Anthony Parisi is a filmmaker for New Renaissance Pictures and one of the co-founders of WebSerials.com. His website is www.anthonyparisimedia.com
Last weekend saw the release of Courageous, the fourth film produced by the media ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Opening fourth at the box office with a call to responsible fatherhood, the movie is being trumpeted as the latest culture-transforming hope for some evangelicals. As with Facing the Giants and Fireproof, endorsements are marching out from various churches and para-church organizations across the country.
I’m less concerned with how individual Christians personally choose to interact with the film and more with the troubling trends of American evangelicalism it illustrates. Is Courageous really something to be whole-heartedly embraced? Art being reduced as a vehicle for sermonizing is problematic enough, but even more so is the type of sermon being preached. The emphasis on personal morality and simplistic transformation turn this film into a superficial lecture rather than a robust exploration of life as a Christian father. Our personal piety, our self-improvement, and our “courage” forms the fabric of the story. Christ and his gospel, along with church life and God’s established means of grace, are marginalized.
The story follows a group of four law enforcement officers who seek to become better fathers and live up to God’s calling of leadership in their homes. When tragedy strikes his family, Adam (played by writer/director Alex Kendrick) looks for renewed identity by telling his pastor “I want to know what God expects of me as a father.” Six weeks later he’s typed up a list of resolutions and is on a mission to live up to each and every one of them. “I don’t want to be a good enough father.” His other friends soon join in and they all agree to hold each other accountable. Resolutions are framed and vows are given in a backyard ceremony. They are warned to now be “doubly accountable” and when challenges arise will need “courage, courage, courage.”
The third act attempts to put these vows to the test through a handful of sequences that show the men either failing or persevering. Three of the men encounter few problems at all, appearing to meet the challenge effortlessly. One fails and is convicted of a serious crime. Another faces a test of honesty at work but resists the temptation—finding no consequences or suffering for his integrity and instead receiving instant promotion. Everything culminates in a Sunday morning church scene. The pastor gives up his pulpit to one of the cops, who admonishes the men in the congregation to accept their responsibilities as fathers if they want God’s blessing on their home. Inspiring music crescendos and fists are raised with the repeating cries of “I will, I will, I will!“
The film closes and we smash cut to a 3D fly-in of the title “Courageous” as contemporary Christian rock drives it home with anthemic force. “We were made to be courageous / We were made to lead the way / We could be the generation / That finally breaks the chains.” Watching this inspirational ending, one can’t help but hear an echo of the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where all of the people swear an oath to keep the law and be faithful to the Mosaic covenant. The credits even display Joshua 24:15, taken from a passage where Joshua leads the people of Israel in covenant renewal at Shechem as they again promise to fulfill their vows. In the context of redemptive history, this story illustrates how Israel’s failure to be faithful and inherit the Promised Land ultimately pointed forward to Christ, who would earn the true Promised Land for his people in spite of their sin. In Courageous, as in many Sherwood productions, texts like this are abstracted and turned into moralistic slogans already on hats and t-shirts. As with much self-proclaimed “Christian art” from the last few decades, the end product ends up replicating many of the worst parts of our consumerist culture. Spin-off resolution books and devotionals become branded accompaniments.
Given the clear sincerity and earnest work put in by the filmmakers, it’s hard to know the best way to respond to all this. The social issues and family challenges it seeks to raise are certainly worth exploring. Small, independent dramas on family life are a rarity in Hollywood’s current obsession with franchise-driven blockbusters and it’s refreshing to see stories of this scale and interest on screen. The importance of fathers in family life and their responsibilities is always an area in need of our attention. Yet it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm when the film fails to engage or embody any of these areas well.
Courageous rejects nuance and the cross-bearing pilgrimage of the Christian life for artificially neat resolutions to the prayers of its one-dimensional characters. Sherwood continues to make films with God functioning primarily as a tool for our lives—whether he’s helping us win football games, repair our struggling marriages, or helping us find a job within seconds of a cry to the heavens. Brief, passing references to the gospel are only seen useful to convert a skeptic, who in a few tearful seconds somehow embraces the faith. Despite all the sermonizing dialogue—the story’s form and emphatic message has all of its focus on us and our accomplishments, not Christ and his work for us. In what could be page out of a John Elridge book, the “manly” vocation of police officer is used as the icon of fatherhood. Violent shootouts and car chase stunts ensure being a godly dad also looks as glorious as possible. Even the poster image calls to mind the slow-motion hero shot popularized by Michael Bay. As for the women, they are given little to do than look on approvingly.
The result is that Christians and their “good works” become the message, overshadowing Christ and the gospel. The LA Times calls the movie “a particularly clunky, tunnel-visioned vehicle whose overbearing, overlong script nearly smothers the movie’s quibble-free message: Fathers must be responsible.” The AV Club describes it as “essentially about fundamentally good, moral men proudly accepting the mantle of fatherhood” and feels that the film “deifies fatherhood and fathers when it would be better off treating its central striver like a flawed human being instead of a paper saint.” Slant Magazine laments “One must have the courage to ignore this self-righteous pablum’s naïve, truly offensive trivialization of social realities in this country—the complete flipside of Paul Haggis’s cynical representation of the same in Crash.” The New York Times pointedly sums everything up: “Adam is born again into the spiritual obligations of conservative family values.”
While surely produced with good intentions, Courageous is likely to further entrench the misguided culture wars and bring harm to the Christian witness in the world. Alongside the political arena, art is another place where confusion about the institutional church and the way it interacts with culture is common. Churches should always encourage individual members to take up vocations in the arts, but this is to be done out of love for one’s neighbor and needs to embrace the totality of life. Films like this reinforce the unfortunate impulse that anything we create must be explicitly “Christianized” or evangelistic. Churches are to spread the kingdom not by some sort of cultural revival but by the unglamorous life of local ministry God has founded on Word and sacrament. Making movies falls far outside the bounds of what the church has been called to do.
Thankfully, the church has good news that far outpaces the takeaway of this story: an announcement that God has reconciled sinners to himself through Jesus Christ. The gospel pulls us out of our fragile self-worth built on performance and centers our identity on God’s love for us in Christ. As forgiven, yet still sinful sons and daughters, mothers and fathers— we will continually fall short of what God has called us to. In marriage and family life we need to be reminded of the gospel more than ever. Only by continually looking to our standing in grace can we be humbled and motivated to serve others not in prideful self-righteousness but thankful gratitude. Christ was courageous for us when we were not. This is the good news that changes everything.