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While traveling by sea from the US to Japan, we discovered the officers' pool of DVDs; unfortunately for us, most were in German, as might be expected for the primarily-German officers. Then one of the Filipino crew members shared with us his personal stash of English language movies. As we sometimes do while flying, we ended up watching movies that we wouldn't normally think of watching at home.

Among these was Fireproof, a drama about a man responding to a failing marriage, combining Lifetime Original Movie aesthetics with Christian right values. I came in expecting to see pure dreck, but was surprised to see that it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. (Hooray for low expectations.)

The movie

Big-time Christian right media guy Kirk Cameron plays Caleb, a firefighter who saves lives on the job, but can't make his marriage work at home. (Pause for groans.) Caleb's an effective leader at work, but at home, is an angry misogynist, unable to communicate or schedule, unwilling to help around the house, and stashing cash away to buy a boat instead of applying it to household needs. His wife, Catherine, spends weekends with her ailing mom, who needs $25,000 of medical supplies. Both husband and wife are culturally-Christian white Southerners, though neither are particularly devout.

Caleb pressures Catherine to seek a divorce, resisting a friend's suggestion to try counseling. Caleb's dad asks him to hold off on a divorce till he tries the "love dare," a 40-day plan on how to be nicer to your partner. Caleb reluctantly gives it a try, but after years of mistreatment, Catherine's not having any of the look-honey-I-made-you-coffee-please-don't-divorce-me routine, and starts flirting with a friendly doctor at the hospital where she works.

As Caleb's frustration grows, his born-again dad starts barraging him, insisting that he can't fix his relationship until he embraces Christianity. His best friend, also Christian, tries to convince him that marriage is for life, and that there's never a reason for divorce. Stressed and vulnerable, Caleb agrees to turn to Jesus, at which point his self-esteem and self-control shoot up. Catherine comes to trust the reformed Caleb again after she discovers that he's liquidated his Boat Fund to buy medical supplies for his mother-in-law. After apologies and hugging, they renew their marriage vows, reframed as a religious covenant marriage.

1. What the Christian Right and Communists have in common

Fireproof is a cultural product stemming from a larger Christian right concern about real family living. I appreciated seeing its emphasis on building stronger relationships. To the extent that I identify as being part of a relatively secular left, I don't see a lot of institutions around me focusing on the whole person, politically and personally. Instead, there's a patchwork quilt of organizations and institutions, whose ideologies may or may not match.

Compared to that, singular religio-political ideologies are certainly more effective at caring for a whole person. Maybe that's why the only left movement I can think of comparable to the Christian right is early- and mid-20th century socialist/communist spaces, with their own day care, night schools, newspapers, theater, etc. For those of us who don't want to live in a cultural bubble (either Communist or Christian-right), life's harder, though perhaps richer, for lack of ideologically-linked sets of institutions trying to take care of the whole person.

2. A progressive Fireproof

Here's my vision of what Fireproof might look like in my vision of a marginally more progressive America.

  • In the movie, Catherine's biggest stressor is being a caregiver to her aging and disabled parents, and the financial stress of being unable to buy her mother medical supplies like a wheelchair and better bed. I'd prefer to live in a more compassionate society where Catherine's mother has a higher standard of in-home care, and access to the medical supplies she needs. No senior citizen should have to wait for her son-in-law to find Jesus before regaining mobility.

  • Caleb and Catherine should have easy access to high-quality counseling services at free or low cost. It's not clear to me that Caleb would have taken it up, but Catherine, in particular, seems like the kind of person who'd make use of and hopefully benefit from it.

Now I'm not suggesting that institution of mainstream progressive health care policies would have meaningfully changed the arc of the story, or eliminated the difficulty of working through a tough spot in a marriage. But they would have removed some of the stress, helped make sure Catherine's family was being taken care of, addressed the hard financial realities, and hopefully made dealing with the situation a little easier.

(And how do you pay for that? Personal taxes are possibly part of the mix, so maybe in my scenario, it'd be harder for Caleb to save up for a boat. Me? I'm willing to inconvenience boat owners a bit to see senior citizens taken care of. Caleb's a government official who performs heroic work saving lives. If we can come together to have collective fire protection, we can do the same for medical supplies and mental health services.)

3. Why God?

Taking the premise of the movie as-is, I'm still puzzled as to why the movie needed to be about God, and why the characters couldn't have come to a similar outcome (resolution of long-standing marital problems) in an religiously agnostic context.

  • Caleb wasn't particularly religious through much of the film. While Caleb's born-again father's advice was Biblically-based, Caleb explicitly ignored the Biblical basis for much of the movie. It's not clear to me why he couldn't have done that for just a bit longer, through the end of the film.

  • At a low point, Caleb's father pressured him to accept Jesus. This seems like a low blow, and a bit cult-ish, preying on his son's weaknesses at his time of need. I don't see how a couple of really good conversations couldn't have gotten Caleb out of his funk, instead of dad lecturing his stressed-out son about how "you've been spitting at Jesus."

  • Catherine seems to have signed up for Caleb's Christian program only after declaring that whatever it was that was making him a better husband, she wanted to share in that too. That's not a religious conversion. If Caleb had told her that he'd been helped by therapy, the movie might have ended with the two of them hugging at the therapist's office, instead of doing a public religious covenant ceremony. Heck, if Caleb had been inspired by Islam instead of Christianity, one gets the sense that Catherine may have been tolerant of that as well, as long as it got the job done.

4. In defense of divorce

Caleb's best friend's insistence that marriage is for life is creepy. I'm very happily married, hopefully for life, but feel better knowing that being together is a happy choice, not an oppressive religious obligation. Divorce can be a healthy and appropriate option. I fear that Caleb's best friend would be anti-divorce even in the face of deeply abusive relationships ("your husband beats you up? try some counseling, and pray harder -- divorce is sinful").

5. The Suburban South

I don't see a lot of movies set in an integrated contemporary suburban South. For all I know, that where the plurality of Fireproof's American viewers live. I still enjoyed the setting, as a reminder of our country's diversity.

6. Separation of church and state

One of the aspects of the movie I liked best was the way that it showed sympathetic characters operating within a Christian right frame in a world where there's a separation of church and state, and yet the characters seem to do just fine, never needing to resort to theocratic solutions.

Caleb's workplace includes Christians and atheists, who get along very well. A few of the firefighters discuss religion and values in their personal time, but without feeling any need to institutionalize it. Catherine's coworkers never explicitly out their religious affiliations or discuss issues of faith, and yet they're portrayed as perfectly reasonable people.

At the end of the movie, Caleb and Catherine choose to get a re-commitment ceremony, framed as a covenant marriage, layering their personal religious beliefs on top of the basic marriage document. This is very significant, indicating that the characters want something beyond the legal institution of marriage, and are able to celebrate that cultural and religious meaning without trying to redefine everyone else's marriages by making divorce harder to access legally. Caleb and Catherine's world may be consistent with same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, community property, and equal legal rights for men and women. Where their views deviate from minimum legal norms, they ultimately seem able to take responsibility for themselves, living in a pluralistic society without demanding special rights for themselves, or asking others to give up theirs.

Amber helped me catch some big mistakes in the way I understood Bishop Gianfranco Girotti’s recent interview regarding new “social sins.” I’d correctly picked up on the fact that the media was totally wrong in claiming that the “new” sins were endorsed by the Vatican, or the Pope, but I’d been totally misled into thinking that Girotti had been using the language of “mortal sin,” when that’s clearly not what was being suggested (c.f. original interview, PDF).

Catholic writers have been working overtime trying to clarify the widespread confusion.

That said, I agree with Liliana Segura, in that though I disagree with some of the list, I’m still a little bit disappointed that Girotti wasn’t putting forward the proposition that fostering social and economic inequality or environmental destruction might be a fundamental theological no-no, as opposed to just a really bad thing to do.

There’s a lot to be said for the evolution of core values. Take the US Constitution; I like the fact that we can edit the text to end slavery and guarantee voting rights (on paper, anyway). It can even evolve outside of the text, as in our emergent right of privacy, only indirectly mentioned in the Constitution but now a core American legal principle, critical in our winning cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence v. Texas.

Unfortunately, one can’t amend religious beliefs the way one can the Constitution. Thankfully, most sufficiently rich religious traditions are broad enough that followers can draw on one idealogical strain or the other, depending on changing cultural mores. Supporters and opponents of slavery read different parts of the Bible. Supporters and opponents of sati and untouchability had different understandings of Hindu values and traditions. But could you ever convince the Dalai Lama to withdraw the claim that people get reincarnated when they die? Some points of theology just seem to fundamental to edit.

But just because it’s difficult, or awkward, doesn’t mean it may not be a good idea. I’m glad virtually all American churches ignore literal readings of the Bible’s positions on slavery and the role of women. The LDS Church is better for accepting men of African descent. I admire the Episcopal Church for its acceptance of same-sex couples. The majority of Generation Y accepts the dignity and equal rights of LGBT people; religious groups will need to revisit homophobic doctrine and practices in decades to come. I wish it were possible to hardcode these directly into core doctrine, rather than treating them as changing interpretations (imagine one could delete the unpleasant bits about slavery and women’s servitude from the modern Bible-as-practiced).

Not all shared value systems are difficult to edit and revise to meet contemporary understandings of the world. The Humanist Manifestos, issued in 1933, 1973, and again in 2003, try to do exactly that.

I really like the first and second manifestos, particularly the way that the second begins with a very human cry of distress about Nazism. I don’t read these as universal values set in stone for the ages, but time capsules and discussion points, reflecting the best that people of goodwill know about the world and how to live in it at a certain point in time.

Unfortunately, the third, and latest, manifesto takes a different approach, focusing on six genuinely universal values potentially applicable at any point in time or space; as much as I admire the effort, the document comes off as dry and lifeless. By designing a kind of science fiction meta-ethics, it shrinks away from confronting the most important issues of its day, unlike the core tenets of most religious traditions at their birth.

Between that and Girotti’s list of new social sins, I’ll pick Girotti any time; I may not agree with everything on his list, but at least it tells me something about the world I live in.

tantrik.jpg

It depresses me that there exists a strong South Asian folk belief in black magic. I’ve had family members tell me about the reputed power of “tantriks,” even suggesting that my health problems may be linked to long-distance black magic caused by hostile tantriks.

Indian rationalist/humanist movements working to combat superstitious or irrational belief systems have been growing over the past several years (e.g. the Indian Rationalist Association, Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, Indian Skeptic, as well as the umbrella Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations).

I enjoyed reading about Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku taking on a tantrik on live TV. The challenge? “Pandit” Surinder Sharma, a high-profile tantrik, was asked to magically “destroy” Sanal on TV. Sharma apparently believed in his own powers; he made a fool of himself on TV, chanting mantras, engaging in complicated “magic” practices, utterly failing to harm his intended victim. The distressed pandit complained that the atheist Sanal must be secretly worshipping a powerful god, and suggesting that he could try using stronger magic at night. The TV station dutifully fulfilled his wishes by offering a nighttime rematch, where he failed again.

Read the whole story about the great Tantra challenge…

(via Sepia Mutiny News)

A senior official at the Vatican recently discussed his list of seven mortal “social” sins:

  • “bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research and DNA manipulation
  • drug abuse
  • polluting the environment
  • contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • excessive wealth
  • creating poverty

“A person that commits a mortal sin risks burning in hell unless absolved through confession and penitence,” (emphasis mine) per AP’s description of Catholic theology. The media’s been particularly fixated on the environmental angle.

While the list doesn’t carry the weight of the Pope or the Vatican as a whole, it’s interesting to see a massive 2000-year-old institution working to amend points of theology, particularly those of personal sin, to adapt to changing understandings of the world. Not all Church policy positions (e.g. opposition to the Iraq War) get dealt with at the level of God-will-condemn-your-soul-to-hell mortal sin.

(And isn’t it fun to be able to change God’s rules as you go, like when the LDS Church suddenly declared in 1978 that men of African descent—but not women of any race—could become priests?)

About

Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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