Note: This post contains Fireproof plot spoilers.
Previously I’ve written that most churches speak like Christ and act like Oprah when it comes to divorce. The reality is even worse than that, because when it comes to marriage across the board nearly all Christians now speak like Oprah too. The assumption is that while the Bible focuses on headship and submission and on shutting the door on the idea of divorce, there is something missing. While it is all well and good to have marriages which are faithful to the biblical instruction on the topic, they tell us, the Bible forgot to include instructions on how to have a happy marriage. As a result, we have the wholesale Christian adoption of the modern secular “relationship expert” school of thought, a school of thought not from the Bible but from a new book they have discovered, the Book of Oprah.
A little over a year ago Sheila Wray Gregoire commented on my blog to register her strong objection to me referring to the wife in Fireproof as acting “whorish”. Later in the comment she also objected to my neglecting the issue of marital happiness (emphasis mine):
I find that you talk a lot on this blog about how people should never divorce (which I more or less agree with), and that women shouldn’t expect so much from their husbands (which I also agree with), and that women are asking their husbands to be both betas and alphas at the same time (which I also agree with), and that women leave their husbands too much (again, in agreement). But what I don’t find is you dealing honestly with genuine problems that couples have with communication, with distance, with betrayal of trust, with porn, etc. I agree with everything you’re saying, but I don’t think marriages can be fixed with a simple “suck it up and put on your big girl panties”. That might make someone STAY in the marriage, but it won’t make the marriage thrive, and what I’d like to see is couples who are genuinely attached and intimate. I’m not saying that if you aren’t intimate that’s grounds for divorce; not at all. But I’d like to see couples thrive. And that means that sometimes you actually have to work at problems, not just say “you’re expecting too much, get over it”. You have to learn how to communicate, and how to give, and how to understand the different ways that men and women approach sex, parenthood, life, etc.
Ironically while this is generally presented by Christians as becoming modern and learning from science, scientists know that the biblical view of marriage actually works (emphasis mine):
The study’s findings are consistent with other research demonstrating the powerful effects of marital commitment on marital happiness. A strong commitment to marriage as an institution, and a powerful reluctance to divorce, do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together. They also help couples form happier bonds. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy couples or spouses must first avoid divorce. “In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage,” notes research team member Scott Stanley.
In the full study they point out that marriage counseling is seldom the solution (emphasis theirs):
Spouses who turned their marriages around seldom reported that counseling played a key role. When husbands behaved badly, value-neutral counseling was not reported by any spouse to be helpful. Instead wives in these marriages appeared to seek outside help from others to pressure the husband to change his behavior. Men displayed a strong preference for religious counselors over secular counselors, in part because they believed these counselors would not encourage divorce.
A separate study also confirms that adopting a mental posture of unwillingness to divorce leads to greater marital happiness.
I reference the movie Fireproof so much because it isn’t just an example of how its creators think on the topic of Christian marriage; that the movie is so universally and enthusiastically accepted by modern Christians offers a unique insight into how pervasive the new thinking on marriage truly is. There simply is nothing else so universally accepted by modern Christians on the topic of marriage. It isn’t just Protestants who adore the movie; Catholics love it too. It isn’t just the message embedded in the plot which is telling, but the way the movie is marketed. As I mentioned recently, they have to be careful not to call it a movie on Christian marriage (since it isn’t). However, given the many ways to finesse this their choice of wording when they are reaching out to churches is still very telling (emphasis mine):
Use this movie to help strengthen marriages and couples in your church and community. FIREPROOF is an unprecedented opportunity to communicate God’s design for relationships.
Note that the implication is that a couple which is neither married nor engaged is a “relationship” that a church should strengthen. Marriage is just one kind of “relationship” churches should tend to in this frame of mind. This is what the marketers of the movie believe churches want to hear, and I see no reason to believe they are incorrect.
A fundamental change in Christian thinking is the acceptance of the ever present threat of divorce should the wife become unhappy. This isn’t a grudging acknowledgement of unfortunate legal reality, but a full fledged internalization of the secular world-view on divorce. It is now unquestioningly accepted that a Christian husband’s first priority must be to prevent his wife from becoming unhappy and divorcing him. This is after all the meaning of the Fireproof tag-line Never leave your partner behind. In the movie it is the Christian husband’s responsibility to ensure that his wife loves him so she doesn’t leave him for another man. We know Caleb finally “gets” what the movie is selling as Christian marriage in the triumphant fist-clenching scene where he confronts the man his wife is in the process of leaving him for:
I know what you’re doing. I have no intention of stepping aside as you try to steal my wife’s heart. I’ve made some mistakes, but l still love her. So just know I am going after her too.
And since l’m married to her, I’d say l’ve got a head start.
In practice the modern Christian approach to marital difficulties ends up being the same approach followed in the secular world; the wife shares her feelings at great length and the husband must listen and do something about it. This inverts the biblical relationship of the husband and his wife’s emotions. In biblical marriage the husband is his wife’s emotional rock, and he lovingly anchors and shelters her when her emotions storm over her. If he didn’t, she would become untethered. In this new bastardized version of Christian marriage the wife’s emotions rule them both.
I’m not saying there isn’t any room for Christian marital counseling, or even retreats, books and movies which teach husbands and wives to communicate better and understand each other’s needs. However these must come from an unwavering belief in biblical marriage, including the topics of divorce, headship & submission, and denial of sex. It should also start with a clear understanding of the times we live in. Part of it should be taking great care not to elevate the wife’s emotions to the point where they are now the driving force in the marriage, and to avoid cutting husbands off at the knees. To the extent that this exists in the Christian “relationship counseling” industry, I’ve never come across it. Such a perspective would certainly stand out like a sore thumb in all but a handful of modern day congregations.