From Fight Church to Bronies: Reimagining Masculine Spirituality

During the last several weeks I’ve been seeing three-a-day movies at press screenings for the Seattle International Film Festival (Siff). Besides serving as slim justification for my lack of posts (obligatory genre requirement, fulfilled), this random factoid will provide context, later on, for why I am posting about Bronies.

Before I get there, however, I need to back up a few steps. There’s a disturbing phenomenon that I’ve seen and heard in news stories about the growing trend of “open carry” demonstrations in public places. I am deeply disturbed by groups of people–usually composed of Southern, white, men (like myself)–carrying loaded assault weapons into crowded public places (and–spoiler alert–some of these groups have been making violent threats against women. I wonder how they feel about immigrants and equal workplace protections. . .?).

To be honest, this behavior doesn’t surprise me. It is a predictable outcome of a culture that has operating definitions of rights (and righteousness) as well as masculinity, that grow from a deeply rooted fear of what is different.

It is fear, and the frail attempt to control what is unknown, that drives us to arm ourselves against our neighbors. Couple this culture of fear of others with a fear of a God who will damn us to hell for getting anything wrong and, well, it sets us up for one hell of a shitshow (pardon my technical theological language).

And yet, at the same time, there is much good in our world. There is a growing tide to expose and prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. There are cultural shifts, changing institutionalized oppressive norms that protect abusive masculine power structures that have allowed for a range of wrongs, from domestic violence to unequal pay.

And so, it is no surprise, that those with male bodies and male identities are feeling the pressing need to beg the question of what kind of masculinity we will cultivate in ourselves and in one another.

As I mentioned, I’ve been gorging on cinema at Siff. And to tell it true, my taste in film runs a little bleak. Give me a depressing documentary about one woman battling a terminal illness while trying to complete her life’s work to save ancient cultural artifacts that are being destroyed by a climate-change-denying despot who is eating children for breakfast while poisoning water through fracking (all accompanied by a gray piano soundtrack) and I’ll swoon.

So, when I saw, on the schedule, a documentary called “Fight Church” I knew I couldn’t miss it. This film follows a number of Evangelical Christian pastors who run “ministries” centering on teaching boys and men mixed martial arts and cage fighting. The film would be less disturbing if, like snake handling church, these ministries were aberrant oddities of a tradition, rather than a fairly predictable outgrowth of this subculture–with estimates of around 700 of these ministries around the USA (as compared to about 40 snake handling churches).

What I saw in the film made me cry–particularly one scene in which a young boy who was being trained to fight and, after being hurt, was told by his father and minister that what was happening was good and that he was not hurt–Trauma? Check. Brainwashing? Double-check.

I think what’s so heinous is not just that this is happening, but that it is happening in the name of Jesus; this violent masculinity, which its practitioners described as being about protecting, battling “the enemy,” and converting people “through whatever means necessary,” reeks of contradiction to the gospel of Jesus, so how can it be a useful model of masculine spirituality for Christians?

(Also,–spoiler alert–news reports this week say that one of the pastors featured in the film has been accused of multiple instances of sexual assault of women and men in his church. No, no one is surprised by that.)

In contrast to using strength to aggressively inflict violence in a competitive system predicated on winning through inflicting harm, I believe that masculine strength can be used in other ways.

One model that seems like it would be helpful for evangelical males is, ya know, Jesus.

But since that doesn’t seem to be working out all that well, perhaps St. Francis–tamer of wolves and fearful people seeking self-preservation, might be of assistance (no really, go read the story of St. Francis and the wolf. I’ll wait).

There’s a prayer from the early part of the 20th century that captures the spirit of St. Francis, so much so, that it has been called the prayer of St. Francis. It’s also noteworthy that it became popular in The United States during and following WWII–a time marked by fearfulness, deep racism, and the rise of nuclear-backed global military domination.

One version of the prayer goes like this:

O Lord, make me an instrument of Your Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light, and
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I
may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are awakened to Eternal Life.

I make mention of this prayer, because it came to me this evening as I watched, out of curiousity, my first (and second) ever episode(s) of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

You read that correctly.

The reason for my excursion into the land of Equestria is that, today at Siff, I watched another documentary entitled “A Brony Tale.” For the unaquainted, a “Brony” is typically a male between the ages of 15 and 30 who is a fan of My Little Pony. Though the etymology is debated, most people think of it as a combination of “bro” and pony.

When I first saw a preview for this film, I knew that I had to see it. I had heard of Bronies before, but had never been motivated enough to research and see what they were all about.

But the truth is, I have a deep fascination with fandoms of all types. I don’t understand them whatsoever. I’m as geeky about my favorite shows, films, music, and games as the next person, but I’ve never felt so swept up by them that I would don a t-shirt, draw a picture, write fanfic, or go to a convention.

I guess the closest I’ve come is in my love for Wendell Berry. If there’s a BerryCon out there somewhere that I haven’t heard about, someone please tell me–though I’m sure I’d have to find out by letter and it would be held somewhere in the foothills of Kentucky–and only accessible by riverboat.

But I digress. Back to Bronies.

Before watching the film, I didn’t know what to expect, other than that, like with most online fandoms, my stereotype was that they would be pretty socially awkward. This was somewhat true–but no more so than the every day kind of awkward that we all participate in (see: Daniel making small-talk, Daniel walking toward a stranger and trying to figure out who will pass on which side, etc.).

The thing that stood out to me the most along the way was that all of these young males shown in the film have come to a place where they have taken a stand against the type of isolating masculinity that they were handed as boys. Moreover, they found that they resonated with the values of friendship, cooperation, and community found in this show aimed at very young females (Of course, much could be said here about which characteristics we socially encourage on a gendered basis).

Out of their embrace of the imaginative world of the ponies, these men are artistically and enthusiastically reaching out and forming communities with other men (and some women), wherein they are celebrating values around cooperation, creativity, playfulness, and growth through making mistakes and learning together. In some sense, it’s as though they’ve picked up that society neglected to teach them these things and so, they’re going to where those lessons can be found and learning them now.

I really don’t know what to say. After the film, I couldn’t stop smiling. On discussing it with the friend sitting next to me, he confirmed that he also realized that he had been smiling through the whole film. I really don’t know the last time I smiled through an entire film.

What was it that impacted us both so much? Is it the strangeness? The bizarre factor? Or perhaps–could it be–the Bronies, like St. Francis, are on to a different way of holding a masculine identity that finds male strength–not in violence, but in working and playfully imagining the world in the direction of greater peace?

I know, it’s a hard sell to suggest that we replace fight churches with Bronycons. But I’m pretty sure that it would make the world about 20% cooler.

As I watched the story of a young man who had served military tours in Afghanistan speak of how, on his return, drawing ponies helped him through depression–as he spoke of internalizing the mothering presence modeled in Princess Celestia, and I saw the tender aliveness in his eyes, I could do nothing else but break into a smile as I witnessed the beauty of transformation. The resourcefulness of these young men–to go out and find what was withheld from them by a destructive version of masculinity–is breathtaking.

So, when I got home, I searched “My Little Pony episodes” and got a result for episodes 1 & 2 from season 4. Watching them, I began to piece together the mythology of the show, particularly the recap of the history of a trickster character named discord–a dragon who’s chaos-making is stopped by the ponies’ commitment to mutual support  and cooperation, through the magic of harmony. And that’s when these words swelled up in me:

. . .Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony. . .

What is going on in USAmerican masculinity–particularly in Christian churches, that we define thriving as violence rooted in defensiveness and fear that boisterously denies our human fragility? What would it look like to embrace the full range of our emotions, to be honest about our inability to protect against harm–even to name where we have been harmed, and reach out to build a community that celebrates our dependence on one another, thus enabling room for recovery?

I believe that the Bronies may have found some of that, and I’m quite of fan of their fandom.

I have a photograph that I have lived with for the past decade. It is of a cosmology mural on a wall at Mitad del Mundo (literally, “Middle of the World;” a park at the equator) in Ecuador. It is a spiritual landscape containing sacred condors, mountains, ancestors, and a ladder to the sky. And in the center is an image of an indigenous man who is tied to a stake, and next to him another man–a conquistador–is about to kill him. Next to these two men stands a third man–a priest–reading from an open Bible. It is a picture of conversion at any cost.

This legacy of violence is the natural unfolding of a Christian spirituality paired with masculinity that is defined by fearful assertion of strength over and against others who are different; who we don’t understand.

But after my afternoon with the Bronies and Saint Francis, I re-imagined that image in a way that I had not considered in ten years of its weight on my conscience.

What if the priest was there to convert the conquistador rather than the victimized indigenous man? What if, failing to convert the violent warrior, he placed his own body between the other two, in community with the other man who was also unable to stop the violence on his own?

And where is Jesus in this picture? Where is Jesus in the fight churches, in the peewee football clubs, in the open carry demonstrations, in the ROTC programs in impoverished communities, in the frat houses and the board rooms? And could it be that healthy masculine spiritual identities might be better modeled after a My Little Pony fandom than rhetoric derived from the violence of the crusades?

I never imagined that was a question that I’d be asking. But then, I’m often surprised at where God’s Spirit is working in the world.