Bit of housekeeping: I’m still working on the Patreon thing. Thanks for your patience. I had a super-bad back week this past week and nothing got done.
As you know from our big Fireproof review, the movie’s plot revolves around Kirk Cameron’s character’s attempt to save his faltering marriage by following the instructions he finds in an advice book called The Love Dare.
I was vaguely aware of the book itself before seeing the movie, but between its own authors’ gushing and the movie’s constant harping on the book’s awesome power, one might be forgiven for thinking–mistakenly, as it turns out–that the movie is talking about a book with proven and long-running effectiveness.
When I found out that the movie’s gushing was based on a book that wasn’t actually even published at the time of the movie’s making,* that made the characters’ constant insistence that the book’s approach was both super-effective and totally foolproof seem even weirder than it had initially seemed. In actuality, the people who made the movie, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, decided to write the book for real when they realized they might have a serious moneymaker on their hands.
And then I made the mistake of reading the actual book. I scared up a copy, got reading, and then went through a second time and made notes. Copious, copious, notes. (Looking back over the notes, I can see I was getting progressively more and more frustrated with the thing – my notes started getting more and more editorial and profane as I went.) I ended up with notes that are almost as long as the book itself.
More even than what The Love Dare represents in and of itself, though, it doesn’t actually say anything really new at all regarding relationships or how people should conduct themselves with their romantic prospects and partners.
Ever hear the old military phrase “same shit, different day?” The acronym for it, SSDD, kept running through my head while I was reading The Love Dare.
I am looking right now at a brown plastic binder titled Love/Life Principles Seminar: A Dating Seminar for Youth. I attended this seminar in the mid-1980s, almost certainly while I was in my sophomore year of high school given the names of some friends I wrote in it. I was already a Southern Baptist at the time but not yet drifted out to become Pentecostal the first time. So let’s call it around 1985, but I might be off slightly. This full-day seminar took place on a Saturday in the Southern Baptist Church’s gym, with a matching seminar taking place in the main sanctuary next door for “Parenting Teens,” which my (Catholic) mother absolutely did not attend.**
The binder contains about a hundred mostly-unnumbered pages of mostly fill-in blanks and cartoonish line drawings; it is copyrighted 1981 by a guy named Barry Wood of “The Barry Wood Evangelical Association.” It’s an interesting book in and of itself; it was made before evangelicals got really gung-ho about abortion, so its glossary contains a mostly-accurate and manipulation-free definition of that term, but after evangelicals got horrified by modern sexual mores, so masturbation is decried roundly–and Mr. Wood uses a Bill Gothard quote to define “defrauding” (“arousing sensual desires in others which cannot be righteously satisfied”–we’ll talk about this later because dang, obviously this was back before Bill Gothard’s first big scandal in 1980). It contains absolutely nothing about being LGBTQ, either, because that didn’t ping the radar for evangelicals till AIDS got big in the mid-1980s. So this binder is an artifact of the late 1970s/very early 1980s. So much for an unchanging gospel….
I’d like to draw your attention to Mr. Woods’ own stated qualifications for writing this seminar.
* He was apparently the University Minister to Texas Tech University, Chaplain to the Red Raider Football Team, and a frequent speaker to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and other school groups.
* He was a pastor in the area of the Sunset Strip during “the most rebellious times our society had ever seen,” which I assume means the late 1960s.
* He wrote three books he’s claiming were “best-sellers”: Questions Non-Christians Ask, Questions New Christians Ask, and Questions Teenagers Ask.
* He hosted a contemporary Christian music radio show at some point.
* He is totally, if he says so himself, experienced in “listening to every story imaginable concerning the anxieties and the joys of young people today.”
You’ll notice something very quickly regarding Mr. Wood’s qualifications for educating teenagers in matters of relationships, love, dating, and sex:
He doesn’t actually have any qualifications.
In fact, Mr. Wood’s qualifications very nearly mirror those of Alex and Stephen Kendrick. He lists no education whatsoever in psychology or sociology, and certainly doesn’t appear to have any real counseling experience. Since writing this seminar series, he’s moved on to missions ministry instead, which isn’t really shocking given that the real money nowadays is in exporting evangelical beliefs to vulnerable third-world nations–especially African nations–rather than in trying to indoctrinate American kids who are increasingly making their opinions quite clear by fleeing the religion in droves. Compared to the current climate, the 1980s were a far more innocent time–and someone like this could make a lot of money selling bullshit seminars to kids who had no idea what he was really talking about and churches that were increasingly sensing that they weren’t successfully communicating with young people.
I don’t think that I actually saw Mr. Wood himself that day. It sounds like this seminar was something he sold to churches, who then appointed a facilitator to give the lecture itself. It was clearly meant to be interactive in some way, but here’s how it went down from what I can gather from the binder and my own dim memories: the facilitator would read stuff from a projected transparency, and then the audience would dutifully fill in the binder pages’ provided blanks. When a page of blanks was filled in, then we would all go to the next page and repeat the process. I was a very dutiful attendee; aside from my characteristic overdramatic doodles of my favorite roleplaying characters (which will never see the light of day) and–inexplicably–large daisies, I pretty much did everything asked.
This seminar is an absolute mirror of The Love Dare. The talking points themselves might be worded differently, but the ideas are identical. When I realized that point, I was just astonished.
But I really shouldn’t have been.
A Few Key Comparisons of The Love Dare and this seminar’s binder.
Nobody but a Christian can possibly hope to maintain a long-term relationship.
Seminar: Hell, even two Christians will struggle if they’re not totally hardcore. On a page with a genuinely offensive drawing of a smiling young bride in a flowing white dress and veil who is happily chained at the wrist to an old, balding hobo in patched and inadequate clothes, the Bible verse about not letting oneself be unequally yoked figures prominently (II Corinthians 6:14).*** Seminar attendees are given modeling and practice exercises in the form of cartoons of young men and women asking each other on dates–advising of course that attendees turn down the date if the person asking is not Christian enough. Attendees are told flat-out that it is absolutely impossible to make a relationship work with a non-Christian–that “it is a dead end street” (sic) and castigating attendees who still mistakenly think that it’s ever okay to love a person more than their imaginary friend. But still, if someone does wish to hang out with or date a non-believer (or a lukewarm Christian), it’s okay as long as the couple only attends casual, group functions that revolve around religion–and as long as the Christian makes quite clear that he or she cannot get romantically entangled at all until the heathen converts properly.
Compare with The Love Dare, which at about the halfway point begins hammering home the idea that only Christians can possibly maintain a relationship with anybody and that a marriage will inevitably and dramatically fail if it is not totally centered around mutual belief and shared practices. Day 17 accelerates the onslaught by demanding that its readers start praying immediately for their spouses–and “if your spouse doesn’t have any type of relationship with God, then it’s clear what you need to start praying for.” One can see why Kirk Cameron’s character considered that instruction oddly-placed at the time. After that point, almost every day’s reading involves religious grandstanding somehow–with most tasks involving prayer. Day 19 actually makes the point explicit that true love is “impossible” without Christian faith, demanding in its “dare” that readers convert or rededicate themselves to Christianity to have any hope of saving a crumbling relationship, while Day 20 onward assumes that the reader has done this task.
Men must be strong, capable, protective, and take the lead in sexual matters. Women must be meek, docile, compliant, and sweet.
Seminar: It specifically says that men “should lead sexually.” This is, again, a seminar aimed at mid-teens. I’m not sure I’d even been on a real date at that point, much less thought about sex–I was a super-late bloomer. Men should be ultra-Christian. Women must be beautiful, sure, but also ultra-Christian–as well as shy, modest, submissive, docile, and never flirty. Also they should praise their men–but not falsely! Men are the leaders while women are the followers. And a very obedient woman can make a man want to “lead in the way she wants him to go.” (Does that remind you of that sad/hilarious line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding? I rather suspect it should.) Further, an unnamed “recent college survey” is used as proof that 95% of men “wanted sex for either curiosity or pleasure” while only 5% said they wanted it “because of real love;” women, of course, were the dead opposite, with 95% of women surveyed claiming they wanted sex because of “real love,” while only 5% said they wanted it for pleasure or curiosity (which, interestingly, is contradicted by the book Beyond the Male Myth, which Mr. Wood sort-of cites elsewhere; cherry picking is the least of his sins, though).
Compare with Day 31 and 33 of The Love Dare, which informs men that they are “now the spiritual leader of your new home” and that men and women must complement each other, with wives’ “discernment” being a gift to their often-oblivious husbands. Day 10 goes on at length about what men and women value in each other, stressing traditional evangelical gender roles: women most value men who are steady, consistent, generous, helpful, and “always there for them,” while men want women who are beautiful, funny, kind, strong inside, cook and decorate well, and seem likely to nurture future children. Day 23 declares that wives must make their menfolk feel big and strong, avoid “talk-show thinking” (a phrase that is never explained), and avoid romance novels or “other forms of entertainment that blur your perception of reality and put unfair expectations on your husband;” men must be big and strong, guard the “gates” of the home, and “stand your ground against anything that would threaten your wife or marriage”–and this is a big huge assignment so men had better damned well take it seriously–in other words, strongly implying that it is a real and genuine duty at least on par with all the work that women must do day-to-day around the house. Day 34 specifically tells women that they should be proud of husbands who lead their families in daily prayer and Bible reading and men should be proud of wives who keep a good home. Day 24 shows us that lust is ickie, while true love–fueled by JESUS POWER, of course– “offers you the best life in the world.” Day 28 reveals that men need sex as a stress reliever, while women desire only affirmation and their men’s attention and time. In several places, the book advises that spouses give sex to their partners on demand no matter how they feel, and though they’re careful not to use gender-specific pronouns in those cases, it’s hard not to think that the authors are aiming this advice at fundagelical wives rather than husbands.
Married Christian Sex is the Best Sex Ever.
The binder assures attendees constantly that “waiting for marriage” will result in the best sex EVAR. It advises that non-marital sex goes against the Bible’s instructions, that it “puts the physical ahead of the spiritual,” that people having non-marital sex might not know for sure if they love their partners or just lust after them, and that once someone has non-marital sex, “the marriage bed is defiled and the union of man and wife is clouded by previous guilt and experience.” The seminar’s author is totally convinced that couples who “go too far” should take serious steps to to avoid overly-sexual behavior in the future, and if they simply cannot do the trick themselves, must break up–because, in the author’s all-caps words, “BETTER TEARS THAN SCARS.” Sex outside of marriage leads to scars, every single time–simply because it is sex outside of marriage.
In The Love Dare writeup for day 31, we learn that anyone who has sex before marriage is in deep trouble–but never fear, JESUS POWER can fix anything at all. “Memories of impurity in your pre-marital life” are no match for “God’s” plan for marriage. Day 32 goes on to tell readers that Christians’ sexual experiences reach “a level far beyond any of those advertised on television or in the movies.”
Yeah, I know: citation needed.
Seems pretty clear to me.
The Kendricks’ book and Barry Wood’s seminar might be 30 years apart, but they sure as hell aren’t much different. Some of the emphases are a little different and in the book the talking points are a little more overt and grandiose-sounding, with the evolutionary psychology bullshit a little more developed in clearly complementarian ways. But nothing I saw in The Love Dare sounds much different from anything I heard, read, or saw as a fundagelical youth and young adult.
I find myself wondering exactly why the book was even needed on the Christian marketplace. Did the authors think they could position the book as one useful to both Christians and non-Christians? Did the many thousands of existing marriage-advice manuals on the market not quite do it for Christians? For my part, I think there’s a reason why the Kendrick brothers chose to write a whole new book for their dumb movie rather than use one of those thousands of existing books: Christians are vaguely aware that none of these books is especially useful or effective. Christians are always on the lookout for a new and exciting way to experience the same old dogma they’ve already learned.
And if the Kendricks can write a new book about marriage to go with their movie, and Christians buy the book out of curiosity after seeing it hailed and lauded endlessly in Fireproof, then that’s two sales right there instead of one. Why give some other author money they could get themselves?
I promised you diagrams earlier…
Here’s one, taken from the section about sex. I apologize for the dog-ear; my scanner isn’t set up yet (I just moved computers) so this is a photo taken on my phone while balancing the binder on my lap, uploaded to a social-media account, and then downloaded again, but hopefully it’s legible despite that. And yes, that’s my handwriting, yes I’m left-handed, and no, I’ve got no clue why I thought this page was worth dog-earing (I only dog-eared one other page, about the definition of friendship; part of me thinks that the seminar facilitator asked the audience to do this because at the time I had strong opinions about not dog-earing books). Feel free to wonder why the author chose this particular order of festivities, too, and why he obviously chose the labels for the categories of people he did (“fornicators,” “technical virgins,” “conservative,” and “Puritans”? WTF? and doesn’t that “nothing left!” sound so plaintive? I can’t believe I bought into that bullshit for as long as I did). I don’t think anybody does diagrams as well as fundagelicals.
Next time we’ll swing back around to Fireproof to talk about its characters’ and plot’s bait-and-switch operation, and I’ll see if I can get you some more scans from this thing because it’s all this awesomely hilarious.
* This isn’t an exaggeration, by the way. The book was published on September 28, 2008 according to this bookseller site, while the movie was first released on September 26, 2008 according to Wikipedia.
** You may thank her however for hoarding the binder. I wouldn’t have it at all if she hadn’t hung onto it. I have no idea why she kept it, but I’m glad she did. I’d forgotten all about it.
*** Interestingly, Mr. Wood includes a source for something in this section. Citing “a recent national survey of 4,000 adult males,” he concludes that men generally are way more concerned about women’s solicitousness of their needs and their loyalty–with only “a minority” saying they valued sexiness. The “national survey”? It’s located in a Reader’s Digest from 1978. I found an image of the cover of that RD and discovered that the article therein is based on Beyond the Male Myth, printed in 1977. As you might guess, a review of the book wasn’t super-impressed-sounding–and actually indicates that the book contradicts some of Mr. Wood’s talking points in places. Whoopsie!