Friday, July 08, 2011

Squirming at the gospel

Last night I watched the movie Fireproof. It came out in 2008, and it’s a story of a fireman whose career is going well but his marriage is falling apart. The movie presents his feelings and efforts as he tries to save his marriage.

What makes this movie unique are its explicitly Christian messages. Specifically, at several points in the film a character presents the gospel message to another. Also, the film emphasizes the importance of marriage as a sacred bond, something important above and beyond the feelings of the moment.

I’m not much of a film critic, but I would say that in terms of production value, this movie is better than a Lifetime channel movie but not up to the standards of a big-budget Hollywood film. It stars former child-star Kirk Cameron, who did a credible job as the lead, and much—but not all—of the film was believable.

I woke up this morning thinking about several aspects of the film, or, more accurately, my reaction to it. The thing that surprised me the most was that I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the gospel-presentation scenes. It’s not that they were done badly nor did I disagree with their message in any way. Rather, I found myself cringing at how openly the movie presented the gospel. I watched it on the computer, and during those scenes I wanted to check my e-mail or read the newspaper headlines.

For whatever reason, whether it’s because of my being in academics, a less-religious part of the country, or whatever, I’ve inadvertently bought into a peculiar view of the appropriateness of talking about the gospel with other people. Namely, it’s violating a social norm—something not to be done.

As I experience it, the norm about talking about religious beliefs goes something like this. It’s okay to have your own beliefs, even to hold them strongly. It’s also okay to discreetly acknowledge your affiliation with a particular set of beliefs. However, if you’re going to talk about your religious beliefs openly, you should do so with someone who shares your beliefs. It’s probably not appropriate to talk about them with people who don’t already agree with them. As Stephen Carter wrote about it in The Culture of Disbelief, the message is that Christian faith should be kept almost as a hobby—fine if you do it at home, but don’t bring it into the public sphere.

My squirming at the gospel message in Fireproof may just reflect that I squirm at a lot of things, but I think it also results from me having partially bought into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” view of the Christian message.

Now, I realize that this can be taken too far the other direction, and people can become obnoxious bores with the gospel (or anything else for that matter), but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

So, I guess that my goal is to talk about my religious convictions as freely as I talk about other things that I care about or am thinking about, such as bicycling, gardening, or In-N-Out hamburgers (though, that last one may put me into obnoxious territory).


e turner said...

Dr. Wright, thank your for your insightful comments. As a "professional religionist" I have found that generally, the objects of such evangelistic presentations are not as "squeamish" about our presentations as we are about them. Perhaps the "don't ask don't tell" doctrine gives us a rationalization for our reluctance gospel. Or maybe it is the fact that the cross will always be a stumbling block... My hope is that I am as uncomfortable with my silence as I am with my evangelism.

Brad Wright said...

Hello e,

I bet that you're right, that it's more "our" problem than "there" problem, in terms of comfort. Thank you for your thoughts.

K T Cat said...

Brad, I saw that some of that movie, too and kind of had the same reactions. However, I'd like to suggest that it might have been that it was just a really bad movie.

My wife and I are both devout Catholics and this is one of my hot button issues, but I couldn't watch the whole thing. It was too contrived and forced. Around the same time, we watched Bing Crosby's Going My Way and enjoyed it.

Going My Way is doubly hokey - it's a trite 40's movie where success is to be found from singing and it's about a priest who brings salvation to a pack of tough little kids. It still works because there's a lightness to it.


On the same score, I've now seen Voyage of the Dawn Treader three times. The Narnia books are absolute favorites of mine and I've read Dawn Treader at least 25 times. The spent a lot of money on the movie, it was technically well-done, lovely to see and the actors were fine. The movie is also pretty bad. They didn't trust the story to get the point across, so THEY MADE SURE YOU DIDN'T MISS IT BY ALTERING THE PLOT SO THEY COULD TALK SLOWLY AND LOUDLY AT YOU. Gaaah.

I think there are lots of great Christian stories to be told out there and that the public would enjoy them. You just need a writer with a lighter touch than what we get today. When I see these movies, I wonder if the heavy hand is a reaction to the outright anti-Christian sewage that fills our popular culture today.

buddyglass said...

I'm not convinced it's wise to treat the gospel like any other topic. It's kind of a big deal. If you discuss the "good news" with someone who isn't a believer you're implicitly bringing up the fact that, in your opinion, there's also some very bad news for those who don't believe. Non-believers may (rightly) find that offensive.

I'm not saying don't share the gospel; I'm just saying there's a right context for that. And casual conversation may not be it.

Random Arrow said...

Brad, nice. I saw the movie. It didn’t take hold.

For you ...

Recently watched The Merchant of Venice (Irons/Pacino). Quaker-like (my bias - Vineyards too) in many ways – stopping short of violence - the pound of flesh. The reasoning – legal and pre-scientific reasoning – at the end is quite brilliant. This version reduces the anti-Semitism. Everyone squirms! Squirming Christian slave owners. Squirming Christians in Venice whore-houses. Squirming me – the legalist - my law-beam in tow. And dig this! – even the exactitude of my scientific measurement gets skewered (the scientific-me – with scales in hand – to weigh an exact pound of flesh!).

No English subtitles. Need to watch a few times. Slow down. Listen. Pause.

It’s the Bard. Cutting away the pound of pride in every-squirming one of us.

God, save me. From my scientific-religious-legal-self-righteous self!

Everyone in that play is – squirming!

And needs ...

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”



John Williams said...

Brad, I agree with your take on the movie. I haven't seen that one but seen others by the same company. I also agree with your assessment about our squeamishness. I guess deep down we want people to like us.

Brad Wright said...

KT, I think that you're right that Fireproof suffered from a lack of subtlety, as do some other religiously-themed films. I like how you put it in all caps...

Brad Wright said...

I agree, Buddyglass, that the gospel isn't just another topic. But, for me, anyway, I would like to feel more comfortable talking about it--as I am so many other things.

Brad Wright said...

Jim... wow!

Mr Veale said...

I haven't seen this movie, but I've talked to Christians who have. Squirming is a common reaction. (In fact, I think Kevin de Young mentions this movie in "Why We Love the Church").

I tend to feel embarassed and awkward when the Gospel is explained with a little "how to" demonstration, complete with catchphrases and evangelical "in-speak".
There is a place for "4 Spiritual Laws" style explanations of the Gospel; but giving one's life to Christ, and living one's life for Christ cannot be reduced to a neat set of propositions and actions.
Something much more personal and profound is at work here.

As for the desire to look away, surrender to Christ is the most intimate moment of a person's life. Watching on can feel like an invasion of privacy.

So while (1) I think that your reaction was entirely warranted, 2)we should resist the temptation to sneer. If we want to explain the basics of the Gospel to individuals, films like "Fireproof" can be extremely helpful. Just keep in mind that these films (and tracts etc.) only capture a limited part of the whole gospel.


Brad Wright said...

Very well said, Graham.

K T Cat said...

We're watching Quo Vadis right now. Half last night and the other half tonight. It's the one with Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. Great stuff, all Gospel-related. Totally different from the modern Christian movies. It's a ripping yarn first and Christian second.

Brad Wright said...

Sounds like a fun movie. I'll put it on my "to watch" list.

Thanks KT