In a small East Texas community “with a church on every corner,” 10 churches were burned. One church showed the Christian film “Fireproof” one night and showed that it was far from fireproof itself the next day.
This is a documentary about the impact on the community and also about the investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of two young men who could barely explain why they did it. But the real themes of the film go beyond a crime procedural. This is the story of a culture that allows young people to get lost and the failure of religious institutions to reach them. And it is also the story of great resilience, compassion, and forgiveness. The most powerful scene in the film is at the sentencing proceeding, where one of the clergyman uses his time on the stand not to tell the judge about what he and his congregation had suffered but to speak from the heart, asking the boys who burned down his church for their forgiveness and assuring them that they had his.
“Getting slapped in the face by your hypocrisy hurts like hell,” one minister says somberly. He has reason to welcome this dose of humility. The young men who torched the churches belonged to his congregation. But of course the problem is that they did not feel they belonged anywhere. The film’s sympathetic portrayal of the believers is undercut in the final image by a quote from the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti: “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”
If this was a feature film, we would have the satisfaction of some sort of cathartic breakthrough explaining what happened. But real life is messy and often unsatisfying. “I’ve been here [in prison] for three years and still don’t know the motive,” one of the arsonists says. Have they learned anything? “When you fight with God, you’re just going to lose.”
Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and a sad parental death.
Family discussion: What kind of punishment is appropriate here? If you disagree with what the judge ordered, why? Why do you think the boys burned the churches?
If you like this, try: “At the Death House Door” and “Into the Abyss”