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Courageous Christianity?

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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.

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  • Guest - Dr. Cary Voss

    This review is nothing more than the critics personal interaction with the film and nothig more. I just finished watching the movie and his critical skills and even attention to major details make me question whether we watched the same film. And quoting the mainstream media to support his review takes the cake. Where is Mr. Parisi's film that encourages Christian fathers to lead their families? It's certainly not on his website!

    Dr Cary Voss
    Professor of Rhetoric

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  • Guest - Moss

    Having just seen this movie tonight, and after reading the review, I can only say one thing: thank you Anthony!

    It is good to see that someone isn't afraid to stand up for their view regarding something that is supposed to represent the kingdom. I am personally sick and tired of people supporting every single "christian" oriented thing (movie, music, art, t-shirt, etc.) simply because its christian. Are christians who attempt to create art immune from criticism? Can we not say anything negative about their work because the use the word "God" in it? No! A bad movie, is a bad movie whether the gospel is presented or not. Simply because a character says "Jesus Christ died for your sins" does not earn that film an Academy Award or make it worthy of acclaim.

    If we were really concerned with the spreading of the gospel through film, we should at least strive to make a movie that reaches a wide audience, and is watchable. As one commenter pointed out, the theater they were in was fairly empty. This is no fault of the inclusion of the gospel message in the film but rather a problem with the film itself.

    Wrought with cliche, bad acting, and completely predictable dialogue, it makes me sad that this is the forefront of the "christian" movie scene. Not a single moment in this movie felt genuine and I couldn't help but laugh at more than one dramatic scene. A commenter stated that the film avoided "some" stereotypes...really? Which ones? The poor Mexican family struggling to make ends meet? The daughter of a cop trying to date a gang member? The high moral workplace "test"? The characters were one-dimensional and the woman characters added virtually nothing of importance.

    Lastly, while the gospel was shared to one of the characters, his "conversion" was an afterthought that received no attention whatsoever. This bothered me most of all. We don't see him pray, ask for forgiveness, or anything even remotely repentant. From one scene to the next, he becomes an instant christian. More than anything, I think this sends a poor message to the "wider" audience this film is trying to reach.

    I've said enough.

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  • Guest - Tammy

    I am simply astounded at the criticisms of this film. It doesn't have the Hollywood financial backing, but they still made a PHENOMENAL movie about christian fathers. You want to see America strong..........start at home, with strong, courageous fathers! Keep criticisms at bay....all I saw was an excellent film with a message that I can't get out of my head. So grateful for a church who has a heart to do something like this. My hat goes off to you. God bless.

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  • Guest - Joseff

    Let me start by saying I'm a big fan of taking anything pop-culture Christianity produces with a grain of salt. I'm a big of fan of highly scrutinizing anything that pop-Christianity produces. This also seems to be the way the reformed leaders and the reformed circle as a whole handle everything, which is a good thing. As reformed people, we seem to have a more logical approach and we can see right through the shallowness of certain pop-Christianity things. Which is a good thing.

    But sometimes I feel like the pendulum swings too far the other way.

    Sometimes it feels like our need to highly scrutinize everything can cause an overreaction. The WHI review of Courageous was pretty harsh. This I feel is one such example of an overreaction. The film never claimed to be the be-all-end all of Christian living, nor did it claim to be profoundly theological or packed full of doctrine. The review accused it of focusing on works or morality, but that is simply not true. When the men decided to "man up" and make a commitment to be a better father and husband it was all predicted on being a follower of Jesus Christ and trusting God's principles as revealed in the Bible for manhood and fatherhood. It wasn't just "morality" as the review article presented it. In fact the main character said he was doing all of this with the help of God's grace. I got the sense in the movie that the main characters truly wanted to be obedient to the Bible as a form of worship. They were convicted of how they were living their life as a father and husband, thus took action to redirect their efforts.

    To me, this screams of the doctrine of sanctification, that God works in believers to mold them and shape them into better Christians and to be more Christlike and obedient to His principles and laws. But of course, the WHI review never mentioned this.

    I'm not saying the film had no problems...there's no perfect film that's for sure. But it just felt like the review seemed to be unduly harsh. It almost felt like since the film wasn't theologically profound enough for the elite reformed thinkers, they wrote a negative review about it and cautioned nobody else to watch it either.

    This isn't just my opinion but I asked a fellow Calvinist friend about this issue and he said he felt the same way about WHI's review of the movie.

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  • Guest - Joshua S.

    Courageous felt like a morality play with a little Jesus sprinkled on top. Its story was too clean cut, and it had the same "if you do this, God will bless you" ethos of Facing the Giants. Being fair to the secular movie reviewers, it's not hard to see why Slant described it as "self-righteous."

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  • Guest - Charles

    Perhaps I don't understand reformed theology as much as I thought I did. And apparently I don't understand art at all. This church's movies are clean, present the Gospel, illustrate that God isn't just to be wound up on Sundays, encourage us to be committed to our duties, and teach several other lessons badly needed by Christians today. But according to at least one comment above and implied by the review and several other comments, the movies "aren't very good." Instead we are encouraged to watch movies like Gran Torino, which is full of obscenities and profanities, which is supposedly "incredible."

    The reviewer referred to negative reviews by secular outlets as support. IMO, if the NY Times praised it, then I'd be worried.

    Whatever happened to "whatsoever things are pure, lovely, ..., think on these things? Shouldn't that be our criteria for art as well? Are we to understand that Christians should not support other Christians who are sincerely trying to get much needed messages out, but instead support ungodly people who already have tons of money, because their "artistic quality" is better? Is this indeed the "mind of Christ?"

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  • Guest - Ron Johnson

    There are a lot of good comments on here but Bottome line is... this movie misrepresents Jesus Christ Our Lord and his saving Gospel message that we are sinners saved by GRACE wholly dependent on Him. We really have no power on our own to change or be good. In fact, according to one man that wrote much of the NT, our works are filthy rags and our attempts to be "better" fail when we focus on our own efforts.

    True power comes from seeing the truth that we are powerless in the hands of a merciful and loving God, and even then He often leaves us in our life situations to "tough it out" so we will continually look to Him - There are no easy solutions to life, no quick turn arounds that come with the right amount of prayer. This is an illusion and lie that many churches in America have bought.

    One big problem with the film is that while proportiung to address the struggle and pain of life (with a few sprinkled platitudes here and there) it assumes that all one has to do is buckledown, focus and you can overcome anything and everything. A nice idea but too pollyanna to be genuine and ignores the real struggle we have in this world with both daily survival and our sin nature - which we've inherited from Adam.

    80% of marriages dissolve when one of their children dies because it is a heart-wrenching, soul killing experience which brings a multitude of emotions from guilt, confusion to anger and most couples not only blame themselves but each other.

    Yet this strife was never even dipicted in the film, just some sadness.

    So, no this film is not realistic at all and brings harm to our witness as people go into the theater in hopes of finding something that might help them get in touch with God and instead of finding grace, find a message of works/reward for those who can make a vow (forbidden by the bible btw) and keep it. Or just buckle down and be a better person/ parent etc.

    People that really have lost a loved-one will be the most offended - they know.

    If churches are going to engage in movie-making, they should affirm the gospel of grace, depict our weakness and utter dependence on Jesus, to save and KEEP us. And stop using the bible stories and Christ as examples on how to live. The bible is God's rescue plan for a fallen people and Christ is Savior not a life coach.

    Ron J.

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