Are Christian movies going more mainstream in an effort to win souls? A blockbuster film you probably haven’t heard of—yet—makes it look that way.
I spend a lot of time at my Blockbusters in Midtown Manhattan. Yes, I’ve heard of Netflix, but I’m too impulsive. And there’s an ad that seems to play on a continuous loop there these days. It’s for a film called Fireproof, at first blush a drama about a firefighter trying to save his marriage. It’s an enticing rent: It seems, after all, to combine excitement (fire) with romance (marriage).
Of course, I’m not an utter ingénue, and there are a few hints on the half-wall of Fireproof DVDs conveniently located beneath the blaring ad that this is not an ordinary, amoral, mid-budget Hollywood release. First of all, the husband in question is Kirk Cameron, the child star of Growing Pains who gave his heart to Christ at 17, and who resurfaced big-time on the web when he and buddy Ray Comfort discovered Providence in a banana. Also, unless a producer has some liturgical problem with kissing outside of wedlock, why make a leading man’s love interest his wife?
But there’s not a single concrete hint on the Fireproof DVD case that inside is a Christian film. No stained glass, no Bible verses, nothing. Just a bunch of silhouettes of meaningful glances in front of burning houses, the tagline “Never Leave Your Partner Behind” and the promise of a lot of wordplay along the lines of “go up in smoke” and “rekindle.” It is, according to some small print, an “Inspirational Film.” OK, but so was Mad Max when I was 14. (I didn’t realize “Inspirational” was a dog whistle.)
The trailer is equally secular: flames, romance, a snappy line from a sassy black lady, fin. The movie looks, if a little cliché, flashy and professional and ordinary.
And it’s had a better than ordinary reception. It came in number four at the box office (that’s the whole, American box office) in a wide release last year, took in $33 mil in theaters, and was #2 in DVD sales its first week. It’s still the twelfth most popular DVD on Amazon—just ahead of Oscar-winner Milk.
This may be surprising to some of you who live in places like Manhattan, where Christian media doesn’t get the same degree of attention it does elsewhere in the Republic. You may be similarly unversed in stadium-filling Christian Rock bands, or the Left Behind rapture-based book series, whose sales fall just barely short of Harry Potter.
But there’s something infinitely more subtle about Fireproof than its genre forebears. Unless you know what you’re getting into, it’s only when the logo of Sony distributor Provident Films crosses (pun intended) the screen that you get a sense that this film might try to promote a creed to you.
And even then, it gets started slowly. Some hammy, PG marital bickering establishes the conflict: Firefighter Cameron and his wife, a PR exec for a hospital, do more arguing than cuddling these days. And while he lives the firefighter’s code (see tagline) at work, Cameron is considering (prepare to deploy gasp) a divorce.
For the first 20 minutes, no one mentions God. Jesus himself isn't namedropped until the second half.
And that's when the conflict is resolved. By amazing coincidence (or is it amazing grace?) Cameron’s father is a freshly converted evangelical whose union was on the rocks back when he was an infidel. He gives Cameron a handwritten book he calls “The Love Dare” (now typeset and a bestseller) which encourages a series of escalating romantic gestures, each sutured, rather uncomfortably, to a verse from scripture.
In the end, of course, Cameron turns around his life, the marriage does in fact reignite, and the couple renew their vows in a more Jesus-inflected ceremony than the one they’d originally had. Everyone’s happy.
Except, of course, for me. Now, Christianity has inspired a great deal of beautiful—even adequate—art over the centuries, but this film is utterly unwatchable. Though ostensibly a professional, serious work of filmmmaking, in execution it’s nauseatingly trite, tonally chaotic, and amateurish on every level.
My question, though, is how could it not be? Truly evangelical Christianity rests on absolutes: there must be total redemption, and life without Christ must be utterly desolate. The sorts of moral and aesthetic ambiguity that elevate cinema above a set of pretty pictures or a Renaissance morality play are entirely at odds with the premises of this film.
As the critic William Empson wrote in Milton's God: "All the characters are on trial in any civilized narrative." The Jesus character in Fireproof is like Harry Lime in the Third Man: He's talked about, but doesn't show up until late and then is scarcely seen. Unlike the sublimely amoral Lime, though, Christ demands our complete deference if even the most elemental cinematic premise—romance—is to work in Fireproof.
And so it goes for all truly religious art. (Empson meant to say, incidentally, that as religiosity went works like Paradise Lost were not true Scotsmen.) But Fireproof's gesture towards the mainstream doesn't end at its DVD case; rather, it appears to make a sincere effort to appeal to skeptical audiences.
Fireproof’s version of Christianity is gentle, easy and very binary. When Cameron epiphanizes that eros is empty without divine agape behind it, he goes from an Internet porn-addled agnostic to a knee-bound penitent without even the courtesy of a montage. We never see any of the characters studying scripture or even attending a service other than the vow renewal. This is worlds apart from Left Behind, (in whose adaptation Cameron also starred) in which the eastern seaboard descends into hellish anarchy after Christ calls the faithful to heaven.
All of which makes me think that this vast, unseen Christian media is quietly evolving (or is at least intelligently designed). And this means organs like Provident Films are moving away from the narrow-is-the-way ethos and extending itself into the general cinematic fray. Kris Fuhr, the Vice President of Provident, tells me they don’t even like the label “Christian,” preferring “faith-based.” She also says that their goal is not reaching out to the lost—rather it’s as innocent as “providing an entertaining, inspiring story.”
Many readers will say that by putting down their efforts so brutally I'm wasting 1000+ words beating up a straw son-of-man. But this is a film targeted at all of us, and deserves a swath of sincere criticism as wide as its Blockbuster wall. And whether that targeting is part of a conscious effort towards more expensive, media-savvy proselytizing—well, as Provident's copywriters might say, where there’s smoke there’s fire.