[This article was originally written in January 2009.]
This movie was going to stem the tide of divorce
A new movie was going to be released that everyone must see, the popular preacher T. D. Jakes said a few months ago in an interview on national television. This movie was going to have a strong and powerful message that could stem the tide of divorce in our country! He urged everyone to see it. Since then a significant number of others have enthusiastically promoted Fireproof.
Shortly after the interview with Jakes the advertising blitz washed over the evangelical landscape and even made inroads into the secular arena. It seemed as if all networks within the evangelical world were ablaze with news of this great , “most inspirational” Christian movie. I’ve got to hand it to the advertising agencies – they have done an excellent job promoting this must-see-to-change-your-life movie. Ads in magazines, fliers in mailboxes, posters at the theatres, displays in the bookstores touted this film as something that is essential to life, especially for those who are married or planning on getting married.
You must see it!
Almost immediately, I began hearing about it from Christians and church-goers alike. The news about Fireproof spread like a California wild fire. “Are you going to see the movie?” people asked. Because I am a pastor the common assumption is that I not only would watch the movie, but that I must watch it and endorse it. It’s a Christian movie, after all. And, because of my supposed high level of spirituality I will watch the film and I will like it! Resistance is futile!
Well, I did not cave under the pressure to watch the must-see, life-changing Left Behind flicks. Neither was I sucked into watching and embracing the all-powerful The Passion of the Christ. My personal ratings dropped somewhat as a consequence.
Saw it. Gave it a generous two stars.
However, I did give in, reluctantly, and watched Fireproof. Some may give me a few points for seeing the show, but I’m sure the slate will be erased when they learn that in my opinion the movie was boring, predictable, simplistic and cliché. What’s worse – it did not change my life nor improve our marriage. I give it 2 stars, tops.
Before you waste your time trying to figure out my existential angst (he’s not a spiritual Christian, he’s a poor pastor, he’s a negative grump – I’ve heard it all before), allow me to explain the apparent problem: the movie was boring, predictable, simplistic and cliché. It offers hype with a misplaced hope.
The problem with Fireproof
Okay, seriously now: my “problem” is that I’ve become a Christian skeptic over the years. Fads, especially Christian ones with hype and unreal hope, annoy me. It wasn’t always the case. The first few years after I became a born-again, evangelical, Jesus Freak, all things Christian were bright and all fads Christian were beautiful. The spiral down and away from the mindless endorsement of Christian things and fads began with a bumper sticker. Yep, a bumper sticker!
So enthusiastic was I as a new convert for the things of Jesus that I wore a Christian fish-ring, donned a wooden cross, had a Christian cap, displayed my Christian belt buckle, and placed Christian bumper stickers on my car. Bumper stickers have consequences though. One day, while driving home from high school a man behind me kept honking his horn. That was great because one of the bumper stickers read, “Honk if you love Jesus!” He honked again. I rolled down the window and gave the forefinger-pointing-in-the-air-Jesus-is-the-One-Way sign. He kept honking. Now, I became quite annoyed; this guy is persecuting me! My inclination was to give another sign, but being the good Christian teen I refrained. It was probably all those Christian things I had that saved me?
Finally, he pulled up next to me. I ignored him. He rolled down his window. I was getting ready for him. This was it! I just knew that he was going to yell at me or get out and punch my lights out. All because I’m a good Christian with neat bumper stickers on my car. Angered and fearful I gave him a cross look, whereupon he returned my hostile expression by yelling, “Hey buddy, your back tire is flat! You need help?”
Scarlet faced, I thanked him for his kindness and assured him that I only had more two blocks to travel. After slowly limping home, totally humiliated and angered at my utter stupidity, I changed the tire and then removed all Christian symbols from the Mustang.
Christian fads don’t save.
It would take a few more years before graduating (or degrading) to the level of skepticism where life finds me now. It seems that every couple of years a new fad, a new movement, a new book, a new movie, or some new thing comes along that would be the revolutionary answer to our current ills.
There were the crusades, where the goal was to get at least 90% of every American to hear Billy Graham in order to save the country, or at least bring Jesus here. Next came the new Christian rock music that would sweep youth into Christianity. Slogans, campaigns, and seminars followed. Then, low and behold, Christian television and movies. The first Christian movie I saw that was supposed to be life changing was The Hiding Place. It was entertaining and had a good message but my life was not changed. Man, am I hard hearted or what?
Admittedly, I really, really, really liked all that stuff. More books, more movies, angels to the rescue, wood chips from the original cross of Christ or at least from Jerusalem, real Christian art with slogans printed on the bottom, paintings by the painter of light, and an endless parade of Precious Moments accessorizing homes and offices. However, it all finally got to me. It seemed as if the American Christian had an “inferiority complex” (pardon the worldly talk), trying to prove we are just as good as the world. Hey, we have our own stuff. You have your jewelry, clothes, music and books; well we do to! We even have our own Christian phone books, tools, credit unions, Promise Keepers, plumbers, politicians, and president! Thank God, the world is now saved; or at least close enough so Jesus can come back!
Perhaps this was not the intent of some, but the message was loud and clear in the Evangelical pond in which I swam. Nothing was intrinsically wrong with any of that stuff, such as it was. It was the idolizing, the hype, the superstitions, and the misplaced hope far too many people put into it all. I mean, c’mon! How many angel pins do you have to put on the head of your pre-teen girl before she escapes the terrible teens and turns into a perfect little angel herself? How many books do you need to apply before your child becomes the perfect Christian? How many seminars must you attend before your church has 10,000 members? How many Christian presidents must America elect before we become Eden or that Kingdom come?
Do we really need Jesus any more?
I turned into a naughty skeptic and negative cynic after becoming exhausted with the false hope and silly hype of Christian clichés, platitudes, and instant fixes. I became tired of Christians telling, even demanding, that if I/we would only adopt and endorse the latest thing then I, you, we, our families, our culture, our nation would be saved. With all our versions of more doing, more saving, surely Jesus could take a break, right?
Those things and all that stuff constantly let me down because none of those things and none of that stuff fulfilled their promises and purpose(s). Life was still entangled with sin and misery. With all these things and all this stuff and I’m still not in heaven yet, Toto! Part of the problem is this: those things can become idols replacing Jesus Christ with their methods, schemes or messages. The major problem was that I let those idols mentally supplant Christ’s rightful place. He’s the answer, the redeemer, the savior.
What’s so bad with Fireproof?
Now, back to Fireproof. The first reason I did not care for it was because of the hype and promise(s) attached to it. It’s a false hope. I dare say that in spite of the claim that “2781 marriages have been ignited by FIREPROOF” (http://www.fireproofthemovie.com/stories/). [Editors note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.] Granted, one has to sell the benefits before one sells the product, and pushing hype is what “must” be done to make the money. There’s also a stake in making the movie a big seller: legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Yet, other things should also be considered: truth in advertising and fulfilling promises, for example. Had I read the ads and heard the commercials saying Fireproof might be of some value, has some worth-while object lessons, teaches through story, and may be a way to engage Christian and non-Christians in a discussion about redeemed relationships and marriages, then I would have been far more inclined to receive it with favor. That’s not what happened.
The second reason for my low rating is more basic: the quality and the message. The quality was in many ways on par with a B-rated movie. Even Kirk Cameron, an experienced actor and a dedicated Christian, did not seem to be at his best. Some disagree with that assessment. Now, I know Christians will praise the movie and consider it of excellent quality merely because of its blatantly Christian message. I suspect non-Christians will see it as bad propaganda. I am reminded of a drag race I went to while in high school. My friends thought the best car on the track was the one with, yes you guessed it, a Christian bumper sticker attached to its rear end (may I say that?) But, as nice as it might have been that the owner wanted to identify himself as a Christian, the accoutrement did not enhance performance or give the car any stylistic advantage over the cars that outpaced it. Why should it be bothersome to be truthful and say that the acting, cinematography, and directing was average at best, if it indeed was that way? You see, the message written into the script doesn’t make a fine production.
The other aspect was that the script was far too predictable. I could have annoyed my wife more if I predicted the scenes and the lines more often than I did. The few times I did give the lines verbatim before they were said (and without having seen the movie before) provoked laughter. Additionally, at times humor was pushed too hard, such as when the hero kept throwing tantrums outside unaware, at first, that his elderly neighbor was staring at him in disbelief. Two scenes like that would have been sufficient. Or, how about the lengthy, belabored scene with the hefty fireman dancing in front of the bathroom mirror? It seemed pointless and might have been funny if it had not robbed the audience with so much wasted time. Predictability is not funny. Predictability can be boring.
The message had some good and some bad
As for the message, the movie is given good marks in some things and poor marks in others. For the good, the movie was relatively faithful with the good news of Jesus. It did make clear that a person is deficient when compared to God, and is selfish, a sinner and in need of Jesus Christ to change the heart and save the soul. There were also quite a few principles mostly about marriage that were clearly biblical, and hence very good. I suppose if someone learned those principles and then applied them, the movie would be considered as having some redeeming value.
The fact that the movie taught truths through a story is good. The Bible even does that. Fireproof presents hope, which is what we all need. It was clean and would be inoffensive to most Christians and moralists.
However, those positive qualities were offset by a number of negative things. For one, the main idea in the publicity is “see this movie and save your marriage!” The main idea in the story line is quite obvious too: come to believe in Jesus and your marriage will be saved; keep believing in Jesus and he will be the fire retardant against conflict and divorce. While trusting in Jesus Christ certainly redeems and changes you, it does not necessarily follow that your marriage will be saved. Now, I have known couples who had miserable marriages, came to Christ and their marriages were indeed restored. I’ve even known a few couples that were married, got divorced, became Christians and then married each other again. How wonderful!
What about those Christians who prayed, begged, pleaded with Christ to save their marriages and the marriages still failed? You see, as sweet and happy as the movie is, it really doesn’t grapple with reality. Fireproof is too simplistic. Certainly, Christ can and does redeem relationships and marriages, but not always. That’s because life is riddled with sin and evil. Hence life is complicated. Regardless of the messages attached to Fireproof, watching the movie or merely coming to saving faith in Jesus will not guarantee what only Christ’s heaven can bring. Just because you purchase fire insurance, install smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, take all the precautions you can take does not guarantee your house will not catch fire or even burn down.
Another, albeit implied idea in the movie is that if you follow certain steps for so many days (in this case forty days), then the probability is very high that you will save your marriage from disaster. It was a good thing that the hero’s father explains the reason why the forty steps in forty days were not apparently working. It was because the Caleb’s heart had not changed from self-love to true love for God and others. I do not doubt that taking some good, positive, proactive steps can resolve conflicts and help marriages. It happens many times in many relationships. The criticism I have is with the underlying message that doing good things will definitely secure a good life.
What’s wrong with that? That’s the message of the moralists and religionists, of the Scribes and Pharisees. That’s the message of self-achieving works, not the message of Gospel grace. The story line could have been just as biblical (perhaps more) if the wife came to faith in Jesus Christ through other providential circumstance without the husband’s disciplined efforts! (I am NOT denigrating proactive kindness to win a spouse over). Quite soon into the movie I had a pit in my stomach thinking about how Fireproof might impact friends of mine who did what they knew to do and what they could do in order to save their marriages. The spouses of these men and women left in spite of their valiant and sincere, kind and loving efforts.
Christians need to be careful. The movie was careless.
As Christians, we need to be careful in what we are communicating, and in some ways this film was careless. The biblical message is that our relationship to God is saved and restored by God’s grace and Christ’s work, not because of anything we have done. The biblical message is that we are to have saving faith in God through Christ and remain faithful to him come what may (such as divorce). The biblical message is that any hope for saving and restoring any relationship, including marriage, comes by God’s grace. The biblical message is that just because divorce happens does not mean one is a horrible failure before God. The movie, in my opinion, did not make that obvious.
A third thing this movie conveyed was a sanitized (Christianly baptized?) situation. On the one hand, it plainly showed the ugliness of selfishness and anger, the pain of neglect, the hurt of disrespect, and a lack of authentic love. The intentions of a womanizing man to engage in an adulterous affair with the fireman’s wife and the horrible challenge of website pornography for the husband were a little more than subtle. That’s realistic – to a degree. And perhaps for the purpose of sanitized Christians or morally upright individuals that is all that is needed? There was certainly nothing to offend the pure and pious (no violence, blatant sex, nor obscene expletives. Not even chase scenes). It was simplistic and vintage 1950s.
Fireproof is not all that realistic
Consequently, Fireproof is not altogether realistic, and probably will come across that way through the eyes of unbelievers. The non-Christian might also view the movie as cliché (and propagandist). I did. After all, it had plenty of pithy statements, cliches, and some of the dialogue was in Christianeze.
The couple in the movie showed the estrangement that can happen with moral, upstanding, hard-working, middle class Americans. Their lives were relatively good, went sour to a degree, and then got much better with Jesus. Maybe the target audience was toward the moral, upstanding, hard-working, middle class couples? I could not help but also think about those “Christian” marriages where verbal and physical abuse takes place, or where financial or social challenges are severe. Fireproof, in my opinion, has too narrow a story for a vast number of Americans; hence the reason it will be called irrelevant by unbelievers.
Further, life is not as simple and easy as Fireproof portrays. Its complexity includes sin and salvation, misery and joy, fear and love, peace and war, poverty and prosperity. Watching the movie, practicing good principles or even believing in Jesus will not perfectly fire proof your marriage. Yes, receiving God’s love for you through faith in the person of Jesus Christ will enable you to love God and therefore enable you to know and grow in your love for others. It’s a start.
The movie closed with a husband and wife and with a mother and son reconciled because they believed in Jesus. If you pay careful attention you can hear that the couple was just beginning the road to a good marriage. The movie ended at the beginning of a Christian marriage. What about the rest of their story?
In my opinion, Fireproof claims more than it can deliver, offers a degree of false hope, is boring, predictable, simplistic and cliché. But then again, I’m a Christian skeptic.