Last night we watched “Fireproof” because Jon Netflixed it after countless friends and family members told us we just had to see it. Now, I spent a summer working in Family Christian Bookstore, and to say it made me cynical about “Christian” “art” would be an understatement, so I went into the movie fully expecting to mock and hate it. Jon knew this and was fully expecting my running commentary.
The basic plot of the film is that a married couple is on the brink of divorce, mostly because the husband is a borderline emotionally abusive, anger-freak, porn-loving, workaholic, layabout who disrespects his wife at every turn. Meanwhile the wife is dealing with her aging parents and a mother who just had a stroke, so she is emotionally stressed and in need of support and encouragement, which she keeps finding in the form of a nice doctor at work instead of in her husband. One of the biggest points of contention is that the husband has saved up around $20k and wants to spend it on a boat, refusing to use that money to help his stroke-victim mother-in-law get a new wheelchair and bed. (Warning, some spoilers ahead, but if you don’t know how this one is going to turn out before you see it, then you don’t know jack about “Christian” fiction.)
I can admit that in some ways the plot surprised me. So many Christian marriage books and studies I’ve read love to blame failing marriages on wives who just aren’t trying hard enough to please their men, and I expected this film to be in a similar vein. I was refreshingly surprised that they made no bones about the fact that the husband is an asshole. It was clearly him in need of a change, and it was clearly he who needed to ask for forgiveness, both from his wife and from God. They did not shy away from really making him look terrible, and in one scene when he was in his wife’s face screaming, I fully expected him to hit her. He didn’t, and the film seemed to play off the scene as just a fight, when perhaps it could have indicated that just because there’s no hitting involved doesn’t mean it’s not abuse. The film also didn’t seem to have any problem with the fact that the more-educated wife worked outside the home, in a more-high-powered PR job that paid more of the bills than the husband’s firefighting job.
Still, while the film itself wasn’t sexist, the Kirk Cameron character clearly was. He disrespected his wife and mother on a regular basis, and frequently referred to women as “nagging” or “grating,” indicating he really just has a problem with women who speak their minds. In some ways, he just seemed to have “white man syndrome,” as in another scene he invokes his workplace superiority to his “wise black friend” when WBF’s criticism and sermonizing hits too close to home. (The film also features “sassy black ladies” who use poor grammar.)
In some ways, the film vindicated my major critiques of Christian “art,” which usually center around the fact that it is often poorly made and unoriginal. The film was poorly written and shot, and the acting was terrible, even from Kirk Cameron (shock!). Perhaps the most bothersome thing about these sorts of movies (and books in the same vein) is they completely lack any sense of subtlety and choose instead to beat the viewer (or reader) over the head with the point they’re trying to make. I just don’t get why “Christian” art can’t feature a little metaphor and symbolism.
One particularly ham-handed scene is one in which the Kirk Cameron character takes a walk with his dad, who has been trying to share his faith with his son and convince him to work to save his marriage. The conversion scene, obviously, has to take place literally under a cross, so shabam! they turn out to be walking on what was an old church campground. The film kept cutting to angles that framed the father and son by the cross, as if to remind us that everything they were saying had a deeper meaning. As if we couldn’t figure that out on our own. And the dialogue itself during that scene might as well have been a sermon, rather than just a conversation between a father and his hurting son.
The major plot of the film is governed by the 40 days of the “Love Dare.” Kirk Cameron’s dad gives him a handwritten journal he says saved their marriage, and urges his son to try to do what the journal says for 40 days. (In true Christian consumer culture fashion, you too can buy the Love Dare and try it on your unsuspecting spouse!) The basic jist of The Love Dare is to challenge yourself to, oh, be a human being to your spouse, as if you might actually like him or her. Each day features a challenge, like avoiding saying negative things to your spouse, or calling just to check in.
Kirk Cameron, at least at first, only further reveals his assholery in his daily dares. His idea of a caring gesture is making the coffee and pouring a cup for his wife one morning. The wife, of course, has no idea that he’s doing the dare, and clearly stopping for a cup of coffee at home is not part of her regular routine, so in her rush she tells Kirk Cameron she doesn’t have time for coffee. He reacts by poutily pouring the cup of coffee and the entire pot of coffee down the drain. At this point I look at Jon and say, “Wow, if pouring coffee is his one nice thing, you do a MILLION nice things for me a day.” Jon: “That’s what I’m sayin’, you’re spoiled.” Minutes later he made me a brownie and ice cream sundae. Another day Kirk Cameron was supposed to buy his wife something small to show he cares. He decides to order her flowers, but as he’s on the phone with the florist, completely cheaps out and goes for a piddly bouquet with no upgrades, and seems to think the entire thing is just a huge extravagance. And this is a guy who supposedly has saved over $20k for a boat.
The basic theme of the Love Dare scenes is that Kirk Cameron thinks he deserves a cookie for all of his gestures, and his poor unsuspecting wife just thinks he’s acting weird and strange and doesn’t know how to take the guestures, and assumes he’s just trying to play her to get a better divorce settlement. One particularly weird “dare” was to have a candle-lit meal together. The wife, having not had a real conversation with her husband in weeks if not years, comes home to see the candles and set table and wants nothing to do with it. I got the feeling we were supposed to feel sorry for poor Kirk Cameron, but I was right there with the wife. Why skip straight to romantic dinner (and the expectation of sex that usually goes along with) when you haven’t even had coffee and a conversation yet? Jon and I both agreed that Kirk Cameron should simply have a talk with his wife and tell her that he is willing to work to save their marriage and is trying to show her just how committed he is. Wouldn’t that give the wife a reason to react differently to the sudden change in behaviors?
The candle-lit dinner attempt is juxtaposed with a scene of the wife at work, having a coffee break and a chat with Dr. Crush, who simply asks her about what is going on in her life, expresses concern about her mother’s health, and validates her as a daughter and a woman. It was clear to me that this sort of small gesture of listening and really hearing is a lot more meaningful than a random “romantic” dinner, and would have been a more appropriate “dare.”
Things start to change a bit when Kirk Cameron becomes a Christian and realizes his heart hasn’t been in the dares, he’s just been going through the motions. He begins to see that his relationship with his wife parallels his relationship with God, only in his relationship with God, God is the one doing the pursuing and he is the one who fails to respond. We “see” that he’s really a Christian now, because when he’s in a dangerous situation during a fire rescue, he prays.
He also finally realizes that his pornography habit is hurting his marriage (his wife has earlier said that the porn “humilates” her and wonders “when did I stop being good enough for him?”), and he smashes his computer with a baseball bat and leaves a bouquet of roses and a card that says “I love you more!” for his wife on the table where the porn-machine used to sit. The next morning he finds an envelope from his wife on the kitchen table, which he opens eagerly, expecting a note acknowledging all his big boy behavior, only to discover divorce papers. For the first time he breaks down and cries, finally grieving over what he stands to lose. Soon after, the stroke-victim mother-in-law receives a new bed and wheelchair, paid for by a mysterious donor the wife assumes is Dr. Crush.
One morning, Kirk Cameron notices that his wife is still in bed when she should be at work. He stops in to check on her, and discovers that she is sick. Finally, he thinks of a meaningful gesture, and goes to get her chicken noodle soup and cold medicine. He dabs her forehead with a damp cloth. When the wife points out that this caring behavior “isn’t normal,” Kirk Cameron says “Welcome to the new normal,” and tells her about the Love Dare. She asks him which day he’s on, and he says 43. She says, “But there’s only 40.” He says, “Who says I have to stop.” After a long scene in which Jon and I were wondering why the heck he hadn’t apologized for his assholery yet, he finally gets on his knees and tearfully apologizes: “God has given me a love for you that I never had before, and He has forgiven me, I am hoping and praying that somehow you will be able to forgive me too.”
Still, it’s only after the wife discovers that her husband was the one who paid for her mother’s medical equipment that she is ready to forgive him, surprising him at the fire station and telling him she loves him. She tells him she “wants what happened to you to happen to me,” and becomes a Christian. We see a montage of scenes that include them toting Bibles and getting into the car to go to church (more of that subtlety!). Of course, the film can’t just end there, as after the action, a Bible verse appears on screen. Yet again, we have to beat viewers over the head with the Christian message.
Overall, it wasn’t what I expected that bothered me about the film. It wasn’t sexist or even all that bad in terms of advice, though I think the Love Dare would work a lot better if the other person in the relationship had a clue about what was going on. Somehow ambushing a partner with good deeds and then not understanding why they don’t respond with effusive praise seems a little deceitful and mean-spirited. Really, what I’m left wondering is, why did people recommend this film to us? Do our friends and family think we hate each other? Do they think we need to be told, in 40 days of dares, how to treat each other with basic love and respect?
The film basically crystallized a piece of advice I always have trouble with: relationships take work. It’s not that I disagree with that, it’s just, in a good relationship, it shouldn’t feel like work. I can basically sum up my marriage advice thusly: marry someone you actually LIKE, then it will be pretty easy to show them you love them each day! Also: don’t be a jerk! I guess I can see how these dares might help people who truly have no idea how to conduct a loving relationship, or whose marriage is in serious trouble, but that’s not us.
Also, though I’m sure the filmmakers were trying to show a positive view of Christians in the film, the Christian characters often seemed more concerned with appearing to be REAL CHRISTIANS than just, you know, acting Christ-like. One particular scene really bothered me. In it, the wife is having lunch with a nurse who randomly appears out of the blue to sermonize to her about her inappropriate flirting with Dr. Crush. Now, if the filmmakers wanted the wife OR the viewers to take this character seriously, they should have worked her in earlier and established a relationship. Instead, this character suddenly appears, and suddenly the wife is spilling her guts about how unhappy she is in her marriage. And here’s what bugged me: the character actually interrupts the wife as she is pouring her heart out in order to bow her head and pray over her meal. To me, this is basically entirely what is wrong with so much of Christianity today. Instead of just listening to the wife’s struggle, affirming her suffering, and encouraging her, the “Christian” nurse interrupts in order to make a public display of piety. To me, this is Pharasaical behavior, when the real Christlike thing would be to just listen. You don’t have to preach a sermon, you don’t have to make a big show, you just have to show love and care for another person. Which is really a lesson “Christian” filmmakers could stand to learn: you don’t have to preach a sermon, you just have to make a quality film with an uplifiting message. And some subtlety.