Love thy neighbor. Turn the other cheek. Keep thine hands up, then clobber thy opponent with a vicious cross before choking him out. That’s the Bible according to the subjects of Daniel Junge’s and Bryan Storkel’s new documentary, Fight Church, although that summary does little justice to the film’s depth of study. This isn’t simply a movie about men of the cloth stepping down from the pulpit and into the ring to get closer to Jesus. It’s a movie that examines the very idea of being a man in the 2010s while mulling over deep, personal questions of spiritual belief, both basic and advanced.
That’s a tall order to carry out in a slender eighty-minute time frame, but Junge and Storkel pack the film with information without cutting into its gait. Fight Church moves, and it moves at an impressive clip, segueing from one talking head to the next, traversing close to half-a-dozen different states in the United States to present the broad case of pastors turned MMA scrappers (and vice versa). One moment, we’re with one of the film’s interviewees, the next we’re watching men and women batter each other in competition, and then we’re taken to a place of worship, where we get to see who these people are when they’re not wearing their figurative war paint.
Amazingly, the results never feel over-stuffed or undercooked; there’s a balance here, and the film never tips too far one way or the other to upset its equilibrium. Fight Church doesn’t rush. It just knows exactly what it wants to say, and the most efficient way to say it. We’re introduced to the film’s clerical pugilists in short succession, from Paul Burress to Preston Hocker to John Renken to Nahshon Nicks. The men are as varied as individuals as their reasons for practicing MMA as an extension of or accompaniment to their Christian faith. Paul treats fighting as a lens through which he can filter Biblical allegory, while John espouses his belief in the “warrior ethos,” which frankly sounds about as far away from Jesus as interpretive theology can get.
But as all the best documentaries do, the film refrains from editorializing. There’s no judgment here, or at least if there is, it’s muted and minimal; we’re shown footage of a martial arts competition arranged for the youth in Paul’s church, an enterprise that ends in tears from one young boy as his chagrined father looks on in cool disgust. It’s just about the only time that Junge and Storkel insert themselves into their narrative—the other being a pointed question aimed at John from behind the camera—and even then, there’s no sense that they’re leading their audience on. They want us to see these acts of violence free from any outside influence, and their bipartisanship layers each frame we see with moral complexity.
At times, we may veer more toward hardline conclusions over the content than others; Renken comes off as completely delusional, though only because the film gives him the opportunity to embarrass himself. We also hear from opposing parties, people who don’t think that the teachings of Christ blend well with the violence of MMA, and these people – Father John Duffell and Scott Sullivan—are perhaps more persuasive in their fashion than Fight Church’s primary foci. We might understand where Preston and Nahshon are coming from—they’re certainly earnest about their respective sentiments—but theirs is the side of the argument that’s somewhat harder to swallow. How can you really commit to Jesus and walk his path if you’re consistently putting yourself in a position where you’re beating another human being to a pulp? The film provides some answers, and they somehow manage to make sense and be totally incomprehensible at the same time.
All the while, Fight Church intercuts sequences of actual contests in the ring throughout the conversation. These moments may be the single most convincing element to the pastors’ point of view; they’re brutally hypnotic, making it easy to see how a person could be seduced by the grim ballet of two people duking it out. That’s the movie’s ultimate intention—to allow viewers to peer into this world and rationalize what they see. Maybe the film will change your mind on the matter. Maybe it won’t. Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever heard of the Christian element at play in MMA (it’s more prevalent than you might think), and in that case, just consider the experience educational.
Directors: Daniel Junge, Bryan Storkel
Starring: Paul Burress, Preston Hocker, John Renken, Nahshon Nicks
Release Date: Sept. 16th, 2014