We just got done reviewing Kirk Cameron’s movie Fireproof on Saturday, and today I wanted to talk about something that really bugged me while watching the movie, something I only touched on a little at the time (5000 words is kind of my limit on a post; call it a personal challenge). This post fits into the Unequally Yoked Club series we’ve been doing because what I noticed relates to marriage and relationships, and specifically to something that Christians tend to genuinely believe about that topic that is dead wrong.
It might be hard to think of Kirk Cameron as anything but an evangelical Christian, but in this movie he is actually playing a sort-of-atheist character named Caleb, whose parents were also sort-of-atheists when he was growing up (but named him after a Bible character anyway apparently). He married a woman who was also a sort-of-atheist. I use that term “sort-of-atheist” because that’s their definition of atheism anyway: someone who isn’t specifically a Christian and hasn’t dedicated his or her life to “Jesus.” They’re more like apatheists–they don’t know and largely don’t care about Christianity or any other religion, but they’re far from hostile to it; they don’t really have many serious objections to it, much less really understand either Christianity’s or atheism’s main ideas.
When Kirk Cameron claims that oh-so-trendy ex-atheist testimony background, this is almost certainly what he’s talking about: a life lived without religious trappings and without much understanding either way about what religion or atheism involves. More to the point, Kirk’s character doesn’t see what’s in it for him if he converts to Christianity: he tells his dad he doesn’t think that any gods “care about me and my problems.”*
While someone might see this movie and assume–as I did repeatedly–that it was hawking a particular marriage advice manual, The Love Dare, that’s not entirely true. The characters repeatedly reference the book and laud how amazing it is and how much it’s helped their marriages, but the movie is quite clear about exactly what really saved Kirk’s marriage in the movie:
He converted to Christianity.
When he is at his most frustrated, midway through the movie and dares (there are 40 days worth of them–I wonder why there are exactly that many? Can’t be that it’s aping the Bible somehow, could it?), his dad tells him that the real problem here is that his boy isn’t Christian so he doesn’t understand true love.
That’s what happens.
And Kirk converts at the foot of an honest-to-goodness wooden cross in an idyllic forest park, whereupon suddenly he gains the magical ability to do the rest of the dares through JESUS POWER.
You see, without being Christian, Kirk simply didn’t understand true sacrifice or compassion; these two ideals were foreign languages to him, locked as he was in his selfish cocoon of non-Christian-ness.** So he was just half-assing the dares–except for one right before his candlelit dinner scene that demanded that he pray for his wife, which he skipped entirely because he wasn’t Christian and (understandably) didn’t see the point.
This movie–like the book it hawks–assumes that midway through the Love Dares, its watchers and readers will all feel the need to convert to Christianity. A reviewer of The Love Dare actually notes this strange two-step:
The movie’s plot confronted the main character with his need for a personal relationship with God mid-way through, and so the book follows suit. Halfway through the forty days, we suddenly shift to a presentation of how living out sacrificial love should make one realize his absolute need for Christianity. For Christians reading a book on marriage, the discussion of how our relationship with Christ should structure our marital relationship should be foundational, should be page 1. On the other hand, a non-Christian reading the book frankly is unlikely to be impressed by this sudden foray into an altar call in the middle of the book.
I agree entirely with this assessment. As soon as the come-to-Jesus altar call is made, suddenly we’re not talking about a movie about two incompatible, dysfunctional people who figure out how to make their marriage work. Suddenly we’re talking about a conversion narrative of a movie. The Love Dare didn’t save Kirk’s marriage. His conversion did. Through his new JESUS POWER, Kirk is able to resist porn pop-ups, clean the kitchen, and be nice to his wife. Without it, he wouldn’t have been able to complete the dares in the right mindset. The movie makes 100% clear that if he had not converted, he wouldn’t have been able to sacrifice himself for the whole 40 days. He might have been able to finish all the applicable dares, but he’d have been Doing It All Wrong so it wouldn’t have done anything for his marriage. Christianity is the fuel that makes the Love Dares work.
Here’s where we discover the fatal assumption that Fireproof makes. Oh, it makes a lot of assumptions that are untrue, and it does so with breathtaking rapidity and frequency. But this is the fatal one:
Christians are the only ones who can truly make a marriage work. Non-Christians just lack that certain special something: JESUS POWER. Only through JESUS POWER can the various “love dares” be completed in the correct way. JESUS POWER transforms people and changes them into loving, giving, compassionate people who are then capable of making a marriage work.
I’m going to use the really big letters now because I want to make this next statement crystal-clear:
This idea is a lie–just as every other idea evangelicals push about marriage is a lie.
And that’s going to be really tough for evangelicals to understand. They’ve spent the last 30 years or so–if not longer–pushing this idea that marriages require two people to sacrifice 100% of themselves and that a good marriage is not only “centered” around shared belief in Christianity’s claims but also modeled after their conceptualization of Jesus’ relationship with the church as a whole.
That. Is. HORSESHIT.
Indeed, some of the most heartbreaking testimonies to the utter failure of this teaching can be found in the other reviews of The Love Dare on Amazon:
I can’t give this book 5 stars because instead of helping my marriage it’s making me feel even less loved.
Is love really just a practice that anyone can engage in? I think the idea is sound, profound and beautiful — but if you want to become a bit more sceptical [sic], check out the website where people post how they’re DOING on the Love Dare. What’s fascinating is how many of the people doing the love dare are women who appear to be married to men who aren’t very nice — or vice versa. And in every case, the person who is daring and giving and taking on the challenges is usually not the one who needs to reform their life. And yes, I understand the premise, that it’s better to fix yourself than to complain about what’s wrong with someone else — but if you visit the website, the women all say things like “I made him a special dinner and then he never came home” or “I bought him a special gift and he yelled at me for spending ‘his money’ on something that foolish.” and by the end of the Love dare (day 28), the last time I looked, everyone had dropped out except for one guy who was still doggedly plugging away, attempting to love the woman who had already left him for someone else.
For people that are in very one sided relationships (especially where there is addictive or abusive behavior involved), some of the book can encourage very detrimental thinking.
At times the book made me angry because I found myself resentful that I was already doing so many of the suggested activities and was still not having success.
This book is dangerous! if followed blindly.
I have several issues with the book: A) I have yet to find a source that elucidates Kendrick’s qualifications to counsel people on their relationship issues. Where is his degree in psychology or counseling? B) Though I found SOME of the challenges to be helpful, the sections outlining the reasoning for the challenges proved to advocate for outdated and subtly misogynistic views of the ideal relationship. My girlfriend and I do not believe that her proper place is as a homemaker, asking my permission to purchase items for the house or for herself. We are a team, and as such are equals in every regard. The hierarchical approach to relationships belongs in the 1950s. C) Specifically in the last half of the book, every other challenge was simply to pray. That’s fine for some people, but I prefer to do something active to improve my relationship rather than sending wishes into the sky, and our relationship is all the better for it.
And, most devastating of all in my opinion:
I did the Love Dare for 40 days. My husband DID NOT NOTICE. How discouraging is that? . . We are in the same place as before, except now I know the extent that he doesn’t notice me. This book did show me exactly how much my husband does not value me, it showed me how much effort I already put into our marriage and how incredibly one-sided it is. This book didn’t save my marriage, but it has shown me the way out of a bad one and what to look for in the future.
Fireproof–like the book it wants to sell–bases its premise upon the idea that if one spouse becomes Christlike, and follows the checklist of deeds in the book, then that person will become a much better spouse–which may save a marriage. I do remember the movie saying that the Love Dares won’t save every single marriage, which was a tidy little covering-of-the-ass, but every single character in the movie who converts and also gets through the whole 40 days of “dares” ends up saving his or her marriage: Michael (the black firefighter who almost got hit by the train), Kirk himself, and his mother. The movie makes crystal-clear that conversion is, if not a side product of doing all the prescribed tasks, then a requirement for making marriage work.
Michael even states this idea explicitly: that when he was not a Christian, he took his first wife for granted (Kirk, incidentally, acts simply floored and stunned that Michael had been divorced before), but afterward, after he became Christian, he was able to treat his second wife with respect and love in a way he simply had not ever been able to manage beforehand. Kirk’s father similarly presents conversion as a necessary requirement for loving “sacrificially,” claiming that marriages require this one-sided sort of love to work. So conversion is required, but so is doing all the dares.
(If y’all are wondering if I’m going to talk about just how fucking juvenile the idea of “dares” is for mature adults as a relationship strategy, here you are: it is fucking juvenile. Is the target audience 15 years old and a freshman in high school? No? Then we should be a little past “daring” each other to do stuff. Do what you need to do because it needs to be done, not because some totally-unqualified idiot “dared” you to do it to make it feel more obligatory and cool. Grow up and be a goddamned adult.)
I’ve mentioned before the horrible advice Christians love to give about marriage. Like most Christian advice materials, Fireproof and its associated book offer a series of suggestions based on a conceptualization of what I called the Kodak Marriage some time ago–and like I discussed back then, the reactions are predictable: people who actually try their damndest to put those suggestions into practice end up failing miserably, and even worse, those people who fail often blame themselves for failing rather than seriously examining the system they mistakenly put their faith into.
So it will doubtless be a big problem for those Christians to hear that a great many non-Christian and mixed-faith couples do just fine without religion forming the central pillar of their lives. I can safely say that once I got past that kind of thinking and began to conduct my relationships like a grown-up, with communication, mutual respect, reciprocity, and compassion, things got way better for me. I can honestly say that the last two relationships I’ve had–with men who were about as far from Christian as could be–were way better in every single way than the relationships I pursued while Christian and just barely deconverted. My sex life improved dramatically, the level of drama in the relationships lowered dramatically, the quality of our daily lives improved by leaps and bounds, and if the relationships ended (the current one is 12 years in and going strong) then they tended to do so on very amiable terms.
I can promise you this: Mr. Captain does not need to be Christian to help me when he becomes aware that I need it. And I don’t need to be Christian to know how to take good care of him. There is not one single element in our lives or our thinking that someone could call “Christlike” because we’re not “sacrificing” ourselves on the other person’s altar; we’re mature adults who are working together side-by-side to keep our relationship and household running happily and smoothly. I love him too much to let him take more than his fair share of the load, and he loves me too much to let me do it. I can trust him not to abuse my generosity, and he knows I won’t abuse his. When problems arise, we talk about them like mature adults and find some kind of middle ground that works for us both instead of pussyfooting around doing “love dares” in hopes of impressing the other person.
Amazing how that works, isn’t it?
And I hardly need to remind y’all that the one relationship I had with a Christian convert did not actually end in a fairy-tale “happy-after-ever” ending like the one Kat wanted as a little girl and got in Fireproof. If anything, Christianity only made my then-husband worse: more misogynistic, more controlling, more entitled, more demanding, more dishonest, more manipulative, and more sneaky. JESUS POWER certainly didn’t flood his soul and make him more likely to wash the living-room floor or make him nicer to me when I got sick!
Thankfully, the people on Amazon who failed at saving their marriage by following this particular bad advice seem well aware that the advice itself is at fault here. But I also noticed a great many Christians sticking up for their shitty advice book by telling the people who wrote those blockquoted reviews above that they’d just done everything all wrong, or hadn’t done it hard enough, or hadn’t done it Jesus enough (or they hadn’t watched Fireproof enough). They’re still stuck in the false paradigm. But we’re under no obligation to listen to them or their awful advice when we want to learn what actually works to improve a failing marriage.
Our success hinges, though, on figuring out that the assumptions behind teachings like the ones in Fireproof and The Love Dare will only work, if they work at all, for a very small number of people. For most of the rest of us, those assumptions will only make matters worse. This advice is a substitute for what really works, and for most folks, the substitute won’t work for them.
We’re going to talk about some of those other assumptions next time. See you then!
* Notably, his father’s response to this perfectly valid objection is “I disagree,” but he doesn’t offer any way of knowing how that’s true or any reason why he disagrees. He just disagrees. And Kirk’s character is apparently content with that assertion. He doesn’t offer a bit of pushback to it or question it. He just lets it slide.
** Must… control… fist of death. It will not be hard for non-Christians (and sane Christians, no doubt) to think of serious objections to this claim. Feel totally free to rail in the comments below.