Fireproof -- Reel Rebel Upsets Tinseltown Stereotypes
By Rick Pearcey
Speaking of change, how about that Fireproof?
It’s a film that supports marriage.
It’s a film that displays passion but says feelings of love may not be all you need.
It’s a film that challenges the Hollywood entertainment system.
Not a bad bargain at $10 a pop.
Not a bad bargain at $500,000 for a film that has brought in nearly $21 million since opening just weeks ago on Sept. 26, 2008. That would be a box office performance greater than 40 times what the movie cost to produce.
Not a bad bargain for a film whose stars aren’t in rehab, post-hab, or hab-mercy, or ready to jump back on the stardust trail as televangelists for born-again secularism.
And to think that a Bible-clinging church with cinema on its mind is behind all this is enough to turn central casting inside out. What are pastors-screenwriters-brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick putting in the communion at Sherwood Baptist down there in southwest Georgia? And what must the neighbors in nearby Pecan City think!
Marriage Up in Smoke
Fireproof is about a marriage going up in smoke. It seems that a certain firefighter by name of Capt. Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron of TV’s “Growing Pains”) is a hero at work but not at home.
On the job, he lives and breathes a heroic code: “Never leave your partner behind.” But at home, he leaves his partner behind on a regular basis. As in online visits to unsavory sites. He’s doing his part to support a “harmless” recreational outlet that in real life brings in more than $97 billion worldwide in internet porn revenues, according to statistics for 2006.
Oh, Caleb’s not a guy in a raincoat on the corner promising an ACLU-approved porn flick about a VP candidate. Granted, if the captain were a political Big Wig giving away money after taxing plumbers, painters, carpenters, and other rich people, or was honest about liking watching other people get physical, he could preach his gospel of secularism to the masses via daytime talk TV.
But wife Catherine, human being that she is, revolts. “Catherine” is played by Erin Bethea, and Fireproof is her first major film role.
Yes, marriage is a God-given, inalienable structure for the birth, growth, and development of human beings. But this woman is tired of arguing, tired of watching her man slip away by choice, and tired of seeing their marriage fall apart. Better to just let the whole thing burn down.
She wants a divorce. And besides, there’s an attentive doctor at the hospital where she works in public relations.
That would be Mr. Sensitive M.D., who unbeknownst to sweet Catherine, is married. On special occasions, this man with no sudden moves and a specialty in gastroadultery hides his wedding band in an office desk drawer. Other than being a willing home-wrecker on the sly, he seems nice enough to start a cult or head up a nonprofit voter-registration drive.
What Will You Risk?
As with too many marriages today, the Holts’ holy union is heading for the Hugh Hefner ash heap of history, until a personal being acts into human history to effect positive change.
Caleb’s father step in. With information. He asks his son to read The Love Dare, a plot device that turned into a real book and is “now No. 1 on the New York Times paperback advice best-seller list” and No. 10 among all books at Amazon, according to AP.
The market for such a book is unfortunately rather large. “Among adults who have been married,” reports the Barna Group, “one-third (33%) have experienced at least one divorce.”
The Love Dare challenges Caleb to commit to 40 days of practical, one-day-at-a-time steps toward learning how to love his wife, affirm their marriage, and place their entire relationship on rock-solid ground.
But there’s a stumbling block. Not long after moving forward with the love dare, Caleb is ready to throw in the towel. “This whole Love Dare thing. It’s not working.”
Catherine’s not feeling it, he’s not feeling it, so what’s next? “Don’t just follow your heart, you’ve gotta lead your heart,” counsels Caleb’s best friend, Lt. Michael Simmons, also a firefighter. “Michael” is played by Ken Bevel, who in real life is a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. This first-time film actor should know something about leadership.
Caleb’s buddy Michael is right: Feelings come, feelings go. Caleb begins discovering that love is more than feelings of bliss that lead to a ceremony in a church.
As every schoolboy and girl once knew, feelings alone, by themselves, are no adequate foundation for religion, faith, science, math, astronomy, ethics, voting, engineering, human relationships, or self-esteem. They may tell us something about our internal states or last night’s dinner, but they can be entirely misleading about what’s really happening or should be happening in the external world.
Ask any emergency vehicle driver. Just as you need information, and not mere passion, to get a fire truck from geographical point A to geographical point B to rescue a child inside a burning building, you need something more reliable than variable human feelings to act wisely in the far more complex geography of human relationships.
When in Doubt, Read the . . .
In Fireproof, Caleb learns the secularly incorrect but humane truth that participants in marriage help themselves best by looking to the Designer of marriage for information on how it all works.
Like the mechanic said on the 99th try: When in doubt, read the directions. Caleb begins to see that the love of male and female in marriage is about the whole person making healthy choices day in and day out. All love is tough love.
This places Caleb’s individual decision to fight for marriage not on some relativistic, culturally adrift sociopolitical scale of “left” or “right” but directly in the center of America’s historic national decision to takes its own dare, to state its Declaration, and to brazenly rest its polity on the foundation of truth rooted in content from the Creator.
Or put it like this: Leave it to the brilliance of the Founders to think beyond the limits of the Greeks, Romans, and Enlightenment secularists, and to rely instead on Biblical information as the basis for what we might call The Freedom Dare. In that experiment, uppity human beings fight for inalienable rights and liberty under an objective and living Creator -– and not under the state or nature or free-floating “living” constitutions reimagined moment by moment by politicians-judges-activists or swayed by the passions of race, class, gender, or ideology.
That emancipatory Biblical perspective is what has rocked the world for freedom. And it positions the marriage of Caleb and Catherine, and marriage per se, transcendentally in creation at the heart of all good things.
God in Theaters?
Well, there goes the entertainment neighborhood, right? It’s all well and good that Fireproof affirms marriage, but get real: Does God really belong in the theaters? Isn’t that kind of tacky?
“The point I’m trying to make,” said one critic, is “should movie theaters be an appropriate setting for religion? Seems to me it’s a little disrespectful to God to invoke his name while chewing on popcorn and slurping on cokes.”
Right -– it’s out of respect for the Creator that we banish him from entertainment society. That might do for bluebloods in suits at tea parties congratulating themselves for being different from “those people.”
But the real Creator describes himself as not afraid or too “spiritually minded” to get his hands dirty and muck it up with human beings. He moves by humanity and conviction, not by style points awarded by the Washington Post.
Of course a film like Fireproof belongs in movie theaters. An Obama-packed Supreme Court may well change this, but there is currently no wall of separation between church and cinema.
Admittedly, this lack of a cinematic wall may upset guardians of Tinseltown orthodoxy. After all, Fireproof allows audiences to identify with Caleb as a human being struggling with his selfishness to live up to his humanity and to apply to his own life basic answers from the Creator that work in the real world.
Judging by the applause as the film credits roll, by animated conversation in the theater lobby afterward, and by healthy box office receipts, there may be more than a few Calebs and Catherines in theaters who appreciate what’s on screen and are glad God showed up in such a dark place.
And of course partaking of food and drink while enjoying a film like Fireproof is appropriate. There’s no need for movie-goers to be more spiritual than God, and any careful reading of the Biblical data demonstrates a Creator quite at home with his creation. He’s a lot less “religious” than his detractors suggest.
Rocks and trees and fields and fruit and the very physicality of life itself happen to be the Creator’s ideas and reflective of his character. He’s the one who looked at it all and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). Physicality is spirituality. Among other things, this means husbands and wives making babies is “good” and not less “spiritual” because it happens to be fun.
You might keep that in mind the next time an enlightened socialite proclaims the Creator is some kind of kill-joy and that salvation rests in the wonder-working power of adultery and other forms of communal alienation preached as liberation, the opiate of limousine revolutionaries.
Fireproof emerges out of a perspective that recognizes that the unique community of man and woman called marriage is part of the wonder of the created order. The searing pain of divorce is an alarm bell warning human beings to find their “way back homeward,” as McCartney puts it in one of his songs.
If the Artist of Artists can create the world in the first place, he certainly can show up in the movies, food and drink included. Film is an expression of the gift of human creativity, and you know where that good gift comes from. It’s OK to enjoy the popcorn.
And enjoy the chicken, too. Chicken? Yes, as a kind of shout-out to Chick-fil-A and to affirm a welcome product placement in Fireproof for the eatery’s support of the film and its pro-marriage emphasis.
Chick-fil-A stands in contrast to an eye-brow-raising McDonald’s, which acknowledged last March that it had signed on with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, a radical organization seeking to impress its subjective group ideology upon American society. Happily, even as Fireproof appeared in theaters, McDonald’s revealed it has reconsidered and will “not be involved in political and social issues.”
Often when pastors or “believers” happen to show up on screen, they are depicted as crazy hypocrites imposing their silly religion on normal people.
You’d never guess from such a disrespectful template that some of the greatest artists, musicians, scientists, writers, and political figures of all time either were personally, devoutly Christian or operated on the basis of a verifiable worldview decisively shaped by Judeo-Christian thought-forms. One can think of Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bach, Newton, Pascal, and George Washington, to name a few.
What seems equally if not more curious these days is a different kind of disrespect in filmland: a growing lack of respect for creativity. It goes without saying that there are terrifically creative people at work in Hollywood. And yet entertainment since the 1960s has become less creative but increasingly reliant on extravagant violence, gratuitous sex, and dehumanizing gore.
In films such as Fireproof, however, I would suggest we see a step forward in creativity. Instead of formulaic cheap thrills, the storyline and characterization offer a more creative, richer, and humane vision of human reality.
For all his being a regular guy, Caleb is heroic and noble. As a firefighter, he is a warrior for people against killer fires. And yet, he yields to online temptation, which threatens the heart of his family life. Marital crisis clarifies the poorness of his choices, and only then does Caleb begin taking decisive steps to rescue his marriage.
Meanwhile, Catherine is devastated. She stands her ground against an unfulfilling marriage but is making herself available for adultery. And yet her underlying love and humanity shines forth when she sees real-world evidence that Caleb is finally getting the message.
In contrast to what sometimes passes for “Christian” filmmaking, Fireproof offers a more-rounded, more Biblically informed and therefore more humane vision of humanity and struggle, a hope that is not utopian. Of course life is hard and full of challenges. The cross is not a piece of shiny jewelry; it’s a symbol of brutality about a tortured Messiah.
Of course marriage is good but not easy. All of life has been affected by our choices to walk away from community with our true Creator, hence the need for help in healing that primary relationship. Every human being lives in a broken world, into which we’ve contributed our own unfair share.
Solutions –- whether saving people trapped in cars or marriages trapped in selfishness -– may be clear, but as Fireproof demonstrates, they require effort, struggle, and strong elements of risk. Because we live in a moral universe that has been spoiled, every act of redemption involves a kind of death.
To put this kind of hopeful realism on film without the benefit of a huge budget or A-list star power, and to attract audiences without relying on the use of simple-minded “default positions” on nudity, violence, and gore, is a tribute to the creativity and honest story-telling of Fireproof.
Disrespecting the Individual
In addition to less creativity, there is also less respect than one might think for the individual in Hollywood today. Rebellion is in, of course. But for approved causes only.
It is cool to “rage against the machine.” But perhaps not so cool to question the authority of passion, Mother Earth, skin color, pornographers, abortionists, feminism, homosexualism, media elites, envelope-pushing, and secularism in any area of American life that really matters.
It is the difference between autonomy and individuality –- between worshipping radical autonomy, and lashing out against the free-thinking individual unafraid to resist elite peer groups or to consider reasonable explanations about the form of the universe, the humanness of the person, and the objectivity of God in a natural but not naturalistic cosmos.
In contrast to the domesticated wild ones of Hollywood, Fireproof respects and affirms the individual per se. The person is more than a front for media-approved political programs, desired radical outcomes, and hatred for selected presidents.
In Fireproof, Caleb makes real choices. Neither his genes, class, job, nor skin color imposes on him selfish desires or hidden sins. He is responsible for who he becomes by his choices. Neither the devil nor his wife made him do it. He is not “condemned to be free,” as the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it, but created to be free and challenged to live in a moral universe that judges foolish behavior.
By choice Caleb must decide to find and follow through on real-world answers to the challenges of married life as a less than perfect human being in a less than perfect world. Unlike autonomous man adrift in a meaningless sea -- happy in a manner until no one in Hollywood wants him anymore and the Botox gig is up -– Caleb is sufficiently open-minded to accept answers even if they come from the Creator.
This is not about religion divorced from reality, which so aptly describes much entertainment and the Washington-centric “Messiah” politics of today. For Caleb’s solution is rooted not in “religion” but in an objective worldview based on verifiable information from the Creator. It is applicable to our moment in history and available because 1st century First-Responder Jesus of Nazareth put everything on the line for those he loved, even if some didn’t like him so much.
Because we in the audience are drawn in to care about Catherine and her marriage –- not to mention our marriages and marriage per se -– we hope she will not act the moral and cosmic idiot and give in to that doctor’s soft-sell adultery campaign as he trolls through life seeking female targets of opportunity.
Catherine struggles. We see her weaken. One hopes she is strong and independent enough to accept the resources needed to stand firm as an individual in the midst of personal disappointment when answers seem lacking. Rage against the machine of divorce, Catherine. Rebel against fragmentation, unsatisfying offers of change, and blind leaps into a future unknown but not necessarily better.
Rage for marriage, and not just on film but in real life. So in Fireproof, when Caleb kisses Catherine, Kirk is actually kissing the best “body double” possible, his wife, Chelsea. She “was flown in from Los Angeles just for that shot,” says the film website.
Why go through all that trouble? “Sherwood Pictures has upheld this standard in all their movies,” says the website. “Actors and actresses should guard their own marriages while on screen the same way they would do in real life.”
But does this standard make sense?
No, if humans are merely collections of body parts and interchangeable pieces of “talent” and matter, privacy is an illusion fobbed off upon us by our genes, fragmentation of body and soul is no big deal, and marriage is a social construct set to be reinvented next Tuesday as new polling data or judicial feelings roll in. Besides, a cold, indifferent universe feels nobody’s pain, hears nobody’s cry, and keeps no stats on divorce and marriage.
But yes, if individuals are holistic beings, bodies possess an inherent dignity beyond physics and chemistry, married intimacy is saved for married intimates, and marriage per se is a daring, liberating framework for love, growth, and the unbelievable blessing of children. The universe stands in awe of what the Creator has done for creatures made in his image.
In false pride, autonomous man would rather drive off a cliff than accept answers from the Creator. But the creation still holds sway, and gravitational forces demonstrate the limits of choices and behavior divorced from reality. When films lie, marriages die.
"First Duty of Art"
“To interest is the first duty of art,” says the inestimable C.S. Lewis in an essay on Hamlet. “No other excellences will even begin to compensate for failure in this, and very serious faults will be covered by this, as by charity.”
By that measure, Fireproof has met its first obligation. In the process, it celebrates marriage, creativity, and the individual.
Fireproof encourages husbands and wives to fight against the secular machine and its pathetic enticements, and to struggle for human community in unity and diversity under God in a broken world.
Fireproof respects creativity as a good gift from the Artist of Artists. It honors the individual as a worthy being capable of unworthy acts that don’t reduce him or her to junk, to be left behind by prowling spouses, prowling doctors, or prowling establishments of entertainment.
Critics may well point to faults: elements of over-the-top acting, the need for better lighting, cheesy (but endearing) banter, and so on. And yet movie-goers emerge not just entertained, but encouraged, refreshed.
Instead of offering yet another mindless foray into entertainment emptiness, Fireproof arrives on scene with hook, ladder, and the pursuit of excellence in community with the Creator.
No one is confusing Fireproof with Hamlet. But the creative rebels in that church in Georgia are crafting a humane entertainment alternative that has Hollywood scratching its head. There’s no telling where they will end up, but they’re heading in the right direction. Should they pass by C.S. Lewis, he’ll no doubt wave. We look forward to their next stop.
More on Film:
We Were Soldiers: Flesh, Blood, and Spirit in the Valley of Death, by Rick Pearcey
The Mummy, a Fish, and a Bicycle: True Love Is Always an Adventure, by Rick Pearcey (a review of The Mummy Returns)
Evolution vs. the Aliens: Cosmic Irony Found in Earthy Comedy, by Rick Pearcey (a review of Evolution)