(Contains spoilers for both films)
Confession: I am not a fan of Courageous.
But before you strip me of my Christian-homeschooler-Southern Baptist-Pastor’s Kid-FIC badge of honor, allow me to explain.
I understand what the filmmakers were trying to do. I commend their desire to call men to embrace their duties in the home. The opening rescue scene was masterful: it was tight, and concise, it surprised, dropping your jaw at just the right moment, it convicted and inspired, making its point clear without overstating, which is more than I can say of the rest of the film.
The rest of the film dragged, screamed its themes lest we miss them and generally oozed the “preachiness” so many Christian films are unfortunately characterized by, driving away the broader cultural audience the filmmakers hoped to reach while simultaneously boring the audience who is most likely to support such films by “preaching to the choir.”
But worst of all was the absence, or minimization of grace.
Five men: Mitchell, Hayes, Fuller, Thomson, and Martinez sign a “resolution” to be better fathers and this did the trick for all but one of them. Apparently Deputy Fuller didn’t really mean it when he made the resolution because he wound up in jail for theft, leaving the other officers to shake their heads and say “see, that’s what happens when you don’t get with the program.”
Obviously, he wasn’t dedicated enough.
Sure, there was a verbal acknowledgment that it is only by God’s strength we can obey Him, but since viewers never see the men fail in their resolution and God work despite of and in fact, through their failures, the film leaves viewers with the overall impression that “success” in family life is based on your own performance and furthermore, that obedience guarantees success.
We have no such guarantee.
Sometimes children raised in a godly home rebel.
Sometimes children from fatherless homes prove to be great heroes such as Dr. Ben Carson.
Obedience to God ought to be done out of reverent fear, love of His law and gratitude for His mercy not a desire to earn His favor and manipulate results. Our obedience is always a response to God, not initiative (Romans 12:1), and yet the metamessage of Courageous is that men must initiate obedience toward God and then He will be pleased. Statistics have their place but they are not Gospel.
The character of Martinez was the closest of the five men to a portrait of grace-centered pursuit of godliness, of a falling down in repentance and dependence and rising up again in faith.
Too bad they didn’t make him the main character of the film.
In my opinion, The Incredibles does a far better job of articulating family values in the context of failure and forgiveness than Courageous does. In The Incredibles you see a dad fail miserably. In subtle selfish pursuit of his own dreams and discontentment with his present lifestyle, Bob Parr a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, subjects his family to move after move because he can’t keep his temper under control at work, he’s distant and passive at the family dinner table and he lies to his wife about “bowling night” with Lucius.
But then he’s offered the chance of a life-time: to be “Mr. Incredible” once more and relive the glory days of being a superhero. He knows his wife, protective of their family’s secret identity, would never approve so he lies about the long trips he takes, passing it off as a business trip.
For a time it seems he has found the joy and meaning in life he has been searching for all along and his family life even looks good on the surface but it is all a self-deceiving facade. Bob Parr is tampering with an affair and the mission he has so eagerly accepted turns out to be an elaborately designed plot to kill him. His wife’s discovery of his deceit through a homing device exposes him simultaneously with his discovery and exposing of the true nature of his dream job and Mr. Incredible is captured by an old enemy he didn’t know he had made, an enemy who was once an admiring fan he had pushed aside in his ambition and fierce independence.
His own selfishness exposed, Mr. Incredible must then face the deaths of his wife and children–a direct consequence of his own actions, only then realizing how precious they were and how much he had neglected and destroyed in his blindness and quest for self-glory.
But in a eucatastrophic turn of events, his family survives the plane crash into the ocean and is reunited with him. He knows that he does not deserve to have them back, that he doesn’t deserve their forgiveness nor their love but is given it anyway. This recognition of undeserved mercy is the soil for his repentance, repentance real and deep and lasting. The strong man realizes he isn’t strong enough to face evil on his own, that he needs his family and they need him, that it is only by dying to self and working together that they succeed and flourish as a family, finding at last true joy, purpose and identity.
Biblical fatherhood is based on humility not iron-will resolution–undeserved mercy not merit.
True Courage is not found in accepting a dare to be better and do better, True Courage is found in accepting your own weakness and recognizing that everything you receive you didn’t deserve.
The grace of God is bigger than statistics. The grace of God is bigger than your failures.
And that is why I think The Incredibles is closer to the gospel than Courageous.
Sadly and ironically, a secular movie from Hollywood proves a better film on fatherhood than one made by Christians. Instead of denying it, that should sober us.