Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ultimate Fighter Jesus

I’ve been thinking of writing this post for quite some time now, but have waited. Partly this has been to put my thoughts into a coherent shape. Partly it’s because I will speak strongly to criticise Christian brothers that I respect and admire.

Let me secondly preface this post by some personal context. I spent over 10 years training in Kung Fu, and a further 2 years in regular and intensive Krav Maga training. I am personally acquainted with the Martial Arts scene, and am not by nature inclined to pacifism.

The trend to portray a more masculine vision of Christian discipleship is a trend to be applauded in the Western churches, which have had an uncomfortable recent history of the feminisation of Christianity, to the point where men find it difficult to relate to churches, the faith, and Jesus himself. However, the shape that this masculine vision takes is one that is frequently under-resourced theologically, and over-resourced culturally.

‘Ultimate Fighting Jesus’ is a false and idolatrous view of Jesus.

Jesus pattern of incarnate male existence continually and consistently rejected violence as a socio-political option, as a messianic-eschatological method, and as a form of entertainment. There is little doubt that the early church for several hundred years considered pacifism to be the definitive ethical position for Christian disciples, and exercised ecclesial discipline on those involved with both military service and gladiatorial spectacles. Tertullian serves as a notable example of early and forceful opposition to the kind of spectacle the gladiatorial games provided. Thus, early church tradition accords with the biblical material.

Even if one holds a just war theory, the glorification of violence-as-entertainment is deeply disturbing and difficult to justify.

I cannot, insofar as I am regenerate, delight in the spectacle of one man damaging the body of another, the fleshly form of the image of God in the world.

The call that this is ‘cultural engagement’ also rings hollow. It is far more ‘cultural endorsement’ than engagement. Christians engaging the porn industry, by contrast, show far more integrity and discretion, than do those glorifying fight-culture. Some tattoos, a six-pack, and a 10-0 record in the ring do not a culturally-relevant Christian make.

Those who worship the Ultimate Fighter Jesus are often guilty of a reverse-reading of the New Testament. The New Testament scriptures regularly metaphorise the language of violence, to speak of spiritual ‘warfare’. They ground the conquest and victory of Jesus in his literal defeat and suffering. They oppose the idea that Christians engage in literal conflict, and offer a powerful counter-cultural paradigm, of Christlike non-retaliation and active nonviolence. Even in that most evocative of militant texts, the Apocalypse of John, the depiction of Jesus as conquerer is consistently and systematically reoriented to his death as sacrificial Lamb, and the theme of vindication is linked to Judgment, not contest. To take the language of violence, metaphorical in the New Testament, and re-concretise it, is a gross mis-reading of the Scriptures.

To those who continue to indulge their sinful flesh in the glories of violence, I call them to repent, and I am more than willing to engage them theologically on the issue. Ultimate Fighter Jesus is yet another mirror for the narcissistic exegete.


Nathan said...


I followed some links to your fine blog a while ago - and added you to a burgeoning pile of blogs I subscribe to but never actually manage to comment on.

This post piqued my curiosity. I can only assume that a preacher from Seattle is firmly in your cross hairs at this point.

I'm not sure that I think the comparison of pornography and ultimate fighting - or the appreciation thereof - is fair. I know the comment was with regards to "engaging" with sub cultures. But I don't think the sub cultures share enough similarities.

I don't think the bible comes out against violence in the same way it does with lust. Nor do I think violence for "sports sake" is the same as violence in real life. I think voyeuristic appreciation of violence - like in cases with cell phone filming of fights on youtube - is far different to two athletes who train in a disciplined manner for their chosen vocation.

If you feel theologically that a line needs to be drawn with regards to enjoying violence as entertainment - I'd be interested to know where that line is drawn regarding fictional violence. And where is the line drawn for other sports that involve physical contact (eg Rugby League).

I read another critique of Driscoll's ultimate fighter Jesus somewhere that argued that Jesus was obviously pro peace and was an advocate of turning the other cheek - which I think is a fair point. And we should obviously do the same.

However, I think Driscoll's point, is that the returning Jesus will come as judge and king - not humble servant. That he's actually someone worth submitting to and owning as Lord.

I would suggest that the New Testament's willingness to embrace the language of warfare - metaphor or not - is indicative that warfare and violence is not taboo. That's just my gutfeel. I haven't seen too many examples of Pauline metaphors glorifying sinful or degenerate behaviour.

Obviously the idea of (and references to) spiritual warfare falls outside the realms of this argument - but I do wonder why pacifism was the traditional position - and why this position is considered to have merit on the basis of tradition?

I also wonder whether your stance on "delighting in the spectacle of one man damaging the body of another" - is a matter of personal opinion and preference, rather than doctrinally sound.

Anyway, this was a long introductory post - I have enjoyed your blogging for a month or two and thought I'd say hi.

Seumas Macdonald said...


Thanks for your comments, and the chance to clarify a number of points.

I do think, that if we did some analysis, there is little difference for the spectator between the voyeuristic watching of a youtube video with two people fighting, and the consumption of the visual spectacle of professional fighters.

I would consider sports, including Rugby League, to be a different matter. They are built around contest, and while they can be quite physical, violence is not essential to them. There are questions to be asked about both the tribalism and the violence associated with various football codes in various countries, but I think the line can be drawn.

It seems to me, from the NT data, that there are two threads in the portrayal of Jesus that are relevant here.

On the one hand, there is almost no argument that Jesus renounced violence in the course of his earthly life. I think it's significant that passages like 1 Peter 2, 3, continually connect Christian discipleship with imitation of Jesus' in his righteous suffering. Our consistent ethical pattern in Jesus is his earthly life and his full humanity, culminating in suffering and death.

There is certainly, and I would want to fully affirm, the portrayal of Jesus as returning King and Judge. But I would point out that nowhere are we called to imitate Jesus in this regard, though at some points we are to share in his Kingship. Further, I think the book of Revelation makes a very deliberate strategy of portraying Jesus as the uncontestable Judge, who has won by his death, so that the notion of warfare is subsumed under the notion of justice.

Unlike a number (I have some bloggers in mind particularly) of others, I do not think a biblical doctrine of pacifism holds together if you strip it of the atonement and of the judgment of God, but rather will only hold together if we have such a robust view of Jesus.

My point about tradition is always liable to misunderstanding. Unless we have such a view of church history that as soon as John finished the final words of Revelation and the NT canon closed, the church suddenly lost its way, then I continue to contend that the witness of the early church provides an important socio-historical witness to how those closest culturally to the NT understood, were taught, and practised their faith. In this case, I think that witness strongly affirms the biblical material.

Lastly, let me say that the fact that I do not delight in the spectacle of violence is, for me, a matter of conviction, not preference. In my nature I delight to watch violence, and eager to throw my own punches. Only as I read the scriptures I am again and again convinced that Jesus both teaches and demonstrates another way, the way of the cross, and I find myself helpless but to follow him. I may be wrong, I may be misreading those scriptures, but that's where my convictions come from.

I realise I have not addressed the analogy between violence and lust, to which I will just comment, I do not wish to equate their level of seriousness or nature of the problem, but I do think the analogy is worth making.

Thanks again.

Nathan said...

"I do think, that if we did some analysis, there is little difference for the spectator between the voyeuristic watching of a youtube video with two people fighting, and the consumption of the visual spectacle of professional fighters."

What about violent films? Computer games?

I'm still not convinced that an appreciation of athletic violence is a bad thing. These fighters train, they don't hate each other outside the ring (in most cases). Is it specifically ultimate fighting you take umbrage with - or does boxing come under the same banner. What about WWE where the program acknowledges that it's "entertainment" and not real... While I respect your convictions, I'm still not comfortable with legislating UFC, or the appreciation thereof, as sin. Which I believe is essentially what you're doing when you call people to repent.
If it causes you to want to angrilly beat your neighbour to a pulp - that's sin. But I don't think the sport itself is, more the reactions of particular individuals who struggle with particular issues. In my mind it's a food sacrificed to idols deal. Don't watch if you're with someone who will stumble as a result - but not an inherently bad thing.

UFC operates in a framework where fighters can bail at any time - it's not gladiatorial in the sense of ancient Rome and fights to the death. I don't see the two as equal - although they're comparable.

I think the analogy with pornography raises some interesting questions - particularly with the current debate on art v porn. I think UFC is comparable to the art side of that debate. It's not designed to raise a frenzied response in people in the same way that dog fighting, or gladiatorial combat is - but it's an appreciation of the "form" of combat - in the same way that art featuring the human form celebrates it. And certain people will pervert that form in sinful ways.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Violent films and Computer Games: I would suggest there is a spectrum of abstraction and depiction, and that the more stylised and abstract both violence and sex are, the more we would consider them artistic depictions. The more graphic and realistic they are, the more I would consider them critically.

The UFC provides an extreme example, but I'd extend the same principle to other sports of the kind. They are constructed as realistic presentations of human violence. WWE and the like may be further down the spectrum to entertainment, but their fundamental portrayal has the same foundation.

Roman gladiatorial combat provides a better analogy than people realise, I suspect. From my understanding of the historical reality, gladiators tended to fight for entertainment, and the value of training gladiators meant that 'to the death' was a lot rarer than we think. Apart from the use of arenas to execute slaves, gladiators were far more comparable to things like the UFC than we tend to think.

If the analogy with porn holds up, then I would be loathe to take a subjectivist position, and say, "It's fine if it doesn't cause you to stumble" - I wouldn't say that about porn, so by analogy I wouldn't say that about voyeuristic violence.

I am prepared to hold a distinction between art and porn, and I think a similar distinction holds in the depiction of violence, and I think the nature of things like the UFC falls on the wrong side of that.

I do recognise and respect your reluctance to class something as a sin that seems a matter of preference or indifference. What I am suggesting is that, while it is far from a core gospel-issue, it is an ethical and doctrinal issue of some significance, about which Christians should at least say, "I disagree", rather than, "It doesn't matter".

CraigS said...

Hi Seamus, do you have any specifically biblical arguments against Mixed Martial Arts? Thanks!

Seumas Macdonald said...

Craig, give me a few days and I will write specifically on the topic.