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Good news, everybody!

I scared up a copy of the 2008 book that Fireproof is based on and read it. If I had any booze, trust me, this would have been another semi-drunk review because this was some horrifying stuff to read sober.* Today I want to talk about it.

I haven't forgotten. (Credit: Valerie Hinojosa, CC license.)
I haven’t forgotten. (Credit: Valerie Hinojosa, CC license. Not meant to be an advertisement.)

The first thing I noticed about the book was that its cover bore a sticker that read in all caps: “AS SEEN IN FIREPROOF: THE MOVIE.” As nice as the warning is, it’s hard to tell if the movie is based on the book or vice-versa. Since the creators of both were members of the same church at the time of the movie and book’s creation, that question seems like a moot point. Since their church is very overexcited about pornography (anti-porn programs are the entirety of their “Internet Safety” section, because what on earth else would you need to practice internet safety for?) and the church is an evangelical Baptist sort, I’m guessing that the book and movie share a common ancestor in the same way that today’s apes and humans do. The point is, you can’t really talk about one without talking about the other, which is something I figured out very quickly when reviewing the movie itself. (I’ll be sharing why that is, in a minute.)

That said, I was reluctant to say much about the book. For a while, all I really knew about it was stuff I figured out from the movie and from Amazon reviews by the book’s readers. I don’t like to shoot my mouth off about something unless I have a good idea of what I’m talking about.

But I do now.

And I’m surprised that the book wasn’t subtitled a little more accurately:

The Love Dare: How to Get Your Ass Divorced in About Six Short Weeks.

That’s not hyperbole. This is a terrible book. This is awful. Following the advice in this book is not going to save anyone’s marriage.

I want to apologize right now for being dead wrong about the book. It is actually considerably worse than giving Christians umbrellas and telling them to go hunt bears. This is a lot more like telling people to rush up to bears and wave their naughty bits at them in hopes of making the critters laugh themselves to death. The movie, if anything, whitewashed a lot of the book’s awfulness to make it sound more palatable and less preachy and talking-point-loaded to less hardcore Christians and non-believers.

There were three main elements to this book’s general awfulness that I want to discuss before we dive into anything more specific.

1. Dat bait and switch though.

The preview I initially saw only went up to day 5 and was pretty Christian-centric, but some readers might have mistakenly thought that yes, it was a mildly Christian book but still one that offered real-world advice that could help anybody, even non-Christians, relate to their mates. They might have been led to believe, because of Fireproof itself, to think that the book was aimed at a very general audience.

One must step back and admire the masterful marketing that led these folks to think so. Props where it’s due, gang.

Non-Christians and non-evangelicals are not truly this book’s primary audience–and the ones who tried the advice in the book appear to have realized their error in judgment early on, if the reviews they wrote were anything to go by–but they didn’t realize it early enough to avoid the book entirely. I’m really not sure what to make of non-Christians trying this book’s advice out. Maybe they were desperate, or maybe they were that ever-shrinking percentage of non-believers who still think that evangelicals, as a whole, follow a generally benevolent and useful set of moral precepts. But as stuffed as this thing is with Bible verses even in the preview, it got down to bidniss by the 6th day of derring-do–which is about when I had to stop and head to social media to rant about how terrible it was.

A Bible verse adorns the preface; Christianese fills the pages; more Bible verses are utilized like magic incantations to demonstrate this or that idea (like a reference on Day 1’s dare to Proverbs 14:29, “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly,” cherry picked used to illustrate why impatience and anger are bad, mmmkay). These Bible verses are used like Jedi mind tricks–just repeating one has all the magic power necessary to carry the authors’ point. The authors do not at any point reference actual psychological studies or anything highfalutin’ like that–only Bible verses and folksy common-sense aphorisms. As far as the authors are concerned, that is all anybody needs to fix a broken relationship. If you wanted or needed more than that, then obviously you’re just doing it all wrong.

So the book promotes itself as being a fairly accessible book for anybody to read, but it becomes quite clear very quickly that not only is it a Christian-only book, but that really only evangelicals are going to understand–much less react well to–its suggestions or find the constant stream of Christianese and Bible verses anything but irritating and preachy. I admit I am totally mystified how someone could read the book’s preview and see the movie and think that these two products are anything but choir-preaching projects thinly disguised as evangelism tools for the few non-evangelicals who might happen to wander in by accident. That anyone is making that mistake at all is testament to these products’ marketing teams.

2. And then there’s these two assholes.

At no point in this book do the authors actually mention why they are more qualified to help someone fix a relationship than any other random schmucks, but they present themselves as experts who have helped countless couples become blissfully happy with their tried-and-true system that has been handed to them from on high by nothing less than the god of the entire universe.** Usually in these books you get at least a blurb about the authors and why they feel they are qualified to offer this advice. If you’re looking for that in The Love Dare, then you are going to have to learn to live with disappointment. There’s an advertisement at the end for the DVD version of Fireproof, but nothing about the authors.

As I noted in a previous post, this omission happens for a reason: the authors have no qualifications whatsoever to be doing what they’re doing here, and it sure looks like they’re really hoping that nobody thinks to ask about it.

I hunted for quite a bit and finally arrived at their movie-production company page, where I learned that the two of them have communications degrees from a state university, which itself is a pretty much a normal example of the breed with only about 15% of its students managing to graduate within 4 years. State schools often have pretty bad 4-year graduation rates because they attract part-time students and those who maybe aren’t up to the rigor of something like Princeton, whose 4-year graduation rate is 88%. These universities also have way lower admission standards than their big-name private university competitors, which is how Biff got into one despite having SAT scores most folks wouldn’t imagine were even possible to get. My own alma mater is a state school that runs about KSU’s average in pretty much every particular. Regardless of how high or low quality their undergrad educations were, the authors’ degrees–according to the university site itself–were more about journalism and filmmaking, not counseling. And then they rushed off to seminary. (ETA: I went to a state school myself, as mentioned, and think I got a fine education, and I deeply regret that I sounded like I was slamming them. I brought it up because when I learned about this part of the Kendricks’ education it made me ask this question: did they appreciate KSU for the value it was as a publicly-funded school? Or did they go there because they perceived, as I did once right or wrong, that this type of school represented a bit more slack? Because I don’t think perception of value was a big issue here for them given that the next move was a way-more-expensive seminary. — Cas)

I think it’s noteworthy to mention that they don’t talk up this mystery seminary. That’s an omission I think that would be useful to clear up; some seminaries offer a couple of classes in pastoral counseling, but Bible colleges generally don’t even go that far because they’re largely indoctrination and talking-point-installment factories. Stephen’s LinkedIn indicates that it was New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (and here we learn the brothers attended seminary together–and that their first love and big passion isn’t counseling at all–it’s filmmaking, and these two have been looking for their big angle in moviemaking since they were kids, apparently finding it when they realized that evangelical movies are super easy to make and don’t have to have high standards because evangelicals will pay beaucoup bucks for absolutely anything that panders to their sensibilities). The school’s undergraduate catalog contains FIVE PAGES of doctrine and declarations of belief that faculty must hold in their entirety (so much for letting people “make up their own minds”). They have six zillion programs, and there’s one psychology class on their list of electives for at least one of them.

They got some unspecified degree from there. And then these brothers “wound up” at a megachurch in Albany, which I’m sure was just a total fluke.

Alex Kendrick was an associate pastor at that Baptist church in Georgia up to 2004; Stephen Kendrick was a senior associate pastor at the same place (the Wikipedia link is outdated–neither he nor Alex show up anywhere on the church’s staff list). Neither appear to have any certifications or background in psychology or counseling of any kind. Kirk Cameron himself has even less education to speak of than the authors of this book do–he was homeschooled on-set during his sitcom days. I’m not sure what his connection to Sherwood Baptist Church is–if he attends there, or if he met the Kendricks through the grapevine or whatever. He might just be the big name attached to their various projects, though apparently most of the movie’s actors come from the megachurch itself–including the actress playing Kat, who is the megachurch pastor’s daughter. But we’ll just focus on the project’s two named creators.

As I read about these brothers, I came across their explanation of how Fireproof and The Love Dare came about. As it turns out, both products were developed around the same time, which neatly explains why I had trouble figuring out which came first. The brothers were flailing around to try to find a good movie idea to use to pander to their market and began outlining a movie based on a marriage-advice book that didn’t actually exist. They began developing the book itself for the purposes of putting it into the movie as a plot point, and finally realized that they’d make even more money if they put the book out as a supplement to the movie. At first they were thinking they’d get a real author to write the book but decided against it because apparently “God” told them to write it themselves.

Good move, “God.” Very thrifty! We’ll chuck this one in with that smooth idea “God” had about drowning the entire world because he’d created it wrong or in with him telling a dozen Republicans every election cycle lately to run for President. Part of me wonders if “God” wanted the two of them to keep the profits for writing the book rather than farm out the effort to someone who’d demand a cut of what was already shaping up to be a very successful venture.

Whatever their real reasoning, even if they do genuinely believe a deity was very interested in seeing two totally unqualified filmmakers write a marriage advice manual, their readers and viewers are the ones who will suffer the most for that arrogance. Right-wing Christians don’t tend to care about qualifications in their leaders. Anyone who talks Jesus-y enough and hews to the evangelical party line is a perfectly valid leader and source of advice and “spiritual wisdom.” I’m not saying that every single marriage counselor with full credentials is a great marriage counselor, nor that someone without those credentials can never be a decent one. But I am saying that where there’s smoke, there’s fire when it comes to qualifications for professional stuff like counseling. If you don’t see any smoke, then chances are there won’t be any fire either.

It routinely blows my ever-lovin’ mind that Christians entrust their kids, their marriages, their minds, their educations, and their futures to people who are categorically unprepared to help them in those areas.

3. Now sprinkle in some big promises and a lot of self-important grandstanding.

The foreword in the book is a real piece of work, a masterpiece of evangelical manipulation. If you read it aloud, you won’t be able to help but put preacher-cadence into your voice. Go ahead. Do it. Nobody will judge.

This, the Kendricks declare (if they do say so themselves), is a totally awesome system. It might (if they may be so bold as to gush) change your entire life. But you have to go about it just the right way. See, you have to be really careful with such powerful sorcery as this. Approach with caution! Weigh the pouch very carefully before you put it on the podium to switch out for the golden idol–and hope that the temple doesn’t try to kill you before you can escape with it.

It's a metaphor. (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)
It’s a metaphor. (Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ignore me. It was late.)

Unlike real, objective advice about stuff, their advice depends entirely on your mindset as you do it. So if their system doesn’t work for you, then obviously you took it too “lightly,” according to the foreword, which makes clear that you’ll only see results if you work the system correctly, with the correct approach, and the correct immense respect for what these two barely-educated fundagelical filmmakers with no credentials whatsoever for counseling have wrought. Indeed, the authors write in all caps: “IT IS NOT MEANT TO BE SAMPLED OR BRIEFLY TESTED, AND THOSE WHO QUIT EARLY WILL FORFEIT THE GREATEST BENEFITS.” (This overdramatic dreck really is the foreword, but it’s all like that.)

I’m not sure how else someone could more effectively tell their marks that this is a scam without putting it in neon letters on the cover.† The failsafe is built right into it. Did you fail? Then clearly you only sampled it or briefly tested it. Did you discover halfway through that you only seemed to be actively destroying your marriage? Well, then you should have stuck with it anyhow! Just like when you’re gambling, the payoff is just one short roll of the dice away. If you quit early, you’ll never know if you could have won. I find the whole exhortation of “a dare” to be pretty ridiculous anyway, but when I saw that foreword my eyes got so huge–talk about hubris and manipulation! Normally you have to read wacky-diet books to get that level of arrogant self-importance, life-and-death importance, and shameless guilting.

I honestly do not know when I have ever seen a more callous manipulation of evangelical Christians’ deepest fears, hopes, and desires for marriage than this one, or a more cynical and self-serving grab for their obedience, time, and money.

And that’s just the beginning of the rabbit hole.

This post is long enough as it is, so I’ll sign off with a closing comment:

It does not get better from here. That’s exactly why I think it’s important to look at this book.

Remember, non-Christians sometimes find their way to this piece of shit and think it’s got some kind of useful information for them. But way more Christians try this “dare” than non-Christians do. I’ve been hearing for a while from ex-Christians about how many of them really liked this book and movie and tried to follow its advice back when they were Christian. So not only is this book something that y’all might run across, but it’s something that you might have to struggle un-learning as you deconvert. As bad as this book is, it’s one of the most popular recent marriage-advice books out there, so it contains advice that’s pretty fresh off the fundagelical marketing machine and hews closer than other programs to the fundagelical party line than other older programs (like 1993’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or 1995’s The Five Love Languages) might.

We’ll be looking at the dares themselves next time we talk about this book. For now, cheers!

* I have had about four cups of coffee, though, so I’m at about the GOD SIGHTED stage of caffeination. I get like Jordan in Real Genius when I get too much caffeine in me.

** Which brings us to another very serious question for Christians who think this way: why did their god choose only now to reveal something as important as, I dunno, how to stay married forever? Why did he wait thousands of years to tell people how to have a great marriage–and why didn’t he do it in a way that did not require them to comb through dozens of holy books to cobble together advice from a span comprising thousands of years and dozens of authors to patch together kind-of-applicable ideas? If I were to pull random Bible verses out of the whole Bible to illustrate how to make a model airplane I could probably do it–and I could probably use Harry Potter books to cobble together similar advice about marriage, too, though I strongly suspect that I’d come out with more workable advice than the Bible seems to offer.

† They kind of did, but it was in code. Remember? “AS SEEN IN FIREPROOF: THE MOVIE.” Ba-dum-TISS! I’ll be here all week. 

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...