If you grew up in the conservative evangelical world in the 1990s, you were probably aware of the popular book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris. It was the go-to book about Christian courtship, a system that decried the evils of secular dating and proposed finding a mate for marriage through an older, more familial system. Since then, the dating culture has been subsumed in America by the hookup culture, where a sexual encounter may even precede a first date and long-term romantic intentions are waning. The concept and perception of marriage is ever-shifting in our culture, with every person seeming to have their own definition or principles regarding marital fidelity and romance. This is what makes Amy Kohn’s documentary A Courtship so fascinating as it follows a particular family and their deep devotion to Christian courtship.
A Courtship follows Kelly as she seeks a husband through Christian courtship. Or rather, doesn’t seek a man–courtship requires the woman to wait upon God to bring a potential husband to her, vetted by her parents as she lives under their authority. The thing is, Kelly is 33 years old, and her biological parents don’t buy into the courtship practice. So Kelly lives with the Wright family as her spiritual parents, who serve as Kelly’s chaperones and first point of contact for any potential suitor. In this particular situation, it feels a bit like Christian arranged marriage; the spiritual father finds a potential husband and screens him for the young woman.
A Courtship is about as objective as you can get about these things. The film doesn’t poke fun at Kelly or the Wrights or condemn their worldview and belief system. It also doesn’t attempt to convert viewers to embrace courtship, though I imagine the Wrights would hope this to be an outcome. It simply shows us these people: their lives, their habits, their words, their beliefs, their desires. Kohn’s approach is minimalistic, allowing the Wrights and Kelly to just be themselves and go about their business. The Wrights are raising her their daughters with the courtship model. They also practice homeschooling with Christian curriculum and are part of a small house church with like-minded Christians. In so many ways, they’re just a regular suburban family, doing their best to live how they believe God wants them to live. The film is less an evaluation and examination of Christian courtship and more of an intimate look at a few people’s lives and choices.
Kelly has numerous moments of deep emotion throughout the film, as this process clearly means something to her. At the film’s beginning, she’s spent seven years with the Wrights as a single woman, a long time for anyone to wait around for Mr. Right to be vetted by Mr. Wright. She’s placed her entire hope in God bringing her a husband through courtship. She just wants to be a good wife and mother, a “helpmate” who submits to her husband’s authority. As one character states it, “She’s banked everything on this.” So, what if it doesn’t work? What if this isn’t the best way she could meet a husband? What if there are different–even better–forms of marital romance and gender roles in Christianity? For all of her attempts to avoid the heartbreak and emotional turmoil of dating, courtship appears to be just as full of ups and downs. She goes through both euphoria and heartache. Maybe it’s because any attempts at romantic love requires personal risk, letting down your guard in order for another person to genuinely experience the real you as you seek to know them. Kelly and the Wrights often speak of “guarding your heart,” an allusion to Proverbs 4:23. They seem to take it as trying to keep themselves safe and protected, both from personal pain and from the impurities of the world around them. Yet Christian spirituality never invites us to mask or avoid our suffering, but to experience Christ’s healing presence in the midst of our personal trials. I wonder how much of the Christian courtship practice is a reaction to past wounds in Kelly and the Wrights, a numbing bandage that will (hopefully) take away all the pain from having a broken heart. We can’t shelter ourselves from pain and suffering in this world, not even in our romantic pursuits. But we can find comfort with the compassionate God who entered into our world to suffer with and for us.
Check out the film’s website for more details and where to find it screening next.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4191350/