"Well, there goes my Catholic hipster cred," I said to The Wife the morning after seeing Fireproof, the new film from the Christian filmmaking team behind Facing the Giants. "Now I have to go on record saying I didn’t hate a film where accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior plays an integral role in the plot. But by golly, the thing was just so sweet and sincere. The sweetness was so relentless, so utterly without guile. How do you hate on that?"
The Wife tried not to smirk at the bit about Catholic hipster cred. Then she offered sympathy: "It’s hard to kick the puppy."
Wise woman. But of course, it wasn’t just the sweetness that stayed my hate. First and perhaps foremost is the film’s human scale. What’s at stake? Nothing more than the ordinary seven-year-old marriage of Caleb and Catherine Holt. (Cue Chestertonian quip about how saving an ordinary marriage is actually far more important than stopping the asteroid on a collision course with earth.) There aren’t even any kids to worry about damaging. What’s the source of conflict? Money and housework, for starters — though ultimately, it’s nothing more than Caleb’s selfishness, manifested in his saving for a boat and his addiction to online porn. (The world and the flesh, presented in appropriately mundane fashion; Jacob selling his birthright for a mess of pottage.)
What finally starts the engines of divorce? Nothing more than the husband’s loss of temper. (He’s good enough that he won’t hit his wife, but not good enough that he won’t make her cower in the face of his rage.) And who comes to the rescue in our hero’s hour of need? Friends and family — Caleb’s father and his buddy Michael, men who have gone through some marital troubles of their own. In all this there is a touching regard for the real.
That’s not to say I’m urging folks to rush out and make Fireproof more of a hit than it already is (it cost a scant $500,000 to make, and as of today, it’s pulled in more than $17 million). Watching it was a painful yo-yo experience; I was forever being whipped between admiration and groaning. I liked that the preservation of a marriage was seen as important, but I winced as the film tried to make its case for why it was important. "Marriage is for better or for worse," intoned Michael. Well, yes, that’s what we say, but why? Caleb is an agnostic at the film’s outset, so there can be no appeal to the notion of marriage as a sign of the unity of Christ and His church, no notion of the two becoming one flesh. All we got was a warning that if you break apart things that are glued together, you risk damaging one or both. But neither Catherine nor Caleb seemed particularly dismayed at the prospect of divorce, and nothing the film actually showed gave the viewer any reason to feel differently. As far as we can tell, Caleb and Catherine are two strangers who happen to share a mortgage and little else.
More importantly, the story is human, but the dialogue isn’t. Too much exposition; too many speeches. Again and again, the talk sounds like it’s taken from a scenario dreamed up by an author writing a relationship guidebook. Never mind bromides such as, "A woman is like a rose — if you treat her right, she’ll bloom," or "A man’s got to be a hero to his wife before he can be one to anybody else." I’m talking about ordinary conversation, such as Caleb’s lament to Michael: "It’s respect. That’s the issue. That’s the reason our marriage is failing." Or Dad’s counsel to Caleb — speaking here about his own wife: "Son, if you’re looking for a perfect mother, I don’t think there’s one out there; but she’s a good woman." Or Caleb’s warning to a doctor making a play for Catherine: "I have no intention of stepping aside and letting you try to steal my wife’s heart. I’ve made some mistakes, but I still love her. So just know that I am going after her, too." Who talks like this?
The yo-yo yanks again when Dad finally preaches Jesus to his son. Things begin well enough. He’s already established a natural way of bringing God into things — crediting the Lord with doing a work in him, a work that saved his own marriage. Caleb, of course, resists: "Dad, if you’re going to tell me I need Jesus, please don’t. I don’t need a crutch." "He’s more than a crutch," replies Dad. "He’s become the most significant part of our lives. When I realized who I was, and who He was, I realized I needed Him . . . ." At this point, I’m pleasantly surprised. Jesus is being presented as neither a spiritual add-on to life, nor as a guarantee of future happiness, but as a transformative force.
And then we learn the nature of that force: "I needed His forgiveness and salvation." Suddenly, Caleb is hearing about how he’s going to go to hell for failing to meet God’s standards. I thought we were talking about saving a marriage? It’s one thing to suggest that Christ’s sacrifice provides a model for human love, or that Christ can transform the heart. It’s another to suggest that you cannot understand what love is until you’ve confessed that you’re a sinner and asked God to forgive you.
But even then, the film doesn’t entirely release its grip on reality. Once our hero has given his life to Christ, things don’t magically get better. In fact, they get worse. The difference is not in the events, but in Caleb’s ability to handle them. And while Caleb is being transformed from within, he’s still following his father’s practical advice for showing love — acquiring the habit naturally. The yo-yo jerks back to admiration.
Until the ending, anyway. (Or rather, until after the first ending — the only one a film like this really needed.) That’s when it becomes clear that this wasn’t a film about saving a troubled marriage. It wasn’t even a film about saving a troubled marriage with a little help from Jesus. It was a film about getting right with God. And sadly, that ultimate ending betrays the human story that’s been told so far.
Still, it’s hard to kick the puppy.

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for theSan Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. He is also the author of the 2005 memoirSwimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife and children.


Matthew Lickona has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper, since 1995. From 1999-2008, he wrote Crush, an interview-driven column about wine and the wine industry. Since 2006, he has written Sheep & Goats, a review of worship services around San Diego County. He also writes regular cover stories for the paper. In 2005, Loyola Press published his memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. The book chronicled his efforts to engage the Catholic faith of his youth, and to make it more fully his own. His work has appeared in Here Comes Everybody: Catholic Studies in American Higher Education, Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflects on Life, Love, Sex, and Other Mysteries, and the forthcoming Young and Catholic in America: Sex, Sacraments, and Social Justice. One of his favorite pieces ran in the quarterly magazine Doublethink: a pop-culture reverse gloss on Pope Benedict XVI

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