Reading Time: 9 minutes Run, bear, run! (Credit: Josh Wedin, CC license.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

(This is part of our Fireproof review week–here’s the review itself and here’s where I talk about how the movie assumes that only Christians can make marriage work. Consider this, like all my movie posts, full of ALL THE SPOILERS. Also, I’m popping this into our Unequally Yoked Club series for obvious reasons.)

Run, bear, run! (Credit: Josh Wedin, CC license.)
Run, bear, run! (Credit: Josh Wedin, CC license.) Shown: Somewhat effective equipment.

Last time we met, I was talking about how this movie Fireproof makes a very fatal assumption about how marriages work: it flat-out assumes that only Christians can possibly know how to behave themselves in a marriage (and non-Christians conversely cannot possibly make a marriage work well), so if you want a good marriage, you need to convert or else you won’t have any idea how to express “sacrificial” love toward anybody–which itself is an assumption, since there’s no real reason to think that a healthy marriage requires that kind of self-immolation anyway–and your marriage will crash and burn.

The movie makes a lot of other assumptions. It also makes a number of totally unfounded threats.

I think it’s useful to reiterate that Kirk Cameron and his wife Kat are sort-of-atheists for most of this movie’s run time. Basically they’re his quirky (and laughably untrue) conceptualization of atheists: they’re not very knowledgable about atheism or Christianity, but they’re not actually hostile toward the idea of religion. Kirk Cameron’s strawman atheists aren’t already Christians because they don’t understand what’s in it for them, they don’t believe its various claims, and it seems largely irrelevant to their lives. For those of us outside Christianity, we usually know the answers to those concerns is “nothing good that you can’t get elsewhere and lots of bad you can only get in religion,” “that would be because they’re not actually true,” and “it’s only as relevant as someone makes it,” but Kirk Cameron is the kind of Christian who is convinced otherwise.

This movie is nothing less than his attempt to convince people to believe his religious claims in lieu of any good reason to believe them, and he is brazenly holding people’s marriages hostage to push his agenda without a single shred of evidence to think his approach works better than other approaches. This movie, like Left Behind, is basically a campfire story writ large: Isn’t it awful to see what happens if you don’t believe our claims and do what we say? Isn’t it scary and horrible to imagine your marriage breaking up if you don’t do what we suggest? Oh, it’s terrible all right! Oooh, scary! Look, she’s flirting up another man right now because you aren’t loving her sacrificially like we think Jesus did! Are you seeing the light yet?

If I made a movie about how a rainbow hurricane will drown everyone in the midwestern United States if they don’t start worshiping the Magic Invisible Pink Unicorn by next Valentine’s Day, it’d be just as ridiculous. These movies are more indicative of Christians’ fertile imaginations and their grotesque desire to see their victims hurt for non-compliance than it is a serious reason to believe their claims about the supernatural. We need to remember that while Christians see this crap and come out of the theaters nodding sagely to each other about how it made them “think,” as dozens of Christians on Left Behind‘s website (come for the hilarious reviews by Christians who have no idea how non-Christians think, stay for the wacky misspellings on the main page) wrote, the rest of us will come out of such viewings–if we view these movies at all–persuaded anew that anyone who makes threats rather than ponying up evidence for his or her claims is someone who should be avoided–and their claim is likely totally bankrupt anyway, because people don’t tend to use threats to sell their claims when there’s evidence for those claims.

Three blind men walk onto a movie set and into a marriage counselor’s office…

Kirk Cameron is an actor. He didn’t even receive a formal education; he was a child star on a shitty TV sitcom so he got his education onset there. The book that his shitty movie is pushing, The Love Dare, was written by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, a pair of brothers. Stephen Kendrick is a shitty movie director who specializes in generally-shitty Christian movies like Fireproof and apparently at one point he was a “senior associate pastor” at a Baptist megachurch, but he’s notably not listed on the church’s official staff page now. Alex, his brother, was also apparently an associate pastor at that same church; he’s also a shitty movie producer and has written other shitty Christian advice books like The Love Dare that tell men how to be MANLY MEN WITH MANLY BREATH and whatnot.

These three men, who are largely responsible for this book and movie, are not qualified in any way whatsoever to advise anybody at all about anything psychological.

They do not have the formal training needed to dispense such advice. They do not have any formal experience in counseling or in therapy. They do not appear to have a single qualification whatsoever between the three of them beyond ministry, not even a “life coach” certification or something from the state of Georgia (where they’re mostly based). And in our last post we talked about how beyond-useless their suggestions were for a great many Christians–because those suggestions were idiotic and counterproductive ur-examples of magical thinking.

But because Christians–particularly fundagelicals–are trained to accept emotional manipulation in lieu of evidence and don’t know how to critically evaluate claims, and because they don’t know how to evaluate the qualifications of the self-styled gurus offering them advice and largely distrust education and solid credentials anyway (since those things largely contradict their magical thinking), The Love Dare and Fireproof are all but cult requirements for their target audience. If the bad advice feels Jesus-riffic enough and fits in with the party line about whatever the subject is, then Christians are largely helpless before the magnetic pull of its siren call.

There’s a sinister side to Christians’ tendency toward uncritical acceptance of any advice that fits in with their cultural expectations.

In the past, I’ve joked that Christians offering marriage advice is a lot like a 600-pound-person offering a magic bullet weight-loss drug, or a totally broke person offering investment advice guaranteed to get someone rich. There’s a reason why mountebanks carefully choose spokespeople for their snake oil, people who appear to have benefited from that snake oil and who will exemplify the best results possible for it–to the point where those spokespeople often almost get seriously hurt cramming themselves into the role these mountebanks want for them. Nothing matters except how the snake-oil looks like it’s working for the spokespeople.

In the same way, Christians are offering all this marriage advice–libraries’ worth of books, who even knows how many seminars, DVDs, and other such materials, countless weekend retreats, and even more counseling sessions with pastors and other generally totally-unqualified people–and you know what the real kicker is?

I’m not dissing blindness, either. That’s just a riff on a Bible story in the Gospels about how blind people who try to lead others may land everybody in a pit. It means that unqualified people shouldn’t be giving advice to others because then all of them may fail. I don’t know any literally-blind people who actually ever tried to lead anybody like that. Blindness is only a (really ableist) metaphor for being unqualified. But generally speaking, it’s the folks who don’t realize just how unqualified they are–or who are hoping like hell that nobody finds that out–who do that kind of leading.

Either way, whichever the situation is here, objectively speaking Christian leaders might as well be pissing into the wind for all the good it’s doing them because:

Christians still get divorced as often as anybody else–maybe even more often.

Barna Group discovered in 2004 and again in 2008 that people calling themselves “born-again Christians” are just as likely to divorce as non-Christians are. Hilariously, they try to claim that atheists and agnostics are more likely to divorce because “they are less likely to believe in concepts such as sin, absolute moral truth and judgment”–but concede that believing these unverified, unsupported, non-credible concepts certainly doesn’t appear to be stopping Christians from doing the exact same thing.

Christians may well hold back from divorce because it’s OMG A SIN, but non-Christians who stay married don’t have that penalty hanging over their heads–yet still manage not to divorce more often anyway. So clearly it’s not a lack of supernatural beliefs that causes someone to decide to divorce–and one wonders just how bad the divorce rate would be for Christians if their leaders were not pushing the idea non-stop that divorce is baaaaad, and how good it’d be if they actually taught tested, effective, objectively sound measures to make marriages stronger rather than pushing outdated, punitive, manipulative, controlling measures meant to make people feel guilty for wanting to escape a dysfunctional marriage–a marriage that is largely dysfunctional because of their teachings. (Sometimes I get so frustrated when I see a Christian come that damned close to figuring something out through the bubble of misinformation and self-delusion that cocoons so much of Christianity, and then skitters away from that truth like I see happening on that link. Do you ever get that way?)

So these studies discovered that despite Christian leaders’ major push to vilify divorce and shoe-horn their adherents into their vision of The Happy Christian Marriage, there doesn’t appear to be much difference at all in the divorce rates of Christians and non-Christians.

Oh, Christian leaders spin-doctor that fact as much as possible–here is a site quoting a Southern Baptist leader who makes the rather remarkable claim that since TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never get divorced, clearly any self-professed Christian seeking a divorce is clearly not a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. He offers a long list of qualifications for exactly what makes a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and claims that only a vanishingly-rare number of the people who fit those qualifications seek divorces. That’s becoming a very popular mental contortion, but even the Christian site relaying that quote seems dubious.

In a country that is still majority Christian, moreover, fewer and fewer people are getting married at all. Percentage-wise, fewer of those marriages are ending in divorce, yes, but that’s across the board. There isn’t really much difference between Christians and non-Christians–not in marriage, not in sexual expression, and not in divorce. It’s almost as if even the most fervent and strident Christians understand deep down that the pretendy funtime games shouldn’t get in the way of their real lives.

If Christian leaders aren’t losing sleep over the idea of their teachings largely having no impact whatsoever on the lives of their adherents (except insofar as manipulation and blunt force brings their followers’ statistics up to the general level of what non-believers are managing without that manipulation and blunt force), then they aren’t perceiving the situation clearly:

The Marriage Counselor is Naked.

It takes a particular kind of courage to admit that the Jesus Advice didn’t work in the real world; the tribe doesn’t like hearing about those failures. The few people who do these “love dares” and get a stronger marriage out of it are paraded around with confetti as the success stories, while the many who get a weaker–or dissolved–relationship out of this advice get told they just did something wrong.

Most of the Christians I’ve seen who tried to put the Love Dares into practice–at least on Amazon’s review site–seem aware that the advice the movie and book offer is the problem here. That isn’t something I usually see from Christians. I think it’s a good sign, personally. When advice of this type is peddled, there are always glowing, gushing success stories and a handful of failures, but the people doing the failing are usually the ones to blame themselves. This time, they’re not blaming themselves–the tribe is doing that. I hope you see, as I do, what an amazing development that is. I’ve been looking at Christian advice sites and reviews of advice books for years, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw Christians publicly criticize their leaders’ bad advice.

Now what we need is for Christians to start being very critical about exactly who is offering them advice in the first place. If I learned that a diet system was being hawked by someone who had absolutely no background in nutrition, diet, physiology, or anything like that, I would reject it. If I learned that an investment system was being pushed by someone who’d had to declare bankruptcy recently or who was obviously in massive debt, I’d reject it.

If I needed marriage advice I certainly would not take it from a trio of uneducated and absolutely uncredentialed religious zealots whose main qualifications appear to be their toothy Jesus Smiles.

I would especially not take that unqualified advice if it sounded like what the Love Dares and Fireproof push: “do X, Y, and Z on this schedule, and find some way to believe our ludicrous claims about the supernatural, and you might just totally save your marriage!” Of course, X, Y, and Z have absolutely nothing to do with actually addressing a relationship’s problems–and neither does belief in supernatural claims.

With all that in mind, here’s what the Love Dare sounds like to me.

“Rapidly blink your eyes 50 times on day 1, sing a nursery rhyme on day 2, watch all of season 1 of Arrested Development on day 3, and find some way to believe in the Magic Invisible Pink Unicorn and you might lose 100 pounds in 40 days!”

Why yes, I suppose I could conceivably lose 100 pounds in 40 days, but if I ever did, it wouldn’t be because I followed that regimen. And if I followed that regimen and failed to lose that kind of weight, it sure wouldn’t be because I’d done the regimen all wrong. I definitely wouldn’t be at fault because I’d failed to see some reason to accept the existence of the MIPU.

Real-world results don’t tend to hinge upon non-real factors like beliefs.

And they definitely don’t hinge on ineffective means or magical thinking.

Ever hear that joke about the really old guy whose beautiful young bride was expecting a child? When he bragged to his doctor about his virility, this is what happened:

“Let me tell you a story,” said the doctor. “There was an absent minded fellow who went hunting one day, and instead of taking a gun, brought his umbrella. Before he realized his error, a bear charged him. He aimed his umbrella at the bear, shot and killed him on the spot.”

“That’s impossible!” the old man exclaimed. “Somebody else must have shot that bear!”

“Exactly!” replied the doctor.

The problem is that Fireproof and The Love Dare are offering Christians umbrellas and telling them to go bear hunting–and then blaming the people who fail to shoot bears that way for using their umbrellas all wrong and pretending that people who did shoot bears did it with their umbrellas.

How could that possibly fail?

We’re going to talk next time about the specific ways that this movie’s representation of non-Christians backfires. The more I thought about it, the more amazed I got at just what I was discovering. I think it deserves some attention all its own. So that’s what we’re on target to do on Saturday–see you then!

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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,...