Fireproof and Crazy Stupid Love: Comparisons and Contrasts from a Christian Worldview Perspective – By John Mayne

Posted by on Jan 7, 2016 in Budding Theologians | 1 comment

The relationship between Christianity and the arts is fascinating. The arts were once a sphere dominated by the church, but they now often seem to be a ‘God free’ zone. However, underlying assumptions about the world and reality drive most artistic portrayals, and should be examined and discussed. John Mayne does this very helpfully in his comparison and contrast of two films, Fireproof (written with an explicitly Christian script) and Crazy, Stupid, Love – which while without a clear Christian mandate, often resonates with Christian values and ideals. I think you will find this a fascinating read – definitely one to discuss with some friends.

John Mayne, a graduate of Malyon College (Vose’s sister college in Brisbane) recently moved to Perth to launch Power to Change (formerly Student Life – a ministry to University students) in Western Australia. I am enjoying getting to know him, and find him a creative and insightful thinker. I am grateful to him for making his stimulating paper available for inclusion with the work of our budding theologians.

ABSTRACT

Plato once said, “Those who tell the stories rule society” (cited in Spiegel 2007, 9). There is no doubting the influence of story and artistic expression, specifically that of film, in moulding our values and beliefs. Through analysis of the Christian work Fireproof, we can celebrate its accomplishments and offer critique in light of a theoretical framework for Christian engagement with the arts.  It is a framework that delights in passive reflection and adoration of God the Creator, yet which also allows room for a more prophetic response. Finally, we shall delve into the worldview behind the film Crazy, Stupid, Love, bringing it into dialogue with Fireproof and as such, exploring different perspectives on love, in conjunction with other themes.

  1. INTRODUCING FIREPROOF

Fireproof is a Christian drama which became the highest grossing independent film of 1998. Directed by Alex Kendrick, who co-wrote and co-produced it alongside his brother Stephen, it also features notable child star and outspoken believer Kirk Cameron.  While the film is lauded by evangelical film critics, the reception garnered by those of a more mainstream persuasion has been considerably more mixed.

The films protagonist, Caleb, is a firefighter who lives by the creed: Never leave your partner behind. Yet on the home front, his relationship with his wife Catherine has cooled to the point of impending divorce.  While receiving counsel from his father, Caleb reluctantly agrees to partake in a 40-day ‘Love Dare’ experiment, purposed to save his marriage.  His initial half-hearted efforts to fulfill the challenges are soon transformed when he instills Christ as the center of his life, a response to his father’s gentle yet firm encouragement to consider the gospel as the basis for unconditional love. Though not devoid of plot twists, Caleb ultimately proceeds to win back Catherine’s heart.

The movie is the brainchild of Sherwood Pictures, a ministry of the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, in the heart of the ‘Bible Belt.’  Senior pastor of Sherwood, Mike Catt (2010, ¶7), recounts that the vision of the production company has been “to make family-friendly movies that build on the… Christian ethic and communicate the gospel without compromise.” Struggling with the reality that “marriages are hemorrhaging in America and the church,” producer Stephen Kendrick (cited in Darlington 2012, ¶10-13) declared that “we wanted to communicate some Biblical truths through the movie” to “help people to have stronger marriages.”

  1. FIREPROOF: FORMING A FRAMEWORK

Fireproof is to be celebrated in that it provided a creative outlet for a Southern protestant community. Stereotypically such a demographic is disproportionately unengaged when it comes to involvement in arts projects, often being lampooned by others as a result. Cast and crew are largely derived from the Sherwood Baptist Church on a volunteer basis, which provided the opportunity for many newcomers to experience a taste of filmmaking, via involvement across a myriad of roles.  The host city of Albany has also benefited economically, spiritually and socially, ebbing it closer to Shalom.

Though the movie espouses a predominantly evangelical worldview, it does succeed in being somewhat counter-cultural purely by dealing with topics that Hollywood refuses to adequately or maturely address.  Caleb’s pornography addiction is portrayed as a ‘parasite’ that is destroying his marriage, echoing the plight that even many non-religious men are wrestling with. Hollywood is comfortable extracting cheap laughs from, or downplaying the topic at hand, yet it refuses to engage with this guise of addiction in a manner that embraces depth, brokenness or any semblance of balance.  Similarly, the central themes of marriage and unconditional love are given a respect and sanctity that are seldom afforded them by secular film.  The hindrances to marital harmony that Caleb and Catherine tackle are not alien to many adult viewers, and Fireproof provides a lens through which to dialogue with and critique an alternate solution.

Fireproof lands some elements well in seeking to influence a generation that can often be caustic towards tacky, one-dimensional, evangelistic productions, especially those of a Christian bent. The film refuses to land cheap shots against characters that lack a personal faith, and the more palatable messages of wisdom, counsel, and perseverance in love, can be extracted without needing to be intricately interwoven with the salvation-in-Christ motif.  In attempting to develop authentic narrative, the directors choose not to make any kitschy Christian references, or rely on ‘in-house’ language, terms and culture.

The New York Times lauded the movie for achieving the rare cinematic feat of casting “characters with a strong, conservative Christian faith who don’t sound crazy” (Genzlinger 2008, ¶4). Indeed the two individuals nudging Caleb towards faith are among the most likeable in the film, and belie the overly zealous, hypocritical, predominantly legalistic depiction that Western movies seem bound to reproduce ad nauseam. The movie is of a considerably better standard than its predecessor, as the Kendrick brothers proceed to slowly master their chosen vehicle of storytelling.  God likewise delighted in Bezalel and his contemporaries as they flourished in their capacity for Tabernacle design (Ex 31:1-7).

  1. THE DIVINE VALUE OF ART

Art is fundamentally an expression of creativity and imagination, some of the communicable, oft-overlooked, attributes of God. His inaugural divine act was to create (Gen 1:1), soon shaping from dust a beloved people crafted in the Imago Dei (Gen 1:26), miraculously bestowed “with something of his own capacity for creativity” (Goheen and Bartholomew 2008, 157).  The first gardener was not Adam, but God, yet it was Adam who was invited to partake in the Father’s work of cultivating nature, and thus creating culture (Gen 1:28).

The garden, a gift from the Creator, was not solely “a utilitarian source of nourishment” (Crouch 2010, 33), but also an entity of inherent beauty. As Rookmaaker (1978, 32) famously posits, “art needs no justification,” operating independently from any need to be didactic, propagandist, evangelistic, or tied to traditions, systems and institutions.  Yet as a counterbalance, the same author warns that “art is not just there to be art, but is bound by a thousand ties to reality” (1978, 34), contributing much to our collective grappling with emotions, truth and the totality of Creation.  It serves to illuminate that which we cannot fathom or express merely from logic or normative processes, a truism that influenced Jesus to communicate the Kingdom of God via earthy parables.  Furthermore, we must remember that God transmitted the redemptive narrative wholly through the Living Word, His incarnate Son who was radical, non-conformist and counter-cultural, in conjunction with the written Word, comprising of poetry, song, history, allegory, dream visions and Apocalyptic renditions.  He delights to create, and is likewise delighted when we exercise, or benefit from, the acts of creation (Psalm 96:1).

  1. CORRUPTION OF THE ARTS

Just as no aspect of Creation has escaped the maelstrom ensuing from the Fall, art too has been subject to its share of degradation. Lamech writes a boastful poem that glorifies murder (Gen 4:23-24) and caricature was employed by Nazi propagandists such as Joseph Goebbels to fuel an entire nation’s hatred towards Jews, Gypsies, and ironically, Bohemians.  The citizens of Babel implement architecture in a desire to ‘make a name’ for themselves (Gen 11:3-4,) and while Moses communes with God on Mount Sinai, his brother incites Israel to transgress the First and Second Commandment via worshipping a golden calf fashioned from earrings (Ex 32:1-4).  A case study of the Hebrew nation reveals that it is “the worship not the making of art that is idolatrous and therefore to be prohibited” (Franklin et al 2004, ¶4-20). Commercialism, ego, overt preaching, skill deterioration and an over-reliance on tacky and crass exhibits that create a shock-value out of proportion to any artistic merit, are just a few more distortions.

The church was once the epicenter of excellence in artistry, as Da Vinci and his contemporaries glorified God through paintings, sculpture, literature and stained glass.  However the modern day ekklesia can often be skeptical and cautious towards the majority of creative expression.  Our escapist attitude is sometimes characterized by viewing culture as existing outside the sphere of God’s concern.  In seeking to engage with the Missio Dei, we often fail to adequately contextualize, and thus the gospel is rarely proclaimed with the appropriate language, symbols and metaphors that our audience is intimate with.  This is partly due to a failure to intrinsically value and cast a Kingdom vision for the arts.  Tillich (cited in Negri 2002, 3) warned that “the most dramatic distortion in modern times was to be found, not in the twisted forms of the new art, but in the suppression of such art in the name of religion.”

  1. A REDEMPTIVE VISION OF THE ARTS

Just as the Garden of Eden was rendered beautiful, so too will the New Jerusalem be intricately designed, elaborately decorated and “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Rev 21:24). This verse hints at how the fruitfulness of creative labours on this earth, will be consummated in heaven, “where ego is replaced by a desire to shout God’s praise!” (Mostert, cited in Benson 2011, ¶3-4). When preaching Christ to the Athenians, Paul took meticulous care in both understanding and quoting their gods and poets (Acts 17:16-34).  He used wisdom, tact, genuine artistic appreciation and discernment to broadcast the truth components inherent in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, without necessarily absorbing or endorsing the entirety of their pagan worldview.  Paul struck a balance between the extremes of “cultural anorexia” and “cultural gluttony” (Godawa 2002, 13-14).  The task of the church should include the cultivation of “general revelation in action” (Detweiler’s term for art (2008, 9)), proving indispensable in providing a “language that penetrates deeply into the heart and soul” (Franklin et al 2004, ¶4-20). In addition to cultivating, critiquing and dialoguing with art, we should be liberated to enjoy it for what it is.  For even in the darkest, most seemingly anti-theistic of compositions, there often remains a glimmer of revelation which sheds light on various aspects of God’s redemptive narrative.

  1. SUGGESTED MODIFICATIONS FOR FIREPROOF

For many art lovers, irrespective of their theological beliefs, Fireproof commits some cardinal sins.  For one, it is overtly preachy, and secondly, it is of an amateur standard across almost every conceivable metric.  Rookmaaker (1978, 41) bluntly notes that “to fit into the patterns of evangelism, artists have often compromised, and so prostituted their art.” Fireproof is at least guilty in part of such an accusation.  The dialogue can be stilted; Caleb’s argumentative encounter with his wife is out of proportion to all that has occurred previously, the chemistry between the couple is wooden, and some frivolous action scenes are included almost as if solely to enhance the viewing experience of the cinematic trailers, rather than bolstering the plot.  For many post-moderns, ‘the medium is the message,’ and wherever the medium is noticeably plastic, the message will unfortunately be drowned out amongst a cacophony of derision provoked by ineptitude (particularly relevant when the film’s professionalism reaches its lowest ebb right at the beginning).

One practical suggestion for Sherwood Pictures may have been to employ or consult a wider scope of artistic professionals prior to filming, even if they were not believers.  A robust theology of ‘common grace’ demonstrates that part of the talent pool will always exist outside the walls of the church (Matt 5:45).  As Copley (2009, ¶3) remonstrates, “shouldn’t we as people of faith strive to create art that doesn’t just advocate our point of view but stands on its own as great art?”

Rather than aiming to “communicate the gospel without compromise” (Catt 2010, ¶7), a more subtle, implicit approach could yield more credibility. By way of comparison, Jesus never stated his divinity explicitly in the Gospels, yet his numerous implicit, occasionally cryptic references, are arguably a more powerful proclamation regardless, evoking just as strong an audience response (cf. John 8:58-59).  The phrase “without compromise” on their vision statement, may be better substituted by “with artistic excellence and integrity.”

The film’s setting is far too Southern, too Protestant and too ‘WASP-y’ if the intention was to seriously engage a secular, liberal audience with the Missio Dei.  Finally, their desire to create “family-friendly movies” (Catt 2010, ¶7) would probably disqualify a significant portion of the Biblical narrative from transitioning to film. When a chief aim is to ensure that a movie sneaks through the censors with a PG rating, rather than allowing authenticity and an accurate depiction of the total depravity of man to take precedence, it can result in both a watering down of ‘medium’ and ‘message’ simultaneously.

  1. INTRODUCING CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE

Deacy and Ortiz (2008, 11) note that “movies do not need to be explicitly Christian in their content or form to be theologically significant.” This serves as a timely reminder as we introduce our next feature film, the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (CSL).  Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and starring the ever-present Steve Carrell, it was released in 2011 to consistently positive reviews.  The film’s writer, Dan Fogelman (cited in Faye 2011, ¶7), recounts holing himself up in a cabin with the intent of “writing not another children’s movie, but an adult, ensemble comedy spec about the pursuit of the “L’ word.”

The plot revolves around Carl’s (Carell) “perfect” life unraveling when he learns that his wife has been cheating on him, requesting a divorce. Unaccustomed to seeking female company at bars, Jacob (Ryan Gosling) takes Carl on as a wingman, opening his eyes to a brand new, hedonistic way of living.  However despite his makeover and increasing number of sexual conquests, his heart still yearns for his wife, which ultimately leads him back to where he began.

  1. THE WORLDVIEW THAT INFORMS THE WORK

The worldview underpinning the film brings to mind Smiths’ thesis (2009, 37) that human persons are “defined by love – as desiring agents and liturgical animals whose primary mode of intending the world is love.” For indeed love is the film’s basis, and the lens through which we discern the underlying philosophy that motivates those responsible for it.  Though we should note in passing that by nature of its release date and celebrated cast, typical for films intended to be summer Hollywood blockbusters, one can deduce that commercialism and profitability no doubt played a role too.  This limits the extent to which the film is free to challenge boundaries.

One of the films catchcries’ is that ‘love sucks.’ It is messy, complex and convoluted, yet simultaneously powerful, inspiring and redeeming.  It advocates a ‘romantic worldivew,’ in which the highest goal to attain, the zenith of our earthly existence, is the perpetual endurance of an emotionally-rooted love.  Frequently the ends are seen to justify the means and immorality is not necessarily cast in a poor light, though it is bundled with repercussions for those who dabble in it (Luke 8:17).  A relationship with our Creator is hardly the motivation for monogamy, but rather, meeting the perfect partner, ‘the one,’ or rekindling lost feelings towards ‘the one.’  From a different angle, the worldview is typically one of ‘happy paganism,’ sprouting liberal, post-modern values, coupled with empathy for traditional love values that trump wild, unattached hedonism.

  1. COMPARISONS AND WORLDVIEW SIMILARITIES

There are many similarities between Fireproof and CSL, correlating with affinities in worldview.  As each movie grapples extensively with its central theme, each resolves that “the deepest principle in the human heart, contrary to all the insanity of the contemporary world, isn’t sex – it’s love” (Jessen 2007, 61).  Their collective appreciation of love, though possibly birthed from different origins and not entirely identical in definition, spurs each directorial team onwards to construct an affective story that ‘hooks’ the viewer and challenges their presuppositions on the topic.

Between Caleb, Carl, and his wingman Jacob, each choose to deny the sensual, fleeting pleasures of adultery upon the realization that it will not lead to relational fulfillment, allowing it to be placated by a higher, nobler vision of love (1 Cor 13:13). Lust does not satisfy with any permanency, and in each movie, it is the succumbing to lust that leads to relational dysfunction and jeopardizes reconciliation.  What the Bible and Sherwood Pictures view negatively as “selfish desires” (Rom 13:14), likewise do the composers of CSL.  “Crazy Stupid Love ultimately examines why lasting love – not merely bed-hopping – is worth fighting for” (Banister 2011, ¶8). If we were to replace “merely bed-hopping” with “internet pornography,” we may just also have a suitable tagline for Fireproof.

Love as defined Biblically in 1 Corinthians 13, would probably not be entirely unharmonious with the views of Fogelman either, particularly the notion that love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).  Caleb’s father wills him to fight for love and save his marriage, which is congruent with the sentiment of Carl’s son Robbie, who pleads “I’m serious, dad. I just need some inspiration right now… Go get her back.”  Furthermore, unlike the clichéd and falsely idealistic, ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’ sentiment from Love Story, both narratives stress the importance of forgiveness in any relationship         (Col 3:13).

  1. CONTRASTS AND WORLDVIEW DISSIMILARITIES

Contrasting Fireproof with CSL, the most immediate differences that surface, relate to morality.  CSL abounds with smutty jokes, God’s name is repeatedly taken in vain, masturbation is implied and naked photos are distributed to a minor.  Adultery is painted in an unfulfilling light, without being outright condemned.  Concerning Fireproof, the pendulum swings completely the other way.  The humour, though not always as riotous, remains clean.  Even Caleb’s ‘porn addiction’ is mysteriously never coined as such, though the true nature of his struggle is alluded to frequently.  The makers of Fireproof seek to counterbalance a Hollywood, or societal, bias towards immorality, whilst those responsible for CSL are content to maintain status quo.  Without commenting on the wisdom of their respective worldview application, it is discernible that one is theistically preoccupied, whilst the other is irreligious.

Fireproof is accused of ‘dumping’ God into the storyline too frequently, whilst CSL makes scant reference to religious faith being even a minor motivating or influencing factor in characters’ lives. Caleb is galvanized to pursue transformation, to love faithfully, in large part due to an encounter with the divine. Carl’s inspiration stems from his son’s encouragement, the emptiness accompanying his womanizing, and reflections on how much he cherishes the wife of his youth. Fireproof is not reluctant to preach, whereupon CSL is content to focus on perfecting their narrative.  Once more, without probing again the wisdom in which the Kendrick brothers appropriate their worldview as it concerns cinema, it is clear they are functioning from an eternal perspective (Col 3:2), whereupon their CSL contemporaries are, overwhelmingly, not.

The ‘romantic love’ worldview and motif that is indispensable to CSL, is not often championed by Fireproof.  The former views love as undeniable and unavoidable, whilst the latter espouses what one may refer to as ‘covenantal love.’ Rendering love as an action or choice, expressed through faithful obedience to Yahweh and the marriage covenant (Eph 5:22-28), not devoid of emotional bond, yet not always driven by emotional impulse either.

  1. A CHRISTIANS APPROACH TO CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE

Apart from seeking to ensure that minors are appropriately shielded from a lot of the crass innuendo, Christians would do well to engage broadly with CSL. It is a beautifully woven story that glorifies God through its expression of creativity, humour, revelation of divine attributes and its pursuit of cinematic excellence.  Barsotti & Johnston (2004, 25) note that films invite the viewer to translate beliefs and values into an arena different from their own, placing it into dialogue with life.  This opportunity too should be seized.  We may also recall the challenge of Karl Barth, to ‘hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.’  One could easily replace ‘newspaper’ here with ‘film,’ such is its modern influence in observing, and shaping culture.

There needs to be frank honesty and intellectual accountability as we draw Christ-like characters and derive redemptive motifs from various works of art. Yet if Paul was transported from the ancient Areopagus (Acts 17) to a modern day college fraternity house, it is not hard to imagine him drawing on cinematic footage of CSL in creating a bridge for post-moderns to grapple with love, subsequently pointing them towards the one who first loved us (1 John 4:19).  For those among us who are connoisseurs of art, or skeptical of excessive sentimentality, viewing CSL may well be a more pleasant experience than carving out time to witness Fireproof.

 

List of References

Banister, C, 2011, accessed 30 October 2012, “Heart, Humor Converge in Crazy Stupid Love”, online:

http://www.crosswalk.com/culture/movies/heart-humor-converge-in-i-crazy-stupid-love-i.html?p=2

 

Barsotti, C M & Johnston, R K, 2004, Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith, Baker, Grand Rapids.

 

Benson, D, 2011 accessed 29 October 2012, “God at Work: Painting. An Interview with Deb Mostert, Professional Artist”, online: https://students.malyon.edu.au/moodle/file.php/61/Non-Text_Readings/11_Benson_GodAtWork_Painting.Acting_8pp.pdf

 

Catt, M, 2011, accessed 28 October 2012, “Our Beginning”, online: http://sherwoodpictures.com/how-we-do-it/

 

Copley, R, 1999, accessed 28 October 2012, “rc talk: Observations on the Fireproof Controversy”, online: http://copiousnotes.bloginky.com/2012/02/17/rc-talk-observations-on-the-fireproof-controversy/

 

Crouch, A, 2010, “The Gospel, How is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience”, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, David O Taylor (ed), Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 29-43.

 

Darlington, C J, 2012 accessed 28 October 2012, “Stephen Kendrick Interview”, online: http://www.titletrakk.com/movie-interviews/stephen-kendrick-interview.htm

 

Deacy, C & Ortiz, G W, 2008, Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide, Blackwell, Malden.

 

Detweiler, C, 2008, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

 

Faye, D, 2011, accessed 30 October 2012, “Lucky in Love”, online: http://www.wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=4670

 

Franklin, J & Harbinson, C & Novak, P & Tughan, J, accessed 27 October 2012, “Redeeming the Arts: The Restoration of the Arts to God’s Creational Intention”, online: http://www.lausanne.org/docs/2004forum/LOP46_IG17.pdf

Genzlinger, N, 2008, accessed 28 October 2012, “Putting Out House Fires, Reigniting Passions”, online: http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/09/27/movies/27proof.html?ref=movies&_r=0

 

Godawa, B, 2002, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment, IVP, Downers Grove.

 

Goheen, M & Bartholomew, C G 2008, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

 

Jesson, G, 2007, “Defining Love Through the Eye of the Lens: Romance, Sex and the Human Condition in Pretty Woman, Legends of the Fall and the Bridges of Madison County”, Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, R D Geivett and J S Spiegel (eds), IVP Academic, Downers Grove, 52-68.

 

Negri, P 2002, “Paul Tillich: The Artist’s Theologian”, Interface: A forum for Theology in the World, Adelaide, 5/1, 3-16.

 

Smith, J K A 2009, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

 

Spiegel, J S, 2007, “Introduction”, Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, R D Geivett and J S Spiegel (eds), IVP Academic, Downers Grove,

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Rookmaaker, H R, 1978, ART Needs no Justification, IVP, Downers Grove.

 

Vanhoozer, K J 2007, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

One Comment

  1. Who can explain it?
    Who can tell you why
    Fools give you reasons
    Wise men never try..

    From the musical South Pacific
    By Rodgers and Hammerstien

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