing to deliver a decisive blow.

In this essay, I hope to take a different tack altogether. I do not intend to make a case for MMA Christianity but neither do I seek to dismiss its representatives as unworthy dialogue partners. I do not think that mixed martial artists must be transformed into good Christian hipsters before they can teach us something about masculinity. Rather, I believe that MMA can make a substantial contribution to the conversation on masculinity. Therefore, in what follows I am going to consider MMA on its own terms; I am going to take its self-descriptions at face value. I am—in all charity—going to attempt a sympathetic reading of MMA.

In doing so, moreover, I will engage selections from The Confessions of Saint Augustine in order to ground my sympathetic reading of MMA theologically. By putting MMA in conversation with the Bishop of Hippo, I hope it will become clear that the sport does not shore up the particular notion of masculinity that Driscoll and others like him imagine it does.

The Fighter’s Body

According to MMA fans, masculinity is deeply connected to the body. For example, in the video clip, Driscoll makes disparaging remarks about the “fat guys” who sit on the sidelines and critique the sport. The implication, of course, is that the fit guys in the cage are the real men; true masculinity is revealed in the fighter’s body. A simple glimpse of a boxer or a wrestler—these guys are extraordinary physical specimens—reveals thick necks, tree trunk legs, v-shaped backs, even strong jaw lines. No doubt about it, so the argument goes, these are the archetypes to which all men ought to conform.

Furthermore, this emphasis on the relation between masculinity and embodiment seems to be a Christian one. After all, flesh and blood are central to our faith.

And yet, for all of MMA Christianity’s insistence on the centrality of the body for adequate conceptions of masculinity, my experience as a fighter taught me something entirely different. You see, far from acknowledging myself as a living body, success in MMA required that I ignore this fact, that I (somehow!) try to forget that I am a body.

It started in training. I had dozens of training partners who never competed. Their only job was to beat me up as I prepared for the fight. I would spar for a nonstop, ten-minute round, where every minute, a fresh, rested training partner would come in and lay a beating on me. Though exhausted, I would try to give one back. The point, of course, was that when fight night came, the real thing would actually be easier than the hell I had put myself through at practice. And after each training session, far from feeling angry with the people who had just pummeled me, I sincerely thanked them for helping me train, for making me a better fighter.

What was happening along the way, however, was nothing less than being schooled in how to ignore my body. Perhaps you’ve seen the T-shirt slogans that bark with false bravado, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” That was my attitude toward training: ignore the pain, redefine it, explain it away—it’s not real, it’s for my own good, it’s not a message from my body; it is just something in my “mind” (whatever that means).

A similar thing would happen on the night of the fight. The adrenaline dump that you get before a fight is incredible. Even after having fought for years, including for a number of large promotions, on fight night the same thing always happened: I got jittery, and my jaw would chatter. When that adrenaline first hit me, I found it difficult to make a tight fist or take a deep breath—both of which are somewhat important for a fighter to do. Early in my career, I came to dread this feeling before the fight. But over time, I learned how to deal with my hormones, how to talk myself out of the message they were trying to send me.

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!

After the fight, my whole body ached. If it were a quick fight, I would usually feel better in a few days. But if the fight lasted all five rounds, it would be a good week before I felt like getting out of bed. To cope with the pain, I would drink at night—not a lot, just enough to take some of the sting out. On the really bad days, I would pop a few pain pills—again not a ton, just enough to mute some of the pain.

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

And now it seems appropriate to ask what account of masculinity requires a man to forget his body? The answer can only be that it is not a Christian masculinity but a Manichean masculinity. The Manichees, a sect founded in the third century by Mani and depicted by Augustine in his Confessions as a popular movement during the mid-fourth century, believed that this world was a fusion of divine spirit and evil matter. By this account, it was only through the spirit’s escape from the vile material realm that it was able to reach the transcendent world. Augustine describes his time among the Manichees like so:

I fell among a set of proud madmen, exceedingly carnal and talkative people in whose mouths were diabolical snares and a sticky mess compounded by mixing the syllables of your name, and the names of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who is our Paraclete and Consoler. These names were never far from their mouths, but amounted to no more than sound and the clacking of tongues, for their hearts were empty of the truth.”[1]

Having joined their ranks, Augustine soon subscribed to a variety of otherworldly philosophies:

I derided your holy servants and prophets. Even as I laughed at them I deserved to be laughed at by you, for gradually, little by little, I was being lured into such absurdities as the belief that a fig wept when plucked, and its mother tree too wept milky tears. Then, I was told, if one of the saints ate the fig, it would be absorbed by his digestive system and then when he belched or groaned in prayer he would spew out angels, or even particles of God [. . .] I believed, poor wretch, that it was accordingly a higher duty to show mercy to the fruits of the earth than to human beings.”[2]

Now if that didn’t make much sense to you—and it shouldn’t—Augustine’s experience as a Manichee can be described as follows: after falling in with a crowd whose hyperspirituality caused them to paradoxically become “exceedingly carnal,” Augustine developed a disregard for the human creature that was ultimately evidenced in some rather absurd practices. Or again, as a result of accepting a false description of the human body—one that mistakenly taught the separation of human spirit and flesh rather than their interwoven and mutually constitutive nature—Augustine also came to adopt a false way of being in the world. Thus, both his flesh and spirit suffered, or in his own words, he became “misshapen.” This description rings as true of some twenty-first-century hypermasculine Christianists as it did of fourth-century Manichaeism.

Any Christian account of masculinity must take our embodiment seriously. Violence will result whenever we forget that God created us as flesh and blood, that God came to earth in flesh and blood, and that the flesh and blood of Jesus is now present to the world in the church’s sacraments.

Self-Sufficient Masculinity or Utterly Dependent Homoeroticism?

In the film Fighting Politics, Mark Driscoll describes MMA as something “purer [. . .] no bats, no sticks, no help, no team.” It is important to note what is going on in this description of the sport, because as with all interpretations, the description reveals as much about the subject as it does about the object being described. To put it plainly: Driscoll is at least mistaken (if not willfully and, therefore, culpably, incorrect) in his assessment that there is “no help” and “no team” in the sport of mixed martial arts.

In addition to fight preparation, my teammates were critical components of my success during the actual fight. On fight night, one of my most important teammates was my cut man. This was the guy who, between rounds, tried to get the cuts on my face to stop bleeding into my eyes. Being able to see my opponent was absolutely critical, and for that, I needed my teammate, a cut man. Moreover, I would have been no good without my coach. He was a skilled veteran who helped to make subtle corrections to my strategy during a fight, and from his privileged angle, he offered a vantage point on things that I could not see. But even my cut man and coach were not enough; as a fighter, I also depended on my water boy, the teammate who assumed the rather unenviable tasks of holding my protective cup before the fight and rinsing off my mouth guard between rounds. Without any one of these teammates, there is no way I would have stepped foot into a cage.

Now, if Driscoll has seen even one fight, as he claims, surely he would have noticed these people—trainer, coach, cut man, and water boy. They are hard to miss. So why doesn’t Driscoll see them? Why does he insist that the fighter has “no help”? Why is his description of MMA so clearly deficient? Quite simply, he hasn’t been trained to see these other people. He has been trained to see two guys beating each other up, and so that’s what he sees.

And perhaps this is the main reason that I bristle when Driscoll begins to opine on MMA, because he is the type of fan that fighters despise. If you go to any live event, you will know why: the fans are there for blood. Well, more accurately, they are there to get drunk, whistle at ring-card girls, and bullshit about why they would fight if some circumstance outside of their control were different. But mainly, they are there to see blood. If you can count on fans yelling anything during a fight, it is the cry, “Elbow him! Elbow him!” An elbow that is delivered properly can be much more destructive than a fist. One well-timed elbow can end a fight—or a career. By their cries, many fans make it clear that they are there for one reason: to see someone get hurt.

Fighters regard these types of fans as—to borrow a term from the armed services—chickenhawks. A chickenhawk is a person who endorses war with all the belligerent bellowing of a drill sergeant, yet when the time comes to enlist, they are nowhere to be seen. So the MMA churches and their MMA pastors can rail all they want against the “fat, lazy” men who critique MMA, but I, as a former fighter, have a great deal more respect for the person who is willing to interrogate my sport for the well-being of its participants than one who, from an equally distanced vantage point, deceives himself into thinking that he is a fighter and speaks so self-assuredly about what MMA is.

There is something even more obviously deficient about Driscoll’s description of MMA and the infatuation with this phenomenon among some Christian, male leaders. Take a look at the following images.

First of all, here is one popular style of shorts that are worn for training and competition:

Here are shorts on a fighter:

And the following images are of common positions that fighters find themselves in, the full guard, full mount, and two images of the back mount:

As these images illustrate—tight shorts, bare chests, and men jostling with legs and limbs intertwined—MMA is extremely intimate, and the people who participate in the sport must be comfortable in a variety of compromising physical positions. This is not to suggest that MMA is necessarily a site for men to practice their otherwise latent homoeroticism, but certainly, its practitioners must be willing to risk discovering such motivations in themselves through participation in the sport. And if not that, then fighters must be willing to accept the fact that other people may describe it as such. Thus, fighters must possess a certain degree of security with their own sexual identity, courage to allow that identity to be interrogated by the inherently intimate nature of the sport, and fortitude to accept the barbs and jabs of homophobic onlookers. Put differently, this is not the sport that Driscoll should want to appeal to for creating the type of man he is after—MMA requires its participants to get far too comfortable touching other men. His inability to see anything besides the pummeling bespeaks an inadequate character formation.

The cruel detachment with which Driscoll and other Christian MMA fans observe the sport is reminiscent of Augustine’s experience at the theater in Carthage:

I was held spellbound by theatrical shows full of images that mirrored my own wretched plight and further fueled the fire within me. Why is it that one likes being moved to grief at the sight of sad or tragic events on stage, when one would be unwilling to suffer the same things oneself?

[. . . .] At that time I was truly miserable, for I loved feeling sad and sought out whatever could cause me sadness. When the theme of a play dealt with other people’s tragedies—false and theatrical tragedies—it would please and attract me more powerfully the more it moved me to tears. [. . .] I had no desire to undergo myself the woes I liked to watch. It was simply that when I listened to such doleful tales being told they enabled me superficially to scrape away at my itching self, with the result that these raking nails raised an inflamed swelling, and drew stinking discharge from a festering wound. Was that life I led any life at all, O my God?[3]

Some male Christian leaders may think that by hollering about mixed martial arts, they are proffering a form of masculinity that is both more authentically Christian and more interesting than the milquetoast culture of contemporary evangelicalism. And yet, like Augustine at the theater, these men are not calling their followers into reality, but escapism. Their brand of masculinity amounts to nothing more than voyeurism, projection, and self-help therapy. Far from bold, the MMA Christian’s posturing comes off as frightened.

Back in the Cockpit

In the New York Times article, Ryan Dobson, son of evangelist James Dobson, weighs in on the value of MMA for Christian men: “The man should be the overall leader of the household [. . . .] We’ve raised a generation of little boys.”

In an interview with John Piper’s organization, desiringGod, Driscoll speaks in a similar vein, saying,

Guys like David are well known for their ability to slaughter other men. [. . .] These guys were heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose-dudes. [. . .] Young men get married, make money, make babies, build companies, buy real estate; they’re going to make the culture of the future. If you get the young men, you win the war—you get everything. [. . .] If you don’t get the young men, you get nothing.”

This is the punch line. This is the work that Driscoll and Dobson think MMA does for their brand of Christian masculinity—it provides the necessary control. It places men back in the driver’s seat of a world that has been careening out of control ever since we allowed our women to remove their head coverings in defiance of an explicit scriptural command.

How else are we to understand the connection between Driscoll’s comments on violent masculinity and church growth, which flow immediately—almost as a stream of consciousness—from one to the other? This is about controlling outcomes, measuring church effectiveness as defined by bodies in pews, and building the church the same way that billionaires build skyscrapers. What work does MMA do for Driscoll? It keeps him in control—the ruler of his home and the celebrity pastor. (By the way, go back to the beginning of that clip, and make a list of the men that Driscoll names. He left one man off the list . . . .)

But is MMA about being in control? And if not, can it do the work that Driscoll thinks it does?

Certainly it appears that the point of the contest is to dominate your opponent, however, on a closer inspection we can vividly see that the fighter emerges as anything but in control.

As I have already mentioned, becoming a fighter meant being a part of a larger, more organized group of fighters. But some people cannot grasp this. Every once in a while, there is a group of wannabes that shows up on fight night with homemade T-shirts, and a ridiculous team name—“The Buttkicker Squad,” or something equally amateurish. Fight training for these guys consists of watching Jean Claude Van Damme reruns and scrapping in their parents’ basements. One by one, without fail, they get carried out on stretchers, never to be seen or heard from again. Why? Because they thought they were in control. The successful fighters are the ones who are able to submit to the wisdom of a knowledgeable coach and a reputable team. They are willing to be trained.

As a fighter, I relied on my manager to communicate with promoters and to negotiate my pay. I relied on dieticians to tell me when to eat, when to drink, and how long to sit in the sauna on weigh-in days. I relied on fans to buy tickets and cheer for me, so I could prove my worth to promoters and make my way into larger promotions. I depended on sponsors to come through with a few extra dollars that might cover the costs of my protein shakes. I relied on doctors to fix me when I got hurt, and ultimately to beg me—after suffering my sixth serious concussion and enduring months of temporary paralysis on the left side of my body—to stop this nonsense while I still had some brain left.

The Fighter’s deep dependence on others reveals that MMA is not the grand display of masculine domination that some Christian men want it to be. But I do not expect these men to come to this realization easily; letting go of control can be traumatic.  It would take nothing less than a miracle, a new birth, an entirely repentant turn for Driscoll and other Christian leaders to see the folly of their lust for power and to confess this folly to their peers, admiring worshipers, and most frighteningly, themselves. It would be not at all dissimilar from the way that Augustine describes his own conversion:

The things that had been my cronies of long standing, still held me back, plucking softly at my garment of flesh and murmuring in my ear, “Do you mean to get rid of us? Shall we never be your companions again after that moment? Never, never again?” [. . .] I could not bring myself to tear free and shake them off and leap across to that place whither I was summoned, while aggressive habit still taunted me: “Do you imagine you will be able to live without these things?”[4]

But of course, Augustine does turn toward the God who is revealed in the crucified Christ, a Christ who has been completely humiliated and dominated by his Roman executioners, and in that turning, Augustine is freed from his addiction to control. The first words of Book IX of Confessions burst forth with new life: “O Lord, I am your servant.”[5]

Repentance is never impossible for those who genuinely seek the Lord, because, quite simply, repentance is not an act of man but of God. Therefore, no matter how deeply deformed by violence a person has become, no matter how addicted to worldly power, no matter how enslaved by concepts of manhood that violate the very body of Christ—God is still greater than all these sins. A rebuke is an invitation to surrender to God and a promise that God will transform even the vilest misogynist. As Augustine says, “By your sheer grace and mercy you melted my sins away like ice. Is there anyone who can take stock of his own weakness and still dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own efforts?”[6]

Promise Breakers

I have tried to give an account of masculinity and mixed martial arts that doesn’t exclude the sport’s enthusiasts from dialogue, and that is because I think MMA has picked up on something good with its insistence on embodied masculinity, its description of intimate masculinity that borders on homoeroticism, and its exemplification of the fighter’s utter dependence on his gym and complete lack of control over outcomes.

And yet, a curious futility emerges when the practice of MMA is observed: the body is rejected, some fighters and fans do not interpret intimacy in the sport, and the observation that the fighter is not in control seems lost on almost everyone involved. Just like the state that defines peace by waging  perpetual warfare, freedom by separating and isolating neighbors, and equality by ignoring obvious disparities, MMA is powerless to produce what it promises, because it does not possess the proper means to bring it about.

Of course, there is no reason to expect that observing MMA’s powerlessness to develop Christian disciples will dissuade some churches from bundling so-called men’s ministry with MMA. The sport is hot right now, and MMA is an effective “outreach” tool, so it will remain in churches for the foreseeable future. Idols may be powerless to form faithful Christians, but as fund-raisers and recruitment tools, they are effective as hell. This is what happens when, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, the church tries to “make the Gospel intelligible to the world rather than to help the world understand why it cannot be intelligible without the Gospel.”[7]

Faced with the growing popularity of the Christian MMA movement, the church must return to its source of life and proclaim a masculinity rooted in the self-giving and Other-receiving perichoresis of the Trinity[8] and revealed in the flesh and blood of the God-Man whose strength is made perfect in kenotic weakness. Only here, I believe, can the church’s men find courage to resist therapeutic misogyny and church-growth schemes; only here can we begin to become true disciples who, with Augustine, joyfully proclaim, “You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”[9]

[1] Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York, NY: Random, 1997), 42.

[2] Ibid, 50.

[3] Augustine, Confessions, 38–39.

[4] Ibid., 166.

[5] Ibid., 170.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Hauerwas, “Preaching As Though We Had Enemies,” First Things, May 1995,–9.

[8] See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 128.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 222. Widgets