This essay analyzes blogs, sermons, videos, and published interviews to examine the religious rhetoric of Christian practitioners of mixed martial arts as well as pastors who promote or reference the sport in their sermons. In the tradition of muscular Christianity (the Bible-based manhood movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries), these fighters and pastors argue that MMA teaches Christian virtues such as discipline and self-control. Linking a healthy physical body with a healthy mind and spirit, they suggest that athletes enact and embody Christian values and ideals of manliness. Some scholars (such as Tony Ladd and James Mathisen) have argued that modern incarnations of muscular Christianity preach a mere “folk theology”—that is, essentially a locker-room pep talk with a touch of Jesus thrown in. Drawing on the field of lived religion, however, I argue that practitioners of Christian MMA experience a close connection between the sport and their religious beliefs. Though the theology may take the language of the “folk,” certain values (discipline and self-sacrifice), theological positions (premillennialism, life as a struggle, Jesus as the focus of religion), and social agendas (addressing masculine aggression and religious and cultural effeminacy) characterize both turn-of-the-century muscular Christianity and Christian MMA today. Athletes strive to imitate Christ and embody Christian values—aided, perhaps, by the bodily practice of their sport. Their focus on Jesus at the expense of doctrine does not indicate a lack of theology. Rather, the image of a manly Christ who will not give up represents a strong, assertive, masculine ideal that fits clearly into an evangelical worldview.
- © 2014 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture