Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Thorough Review of Courageous: A String of Moralistic Vignettes or a Documentary of Priestcraft?

 (Though I have written the review itself, the content represents the perspective and strong opinions that I share with my husband who screened the film with me at the request of the Freedom for Christian Women Coalition and helped to craft this response.)

At the outset, let me say that from personal experience, I have the utmost respect for Sheriffs in particular. I also never fully appreciated the dangerous nature of their job when patrolling highways until I discussed the topic with a couple of medical examiners about a decade ago. I had never before considered what it must be like to perform autopsy after autopsy on law enforcement officers who are killed when they approach a vehicle at the roadside. I want to make clear that my review of this film should not be considered a poor reflection on the courage of men who undertake such dangerous work, performing it with both valor and compassion. Aspects of this movie did give me cause to consider my appreciation for the true kindness of law enforcement officers.

Significant Factors of Distraction

I found that I did not have as many kind things to say about the movie as did my friends who were critical of messages in the film, and my husband was far more critical of the film than I was. It lacked some of the elements that better funded studios feature such as more consistent incidental sound and music, though I suppose one should consider that Sherwood Productions lacks access to the resources of larger film producers. During the scenes that did not crescendo to a particular point of drama, I found the total absence of incidental background noise and music disconcerting. The film also featured many of the scenes where character's heads were cut off at the top by the field of view and were followed with camera angles that were too tight, so much so that I found myself actually hunching down and holding my own head in an odd position.

I found that all of these factors presented notable distractions from the story of the film. I actually took a class in cinematography with a delightful, fascinating, and eccentric playwright professor in college wherein I studied the powerful yet subtle implications of camera angles, framing, and other factors such as depth of field. I'm certainly no expert from a single class as an undergraduate, but I don't recall studying the implications of subtly conveyed meaning of the camera angles used in Courageous, especially early in the film. Having heard good things about the film from some tough critics, perhaps I held too high of an expectation for the flow its technical aspects?

I also found the law enforcement characters' propensity to speak on the phone and read phone displays while driving to be problematic, considering the many state laws banning such activity and the data showing the distraction potential of talking on the phone while driving, even while using a hands-free device. My husband also noted some procedural problems including the use of a taser device without first warning the suspect. At another point of climax in the film, the sheriffs took refuge behind a civilian's car (with him in it) during a gun fight which put him in the way of fatal harm. (The film did not note whether this civilian survived.) The officers also took personal cell phone calls in the midst of very critical duties on the job, something I hope is not a common practice. Considering the source of the film as well as my own experience in a profession managing life and death situations, I found these factors to be inconsistent. I make note of them here because their degree of irresponsibility seemed retrograde to the film's focused concern with ethics and duty.

Plot and Character Development

Rather than identifying a primary protagonist with whom the audience could identify, the early phase of the film introduced several different, primary characters, and I was confused about the plot because those characters didn't relate well to one another within a cohesive storyline. I suppose that if I was not as distracted by the aforementioned factors, I may have been less disoriented by the numerous shallow profiles of too many people with whom I did not emotionally connect, especially in the first forty minutes of the film. Within the first first twenty minutes into a good film, the director should clearly communicate the identity of the primary protagonist(s), providing some insight into the dilemma faced within the unfolding storyline.

Not until the pivotal event of the death of a child which occurred well into the film was I able to identify strongly with any one character in a way that fostered my interest in the rather arcane plot. This emotional hook was also superficial because of the competing, various, and somewhat abstract themes that were suggested for this character, all of which I found lacking in continuity. In fact, I didn't really learn the name of the primary protagonist until a third of the way into the film, and I was not sure how his family members were related until the funeral scene The director gave no salient clues to foreshadow the film's most significant elements, as everything (and therefore nothing) seemed central until the midpoint of the film. I did quite a bit of this type of “catching up” throughout the film because the director did not make clear these central and essential elements. Even the relationship between the eventually emerging protagonist and his children seemed weak to me and far too short in duration, an odd element considering the film's slowly emerging theme of dutiful fatherhood.

Storyline and Primary Message

Essentially, Courageous consisted of a string of somewhat thematically related moralistic vignettes and discussions that the writers and director attempted to knit together rather poorly. This made the many characters and what seemed like too numerous, peripheral dilemmas of equal significance seem very abstract because of their lack of clear progression towards a final conclusion which had to be stated overtly in the film's final scene. At one point, my husband postulated that perhaps the film sought to demonstrate to relationships among Christian men. At another point, he asked again whether it was meant as a “how to film” which displayed “proper behavior demonstrating the way 'real' and 'manly men' should talk to one another “for the sake of moralizing.”

Another rather superficial aspect of the film involved it's shallow and predictable storyline and dialogue. In real life, even intimate friends experience conflict, yet the story featured little to no interpersonal conflict within relationships, save for the character Javier's dilemma with an employer who set out to test is integrity. (I found that troubling, as he was “tempted with evil” by his employer. If the film sought to send a pure, Christian message, the writer should note the Book of James which states that God tempts no man with evil through deception.)

Even the more intimate personal conversations largely lacked the natural friction and tension that exists in all relationships, like an old episode of the Donna Reed Show. This lack also added to the burden created by the lack of critical engagement resulting from the unclear plot and character identity. Especially concerning the scenes which dealt with bereavement, as my husband and I deal professionally with the bereaved, we found this dialogue to be disappointingly unrealistic and disturbingly short. My husband stated, “The characters exist in abstraction. They say all of the things that you're 'supposed' to say, but it isn't the way people really talk in genuine, real life conversations.” We both also noted the use of the loaded language used within these limited Christian circles which would have little meaning to those outside of those subcultures. This created another distraction, giving cause to again question the target audience for the film.

Introduction of Too Many Interesting Themes Which Were Abruptly Dropped Without Development

Perhaps if the film had focused on only one or two of the twenty or so potential plot lines with which it flirted, it would have made for a more cohesive plot that could have served to support the primary moral message. The early contrast between “good” Christian bonding among the deputies versus the “bad” bonding among gang members would have made for a very dynamic central plot. The character with a daughter that he had abandoned and other references to the negative outcomes associated with fatherlessness could have strongly dovetailed with this bonding theme in interesting ways, but most of these themes remained significantly undeveloped or were abandoned. Even the issue of bereavement was completely dropped at a certain point to follow the new theme of the “Resolution” of ethics and conduct which the men pledged and signed. The potential for tension between father and daughter which was complicated by the relationship triangle created by the daughter's new suitor could have also been developed in greater depth in a realistic way to clearly support the primary plot and moral.

The film seemed to develop into an “accountability group” theme that focused on relationships among men, but even that developing emotional intimacy and interpersonal connection fell to the wayside in favor of the new, emerging theme of the “Resolution” document. The Resolution took the film into another divergent path instead of weaving all of the themes together into a the film's potential for a single converging moral message. They had great material for several subplots which could have worked towards a central theme over the course of the movie or could have served as plots for several other single films. Instead, I feel that the writer and director just threw all of their favorite ideas together but didn't artfully connect them in a way that supported a consolidated the moral message which had to be conveyed directly at the end in a sermon. The film lacked that type of mastery of the art of storytelling which is necessary for all really great films.

Religious Themes

Many of the single ideas which the film proposed in droves spoke to true, insightful and beneficial tenets of the Christian Faith, including dutiful parenting on the part of a father, and responsible behavior in terms of ethics. These were admirable qualities for which the film was notable, but they were directed into more specific concepts that I often found less than praiseworthy.

Intimacy Issues. Probably the greatest difficulty with the film revolved around the overall lack of believable intimacy among the characters, even though it attempted to portray and emphasize relationships.. None of the male characters modeled an appropriate level of intimacy with their wives, and I was disappointed to see the film abandon the developing story of the relationship between the bereaved parents. We see only one conversation of any depth between them. Javier's wife in particular (the strongest marriage in the lot) and the other wives seem to be portrayed as cheerleaders on the sideline of the real game of life, but the interactions didn't connote any degree of honest intimacy, especially between the characters who lost a child in the film. I wonder if this accurately reflects the nature of marital intimacy among the complementarians who foster this lifestyle and ideology?

In terms of emotional self-disclosure, respect, and dialogue, the group of men were far closer to their male companions within the group than they seemed to be with their wives, but even the level of intimacy among the men proved disappointingly superficial to me. I found that the two strongest emotional bonds between characters in the film were forged by a single character. Rather than showing deeper intimacy through marriage, I found that the relationship between the father and his teen daughter to be the most developed, intimate relationship portrayed in the film, followed by this same father character's relationship with his deadbeat, absent dad coworker whom he compassionately encourages to repent. Did the film really intend to communicate to the audience an ideal that men's closest relationships should be those with other men and those shared their daughters as opposed to their wives? (Read more HERE about Voddie Baucham's telling statement concerning how attention from daughters basically keeps a man from committing adultery because of his yearnings.)  17Feb12 ADDENDUM:  Listen to the comment directly in the video clip posted below.

Dating Daddy and his Proposal. I found the daddy-daughter date scene to be disturbing. Essentially, the father proposes to his daughter, using language which indicates that he considers himself to be on equal footing and of the same order of person with his daughter's potential mates. Consistent with the belief within this subculture that young women remain married to the father through ownership until they marry another father-vetted and approved man, the father in the film uses the language of Vision Forum to reinforce the ideology of courtship. Such a system which Vision Forum promotes as Biblical was not even demanded under Judaism, a concept that they filter through their distorted version of Covenant Theology. (Read more HERE.) So to adapt and cope with the inherent risks of trusting a daughter to conduct herself with dignity, grace and chastity, the father overcorrects for his legitimate concerns and fears through an extra-Biblical ritual which signifies ownership. I felt sick at the close of the father-daughter date scene as the daughter gazed at the father's heart-shaped ring that he actually places on her finger after his proposal – a proposal that she was duty bound to accept as an obedient daughter. (With a suitor, she presumably has the liberty to decline such a proposal, that is, if her father decides to allow her that liberty. Not all do in patriarchy.)

Winning Hearts and Guarding Souls. The last scene of the film finally states the primary purpose of lauding the duties of fatherhood through a formal homily. The “winning hearts” concept, a theme within Vision Forum circles, relates to their teaching of parents to turn their children's hearts toward home, a system that often proves to be oppressive for women. As a general statement, it isn't such a terrible concept, but in consideration of the culture's loaded language, this encoded and covert terminology masks the spiritually abusive nature of their teachings. It conceals the meat of their doctrine wherein father's govern, direct, and micromanage family members to ensure their service to the “father's vision” and family objectives. Fathers require their families to serve his primary vision, requiring his prior approval and blessing of all of their personal endeavors as individuals. (Please also note HERE and in the archives of the San Antonio Christian Film Festival that Sherwood and Kirk Cameron have an established relationship with Vision Forum.)

Andrew Sandlin once astutely noted that this hegemonic system has little to do with a Biblical concept and more in common with the pagan Roman Paterfamilias. Father overlords in Vision Forum's system require their “obsequious sons” to submit to all of their wishes, even if that son is a fully grown adult, a concept also criticized strongly by counter cult apologist, Don Veinot (pdf file). The misleading language concerning hearts sounds like a mere reference to loving relationships, but under the veneer, it speaks to their doctrine of the father as a family despot.

The Father as Spiritual Intermediary Priest for his Children. Though it is subtle and because I am familiar with the doctrines taught within the subculture, I note the subtly conveyed concept that fathers also act as intermediary priests for their children which the film implies. In the homily at the end of the film, the character named Adam first uses the language of “God's design for families.” The veneer looks quite appealing, but the underbelly of the concept is a pagan Paterfamilia snare created by language which manipulates thought. In terms of Vision Forum's system, this is not God's design for families, but rather exemplifies the traditions of men. We then hear fathers noted as primary models of integrity for their children, but nothing is said of the contribution of mothers. Not to downplay the commitment to integrity that fathers should model, but take note that within this ideology, women are seen as a type of child whom her husband must chastise and rule, arguing Hebrews 12 and Ephesians 5 as a proof texts. She is not a mutual, co-equal partner in parenting. The husband parents her along with their children.

The protagonist makes the true statement that fathers must be accountable for their responsibilities as fathers, but in the next sentence, talk of the souls of children implies more than just parental guidance and spiritual training. It refers to the spiritualizing of the role of fathers, as it is believed within this system that each father serves his family as an intermediary spiritual priest for which Voddie Baucham in particular is most notable. These men within Vision Forum's system believe that they intercede for their children's souls through their home-centered ecclesiocentric system, and their concept exceeds mere training and guidance. They teach that the father sanctifies the family, suggesting that marriage itself is a something of a sacrament. (Baucham claims falsely on page 39 of What Must He Be If He Wants To Marry My Daughter that Martin Luther teaches about the “sanctifying works wrought by the marriage covenant,” an excellent example of the type of misleading, fuzzy logic used by the group to propagate this concept which they tend to convey indirectly to avoid criticism.) Confused seminary students at MBTS asked me about this very idea after a presentation I once gave there, as they believed that they would stand before God to make spiritual intercession for the sins of their wives. Please note this statement of the Owner/Publisher of a homeschooling magazine affiliated with this group (emphasis mine), a pragmatic example of what earnest people understand about this doctrine:
He has served as a regional support group board member leading the charge to exhort homeschooling fathers and husbands to assume their God-given duty to be the leaders of their homes, including sanctifying their wives. . .
This is not a Protestant teaching, and it isn't even consistent with Judaism. It is something more akin to a distortion of Roman Catholic Theology, something that should be disturbing to Reformed Protestants. I had to laugh about the “Resolution” ceremony in the film as my husband said, “They should be repeating this in Latin, and then they should be sprinkled with holy water.” Scripture lends no support to the idea that a father becomes a type of demigod to his children or a spiritual intermediary who pleads before God for mercy because of the sins of his children or his wife. A father can intercede for his children through prayer, model behavior, train them in ethics and truth, teach them to be wise and discerning, but he neither governs nor stands as a mediator for the souls of his children. He will be held accountable for his behavior as a father, but not for his children's own sins. An element of this idea prevails within the teachings of many Baptists who maintain that corporal punishment holds the power to purify the soul. Only God can do that, and only the Blood can wash away our sins. No man holds that power for another human being. Sinful flesh cannot sanctify sinful flesh.

Overcorrection and Extremism as a Mindset. I do realize that men often do not feel honored or encouraged in these aspects of life, either because they were raised without fathers or had fathers that were absent, uninvolved, or unprepared. Sadly, I believe that the film models an overcorrection and unnecessary extreme for these problems as it is practiced in the patriarchal lifestyle it seeks to chronicle. Rather than seeking a balance of mature Christian living in balanced moderation, the solution becomes an overcorrection to the problem which I believe results in a new and different error.

Prevalent within the Vision Forum practices of the father-centered home wherein his children and wife exist to serve his vision, a propensity to create histrionic ritual flourishes. The group will jump at any chance to dress up in period costumes of some variety and have events “Reformation Fairs” that prove to themselves and the rest of the world that they are more special to God than everyone else. (At three points during the film, my husband said “Oh, no! Here's another excuse for them to play 'dress up'.”) They are obsessed with outward appearance, and though they would be the first to decry ritual in the Catholic and Emergent Churches, they will be the first to create their own odd rituals. Marriage ceremonies among the Vision Forum elite include knighting the groom with a sword, the transfer of the father's authority to the groom, the washing of the groom's feet by the bride as an act of submission, presentation of a quiver for arrows to groom and bride, the payment of a gold coin to the father of the bride which had been dubbed the “bride price” (actually a compensation paid to a father if his daughter's sexual purity has been defiled or defamed under the Mosaic Law), or the payment of some dowry. Some groups even withhold the time of the ceremony from the bride as a reference to Matthew 25 (Select “Biblical Betrothal,” and make sure to watch the bizarre “training videos” noted in the sidebar, particularly the two that reference wedding ceremonies which include some of these noted rituals).

This group of people needs a parade for everything that they do because of the conformity and uniformity demanded of followers as an show of spirituality. As others have pointed out, why do the men in this film and in the homeschooling patriarchy movement need a celebration for those tasks that they knew were their duty when they married and had children? Why do they need a resolution to follow when Scripture spells out their responsibilities? From their character and the transformation that takes place in them through the Word and the Spirit as they mature in Christ come the abilities that they will need to parent through the full counsel of the Word. Why is a resolution necessary? They replace the Word with their resolutions, the traditions of men, following them instead of the simple truths that are noted in Scripture. They replace the guidance of the Holy Spirit with a new type of legalism which they bind to themselves and write on their hearts instead of the Word. It allows them to maintain control through the arm of the flesh instead of trusting God like the rest of us. This speaks of love, not control.

Reasons behind the extremism. I believe that this impetus to make overcorrections that we see portrayed in Courageous results from two causes. First, many follow a pattern of perspective and a system of thought which prefers conspiracy, scapegoating, catastrophe, and legalism. Chip Berlet dubs this as Right Wing Populism, and the group follows from long “multigenerational” tradition in this system of elitism and survival of the spiritually fittest. (To fully understand the ugliness beneath the kitsch of the group's odd terminology, consider devoting time to reading this material.)

I believe that the second influence which drives the group to extremes to overcompensate for problems that arise from concerns like fatherlessness that we see in the film, they turn to formulas to guard against their own unresolved personal pain under the guise of protecting their families. (We see this in the resolution and church ceremonies followed by the band of Sheriff brothers in the film.) When parents raise children without appropriately respecting their naivete and the limitations of their age, they tend to raise those children to become adults who are uncomfortable with imperfection and immaturity in themselves. As adults, they then work to drive imperfection out of their children or at least guard against experiences that they find painful through formulaic solutions (e.g., the Resolution and the father-daughter ring ritual). In real life, these formulaic practices tend to degrade into extremes of legalism which compete with balanced Christian living over time. As Vyckie Garrison notes, because the father-centered ideology redefines balance as sinful mediocrity and compromise to be resisted at all costs under most all circumstances, her family “did NOT want to be balanced.” This is a core symptom of dysfunction found in families affected by addiction, a pattern of behavior that Vision Forum teaches as God's ordained plan for godly living.

These adults have difficulty with the routine experience and expression of mature, adult behavior, understanding balance as lack of passion or lack of life because the chaos and drama in their family of origin raises the bar on the level of stimulation they need. . .

The over-mature and controlling adult children of dysfunctional homes tend to erect walls as boundaries in relationships, and the relationships that they do foster tend to be very non-spontaneous. They've never been allowed to embrace their immaturity, and that is how they perceive appropriate playful behavior in adulthood.  I believe that these individuals tend to gravitate towards legalistic religions and fringe Christianity, believing that their extremes demonstrate greater faith.  Plain, old mainstream religion just doesn't seem like quite enough for them.  They don't want to follow "dead Christianity," so they choose extreme versions of it.

In many of these individuals who continue to suffer as adults from the unhealed wounds and the dysfunctional patterns from their own family of origin, the drama and the extremes and the ritual replace true intimacy. Those affected mistake the drama for intimacy because it helps them feel alive. They are generally so overwhelmed with shame and suffer with feelings of low worth and lack of love for themselves and in themselves, that love is about little more than duty and deadness. They distract themselves from the sense of numbness by controlling and dominating others, though in the film, we only see the ideal of the virtuous intent. One need only to read about the painful and often devastating consequences on but a few spiritual abuse survivor blogs to learn about the risks and some of the more unfortunate outcomes that result, despite the best of intentions.

Courageous is, at best, a string of moralistic vignettes that are poorly knit together. Not all will understand the subtle messages about homeschooling's aberrant patriarchy movement embedded in the film, and they will hopefully not fall prey to the deception that others practice I'm concerned that it will become a gateway into groups like Vision Forum, especially considering its early popular appeal among many Christian groups. To those who see it as a film that glorifies father-centered, “family integrated,” “multigenerational faithfulness,” all terms that mean something very different from their deceptive pleasant sound, it is a documentary of their priestcraft.

In closing have to include these two noteworthy comments from my husband:
All in all, the acting wasn't that bad, considering the precious little the actors had to work with.”

Some days I swear that they're Roman Catholic. Some days I swear that they're Muslim. And some days, I just swear.”

Referenced comment starts at about 2 minutes into the clip: