10.21.08 5:58 AM ET
The Red Hot Christian Blockbuster
American evangelicals have a habit of speaking in an insider jargon they call Christianese—a combination of theological shorthand, faith-based small-talk, and awkward slang. In that last category, you might hear a youth pastor ask his charges, “Are you fireproof?” Meaning, If you died today, are you sure you wouldn’t burn in hell? The Christian rock band Pillar had a hit song called “Fireproof,” and the codeword is emblazoned on Christian t-shirts and bumperstickers.
Last month, an independently-produced movie called Fireproof opened in a handful of theaters, mostly far from big cities on the coasts. The $500,000 film stunned Hollywood with a $6.8 million opening weekend, putting it fourth at the box office, and earning more than $8,000 per screen. It has since made more than $20 million. The success of Fireproof has little to do with its artistic merits, and everything to do with religious message. Created by the church, for the church and heavily marketed through the church, Fireproof is itself a form of Christianese —a visual depiction of evangelicalism’s self-congratulatory internal conversation.
The film tells an uncomplicated tale of a failing marriage. Fans have taken special note of Fireproof’s relatively high production values, which, along with its championship of suburban domesticity, call to mind a Lifetime original movie. The producers maximized their budget by not paying actors, virtually all of whom are amateurs. The only exception is the star, Kirk Cameron, who compensates by doing more than enough acting for everyone. Known to most of the country as the kid from Growing Pains, Cameron is a superstar inside the Christian bubble: the hero of the Left Behind movies and of The Way of the Master, a kind of evangelical reality show in which Cameron ambushes strangers on the street and witnesses to them.
In Fireproof, Cameron plays Caleb Holt, a firefighter who “will rush into a burning building to save a child, but won’t do anything to save your own marriage,” as his preternaturally wise and inevitably black best friend tells him. The flames threatening the Holt’s marriage are eminently relatable. Caleb expects his wife, Catherine, to make his meals and do his laundry, and never shows any gratitude when she does. Catherine wants affection and appreciation, but communicates solely through sarcasm and nagging. Also, Caleb selfishly extinguishes Catherine’s cherished scented candles—although I’m pretty sure that excessive use of scented candles is itself grounds for divorce in 12 states.
But the overriding problem is Caleb’s Internet porn habit. “That’s the kind of man you’ve become,” Catherine shouts at him. “There is nothing honorable about it.” Caleb can save lives every day, but he will never be a decent human being as long as he follows the Way of the Masturbator.
After Catherine makes an appointment with a divorce lawyer, Caleb turns to his father for advice. To Caleb’s surprise, the older man reveals that there was a time when he and Caleb’s mother were on the verge of divorce, until “the Lord did a work on us.” Caleb is an agnostic and has no patience for Christianese. Still, he accepts as a gift a book of spiritual advice called The Love Dare, which his father promises can save his marriage if he follows it for 40 days.
Since real men never back down from a dare, Caleb finds himself checking off the book’s marital-rescue boxes: “Say nothing negative,” “Do one act of kindness.” Halfway through, he gets to “Watch out for parasites”—addictions that can hollow out a relationship from the inside. Chastened, he not only deletes his Explorer bookmarks but smashes his entire computer with a baseball bat, just in case God hates spreadsheets and Minesweeper too. On the now empty desk, Caleb leaves Catherine a note that says, “I love you more.” If he hadn’t destroyed the computer, he could have instead sent her a real-life pornography addiction e-card.
Eventually Caleb learns the real lesson of The Love Dare, which is that you can not truly love your spouse until you love Jesus. He learns this in a park where there happens to be a giant wooden cross under which to fall on his knees. In the Christian movie racket, this is known as the Billy Graham scene, having been codified in the films Graham produced in the 1950s. This is followed by a montage of Caleb praying in various light-infused settings.
But in making evangelism—and acceptability to the most insular Christian audiences—a priority, Christianese films all but guarantee artistic failure. Art demands an honesty that the evangelical bubble would find intolerable.
Cheesy? Heavy-handed? Yes, and intentionally so. In films like this, an evangelistic and ministerial mission do much more than a good script to assure commercial success. Not only has Fireproof made a handsome profit, but The Love Dare, a book which did not even exist until it was created as tie-in to the movie, is now at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. A Fireproof Your Marriage study kit and other products are also selling briskly.
But in making evangelism—and acceptability to the most insular Christian audiences—a priority, Christianese films all but guarantee artistic failure. Art demands an honesty that the evangelical bubble would find intolerable. Committed to promoting an unambiguous message that God solves all problems, Fireproof never portrays Christians doing anything untoward, or even experiencing any sorrow. Caleb’s parents’ marital struggles pre-dated their Christianity. When Caleb’s best friend reveals that he divorced his first wife, he not only says it was before he found the Lord, but adds that after he did, he would have gotten back together with his ex had she not already remarried. In the perfect world of Fireproof, good Christians do not have bad marriages, any more than they drink, gamble or swear.
And unlike in real life, when Christians in Fireproof share the Gospel they never search awkwardly for the right words and they always find a fertile target. In this respect, the film validates every pep-talk promise of The Way of the Master. At the end of Fireproof, after Caleb has been transformed by Jesus, he no longer even needs to open his mouth to proselytize. “Something has changed in you,” Catherine tells him, “and I want what happened to you to happen to me.” They are words straight out of every starry-eyed fundamentalist’s wet dreams.
Indeed, it’s possible Fireproof is so obsessed with stamping out pornography because it recognizes the competition. Fireproof is a porn version of Christianity—a ludicrously contorted, heavily airbrushed fantasy of the real thing, and ultimately every bit as unsatisfying.