I didn’t want to. I thought I would just have a couple of issues with it I could point out to my film classes, like I do with Facing the Giants. You know, it needs some screenwriting and acting help, but hooray for a church making a movie and hooray for promoting revival.
Then I watched a trailer and got really skeptical. But a colleague said, “Some non-Christian neighbors of ours saw the movie and they’ve been asking us questions about our faith, so maybe it’s doing some good.” And I felt convicted, because who am I to stand in the way of anyone being reached by the Gospel?
So last night I watched God’s Not Dead and I didn’t like it. But I got convicted again and thought maybe I was too biased. After all, I’m a Christian academic and a Christian filmmaker. Maybe I’m a snob.
Then I realized that this was one of the problems, and one main reason I can and will clearly state the following: I hated God’s Not Dead.
I don’t just dislike or have a couple of issues with the film. I’m pulling out what I consider a four-letter-word: Hate. I hated it. And here’s why:
- All of the non-Christian or non-converts in the film are villains.
All of them. All of the speaking characters are either professing Christians already, make a profession of “born again-ness” or remain not just antagonists, but villains. The most sympathetic non-Christian is the Muslim dad who throws his daughter (a Christian convert) out of the house and is in tears about it. At least he is portrayed as human enough to be broken up about what his non-Christian religious convictions cause him to do.
The most pointed example of this is the death of the professor character (Professor Radisson) played by Kevin Sorbo (you know, TV’s Hercules?). He’s not just an atheist academic, he’s a man with serious psychological problems and no professional boundaries. And he converts to Christianity after being hit by a car and right before his death.
There are two problems with this plot point. The first is that the “good” Christians get rid of an antagonist in a guilt-free way. This is the narrative equivalent of colonialist Christians baptizing native babies then bashing their heads against rocks. We don’t want you around. But we need to be okay with getting rid of you. So we’ll make sure you’re saved first, then have you die. The second is weak, weak, weak screenwriting. If the only real motivation for someone to convert to Christianity is his impending death, we’ve not preached the Gospel well (nor let the Holy Spirit do the good work of conviction well). This screenwriting device only serves to heighten emotional stakes, but like the rest of the film (except for the subplot of the Islamic family, which if developed and better directed would be a powerful story) it doesn’t earn the emotion, it just globs it on with slow dramatic zooms and heavy soundtracking, the same way Paula Dean globs on butter and oil on pasta.
- The film’s definition of Christian is cultural, and far too narrow.
The main plot revolves around a Christian in a philosophy classroom. Because that’s never happened before? Also, all the Christians in the film are the same brand of born again evangelicals, culturally stamped by the presence of Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty. I’m a Christian and that guy doesn’t represent my faith. Where was the Episcopalian in that classroom? The Catholic? The non-mainline Wesleyan (that’s me). The high church has by and large been better than mainline Christianity at engaging with both academia and art. But the presence of anyone who was Christian and already academically engaged would have negated the plot. Which means the plot was weak and the demographic depictions too one-sided.
- The polarizing vilification of academia.
The film polarizes Christianity. In this corner, smart people who teach at colleges but are verbally abusive. And in this corner, young people who are full of emotional conviction and earnestness.
You can learn a lot about a movie’s intended messages by studying the protagonist and antagonist of the story. God’s Not Dead’s protagonist is Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) an earnest, bright, young white man (note: the hero is a young white male. Now read any of the writing going on about Ferguson, and the debate this country has been having for centuries about the white, male, and, sadly yes, Christian establishment). But stereotypical hero aside, he’s a nice guy. (Also note, the student wins the day, not the prof. Where are all the Christians who lambasted Harry Potter because “kids” defied all the authority figures? Once again, the prof/authority figure had to be vilified in order to justify his student defying him. What if he hadn’t been a mean, angry, emotionally manipulative man? What if he had just been a really good logician who was an atheist? Would it still be okay for the student to “outsmart” him or go against his authority?)
The antagonist is a white male too. He’s a philosophy prof who makes students sign an agreement on the first day of class that God is dead. When Josh doesn’t sign it, he’s suddenly assigned a lecture series and teaches the rest of the class (which doesn’t make sense at all; was there no other topic in the syllabus?). Professor Radisson can’t just be an atheist. He has to also demean and verbally abuse his Christian girlfriend. Oh, and all his colleagues, who come over for the dinner where he verbally abuses his girlfriend, apparently agree with him. Because everyone in academia thinks the same thing? Hang around some department offices or visit a committee meeting for ten seconds and you’ll realize that’s not the case. The academy actually encourages people to disagree and discuss why, since that’s how we learn.
And believe it or not, people can disagree and still love each other. I know mainline Christianity doesn’t want to hear that, but it’s actually true. Christians have had diverse opinions for years. And it didn’t stop them from loving each other or serving together. (Pretty sure the apostle Paul talked about this. Remember 1 Corinthians 12 and the parts of the body? Unity in diversity? Paul also talked about the problem of dissention, which is not the same as being different. I’ve always though if I were a part of the body of Christ I was probably the armpit. Actually, one would think artists and filmmakers should be the eyes. If that’s the case, it makes me think about specks and planks…)
Back to the prof as villain: Let’s concede there are some antagonistic profs. I’ve had some. I’ve even been the antagonistic prof. (I’m kind of doing it now, right?) And since the film takes the time to roll in the end credits a list of pending or closed cases where students wanted first amendment rights in order to profess their faith in the classroom, I’ll even grant that there are classrooms where that might happen. But the script smacks of coloring up the hard-nosed atheist academic to make him look like a “bad guy.”
No academic I know, or have had, as antagonistic or differently viewed from me as they may have been, would ask me to give up my faith in God. I can’t say it happens in all cases, but I would wager the vast majority of philosophy classrooms are about teaching logic, not teaching dogma.
I had a tough philosophy prof in college. I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral and missed the first class. I contacted her but she didn’t reply. Since I missed the first class I had to borrow and copy a syllabus from a classmate, and I failed the first paper since I didn’t have the assignment rubric. She made me question a lot of things. But when we were talking about evidence for the supernatural, she looked around the classroom and said, “How do you know God exists?” No one answered. “Come on,” she said, “You’re at a Catholic college! Where’s your St. Augustine? Where’s your Thomas Aquinas? Those are your boys.” And I was pretty humbled by that. I was a Christian, but I didn’t know my faith as well as I should have.
Philosophy classrooms, as I understand them, and liberal arts classrooms in general, are about critical inquiry. We’re not there to teach people what to think, but how to think better. What I learned in Intro to Philosophy was not whether or not God existed, but the rules of logic. Those rules brought me to a conclusion. And the conclusion I came to is much stronger than the film’s.
I don’t want there to be “proof” of God’s existence. It is impossible to prove God exists. But, it is also impossible to prove God does not exist. Therefore, my relationship with the Divine is predicated on, you guessed it, faith. The film tries to get there, but it mixes up a rhetorical debate with an emotionally charged story, which weakens any argument it was trying to make. Especially since this prof is a singularly bad prof and bad person. And where was his department chair, by the way? Why didn’t someone take this prof aside and say, “Your agenda is getting in the way of learning outcomes here. And you can’t personally threaten students.” This is the most unprofessional professor I’ve ever seen depicted on screen, and knowing how Hollywood treats academics (The Nutty Professor anyone?), that’s saying something.
The bad smart people idea is typified by the prof’s girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver) visting subplotted pastor Reverend Dave (David A. R. White). She describes Professor Radisson’s belittling (and gender profiling, but never mind). “Let me guess,” the pastor says, ”He’s really smart.” Uh oh. Can’t be a Christian then, I guess.
American culture has become increasingly polarized, and Christianity has succumbed to it. I felt guilty for not liking this movie, even though it negates what I try to do every day, which is teach students that Christ is a perspective for learning (for reason, even), and that filmmaking is an art. I no longer feel guilty. Not one bit. Not liking this movie does not make me less Christian. God’s Not Dead is the movie I wanted to make when I was twenty years old, full of religious ardor and a need for dramatic emotional intensity. But I took a philosophy class, a real one. And I got a film degree, so I learned about how to tell better stories. While I admire Christians trying make films people want to watch, that often means they pander, preaching to the choir and riding on emotionally manipulative storytelling (and, apparently, former TV stars). The ends do not justify the means. Christ could use a message on a Coke bottle to further His kingdom if he so chose. It doesn’t give us an excuse to be poor storytellers. We serve an excellent God. We should be making excellent art, worthy of the gifts God has given us. Christians own the greatest story ever told, and this is what “we” come up with?
I know this movie was a valid Christian experience for a lot of people. And God bless that. But for a Christian film prof, it flew in the face of everything I’m trying to do: call people to not just conversion, but holiness. Help Christians engage in critical inquiry, speaking the truth in love. Make Christian art that is more that pop culture product, but expresses the power of redemption by using the power of the medium in sophisticated and engaging ways. Don’t just redeem the story; redeem the storytelling.
I’ve heard the movie Calvary is really well done. I’m looking forward to that.