What a New Movie Called 'Fireproof' Says About Today's Evangelicals

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.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.