Sherwood’s Best Yet…With Qualifications

Unless you’ve been hiding under an entertainment rock for the past three years or so, you’ve no doubt heard about the phenomenal success of Sherwood Pictures, the filmmaking ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. They’ve produced three conservative Christian fan favorites, Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), and Fireproof (2008). With armies of volunteers and businesses donating free services, Sherwood Pictures manages to keep their production budgets low, which makes even poor box office performance (by Hollywood standards) a downright success. At the same time, avoiding outside investors prevents said investors from meddling with the theological and cultural messages they want to impart. Their fourth feature-length film, Courageous, released a couple of weeks ago and looks to be on pace with its predecessor, Fireproof, even though it is a better film on every level.

Unlike their previous three films, co-writers/brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick broaden their narrative to focus on five families, four husbands of which are law enforcement officers with the Albany police. Adam (played by co-writer, director, and producer Alex), Nathan (Ken Bevel of Fireproof), Shane (Kevin Downes), and David (Ben Davies) are policemen with varying levels of experience and various levels of family dysfunction. David has an illegitimate daughter with whom he has never had a relationship…he left her mother before she was born. Shane is divorced and up to his neck in alimony. Adam is distant from his children–he won’t run with his son or dance with his daughter–as his work keeps him busy and tires him out. Nathan is the moral and spiritual backbone of the group and his family, a responsibility he embraces because he knows the pain of growing up with an absentee father. The fifth family is the Martinez family, headed by Javier (Robert Amaya), a down-on-his-luck construction worker who, by luck or divine providence, lands a job working for Adam who eventually finds him a job at the local string factory.

Tragedy strikes the group when Adam’s daughter Emily (Lauren Etchells) is killed in a car accident with a drunk driver. Adam, his wife Victoria (Renee Jewell), and son Dylan (Rusty Martin) enter a downward spiral of grief and confusion. Adam visits his pastor for counseling and receives some helpful advice. The pastor tells him he can either be thankful for the time he had with Emily or angry for the time he no longer has with her. When the pastor asks Adam what he wants, he tells him that he wants to be a better husband and father and to help his wife and son heal. Adam enters into a six-week study period where he turns to Scripture to find inspiration to be a better husband and father. As a result, he crafts a resolution that states as much. Adam presents it to David, Shane, Nathan, and Javier, all of whom agree to sign it and hold each other accountable to its standards. When Nathan shows it to his wife Kayla (Eleanor Brown), she tells him that they need to make it official…that something like this requires a ceremony. So the four men dress up and participate in a ceremony in which they each recite the vows in The Resolution before God, their families, and each other.

Sherwood Pictures' latest release is more action-packed than their previous films. Adam (Alex Kendrick) in the climactic shoot out.

Of course, trials and tests face each of them throughout the second half of the film. David takes the steps to reconnect with his daughter and her mother. Nathan works to “protect” his teenage daughter from the advances of an unwelcome suitor (who we know to be a member of a gang that the Albany Police are tracking). Javier is offered a promotion at work but is asked to lie on a shipping report in order to get it.  Adam still grieves the loss of his daughter while also working to establish a stronger relationship with his son. Of the four friends, Shane fails to live up to his side of the bargain as Adam catches him engaging in some unethical dealings at work. After a climactic shoot out scene in which Adam, David, and Nathan capture the two leaders of the gang as well as the young man who wanted to date Nathan’s daughter, the film ends with Adam standing before a large congregation preaching about their Resolution and challenging the men in the church to take a stand and be better fathers and husbands.

In its third week of release, Courageous has already earned just over $21 million. This represents a sizeable audience and, against a $2 million production budget, a decent return on their investment. The production budget was money well spent because Courageous is Sherwood Pictures’ most technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing film thus far. Its cinematography is on par with many larger Hollywood productions, and it even contains a few truly inspired action and dramatic sequences. On the whole, the acting is solid and the performances and dialogue feel far less stiff or forced than those of their predecessors. Unlike previous Sherwood productions, Courageous has several genuinely funny moments that provide welcome relief from what is, at heart, a genuinely emotional, and at times depressing, film. All of this makes the critical backlash to the film all the more surprising.

To “attack” the film for preaching to the choir or being too heavy-handed is to blatantly miss the filmmakers’ intentions. Like Fireproof, Sherwood Pictures knows that it has a tool for both evangelism and discipleship on its hands. Adam’s closing line, “Where are you men of courage?!,” is addressed to both the congregation in the film and the audience in the theaters. Reports are circling around the internet of men standing up at the end of the film as a way to respond to this cinematic challenge. Churches have embraced the ministry resources published alongside the film and started small groups around the film.

Adam (Alex Kendrick) challenges the men of his church to be courageous leaders.

The on-screen theology of Courageous is a bit more complex as the filmmakers present it in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The characters here are far more sympathetic than the leads in Flywheel, Facing the Giants, or Fireproof. While their Christian faith is important to their lives, they do not seem to expect God to do everything for them. They take initiative in their lives. Javier may pray to God for help in finding a job, but that does not stop him from pounding the pavement in search of one. Adam cries out to God in anguish over the death of his daughter, but he also searches scripture for inspiration to be a better husband and father in order to help Victoria and Dylan heal. These are characters who put their faith in action rather than passively waiting for God to solve everything.

Far less subtle is the moment of salvation scene that has become a fixture of sorts in Sherwood Pictures’ films. It is a clearer message here than in Fireproof, but, unfortunately, because of that clarity feels much more forced in the process. In a scene that could have been left out without damaging the plot or narrative, Nathan and David are at a shooting range. Apropos of nothing, David expresses his skepticism of Nathan and Adam’s faith. This opens up the opportunity for Nathan (and by extension the Kendrick brothers and Sherwood Baptist Church) to share a gospel message. When David says something to the effect of his good “acts” outweigh his bad, Nathan pounces on the opportunity and uses it as an entryway to talk about God being a good and perfect judge. He presents a hypothetical scenario in which David’s mother is brutally attacked. The attacker is put on trial, and the judge lets him go because the good in his life outweighs the bad. David agrees that this would not be a good judge. Nathan tells him that God does not operate that way…that God punishes evildoers. Fortunately, Jesus died to take away that punishment and bear that burden. The scene transitions before we see David make a profession of faith, although he does tell Nathan that he understands what he is telling him. As the film progresses, David begins to reconnect with his daughter and her mother. The (un)intended implication here, however, is that there can be no good, ethical, or moral behavior apart from a specifically Christian context of salvation and substitutionary atonement.

Nathan (Ken Bevel) tells David (Ben Davies) about his relationship with Jesus.

A religious/theological highlight of Courageous is the scene in which Adam visits his pastor for counseling after the death of his daughter. Pastor Hunt (Ed Litton) provides some welcome Christian advice, certainly the least offensive in nearly all of Christian cinema. Pastor Hunt gives Adam space to grieve and refuses to gloss over the tragedy of Emily’s death by chalking it up to God’s will or by promising that God would work something good out of her death. He does, however, claim that this loss might open up a closer relationship to God because Adam, and his family, would need to rely on God for comfort and healing more than they ever had to before. Though Pastor Hunt says that Adam can either be thankful for time spent with Emily or angry about time lost, he does not imply that Adam does not have a right to be angry. It seems, rather, that he does not want Adam to become mired in anger which could begin to harm the remaining relationships with his wife and son. That divorce is rampant in contemporary American society is undeniable. That couples who lose children often divorce is also not surprising. As a result, Courageous’ representation of a couple who “toughs it out” is a welcome vision of healing in the midst of loss and grief and the ability of love and faith to guide them through that.

However, Sherwood might be leaning too heavily on its insistence that families must have a father present. The police chief sites statistics about fatherless homes contributing to teens turning to a life of crime, Nathan repeatedly says that the absence of his father scarred him in so many ways he cannot number them, and David fears that his absence from his daughter’s life will do irreparable harm to her. There can be no doubt that single-parent homes are difficult on both the child and the parent. Increasingly, two-parent homes are far less ideal as both parents must work to support the family, leaving the children in the care of, hopefully, loving relatives or competent childcare givers. The insistence on fathers, or gender diverse parents, skews research that simply claims that children benefit from two parents, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, their intense focus on fathers and fatherhood promotes a patriarchal system that has long been a point of contention for more moderate to liberal Christians. Adam et al’s resolution insists that men stand up and take their rightful place as head (spiritual, financial,e tc.) of their household. There is no room for a stay-at-home dad here, at least as far as Courageous portrays it. There is no sense that the women in the film have lives outside of the home either. While we do see a woman in the police force, the wives of the three main characters seem to exist solely for the sake of their husband, children, and  the domestic space.

Finally, it is worth noting that a key absence in the film again signals Sherwood’s commitment to family values. With three loving, seemingly happy married couples at the center of the film, at no point do any of them make intimate physical contact beyond hugging one another. When Emily dies, Adam and Victoria briefly embrace each other. Nathan and Kayla barely ever touch each other. When Javier returns form his surprise job working for Adam, Carmen tells him that she could kiss him but that he is too hot and sweaty. When Javier leaves in the morning for his new job at the string factory, he tells Carmen that he could kiss her but her breath smells too bad. This allows the filmmakers to imply physical contact between actors who are not married to one another in real life without actually having them forsake their real-world vows. Of course, this all is a continuation of the silhouetted kiss scene between Kirk Cameron and his real-world wife in Fireproof which swings the pendulum from the offensive to the unreal.

Thinking back Courageous and looking back on these reactions to it, I don’t see them as criticisms as much as points of conversation. I enjoyed this film far more than their previous releases. Should Sherwood Pictures ever figure out how to do without or more subtly integrate the “moment of salvation” scenes into their films then they will go much further towards appealing to a broader audience. I close here with a comment from Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay, who saw the film with me. He brings up a spot-on point about both the film and Sherwood Pictures’ desire to counter Hollywood with films of their own. He writes:

Watching this film, I can see with more clarity the claim that Hollywood does not reflect the values of a large segment of the American population. The kind of characters and actors in this film would never be in Hollywood films. They look like normal people. People pray all the time in real life. They go to church. They struggle over personal morality. Hollywood rarely depicts any of this. When they do, it’s always the stereotype of the hypocritical religious leader or mindless followers. It strikes me that to some extent Hollywood claims to reflect America, and in some ways claims to “invent” America. To the extent that they ignore white, or even more diverse, Red Staters that go to church, it fails to reflect real life in America. What Sherwood is doing in making this kind of independent film is the same thing small-time gay, or ethnic, or women filmmakers have been trying to do in countering the dominant narrative that Hollywood creates. The difference, I would think, is that Sherwood probably sees themselves as the “real” America, rather than one perspective among many, which is what they really are. They are really a kind of ethnic cinema.

Courageous (129 minutes–about 15 to many) is rated PG-13 for violence and drug content and is in wide theatrical release.