Courageous (2011)

(2011) is the latest film from Sherwood Pictures, the film outreach founded and operated by Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. In case you haven't heard of Sherwood, these are the folks who brought you Facing the Giants (2006) and Fireproof (2008). Like the other films by Sherwood, Courageous uses a personal crisis (in this case the death of a child) to demonstrate man's need for God and showcase how conversion to Christ can change a person's life and circumstances. The Christian element is very overt; the films usually feature a soothing Christian friend telling the troubled protagonist, "Son, what you need is Jesus Christ" in a southern accent. There is always a a "born again" experience followed by an immediate positive change in circumstances. So, yes, Courageous follows that same stock story that made Facing the Giants and Fireproof so successful.

In Courageous, officer Adam Mitchell (played by director Alex Kendrick) is a lukewarm Christian with a troubled relationship with his children. When his 9 year old daughter is killed unexpectedly, the sudden tragedy forces him to reevaluate his role as a father and, with a renewed commitment to God, attempt to strengthen his ties with his surviving teenage son. In the process, other friends on the sheriff department recommit themselves to the Christian ideals of fatherhood. Relationships are healed, families are strengthened, and officer Mitchell becomes a model father by the help of God's grace.

It is actually a wonderful story; if the theme of Fireproof was the importance of strong, godly marriages, the theme of Courageous is the critical importance of godly, responsible fathers. All throughout the film the blessings that come from fatherhood are extolled alongside of depictions of the disorders that can arise when fathers are absent from their families. In being such an unabashedly pro-father movie, this film is really a gem. Very few films emphasize the importance of fathers in such a fundamental way. The theme is worked in skillfully by the director's choice of casting the protagonists as police officers, thus giving a demonstrable and believable context for them to encounter all sorts of criminal and deviant behavior due that arise from fatherless households. Undoubtedly, this is an extremely important message and I give kudos to the director for choosing fatherhood as a theme.

Of course, like the other films by Sherwood, the form of Christianity espoused is decidedly Protestant in character - although in Courageous we at least have the presence of a character who is culturally Catholic in the person of Xavier, the humble Hispanic day laborer; I think we even see a crucifix on his wall once. But don't get excited; there are no overt references to Catholicism and by the end of the film Xavier is attending the Protestant non-denominational church.

The film takes an extremely personalistic approach to Christianity. Like the other Sherwood films, there is a point where a protagonist must formally and explicitly accept Jesus Christ as His personal Lord and Savior. This is usually preceded by a one minute summary of the Gospel, phrased in terms of Lutheran penal substitution. Then, miraculously, after the conversion, the temporal circumstances of the protagonist start to fall into place.

Now, I don't deny that the Gospel is the fundamental agent of change in a person's life, or that one's physical circumstances can become better as a result of practicing the Faith. But these films tend to rely so much on this structure that it seems to be sending the message that if your temporal circumstances are bad, come to Christ and your physical lot in life will improve. God will miraculously provide you with a new vehicle if you need one (Facing the Giants), your aged father will suddenly get an anonymous donor to fund his medical needs in their entirety (Fireproof), or you will miraculously find work in an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence (Courageous). The theology of the films leaves no place for the concept of suffering, much less any redemptive of ascetic value in it. In Sherwood Films, suffering or unpleasant temporal circumstances are obstacles that we must wait in faith for God to remove, rather than lessons in which we seek God's will. And the one-minute synopsis of the Gospel seems to make substance of the Faith nothing more than a few talking points.

The notion of conversion is also crassly individualistic. This is not surprising, coming from a Protestant source, but in Courageous they went so far as to change the words of the Bible to get the message across. In the oath of fatherhood that the main character Adam Mitchell swears, it paraphrases Scriptures as says, "As a husband, I will love my wife, even as Christ loved me." Of course, he is citing Ephesians 5:25, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church." The word "Church" is replaced with the word "me" to emphasize the extraordinarily individualistic concept of salvation. The salvation is always very cut and dry as well; a troubled antagonist makes a verbal profession of belief in Jesus and immediately he is counted as a believer - without any preparatory instruction, without the baptism, without any concept of mystagogy. In other words, the film gives short shrift to the whole traditional concept of conversion, replacing it with a kind of split-second decision made in isolation from any larger Christian community.

I am drifting pretty far afield, critiquing Protestantism as such instead of the film. Despite these deficiencies, I thought the film was quite good. The message was spot on, and the acting was much better than in earlier Sherwood films; in fact, I'd say out of all the films Sherwood has put out since its 2003 debut Fly Wheel, this was the best. It was dramatic, touching, humorous at parts, and had a message vitally important for our day. As long as you know what you are getting into when you watch it, it is a very uplifting film. I would give it 3 tiaras, but mark it down only because of its stock reliance on miraculous events to get people out of their temporal problems and hyper-individualistic approach to conversion. Two and a half tiaras.