I’m not shocked that I didn’t enjoy the movie “God’s Not Dead.” I’m used to being underwhelmed by products of Christian pop culture and tend to avoid Christian movies altogether. But while “God’s Not Dead” has been largely ignored or dismissed by the wider culture, it has been celebrated in evangelical circles and is the subject of much ecstatic buzz on the occasion of its DVD release. So this weekend I dutifully watched it and was deeply disappointed, if not surprised.
“God’s Not Dead” is a strange and contrived story about a Christian college Freshman who stands up to a bullying atheist Philosophy professor. A series of clumsily related storylines converge, and this young man’s crusade to prove the existence of God brings several lost characters together at a climactic Newsboys concert (yes). Much has been said about the film’s cartoonish portrayal of a villainous atheist straw man, so I’ll focus on five other major problems I had with “God’s Not Dead.”
1. It’s Deeply Confused
As the title indicates, the movie features a dramatized philosophical debate about theism (the question of God’s existence). But then, suddenly and without explanation, it’s about accepting Jesus who says “if you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father” (Matt 10:33). And then, in a flash, it’s preoccupied with evolution. Now, I think I understand the assumptions being made by the evangelical filmmakers in connecting these three distinct questions, but the screenplay simply conflates them with no explanation. It must be dreadfully confusing for outsiders, the very people it is eager to reach.
The verse from Matthew (the only Bible verse quoted in the whole movie, if I’m not mistaken) is a statement from Jesus concerning Israel’s failure to recognize him as Messiah. It has nothing to do with theism or denying the existence of God. In fact, it assumes God’s existence and identity as “Father.” Jesus is speaking to fellow God believers (Jews), not atheist professors. Then, late in the movie, after the protagonist’s heroic deconstruction of evolution, a fellow student announces that he is “ready to follow Jesus!” These bizarre non-sequiturs betray the flawed presuppositions upon which the story is built.
2. It’s Profoundly Dishonest
“God’s Not Dead” has much deeper issues than its convoluted themes. It is also brazenly dishonest in its portrayal of, well, everybody. Every Christian in the movie is a happy, stable hero who has his or her affairs well in order. Every non-believer is a miserable failure or a hate-filled monster. This, more than any of the its other flaws, is why I’m so disheartened to see Christians embracing and celebrating this movie.
Christian characters succeed in this movie because they are Christians. Not even because they understand and embody the character and love of God revealed in Jesus, but simply because they have prayed a magic prayer and are on the correct team. Likewise, non-believers are bitter, angry and lost, suffering through life because the God they refuse to acknowledge is withholding his blessing from them. In the final act, the movie stops short of promising that belief in God can cure cancer, but they come perilously close.
We all know too many broken, unhappy people (and too many wise ones) from all walks of life to fall for this movie’s self-serving lie. The ethos of the Christian God is selfless love and reconciliation in spite of human failure, but this movie seems more interested in winning a modern day culture war. Good guys wear white hats, bad guys wear black.
3. It’s Both Pseudo-Intellectual and Anti-Intellectual
Like many evangelical apologetic exercises, “God’s Not Dead” wants to be taken seriously for its own intellectual engagement while mocking and denigrating its opponents for thinking themselves “too smart for God.” The movie’s hero Josh Wheaton rises to the challenge of atheist Professor Radisson and constructs complex arguments for theism using quotes from figures like Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin (we get the sense that the screenwriters spent some late nights on apologetics websites). Elsewhere, Radisson and his academic colleagues openly mock and antagonize anyone they find less than erudite. It’s OK to be smart, but learn too much and you become one of the bad guys.
4. It’s Oddly Myopic
So maybe I’m not the target audience for a movie like this, but then again that’s sort of a major problem. The premise of this movie is that every human being on earth has a choice to make: to believe in God or not. The story it tells should be as meaningful and compelling and relatable as possible to the largest possible audience of humans. But the world of “God’s Not Dead” is a tiny one, wherein the brotherhood of humankind is represented by suburban Americans and a few stereotypical foreigners, and God is represented by a sub-sub-subculture of American Evangelicalism. I’m sure the writers and producers imagined that their movie would have a global impact, but their view of the world is weirdly small.
According to this movie, what do you get when you acknowledge God and “give your life to Jesus”? A Newsboys concert. With a special appearance by the guy from Duck Dynasty. What, that doesn’t sound appealing? Sorry, it’s all we’ve got. Maybe God just needs to open your eyes a little more! “God’s Not Dead” isn’t selling God or Jesus or even Christian values, it’s selling itself – American Evangelical entertainment. It’s about our team winning and dominating the culture. But even with the full toolkit of cinematic fantasy, they couldn’t imagine anything beyond what they’re already doing.
5. It’s Not a Very Good Movie
This is a low budget religious movie, so I’ll cut them slack when it comes to acting and technical accomplishment. But even as a low budget movie about Christians versus atheists, it fails to be believable, relatable, or compelling. The end credits reveal the true agenda of the movie, as a long list of court cases precedes the cast and crew. These are cases of Christian clubs and organizations claiming persecution by their host colleges and universities. If all along this was a movie about systemic persecution and suppression of Christian viewpoints in places of higher learning, they chose a most curious and ineffective way of dramatizing it.
Professor Radisson is an evil opponent of God, to be sure, but as far as we can tell he is acting as a renegade, not as a representative of a corrupt system. What he does in this movie is so absurdly wrongheaded and unethical (forcing students to sign a declaration that “God is dead,” telling a non-compliant student “I’ll make it my mission to destroy you!”), even the ACLU would surely side against him.
In the real life conversation about theism, I am happy to affirm my belief that “God’s Not Dead.” Unlike the makers of the movie, however, I see this affirmation as an opportunity for dialogue, transformation and reconciliation, not supremacy, exclusion and insulation. An increasing number of Christians like myself think the real question that deserves our attention is not “does our God exist?” but “what is our God really like?” and “how does what we believe about our God affect how we live and interact with others?” In the world of “God’s Not Dead,” these questions are silly and off-point. This is not an exploration or examination of what Christians believe and why, it’s a litmus test for evangelical culture warriors. Are you in or out? I guess I’m out.