One of the biggest issues I’ve had as an MMA writer is reconciling the relationship between the sport that I love and my faith. I’ve spent many hours reading and contemplating how a Christian can hit another person in an MMA fight one moment and love that person as Christ loved the church in the next minute.
Directed by Academy Award winner Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, Fight Church attempts to make sense of this relationship by taking viewers into the lives of multiple Christians involved with the sport, including pastors Paul Burress, Preston Hocker and Nahshon Hicks. The movie also speaks with a couple of Christians who are opposed to MMA. Junge and Storkel follow all of them as they address the issue.
Fight Church initially introduces us to Burress, a pastor at Discovery Church in Rochester, New York. He basically preaches that life is a fight, and he uses mixed martial arts to love people in Christ. Hocker and Hicks give similar statements in their churches.
Father Duffell is shown preaching in his church. He explains his views that MMA doesn’t work with Christianity. He even seemingly questions the Christianity of people who use MMA as part of their ministry.
John Renken is a former mixed martial artist, who takes more of a hard line with Christianity and MMA. He believes that Christian men aren’t simply meant to turn the other cheek and be everyone’s whipping boys. Renken notes that Western Christianity has feminized men, and that Christian men were meant to be more than what they are in this country.
New York state senator Bob Reilly is soon introduced into the story. Reilly points out the obvious violence with MMA and how its not a good fit for his state, which is why he continues to fight against its legalization in the state of New York.
Yet the most interesting personality in this story is former mixed artist Scott Sullivan, who openly struggles to reconcile Christianity with the sport he loves. The decision he makes at the end of the movie is both surprising and thought-provoking.
Fight Church masterfully moves between each character and even includes cameos from current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former lightweight champion Benson Henderson. Each man expresses his faith without hesitation. The movie tells us each person’s story without much interference, which is both a positive and a negative for the story. There are plenty of instances in the story where some clarification was needed to come to a conclusion.
For example, there’s a scene where Renken is teaching his children to properly use a gun. Renken’s son starts to cry after a shell bounces back and hits him in the mouth. At this point, Renken both tells his son not to cry and laughs at the injury. It is clear that Renken adheres to the old school view on fathering boys, but it’s not clear why he laughed. There are multiple ways that his action can be interrupted. On one hand, Renken could be laughing to show his son that it’s not a big deal and he’ll be okay. On the other hand, Renken could be a cruel father enjoying his son’s suffering. Given the extensive time spent showing that scene, spending a couple minutes showing how father and son engage each other elsewhere would have been a bit more enlightening for me.
There are other issues and statements that could have used clarification. One of the pastors expressed a belief that a warrior mentality was supported in the Bible, especially in King David. Yet there were no references to a Bible verse in the New Testament to support their beliefs. The same goes for Father Duffell, who doesn’t cite any scripture when expressing his views on Christ’s love and how activities like MMA are against the teachings of the Bible. In short, for a movie examining Christianity and its relationship to MMA, the Bible is curiously absent from it.
That said, Junge and Storkel’s decision to stand back and simply observe these men in their environments provided what I found to be a fairly objective view of their lives. Fight Church flawlessly moves between each of them and gives us a real look into their mentality. Viewers get a feel for how how all sides view the relationship between Christianity and MMA. Scott Sullivan’s words, in particular, are brutally honest and show the true conflict that has often taken place in my own mind concerning the sport that I love.
Junge and Storkel also do a solid job showing the personal flaws involved with character. One of the stereotypes involving Christians is that they are supposed to be perfect angels once they choose their faith. That couldn’t be further than the truth, and Fight Church effectively presents both the positive and negative aspects of their personalities. The movie shows just how human they really are.
Fight Church isn’t a perfect film. Junge and Storkel could have done more to show the points-of-view of some of the minor players in this film, especially Justin Wren. The former Ultimate Fighter contestant has a unique story, because he actually left MMA to serve as a missionary to the pygmy people in Congo. However, although Wren moved away from fighting, he still loves the sport. More of his point-of-view would have significantly improved an already solid film.
Overall, Fight Church is a great opening look at the relationship between MMA and Christianity. It will open your mind to a world few people know about, if you’re willing to look past a couple minor shortcomings. Fight Church is well-worth the time and money, especially if you are looking for a different view of MMA.