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'Fight Church'

"Fight Church" enters the octagon with Christian mixed-martial arts ministries.

After Paul "The Preacher" Burress faces an opponent in a cage fight, he tells the crowd Jesus didn't tap out either. The next morning, he's delivering an Easter sermon to his congregation, where he's developed a men's club that uses MMA as a community and brotherly tool.

Father John Duffel, a straight-talking New York priest, likely never imagined scenes like the ones in "Fight Church." To him, mixed-martial arts violate Jesus' teachings, much less constitute an outreach tool.

To Burress and many similar fighter-pastors, the ring provides another means to use God's gifts or bend to his will, depending on the individual.

The documentary "Fight Church," by directors Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, will have its Montana premiere.

The events in the 2014 release coincide with MMA's gradual rise into mainstream American culture - not just sports bars but churches, too.

The filmmakers check in on the efforts in the New York Legislature to lift a ban on professional MMA fights. In the assembly and the culture at large, the debate centers on whether MMA, with fewer pads and more punishment than boxing, is a sport at all, much less one that should be legal.

"Fight Church" is less concerned with that categorical question than a spiritual one: Can you reconcile Christian teachings with the violence of the ring?

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The filmmakers find more than one pastor-fighter to interview in regard to that question. One argues that "lost people are watching MMA, that's where we should be." Another says, "meekness is controlled strength." Some seem to spend more than a little time on the pulpit promoting their own fights.

Burress said the Christian MMA ministries are merely a sign of the sports rising popularity.

He and another subject of the film were raised by pastors in wrestling families, and the progression of the more extreme sport seems natural.

Others, such as a pastor whose church uses Crusader cross iconography and wears a gun to church, preaches that mainstream culture has feminized men and promotes a warrior ethos. (Father Duffel dutifully appears on screen to remind us that war is destructive.)

"Fight Church" notably spends more time contemplating its questions than in the ring. In the latter half, it devotes more space to cage-fighting itself, including a fight billed as a "pastor vs. pastor" showdown.

Whether the results are a pure expression of God-given abilities or a defiance of his will depends entirely on what you bring to the octagon, pew or the movie screening.

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