NYT's reporting tap out

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I've previously come across kung fu ministries. When I worked in the Inland Empire, I even attended a church event where former wrestlers and football players broke burning stacks of bricks instead of breaking bread. But did you hear the one about MMA -- not watching it but actually doing it -- was the latest trend to take over evangelical America? That's the impression you might get from this New York Times story that opens with Pastor John Renken leading a small group of men in prayer:

An hour later, a member of his flock who had bowed his head was now unleashing a torrent of blows on an opponent, and Mr. Renken was offering guidance that was not exactly prayerful.

"Hard punches!" he shouted from the sidelines of a martial arts event called Cage Assault. "Finish the fight! To the head! To the head!" ...

Mr. Renken's ministry is one of a small but growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts -- a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles -- to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low. Mixed martial arts events have drawn millions of television viewers, and one was the top pay-per-view event in 2009.

Recruitment efforts at the churches, which are predominantly white, involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in. Other ministers go further, hosting or participating in live events.

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries -- and into the image of Jesus -- in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. "Compassion and love -- we agree with all that stuff, too," said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. "But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter."

Right ... compassion and love and all that other sissy crap.

I guess we should start with something the reporter didn't even touch. It might seem surprising that in such a story there is hardly a mention of the theological tension of Christian cage-fighting, but look closely. It's not there. The NYT understood this tension two years ago when writing about an Orthodox rabbinic student who was an up-and-coming boxer; today Yuri Foreman is a world champ.

We don't get that here. Reporter R.M. Schneiderman quotes "Timothy 6:12" -- wait a second, there are two canonized books of Timothy! -- but that's not tension. That is a verse that the article's subjects use to justify their macho Jesus.

So what are the theological issues? Here's two bones, via Joe Carter at First Things:

# It makes the gospel man-centered. Coming to Jesus isn't a way for you to deal with your daddy issues. I get it, your dad didn't hug you when you were little and you want to be a different kind of man. How about you go hug your kid then? Jesus didn’t come to help you get in touch with your inner MMA fighter.

# Like it or not, the gospel is at least in part about weakness. It's about the almighty becoming weak to save us. It's about us being helpless and unable in our sins. There's no way to Christ that doesn't start with brokenness and an admission of impotence. Yes, Jesus is the strong man who binds the adversary, but he bound him by suffering, humiliation, and weakness.

And the journalism? Well, aside from the books of the Bible error, which doesn't appear in the correction already appended to this story online, the article is heavy on colorful details but light on revealing facts.

For the media criticism, I should just turn this over to the gold standard, Slate's Jack Shafer. He has a knack for unraveling bogus trend stories. And he had no trouble here:

The Times accepts estimates from pastors who figure that 700 of the nation's 115,000 white evangelical churches have taken up mixed martial arts. But the story names only three palooka ministries: Xtreme Ministries, Canyon Creek Church, and Victory Baptist Church. How do we know that the movement is growing? The piece hypes the fact that a company named Jesus Didn't Tap markets apparel for the Fight-Club-for-Jesus crowd and that a social-networking site for the movement exists but offers no evidence that this tendency has taken root and is growing.

In a stroke of irony, one I'm sure was not lost on Shafer, he finds two more examples of thin trends that have appeared recently in the NYT to indicate a new trend: that The New York Times has cornered the market on the bogus trend story. Tap out, anyone?

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