Beast: I want to do something for her. But what?
Cogsworth: Well, there’s the usual things: flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep…
Beauty and the Beast, 1991
I’ve been noticing–as we talk about the latest stuff going on with Josh Duggar and the other associated scandals going on in Christendom–that we’re seeing highlighted one particular feature of right-wing Christianity.
That brand of Christianity makes some distinct promises to its adherents. If you do this, then you will get that.
But it doesn’t actually follow through on those promises. Indeed, it really can’t.
Today I want to talk about promises and Fireproof, and how this viewpoint stands up to reality.
All the way through the religion, from their first love-bombing in the church foyer to the end of their last act of devotion before deconversion or death, people hear promise after promise. And for the rest of their time in the religion, these people are going to cling to those promises and try their damndest to make those promises into reality even though absolutely nothing about reality confirms or backs up those promises.
I’m not even just talking about the big promises like consistently and tangibly answered prayers, a constant stream of bona fide miracles, or a real live god standing by to shower adherents with divine attention. There are a lot of other promises that get made–promises about how fantastic Christian relationships are and how ideal a Christian society would be if we’d just allow Christians to run everything. I heard very often as a Christian–and hear implied nowadays on a daily basis–that “even if someone totally didn’t believe in Jesus, following ‘his’ rules would result in a great marriage and a great society.” I heard a preacher say once, “even if I stopped believing in Jesus, I’d still live this way because it’s so fulfilling and wonderful.” (I’m paraphrasing these statements slightly, but that was their gist.) These are promises: “do this, and then you’ll get that reward.”
When I was Christian, I remember thinking that following Jesus wasn’t supposed to feel unfair and unjust. It wasn’t supposed to feel as completely one-sided as it did. If I ever was to be persecuted or mistreated, then it’d be non-Christians or demons doing it–not my own tribe, and not my own ideology. My tribe was supposed to be my safety, my ideology a refuge.
But that’s not how it worked out.
Once I was ensnared, once I’d been persuaded that this was what I had to do or else I’d burn forever, the kid gloves came off. I finally saw my tribe’s true colors–too late. But I always assumed that the problem was that we were just doing something wrong. For most of my time in Christianity, the shifts I made were ones prompted by a desire to find the church that was actually living the promises I’d been made; I was convinced that if I could only find TRUE CHRISTIANS™, then I’d finally see those promises made good. It wasn’t until I realized that the promises themselves were false that I was able to escape, and even then it was an incredibly close call that almost ended with me joining a David Koresh-style cult in Waco right when that cult was in the news.
You needn’t go so far as to look over my Biography tag to see lots more examples of the broken promises I experienced as a Christian. Fireproof, the movie, is a perfect example of what I’m talking about–and how those in dominant positions feel free to alter the promises or break them at will.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
The first time we ever see Kat in the movie, she’s a very young girl who wants to marry a man just like her daddy, who is a fireman. Kirk is a fireman, so that may be what attracted Kat to him. I’m not sure what he saw in her besides beauty and hero worship, but it’s clear that he is deeply insecure from his furious, childish outbursts about not feeling she respects him anymore. Kirk Cameron himself seems to have a slight touch of hero-worship toward firemen–one review video I saw makes a guess that he maybe really digs fireman movies like Backdraft and wanted to do a Christian take on them–so the movie takes completely for granted that Kirk brings a high amount of capital to the dating table, when in reality I suspect most women would avoid like the plague his character as written and presented. It does seem odd that Kat’s father–who is, again, a firefighter from the same town–didn’t warn her about Kirk’s anger issue, but maybe he’d retired to care for his wife before Kirk got hired.
Whatever the case, Kirk and Kat got married. At some point not long afterward, Kat began working at the hospital as some kind of public relations officer, while Kirk dropped whatever he was doing to make Kat think he was a suitable partner and began showing his true face as an angry, impatient, petulant, fussy, easily-frustrated, macho, dismissive, possibly unfaithful and violent asshole (if not toward her, then toward their household breakables, which they both assume will be cleaned up by Kat). I strongly suspect it didn’t take him long to revert, either; I can tell you from bitter experience that once a person like that thinks he now owns his partner and she can’t easily escape, his reversion back to his real self would make her head spin.
I don’t think it would have taken long for her to notice that he had a serious anger management problem once he dropped the act that had fooled her initially. Could he have hidden that facet of himself all the way until their wedding? Sure, I think so–or at least long and well enough for her to deny the evidence before her very eyes. It doesn’t sound like they had a particularly long engagement or dating phase. It does sound like it’s taken years for her to finally figure out that Kirk is an absolutely awful husband and then to start planning her escape.
But then Kirk did something else we’ve seen men in that religion do often:
He made some big promises.
Many of us have a tendency to put a false front forward to impress someone we’re impressed with. But it’s exhausting to do it. Sometimes people work their asses off to present themselves a certain way, but very few people can keep that up forever. It’s like how P.J. O’Rourke put it in The Bachelor Home Companion: Clean your house at the start of each of your relationships; after that, she can get to know the real you. Well, a lot of folks clean their emotional houses once at the start of each relationship, and assume that after things are solid that their mates will put up with learning who they really married–just like many churches do to their converts.
All those promises, spoken and unspoken, fall by the wayside once the mark has been ensnared.
But if the mark starts making moves to leave, then the oppressor has to pull out some very big guns. The Love Dare is one of those big guns. It tells its adherents that if they complete its program, they will have re-made themselves into suitable partners and loving people. It promises that even if they don’t save their marriage (which is presented as “God’s” decision ultimately anyway), that at least they’ll be better at relationships for next time.
Kirk is presented as having this total turnaround during the movie, a turnaround ascribed to him having completed the program outlined in the book–a program which stresses the importance of conversion to fundagelical Christianity. He promises Kat, in so many words, to expect that this is “the new normal.”
Isn’t he just making more false promises again to re-ensnare his partner, exactly like he did before he got married? It sure seems to me that all he’s doing is putting on an act again to get Kat reeled back in. It works: in the Hate Sandwiches scene near the end, Kat acts confused and off-balance because as bad as her marriage was, at least she knew how to deal with her man-child husband. I remember being similarly confused myself when my husband at the time, Biff, first made similar assurances about having changed his tune. But the next time, and the next, and the next, just made me feel weary and emotionally exhausted. Give Kat time; she’ll get there.
And I remember making and hearing similar promises all the time. It wasn’t just Biff promising stuff. It was everyone. Sometimes we called this process “speaking truth to power,” which meant talking out of our asses in the name of Jesus and hoping that our god would magically make our lies into the truth. I see Kirk doing the same thing. Under great duress and in hopes of getting a big reward, Kirk has made a lot of promises about the changes he’s made in himself.
But considering he hasn’t actually learned how to communicate or empathize with his mate, can we expect those changes to last? He hasn’t actually done any work on addressing his major and serious flaws as a person–a little housework, list-writing, or flower-buying won’t change his innate selfishness, narcissism, egotism, sexism, and near-sociopathic lack of empathy.
Kat’s sudden turnaround (in the firehouse, during the silhouetted kiss) has no logical bearing at all either. In reality, she may well have given in because she decided it was easier to keep the marriage than to end it, but in the movie’s worldview, it was Kirk’s superior JESUS POWER that made her realize what a wonderful, loving husband he had become–and she wanted herself some of that. Considering that there is no rational reason whatsoever for Kat to suddenly turn around and be receptive to Kirk’s temporary reformation, can we expect her to remain patient and forgiving when he inevitably fails?
Or will they enter the tailspin cycle of promises that I experienced?
Huge come-to-Jesus moment filled with more promises.
Short honeymoon period wherein everything seems just perfect.
And the promise is broken again.
Worst of all, nobody’s even going to remember that the promises were broken. We weren’t allowed to remember. If I ever did mention that Biff had made promises like that before, then I was accused of being bitter or unforgiving–both of which were cardinal sins, especially for women. We had a slew of escape clauses for why “speaking truth to power” hadn’t worked, many centering on the secret sinfulness of whoever’d made the unkeepable, unkept promise.
P.J. O’Rourke wrote something else in that book that’s always stuck with me: “If you keep people busy and confused, they’re liable to think they’re having fun.”*
The broken promises of Christianity handle both ends of that equation. They keep people very busy and confused, and even better than that, they keep people from questioning the process itself. Nobody ever actually sits down to count up how many times these promises don’t work out as advertised–which is why I had to find out for myself that they don’t.
So in Fireproof, we see how fundagelicals think about a variety of topics–including how promises are made and kept. We see the dream version of how this process is supposed to work. But this isn’t how it really works in the real world.
It’s almost as if there’s no god behind any of it, and it’s just wishful thinking.
We’re going to talk about personal change when we talk about Fireproof next–how it promises change, how change is really made, and why that type of Christianity shrinks back from the reality of effective personal change so much.
But… GANG… soon you’re going to get a real treat. We’re going to get a real live historian in here in a few days to talk about something I guarantee you haven’t heard before about the so-called “clobber verses” in the Bible that many Christians think condemn same-sex relationships. I know we’ve got a lot of folks in here who really wonk out (like I do) about history, and a lot of us have Christians in our lives who are perhaps wavering on the whole “LGBT is ickie” idea their leaders keep pushing. This paper might just be the impetus they need to let go of their bigotry. Let’s just say this: my mind is blown here. We’re maybe going to have to do this in installments–it’s kinda long even by our usual standards around here, though please comment if you’re up for me just posting the whole thing at once (it’s about 3x longer than my usual posts) or if you’d rather us take it in chunks–but I think you are really going to love what’s coming. I’m so damned excited. See you soon.
* Back in the 90s, Biff and I went all over Houston trying to find this book when it first came out (I don’t remember where I heard about it, only that it was hilarious). We ended up somewhere around the hoity-toity boutiques of the Buffalo Bayou area at this tiny, overpriced independent bookshop that was like 90 minutes from our home. On the way back, I read bits of it out loud to Biff, who was driving us back home, but had to stop because he kept almost crashing our car because he was laughing too hard to safely drive. So yeah, this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I trust you to be responsible with this knowledge.