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Very quickly into the movie Fireproof, the Kirk Cameron howler about a fireman who decides to re-win the heart of his wife when their marriage runs on the rocks, one realizes that one has stumbled into watching not only a religious tract but also a sermon about evangelical views of marriage. It follows every single party line there is on the subject: that only Christians understand how to be a good marriage partner, that couples should never have sexual release in any way except with their partners, that porn is bad all the time no matter what forever, that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that buying women stuff makes them more loving, and that “loving sacrificially” is what makes someone a great spouse.

More than even that, though, this movie echoes something I myself was taught as a young fundamentalist: that by doing loving things, one can create loving feelings in oneself and inspire loving feelings in another person.

What you need to do is get one of these, stand outside your sweetheart's house, and hold it over your head while it plays Peter Gabriel. The logistics is your problem, not mine. (Credit: Jeremy T. Hetzel, CC license.)
No, no, see, what you need to do is get one of these, stand outside your sweetheart’s house, and hold it over your head while it plays love songs really loudly. The logistics involved with this task isn’t my problem. (Credit: Jeremy T. Hetzel, CC license.) When you’re done, I’ll set you 39 more tasks that will totally work.

In other words, just like the old song by Air Supply put it, we were taught that we could make love out of nothing at all.

YouTube video

It’s a hell of a song, even by early-1980s standards: a power ballad by a band that just about couldn’t be beaten for power ballads. The video’s a good illustration of its featured song, too. In it, a man laments that he’s not a very good partner, but hopes that the woman he loves can forgive him and stick with him through thick and thin despite his various serious flaws. At the end of the video, after the male protagonist has totally screwed the pooch yet again and finally made his wife realize that maybe it’s time to nope on out of there, he makes a conciliatory gesture toward her and she responds. Even now, after all his wrongdoing against her, when he finally realizes how much he needs her, she forgives him yet again.

It’s kind of sweet if you don’t think too much about how awful of a partner he is: angry, impatient, easily-frustrated, macho, dismissive, and possibly unfaithful and violent (if not toward her, toward their household breakables, which the video implies she’s used to cleaning up after he breaks things in a rage). This song and video, in a nutshell, were what I absorbed about relationships in the 1980s as a teenager.

This video’s protagonist is also what Kirk Cameron’s character in Fireproof would have been like had the movie tried just a bit harder to depict a real couple. In this short video, we see a couple with many of the same hangups and malfunctions that Kirk and Kat have, but with one crucial difference:

We can see that the couple in the video love each other even if their relationship is totally dysfunctional.

But we can’t see any credible reason at all for Kat and Kirk to be together.

At no point in the movie until the couple’s reconciliation (over fundagelical-approved Hate Sandwiches–a dogwhistle for the “sanctity of marriage,” no doubt) is there a single indication that these two people even care about each other–or ever did. Kirk insists that at one point they got along better, but that might be his imagination.

At the beginning of the movie, they’ve already settled into totally separate lives in the same house. Kat clearly sees him at home often, but her interaction with him appears to be totally restricted to sniping comments and huge blowout arguments–when she isn’t cooking for him, cleaning their home, or tending some other task that benefits him to some degree.

As I watched the movie, I was looking for any sign that these two even liked each other, or some sign of wistful sadness over the love they’d lost. I saw not even one of those signs. Kat is upset that her marriage is clearly over, but she doesn’t appear to be mourning the loss of Kirk so much as the loss of the Happy Christian Marriage dancing in her head. Indeed there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that she’s going to grieve much over losing him as a husband!

It’s hard to imagine a dysfunctional relationship as bad as this one. Even at his most awful, my Christian husband Biff had a charming side. Abusers always seem to have one–it’s how they get victims on the hook, after all. Properly-groomed and maintained victims know that their abusers do terrible things, but they see that “inner goodness” that they think is buried somewhere in the abusers’ hearts. They learn to cherish the occasional charming and romantic things their abuser do and discount or ignore the 90-95% terrible things they do. I know exactly how that works. “Every relationship takes work,” I was taught, and somehow I absorbed the idea that this saying meant that I had to work around all those terrible things my abuser did.

That said, I would challenge any one of you to watch this bullshit movie and find one single thing Kirk does in there that indicates he is even a tiny bit charming, likable, or fun to be around for his wife.

Moreover, neither one of them sees much point in even trying to save their doomed marriage.

Kat has checked out of the marriage emotionally well before the movie begins and is already looking for the next Mr. Kat. Kirk whines about his marriage to anyone who’ll listen but always, without exception, maintains that he doesn’t see any point in fighting for it now.

I can see that the movie’s creators want to portray sort-of-atheists as less-committed than they think Christians are, and clearly they want to show a couple who’ve hit rock bottom so their bullshit marriage advice will sound more compelling (and make Kirk’s conversion all the more miraculous!), but all it does for me is tell me that this couple would probably be best off divorcing. There’s no affection between them at all anymore and they’ve settled into some really unhealthy relationship dynamics that won’t be fixed by 40 days of tiny little one-sided gestures and no real communication.

Worse, they both clearly hold each other in contempt.

I think love can withstand a lot of setbacks and issues, but it has a lot of trouble withstanding contempt. When someone feels contempt, that person is setting him- or herself above the other and looking down from on high to judge. That’s not always a bad thing. I think Kat is quite right to hold Kirk in contempt because he is, as drawn in this movie, completely contemptible. I hold him in contempt and I’m not even married to him. Yes, he’s a fireman, but one begins to suspect that maybe he chose that profession because of the mantle of authority and respectability it’d grant him–because he gets downright outraged when that mantle isn’t given its full glorious due by everyone around him.

But Kirk also holds Kat in contempt–clearly seeing her work as far beneath his and furious that she’s working outside the home instead of tending him like he thinks she should. He needs a wife he can preen in front of, one who will tell him he’s pretty whenever he needs to hear it. If even one person doesn’t give him that affirmation, he goes on a full-out offensive. Unfortunately, the one person who isn’t giving him that affirmation is his wife, and she’s not giving it to him because he’s not going to the trouble of acting for her like he does around his mates at work (one also wonders if his mates at work would act so responsive to his juvenile behavior and whining if he wasn’t the boss–note how he pulls rank with one co-worker who dares criticize him; the co-worker’s reaction tells us that this isn’t the first time that’s happened, any more than Kirk’s violent outbursts with the garbage can at home are a new development).

Enter the “love dare” program.

Evangelical Christians tend to take for granted that they are inhabited by “agape love” which they think is like the love Jesus had/has for the church body generally: a sacrificing love, a universal love that can love anybody no matter how unlovable. They literally think that a god loves them despite anything they could ever do to deserve it or dispel it. Because that god’s power resides in them in the form of Jesus Power, they should be able to love their mates that way, since an opposite-sex marriage is (of course) totally a metaphor for Jesus and the church itself. So obviously this agape love is what they need to show toward their spouse–men especially toward women.

Most of the dares have really nothing to do with the mate at all. They could be performed while in front of a cardboard cutout of Seven of Nine like an old housemate of mine had some years back and it’d make just as much of a difference. “Buy your mate something,” “call your mate during the day,” “write a list out of positive and negative things about your mate,” etc. etc. The gestures are simple, small, and largely meaningless before the serious conflicts and problems that couples can face. A little phone call or bouquet of flowers isn’t going to make up for years of neglect, hostility, or contempt. Like wacky diet systems do, the book and movie ask viewers to perform tiny little tasks that are largely unrelated to the goal, and then promise big results as a reward for having made those gestures. And the Kendricks’ suggestions will succeed about as well as those diet books do, for the same reasons and in the same way.

Even where the dares have you actually talking to your partner, like on day 5 where you are asked to ask your mate to tell you some things about you that annoy or bother him or her, you’re not actually meant to talk about these things but to listen. And listening has its place. A lot of people don’t really listen. It’s all but a lost art. But you won’t learn how to cultivate that habit in this book. Or take Day 13, which advises you to set “healthy rules for engagement,” you’re not asked to gain agreement from your partner but rather setting rules for yourself. And this isn’t bad stuff for people to do in the main–it’s just hard for someone outside the Christian bubble, like me, to see how it’s going to do anything really material for anybody. It’s worth noting that quite a few reviews specifically mention the Day 5 dare–to say that their mates either didn’t respond well or didn’t respond at all.

It’s genuinely sad to think about all the people plugging away at this book, thinking that if they do what it says then there’s a shot of saving their marriages–as long as they pray lots and lots and lots, do exactly what they’re told in every particular, and “then depend on God for the results,” as Day 16 advises. If the marriage fails, well, I suppose that’s just “God” deciding that actually maybe sometimes it’s totally fine.

There’s a reason why communication skills don’t really feature anywhere in Fireproof or The Love Dare. That reason is because the creators of these works genuinely think that the real problem people have in their relationships is that there’s not enough Jesus in them. They think that people are completely incapable of loving others or even of being kind consistently without Jesus Power–and Day 19 makes that explicitly clear by issuing an honest-to-goodness come-to-Jesus altar call, telling readers that without converting to Christianity, there is not one single chance in the world for them to repair their marriages. I’m sure that will come as a shock to all the people who aren’t Christian and still manage to have loving, happy marriages. Sorry, gang. I know it sucks, but these guys were fueled by Jesus Power so obviously they can’t possibly be wrong or anything.

The book and movie pretend like they want to teach people to create loving feelings in themselves, but then halfway through insist that no, actually, the problem is not enough Jesus Power. And the saddest thing of all is that they’re both so close and yet so far from the truth. Yes, people do need to behave in loving ways, and when we stop behaving in loving ways that can get our minds off appreciating our spouses. Yes, it’s a good idea to make oneself a presentable, honorable, and loving partner regardless of what our mates do–either they’ll change or they won’t, but it’s not up to us to fix them, only ourselves. Loving gestures can do a lot toward inspiring feelings of affection in the people performing them–studies have demonstrated that such gestures do a number of great things for those doing them–but you won’t learn much about that end of things from this book or movie because the gestures they’re asking people to do aren’t personally meaningful for them and largely are too small-scale to do much for anybody.

And, of course, the book and movie both rest all their assumptions on the “facts” that Jesus actually exists and that there is a god who shows that particular kind of love and that marriage needs to reflect this deity’s relationship with the general body of his believers–assumptions that are not anywhere actually credibly supported or verified, or even credible. But forget it, they’re rollin’.

The Love Dare thinks that Jesus Power is all anybody needs to make a marriage work.

But there’s only so long someone can make love out of nothing at all.

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,...

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