Alright, another not-Calvin post. This is more like it! This week we’re talking about Maggie Mae Fish, a lefty Youtuber who does film analysis. She’s weighing in on those bad evangelical Christian films that exist, and – actually I’d just like to point out that her banner on Patreon involves the sainted left-wing tradition of dumping food all over her head, and in her case she’s chosen to go with jellybeans. Good shit.
So I don’t really know a lot about Mags – I watched half her video about I’m In Love With A Church Girl, and then switched over to this earlier one about Fireproof, and that’s literally the extent of my exposure. It’s the Fireproof one that we’re mostly going to be talking about today. I never watched Fireproof specifically as a kid, but I existed in the same kinda cultural ecosystem, so I actually – this is kinda funny, in retrospect – I tripped up on a bunch of Maggie’s criticisms that were genuinely very reasonable. For instance, there’s a scene where Dude-Bro Main Character shouts at his wife and throws the rubbish bin around, and Maggie describes it as implied domestic abuse. “Any woman who has seen a romantic partner yell at her like this knows that it is only a matter of time before she becomes that trash can” (circa 9:45). And I was like nahh, he’s just like a guy, he’s really physical, and that’s just how he – oh shit it’s in my brain ahhh. So there’s definitely some work for me to do on myself there, and I appreciate getting the opportunity to reflect on that part of myself.
And I guess it’s also worth acknowledging that I’m at a bit of a weird place when it comes to people criticising Christianity. Obviously I’m all for criticising shitty conservative Christians and shitty Christian gender roles and just shitty Christians. But I also know that there’s a gap in our wider discourse when it comes to talking about not-shitty Christians, especially among the left. It’s just sort of this mute little cube, and it hangs over the place where I live. Again: I’m absolutely not saying that anybody should stop criticising shitty Christians. I’m just noting that none of you fuckers know anything about, say, Tony Evans, who is the first black man to have both a study Bible and a full-Bible commentary with his name, and who also, incidentally, was the first African American to earn a doctorate in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. The only discourse that exists is discourse about the shitheads. It makes me feel kinda isolated.
So I have mixed feelings about non-Christians coming out and bashing Christianity. It’s not that those criticisms are in any way wrong or misguided – they’re usually spot on, very valuable, entirely correct and Very Good Shit. It just also highlights this other issue where people never talk or think about Christianity except when they’re bashing it – and to be honest, I’ve heard Muslims say the exact same thing about their experiences of white people talking about Islam. In both cases, people don’t really know anything about the culture except for what’s important for shit-talking it. So yeah, mixed feelings about Maggie’s video, mixed feelings about the gaps in our discourse. That said, yes, her video does have really good points to make about evangelical gender politics, and about the dodgy relationship between evangelicals and money. All good stuff. Great stuff, even. Really good on how evangelical leaders associate themselves with God’s authority in order to basically fleece people. Makes some really solid points about how Fireproof itself is involved in that same basic process of profiteering off the charity and goodwill of other believers (29-ish mins on).
I’ll give you an example of the authority-associating stuff, actually, because that’s kinda interesting. Maggie talks about how the Dude-Bro’s dad comes out and basically tells him that the only way to fix his life is by being a good Christian. Dad leans against a conveniently placed cross in some field, and there’s a very strong Your-Earthly-Father-As-Metaphor-For-Heavenly-Father thing going on (12:15-ish). Maggie quite rightly points out that authority figures presenting themselves as divine messengers or objective bearers of God’s will gives them a bunch of cover for going off and doing bad shit and pretending like it was God’s will all along. And sure, I appreciate that angle, but I guess I wonder if we can take the analysis deeper by thinking more about the metaphor that’s been invoked. There’s a crude kinda parable that’s been set up here, right, so let’s think about it. In a purely metaphorical reading, we’ve got a hurt and upset son, who’s generally kinda shitty and unstable. We have the father, who symbolises God, offering advice on how to correct his life and get back on the right path, with the obvious visual prompt of the cross kinda filling in the gaps on exactly what that means. It’s essentially the Christian vision of human identity told in one exchange. So is it maybe a bit weird to focus on the literal reading of the text over the pretty obvious metaphor?
Well, let’s not jump to conclusions. Even if there is a metaphor being set up, the narrative frame for communicating that metaphor still seems a bit fucky. For instance, the whole scenario starts when the dad takes his son out into the woods, which happens because the son refuses to talk to his mother (basically because she’s a woman?). There’s a weird gender dynamic in there, and we lose that level of analysis if we kinda write it all off and just focus on the little Jesus metaphor. Which isn’t to say that we should entirely write the metaphor off either. No: to me, the most interesting approach to this text involves shuttling back and forth between religious metaphor and the really uncomfortable kinda narrative dressing around it. We might call it the difference between the surface text, the literal fictional world, and the subtext, the kinda underlying Christian ideas. There’s a really fascinating tension in there that I think is worth treating in more depth. Maggie tends to write off the spiritual component as kinda just a weak justification for routine garden-variety domestic abuse, shitty gender roles, and economic exploitation. It’s not treated as having any integrity in and of itself. I think that’s maybe where I see room to go further – we could write off the faith stuff as cynical ass-covering, sure, but I rather think that by picking up the tension between the faith metaphor and the narrative dressing, we can actually start moving deeper into the text.
I’ll give you another example. The resolution of the film, apparently, is that Dude-Bro uses the money he was saving for his boat to do something selfless, spending it all on his mother-in-law’s medical bills (26:45-ish). On the metaphor level, it’s a whole thing of someone displaying true love through selfless sacrifice, imitating the sacrifice of Christ by giving up your own wants to serve other people – all that kinda thing. However, on the literal narrative level, as Maggie says, “Kirk buys Catherine’s love. Quite literally, their marriage is a transaction.” Again, if we treat the spiritual level as having no integrity, then the structures and beliefs of Christianity do seem cynically deployed to dress up this hollow, economic transaction as true love. I hear that critique, and I appreciate it, but on its own it feels too simple. It feels like refusing to give any integrity to the metaphor. After all, from the Christian perspective, sacrifice for the good of another is the highest form of love – it’s the highest imitation of Christ and our central calling as Christians. It’s part of the core of the faith. I’m not trying to ignore Maggie’s critique here, right – I’m more asking what it means to hold those two components in tension. We can use that tension as a really intriguing starting point. How might a broad critique of capitalism intersect with the doctrine of atonement? In a world where everything is commodified, how can we express the concept of Christ paying for our sins without reducing the crucifixion to an economic exchange? What does it mean for this thing to be spiritually true, but also totally fucked?
Let me tell you, actually, about the story of Hosea. Hosea was a prophet who married some loose woman, knowing that she was a total bitch and that she’d go off and fuck other men and all the rest of it. And Hosea put up with it, and loved her faithfully, even though she was a total fucking bitch. On the metaphorical level, the story is meant to symbolise God’s faithfulness to Israel despite their unfaithfulness to Him. On a literal level, though, the whole thing’s kinda fucky. Like, of course God is symbolised by the dude. Of course the woman is the whore. It’s all just a little bit woman-hatey – like oh, that fucking bitch, she’s so useless, and she’s got such a great guy that she just doesn’t appreciate – it just kinda reeks of that specific brand of Old Testament misogyny. I think the same question applies here as before: what does it mean for this thing to be spiritually true, but also totally fucked? How can Christians find any spiritual truth in this Biblical story without bringing in all the intellectual heritage of misogyny and all that other shit? If you wanted to, you could just ignore the spiritual dimension – you could write the whole metaphor off as a weak excuse designed to justify Ancient Israelite misogyny. You could do that, if you wanted. But it feels too easy. In its own way, it feels like a weird brand of Biblical literalism, where everything can only be valued for what it literally says on the surface. I dunno. I’m not defending Fireproof per se, or Hosea. I just think we can go further with our criticism, actually dig into some of these deeper issues around contemporary Christian faith. What does it mean to accept every one of Maggie’s sociological criticisms, and then still to affirm that the film says true things about Christian spiritual beliefs?
One final example, and then we’ll finish up. At the end of the video, Maggie notes that the film received a whole bunch of charitable donations from all sorts of groups and companies and all the rest of it. She particularly laments that a bunch of Sunday school groups seem to have financially contributed to the film: it seems weird to her that their charity should go towards making the film-makers rich. And there’s a legitimate point in there about evangelicals leveraging their faith to get rich off charitable donations from children. That’s fucky. For me, though, I would be asking a slightly different question. Let’s assume the worst – let’s assume that the filmmakers were totally cynically exploiting the faith of a bunch of kids to make a quick buck. Does that negate the spiritual value of the children’s decision to give? Is God gonna not count it as an act of faith just because some asshole on the other end was exploiting their charity? I’m not suggesting that it’s okay for people to go round cynically profiteering off other people’s faith, but I do think we’re losing something by failing to acknowledge that this act of charity can have its own spiritual integrity even if the guys on the other end are shitheads. Spirituality needs to be a component of the analysis. If it’s bad to use spirituality as a mask against dodgy social and economic behaviours, then by the same token we shouldn’t be using social and economic critique to write spirituality out of the conversation.
In some ways I think Maggie’s analysis has a similar problem to what’s happening more generally, with this wider silence around contemporary Christianity. It feels like maybe people aren’t super comfortable engaging directly with these ideas around spirituality, and so the conversation drops back to that simpler social and economic frame, to the point where spirituality is only treated as an excuse for social and economic behaviours and not as a motivating force in itself. I dunno – I think there’s an opportunity here for people to step up to the plate – to start dealing with Christianity as a faith, as a form of spirituality, and not just as a social or economic institution. That’s why today I’m announcing my Patreon – no, I’m kidding. Just step it up, fuckers.