Why Evangelicals Love Fireproof and Are Unsure about Rob Bell’s theology…

Unless you are not so culturally aware (and if you aren’t, you picked a strange site to visit, but welcome), you know that tonight is the Oscars. Currently Billy Crystal is singing his way through the nominees; while my parents, sister, and brother-in-law are watching Courageous, the new movie from the people who brought you Kirk Cameron’s Fireproof. As I sat watching the Red Carpet (Rooney, I will gladly marry the heck out of you),[1] these thoughts crossed my mind: why do my family and other Evangelicals love such artistic nightmares as Kirk Cameron; yet are so scared of [2] anything resembling Hollywood?

I think Christian musician Charlie Peacock hit the nail on the head in his grand work, CCM at the Crossroads. In this work Peacock discussed the act of creating “Christian” music. No other genre of music compares to the challenges faced by the “Christian” artist, he argued. Any other type of music can be discerned by structural and / or textual signifiers. Jazz, Blues, Punk, Country, all of these announce themselves by the chords used, the instruments used, the ways in which these instruments are used, the tone and tenor of the vocal elements, etc. You play me a couple of notes and I can tell you the genre. You can even show me a cover and a list of members in the band and I can tell you the genre.[3] You cannot do such a thing with “Christian” music.[4] No, the difference in “Christian” music comes not in the accoutrements but in the content. You know “Christian” music by the use of Jesus Christ as a proper name and not just another cuss word. You know Christian music by the language: cross, saved, born-again, etc.

This would not necessarily be a problem, except this, like any other music industry CCM and Gospel music survives by turning a profit for its creators and money people. If CCM does not make money, then it cannot continue to create albums. Here is the rub, Peacock argued. What ways can a musician encourage his or her target audiences to respond by taking their hard-earned dollars and spending them on a CD? If you play Jazz, Punk, or any other “secular” music, you do this by creating outstanding examples of your genre and / or by creating a positive buzz in your industry. The struggle for a Punk Rocker is, of course, how to do this “without selling out.” How does one stay true to the spirit of Punk while creating songs that will attract plays on Pandora or Spotify? Yet these, in themselves, are artistic questions best answered by making great music.

The “selling out” question, though, is a dicey one for Christians. The only way to broaden the audience for CCM has been to broaden the language. The only way to truly prove that a song is Christian is to hit the audience over the head with the Christian language.[5] Being subtle, nuanced, and understated just leaves room for critics to question one’s faith. Not only that but most of life gets edged out of the picture. One cannot deal with troublesome subjects like doubt. One cannot ask questions without providing an answer in the chorus. One also dare not discuss life outside the sanctuary: songs about enjoyment eating beg questions of gluttony, and don’t dare mention enjoyment of sex or other pleasures of the world. Case in point I was once carpooling a group of Christian undergrads to a church event (thinking I was safe to have pulled the Springsteen out of the CD player in lieu of a “Christian” rock band) when someone in the back seat loudly began complaining about the song playing. It seems the band had just mentioned drug use. I panicked, worried that I was just about to lose our entire college group. Then it struck me, the song was a testimonial in typical Christian fashion, actually. The main character of the song begins the song addicted to drugs and ends the song drunk on the spirit, as it were. Yet this young undergrad was perplexed, “how could Christians talk about drugs and where was the correlation between the two?”

This is why my parents love Fireproof, and many evangelicals have dissed Rob Bell. There is nothing subtle about Fireproof neither in the script or Cameron’s acting. From the previews on there is nothing about that film to cause such consternation. These “Christian” films take the time-honored language and story formats that all Christians already know and are comfortable. There is nothing to prevent Church viewership: even in the opening segments where the actors are being “bad” and showing their “sinfulness.” Think about it Cameron supposedly is a raging porn-hound who is horrible to his wife, but you would never know that from the actual movie. He does not have a Tom Cruise-like walk on the wild side, at most he is questionably bland towards his wife.[6] The movie is safe and oblivious and hits all its marks with some professional decorum: not only in its action but in its content. One can watch, be thankful they are not near the dope Cameron is, and go away promising to be a stronger man who loves his wife better.[7]

This also explains much of the turmoil surrounding Rob Bell. Bell is the anti-Cameron.[8] He does not say exactly what he means. He talks about what others have said, but if one looks closely does not always present the Bell doctrine.  He is subtle, nuanced, and needs time to ingest and consider. A week before his Love Wins hit the shelves and was read by anyone other than his wife or editor, critics had established the story that this book was Bell’s descent into heterodoxy. It was established that Bell was presenting Universalist and Annihilationist claims as good Evangelical doctrine.[9] On the charge of Universalism one can only ask his critics to actually read the text (personally I don’t see him saying that, many others much smarter than me have- one of all of us could be wrong). On the charge of Annihilationism one can only ask his critics to study the history and doctrine of our faith. No, this has not been a majority-approved doctrine, but it has a long history as a minority report[10] amongst many faithful Christians (once again this is a huge can of worms for all involved and requires delicate pastoral and academic care to fuss over).

Talking in this way means that critics talk about you. It means that critics pounce on your nuance and paint you in ways considered bad. This is Rob’s achilles heel. He asks big questions, but is not so quick to provide solid, easily understandable answers (if he tries to answer the question at all). This is good for sharpening one’s critical thinking skills, but makes for an uneasy pastoral situation. Bell, in some sense, has made himself a giant Rorschach blot in which his detractors can see a heresy and his friends a braze original thinker. It also confuses the middle ground of his readership, and this confusion is often met with frustration from the thousands of pastors who have to deal with the questions and turmoil he brings. This is a huge problem with no real good answers (other than to try and do better theology and this is the lesson here- write in more challenging and always accessible prose). True there will always be critics but being more open instead of pretending to be more open is a great start.

The funny thing is, Bell’s chapter on hell was infinitely more focused on the  “biblical” text than many a pastor’s sermon one might hear (his entire third chapter is a collection of texts and a discussion of them- I would agree that he missed a couple of texts which would have ruined his argument, but it was scipturally focused). A great sermon can be expositional like Bell’s chapter just as a great book can be thematic like other sermons. That is my point. Great art is not always oblivious (an expositional sermon can be wronger while a thematic sermon is righter) . Great art takes hard detours, asks tough questions, and often does not often answer questions. Great art creates doubt where we would rather have certainty. Great art takes you places you might not go yourself. It presents life both as it is, and how we would like it to be. This is good, but in today’s Evangelical climate it makes for a tough sell.

The fact that, we, Evangelicals have such a mixed track record in the arts speaks to the poverty of our discipleship models. There is a laziness in our society that has leaked into our churches, and that shows no more than in our love of Fireproof. We are not creating the type of deep Christians that can tolerate discussion and messiness. We are not creating the type of Christians that are able to talk beyond the sound bites they hear from our pulpits or Fox News. This is our 21st century version of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace.’ In our post-modern world we might refer to it as disposable grace: single-serving, lukewarm, moderate[12], and superficial.

In a world of questions, Evangelicals have coalesced because they talk about having firm answers. We have created a shadow world that does not question, does not do subtly, and looks askance on anyone who does. It makes for big churches full of smiling people putting money in the offering plates, but not necessarily for good art. I, for one, would rather see smaller churches, less smiling, and even less money if that’s what it takes to see more blues. Yet something tells me that if we were really doing the hard work of grace we could see more Bells in our congregations and less Camerons.

[1] For those not in the know; I have long surmised that a my pagan friends have too much fun with the “I’d do that” game, but unfortunately due to Evangelical beliefs on premarital relations the set-up stands as unbiblical. Therefore the good folks at work allow me to substitute a more Christian riff on the game; hence, I’d marry that… Try it, it’s fun.

[2] Or pretend to despise it (at least in public or surrounded by other Christians). This is not a new issue: see Tertullian’s What has Jerusalem to do with Athens.

[3] If you don’t believe spend a week cataloging music for use in a store as I do 30 to 40 hours a week. You may not know the artist but 9 times out of 10 you can probably categorize the disc or LP due to the artwork and band members.

[4] OK, you actually can, the blandness and datedness of the covers do often give them away.

[5] Do not believe me I once read a post  arguing that Michael W Smith’s new album could not be Christian because while the name Jesus Christ can be found 1000s of times in the Bible, it was only there a couple of places for Smith. WTF.

[6] Or perhaps that was just his “acting.” He is a proud member of the Costner school of wooden acting,

[7] But only in a better hierarchical way. He is strong, tough, and takes charge of his marriage.

[8] And not in a Christ / Anti-Christ, orthodox / heretic way.

[9] Never mind that these are 2 different and competing views of the afterlife, so if Bell really is both then he would not just be outside Evangelicalism but really confused. But never mind, this is the argument from the same people who think Barack Obama is both a Fascist and a Socialist (try that trick).

[10] Don’t get the reference, please read the excellent Phillip K Dick or just see the decent film.

[12] In the bad meaning of the word; not the political or theological sense that one might refer to one-self as a moderate on the liberal-conservative scale.



Add yours →

  1. Dude! Im stealing this for my quote lines: “disposable grace: single-serving, lukewarm, moderate[12], and superficial”

    That is classic! How true that it is mostly what we find in “churches” these days.

    And dont worry about the blues. Our over-long period of easy living is going the way of the dodo, and not over-long from now. We have pulled to many Jenga pieces for too long without giving anything back. Hunger and fear are great motivators to get real, and I soon think we shall have them in spades.

  2. “Fireproof” and “Letters To God” turn my stomach. I got more solid truth last night watching “Kung Fu Panda 2”. Talk about the Big Story!

  3. Great article! Glad I stumbled upon it!!

  4. Dude! Spot on. Exactly why I call CCM and movies like Fireproof “bubblegum Christianity.” That is, they taste good for 10 minutes but then must be immediately spit out. No nutritional value; just a cheap buzz, rush, or as you pointed out by quoting DB ‘cheap grace.’

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