If you’ve ever watched a Jackie Chan flick or two, you are probably aware that there are many, many martial arts that are modeled on an imitation of one animal or another. There are tiger styles, crane styles, preying mantis, lion, bear, monkey, snake, rooster, crab, and even dragon, phoenix and unicorn. And many, many more.
I occasionally meet a well-meaning Christian who objects that it’s not right for a human being to cultivate the imitation of animals, and that therefore the animal stylings in martial arts should not be practiced by Christians. God commanded us to have dominion over the creation, including the animals, and we must approach the world like men, not like subordinate creatures. Or so goes the objection.
Obviously, we’re sinners, and we can always find a way to mess something up. I’d like to say right up front that an animistic approach to an animal style would be a serious problem. Adopting a totem animal, seeking a spirit guide, all those things, should be forsaken by Christians. The question here is not whether an animal style could be wrong—obviously, yes—but whether it must be wrong. It is possible to practice an animal style in a way that is compatible with Christian belief?
I believe it is, and I will follow two lines of argument. The first is that the Bible itself teaches us to learn from and imitate animals, in order to be better men. The second has to do with the biblical meaning of animals—but we’ll get there in due time.
In Solomon’s instructions to his son, he writes, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.” In the following instruction, Solomon enumerates the ways in which his son ought to be like the ant. According to the prophet Hosea, when Yahweh describes himself going to war against Israel, he compares Himself to a lion, a leopard, and a bear. Jesus is described as the Lamb of God and the Lion of the tribe of Judah. If it is always bad for a human to behave like an animal, why does God say that He does?
That, really, is a sufficient answer. If God tells us to learn lessons from animals, and compares Himself to animals when He is fighting, then why should we be afraid to learn lessons from animals about fighting?
Thus far sound, obvious theological reflection—a trifle pedestrian, perhaps, but safe enough ground. But if we’re willing to think a little more poetically, the Scriptures give us a great deal more to think about. This will, of course, be more indirect. We’ll have to consider angels, creation, the meaning of animals and the role of men in the world. But if we can follow the path the Bible lays, we may find ourselves a good deal richer for the effort. We’ll begin with the angels.
Descriptions of angelic beings are relatively sparse in the Bible, but there are some common themes. Consider the following:
Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings. Their wings touched one another. The creatures did not turn when they went, but each one went straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 1:6-10)
Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:6-8)
Descriptions of angels in the Bible draw on a variety of animal features. Some angels appear as men, but many others appear as animals, or an odd mixture of animal parts. Hold onto that thought for a moment, and let’s consider the order of creation.
The angels already existed when God made the earth. We know this because when God is taking Job to task in Job 38, He says that the angels rejoiced at the earth’s creation:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Later in the creation week, when God filled the sea and skies with fish and birds, and the land with animals, the angels were already in existence. Which means that it isn’t so much that angels look like animals, as that animals look like angels — or angel parts. Man is the image of God; animals are the images of angels.
Man was given the animals as part of his dominion, and although our dominion has continued to extend and improve, we are a long way from maturity. We have mismanaged the animals God committed to our care in just about every way possible. Some kinds of animals have gone extinct because the world is cursed for our sake; other kinds we have driven into extinction through neglect, inept management, or worse. We have frequently swung the pendulum to the other extreme and worshiped the animals in various ways, which is just as grievous a sin.
So we have a long way to go. But the animals are there, in part, to help us grow to maturity. When we can lovingly manage the animals God put on earth, we will have really accomplished something. And in eternity, it will not just be the animals God commits to our jurisdiction, but the angels they are made to resemble (1Cor.6:3).
Putting all this together, how should we think of an animal styling in martial art? God has built lessons into the creation, in part through the animals. So there are lessons about movement and perhaps fighting that we can learn in that way. And in learning these lessons, we are not just learning from animals but from the earthly images of angels.
But let’s take it beyond that. In fact, let’s consider an absolute worst-case scenario.
Let us suppose that in the jungles of Indonesia lives a minor demon resembling a bat (or, as we just learned, bats resemble the demon). In the guise of a bat spirit he has established contact with an up-and-coming shaman, insinuating himself as the man’s spirit guide. He guides the young man to Fork-Island Village (so named because it’s on an island in the middle of the fork in a river). As the young shaman enters the village, the village shaman, a wizened old man, staggers out of his hut, shouts out “The bat! The bat!” and dies.
Seizing the opportunity which his patron demon has created for him, the young shaman ensconces himself as the shaman of the village, and through his influence, the village begins to worship and sacrifice to the bat-demon. The village champion, in collaboration with the shaman and through a series of trances where he meets the demon, begins to formulate a martial practice around bat-like motions. The demon has been watching humanity for the whole of its history, and has learned far more than he could ever teach a human in one lifetime. As long as the champion continues to worship him, the demon teaches him things about combat and human anatomy that he could never have otherwise learned. The champion grows more skilled and vicious than ever, and the young men of the village beg him to teach them. Soon they, too, are journeying into the jungle with the shaman and the champion to enter into a trance and meet the bat.
Five generations later, Fork-Island Village is large, well-defended, and prosperous. The Bat-Style of Fork-Island Village is spoken of in hushed whispers, and its champions feared for miles around. It is said that an adept can move in utter silence through the night, kill an adversary from across the room merely by pointing at him with his sacred blade, and disappear as though he had never been. It is said that a true master of the Bat-Style can fly, and fall upon his enemies without warning from the night sky. How much is truth and how much is fanciful rumor, or stories spread by the villagers themselves as psychological warfare? No way to know. And as it is presently taught, with worship of the bat-demon as the point of entry and a continuing, integral focus of the martial art, no Christian should study it.
But let us further suppose that some members of that village move into the cities, and thence to the West. The father of one family converts to Christianity. Serving only Jesus, he no longer enters trances to meet the bat. He no longer offers sacrifices to it. He breaks his sacred blade, dedicated to the bat, and throws it away. But he keeps the physical practice, the movements, the knowledge of the human body’s vulnerabilities, the skills of redirection, physical deception and decoy, striking blows that penetrate deeply into the body; he’s still as adept a fighter as ever he was.
He moves in next door to you. You go out and help them carry in boxes. A few days later, he asks to borrow your lawnmower. You let him. He returns it scrubbed clean as the day you bought it, with a full tank of gas. You invite him to church, and discover that he’s a believer. He joins your church, your kids play and study together, and your families become friends. One day you see him doing some funky kung-fu-looking thing in the backyard. You ask him what he’s doing, and he tells you the story and asks you if you want to learn.
Could you, in good conscience?
Why not? Whatever he has learned about how the human body works, how to move it and how to damage it—if it’s true, then it’s God, not the demon, who made the body that way. He has learned truths about creation that God put into the creation to be discovered. Those who uncovered this knowledge should have served Christ with it. If he is now doing that, then he is doing what his ancestors—and the demon—ought to have done all along. You have a chance to join him in that, and to be a living rebuke to the bat-demon and his worshipers, a demonstration that their secrets reveal the glory of God, as all creation does. Why not do it?