Thinking About Religion
Volume 1 (2000)

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'Gideon the Black Belt':
Finding Harmony Through Hermeneutic

Dr. Kenneth Hoglund
Wake Forest University


Faced with a tension between the ‘pagan’ origins of the martial arts and a Fundamentalist frame of reference that demands all values must flow from the Bible, the Gospel Martial Arts Union employs a creative hermeneutic strategy to resolve the conflict. The result of this strategy is a reunderstanding of the narratives depicting Israel’s ‘heroic’ age to be in part expressive of traditional martial arts values, hence providing a non-asiatic origin for the martial disciplines and permission for individuals to remain completely faithful to a fundamentalist framework while enjoying the benefits of the martial arts.


Christians have no business being involved in the martial arts, even at the most elementary level.

            Among the minor skirmishes of the "culture wars" between Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians and American culture, the debate over the propriety of Christian participation in the martial arts has generated a considerable range of opinion. It is not difficult to find categorical statements, such as that above, on a variety of web sites. Perhaps more interesting, from the standpoint of the creation of a unique hermeneutic, are those organizations that seek to promote a Christianized version of the martial arts. While several such organizations exit, none have articulated as coherent a position of being both dedicated to the martial arts and to an Evangelical/Fundamentalist frame of reference as the Gospel Martial Arts Union (GMAU).

Founded in 1986, the GMAU has produced a wide range of publications as well as an extensive web site. Starting from a doctrinal foundation the GMAU clearly sees itself in a very conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist framework. Among the points affirmed as a shared belief is the "accuracy, validity, and inerrancy of the Genesis accounts of creation and fall of humankind." The Bible is affirmed to be the result of "verbal-plenary inspiration," and the "final authority for faith and practice for the Christian." Among other points of doctrine stressed by the organization is the "existence of a real, literal hell into which the unbeliever shall be cast unto judgment and everlasting, conscious punishment." The purposes of the organization include enabling members "to associate, grow and flourish in an organization without being unequally yoked with unbelievers and unbelieving philosophies." Given the antipathy with which the martial arts are viewed by other Evangelical/Fundamentalist groups, the GMAU seeks to accomplish its goals by a creative hermeneutic, providing a biblical basis to its promotion of the martial arts. This hermeneutic begins with a revision of the history of the martial arts themselves.

            While there is little clarity regarding the origins of the martial arts, a wide consensus exists that sees the introduction the systematic fighting styles into China in the sixth century CE as a decisive moment, leading to a synthesis of Taoist and Buddhist, especially Zen, concepts that become incorporated into the martial arts curriculum. From this origination point, the martial arts diffused across Asia, adapting and shifting emphases depending on the cultural contexts in which they were manifested. However, while particular styles and forms may have changed, many of the underlying concepts of the human condition and its potentialities, based in the synthesis of eastern concepts, remained constant.

            The GMAU begins, not by questioning this lineage to the martial arts, but by probing back into possible antecedents. While noting one theory which places the origins of the martial arts in China during the Chou Dynasty of the first millennium BCE, the organization asserts they were practiced in Egypt as early as 3000 BCE. In one of the publications of the founder of the organization, boxing is traced back to Egypt in 4000 BCE. Having placed the origin of martial arts in the ancient Near East in the time prior to the prevailing setting of the Old Testament, it is possible to see in a number of narratives "a variety of martial arts activities in the Old Testament." Some of the examples include 1 Samuel 13 and 14 where Jonathan’s armor-bearer "struck an empty-handed ‘death blow’" in a battle against the Philistines, and Pss 18 and 144 where the Psalmist’s expression that God had trained his "hands for warfare" is interpreted as training in the martial arts. The conclusion is clear; an argument can be made that "the martial arts originated in Biblical Old Testament times. If so, the spiritual and philosophical foundation of the martial arts would have to be that of the Old Testament."

Having reinterpreted the historical origins of the martial arts, the publications of the GMAU go on to present samples of exemplary application of "martial arts techniques" from the Bible. The hero traditions of ancient Israel as preserved in the Old Testament are put to service as such examples. Figures such as Samson, Joshua, and especially the warrior-king David all provide elements of techniques that become fixtures of the martial arts. However, the records of one figure in particular are carefully exegeted for what they offer in the way of illustrating martial arts techniques, that being Gideon.

            As examples of the creative interpretation of Old Testament texts in light of the new historical vision of the martial arts offered by the GMAU, we will examine four specific elements to the narratives of Gideon’s judgeship. First, the founder of the GMAU notes Gideon’s being termed a "mighty man of valor" in Judges 6.12. This is connected with a purported "root word" meaning to "stomp and dance—very similar to the martial arts katas." By noting this improbable connection by means of a kind of midrashic method, the reader is led to believe Gideon was a "mighty man" because of his performance of katas.

            A second example has to do with the "qualifications of a warrior." This is an examination of the process described in Judges 7.1-8 relating to the selection of a final assault force to attack the Midianites. While the examination of the narrative sticks very close to the basic outline of the text, the author goes on to note, "The ratio of 300 soldiers remaining from a field of 32,000 is similar to my experience with modern day black belts." After reviewing his over two decades of teaching, the author goes on to note the same ratio prevailed among "eager young soldiers of nearly 3,000 years ago." Though there is nothing in the text to suggest this process of elimination was connected to dedication (or lack of it) to disciplined training, the drawing of a connection between Gideon’s selection process and the author’s rate of training black belts further confirms by implication the assumption that these Old Testament narratives are illustrating modern experiences of the martial arts.

            A third element is seen in the interpretation offered for Judges 7.12-15 where Gideon spys on the Midianite camp, and overhears two soldiers coming to understand a dream as revealing that Gideon and Israel will win the battle. This imagining factor is tied into the martial arts concept of the Ki/Chi: "While much of Ki/Chi development involves physical conditioning, a major factor comes from the proper character and balanced living…of the practitioner as demonstrated by Gideon." This line of interpretation goes on to note that despite outnumbering Israel, the Midianites "had already lost the battle in their minds." Rather than following the narrative’s lead in seeing this as the work of God, Gideon is credited with employing the martial arts technique of "mind-leading, the use of actions, eyes, voice and posturing to ‘lead’ the opponent’s mind to a position of vulnerability and defeat," Thus, though not suggested by any element of the narrative itself (in fact, one might conclude contravened by the text), Gideon’s spying mission is reunderstood as a the application of "mind-leading" by a martial arts practitioner. Again, by inference, articulating a harmony between modern martial arts and this heroic figure of Israel’s past.

            Lastly, in interpreting the significance of the narratives relating the actual engagement with the Midianites in battle (Judges 7.16-25), Gideon’s instructions to his forces to "look on me and do likewise" is given a different twist. In context, it acts to provide the small assault force with a way to coordinate their surprise attack on the Midian encampment, and thus enhance the disruptive force of their effort. But as articulated by the GMAU, "As a leader, he would set the example for others to follow." This is tied into the "highest calling of the martial arts master" which is to "set the personal example (spiritually, mentally and physically) for others to follow." Thus once again, a text is interpreted largely apart from a context of warfare and in its place is situated in the framework of martial arts instruction.

            The conclusion to this exegetical effort nicely ties the reappropriation of the history of the martial arts with the results of this exegesis, pointing again to how significant a role the revisioning of the origins of the martial arts is to this approach.

Martial artists of today can benefit much from studying martial Arts principles found in the stories of the Old Testament. As Predecessors of the Oriental martial arts, the Middle Eastern Artists practiced the principles and character development
Which is a reflection of Biblical truth.

Thus the best elements of the martial arts, their emphasis on self-discipline, physical conditioning, moral value, etc. are seen as the contribution of an origin long before the influence of non-Christian religious thought.

Faced with a prevailing rootedness of the martial arts in eastern religions, the Gospel Martial Arts Union has reappropriated the history of the martial arts, creating an opening for them to exist in the timeframe of the Old Testament. Taking this new vision of history in hand, an innovative set of interpretive strategies are employed that allow for the basic tenants of the martial arts to be connected with the hero traditions of ancient Israel. This step removes the martial arts from an alien cultural and religious context, providing permission for individuals to remain completely faithful to the Bible and at the same time to engage in the recreational and personal benefits of the martial arts.

Dr. Kenneth Hoglund
Assoc. Professor
Dept. of Religion
Wake Forest University

Thinking About Religion, Volume 1
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