God’s Not Dead (2014)

gods_not_dead_xlgBefore I dive deep into the unfortunate indie film, God’s Not Dead, allow me to disclose my own leanings. While I can objectively deconstruct and analyze a film, as I intend to with this one, allow me to state that I consider myself a Christian. I also happen to have several friends of different faiths including some who are atheists. We can civilly discuss our differences without having to demonize one another, finding merit in the different tracks people take to add value to their time on this Earth. Well somebody should have let God’s Not Dead know that the world isn’t so didactic, and the best way to reach people is not to loudly declare your own sense of superiority. This is such an angry little movie disguised with a misleading happy face.

Josh (Shane Harper) is a freshman assigned to Professor Radisson’s (Kevin Sorbo) introductory philosophy class. He’s been warned early on that the prof has a target for Christians in his class. Sure enough, on day one, Radisson offers his class a tempting offer: if they will turn in a slip admitting God is dead, then they will automatically get a good grade and the class will move on to other thinkers. Josh can’t do that, so Radisson challenges the coed to prove the existence of God over the course of three classes. Josh’s peers will serve as the jury of this theological trial.

gods-not-dead-618x400It should go without saying that God’s Not Dead feels like it exists in a world that doesn’t come close to resembling reality. That’s fine, movies don’t have to be a perfect reflection of our world, but when a film purports to be the reaction to the persecuted, it has to bend over backward to create its illusion of persecution. One of the big giveaways early on was the fact that all but one person in a full class would acquiesce to admitting, “God is dead” for a better grade, especially a school in the South (the film was filmed in Louisiana). The next giveaway was when Josh’s girlfriend threatens to break up with him if he goes through with challenging Radisson. Her thinking: if Josh gets a poor grade in one class his freshman year, he’ll never be able to go to law school, and their future plans will be kaput. Who thinks this way? Another giveaway was the representation of academia, namely the professors at the university, all of whom come across as snobby, self-satisfied, smug, and mean-spirited even to the point that they’re mocking their own colleague’s girlfriend to her face. People don’t behave like this. Then again this is more of a parable than a story, and more of a conversion exercise than a movie.

The genesis of this movie feels like it was spawned from a collection of e-mail forward bogeymen, in particular the notion of Christian persecution. For starters, a far majority of this country identifies as Christian, as do the politicians making and enforcing the laws. This is very much a Christian country, so why do certain people feel they are under attack? Even accepting the premise, the movie is rife with creaky subplots that don’t add weight to the film, only padding. There’s the Chinese student who wants to gravitate toward Christianity, whose father warns him to go with the flow lest they upset the Chinese government (COMMUNISM!). There’s the Muslim student forced to wear a headscarf and who secretly listens to Billy’s Graham’s son on her iPod, afraid of what her traditional father would do if he found out (MUSLIMS!). There’s a blogger that writes for “The New Left” who wants to ambush good Christian celebrities like the Newsboys and one of the bearded gents from Duck Dynasty (he looks eerily like my critical colleague, Ben Bailey) with her position of outrage (LIBERAL MEDIA!). In light of the controversy over the Duck Dynasty patriarch saying gays are on par with terrorists and black people were more cheerful in the Jim Crow days, it’s even more unusual. These additional storylines are grafted on with such witless care, belaboring the running time.

Radisson is the prime bogeyman, the smug, self-satisfied atheist intellectual (LIBERAL! COLLEGE! ATHEIST!). No college professor is EVER going to force his or her students to declare God dead in class. They would be disciplined severely and booted. Radisson can spout out a few famous names, but really the man resorts to bullying and intimidation, including physical threats against Josh. There’s no way a dean would allow this to stand. The classroom, and higher education in general, is meant to provoke discussion, especially for a philosophy class. The notion that a philosophy professor would think only in reductive right/wrong terms is idiotic. The entire idea of college as this liberal brain-washing ground that infringes upon the freedoms of Christians, a feeling cataloged in the end credits with reported legal cases, falls apart when you understand that college is about the exchanging of ideas. A Christian viewpoint is but one viewpoint, and within that group the variances are many. Simply being exposed to differing views, texts, and people is not cause for alarm, unless, of course, the person is too insecure in their own faith. The anti-intellectualism argument seems to believe that the more knowledge one is exposed to, the more choices they have, the less trustworthy they can be with making up their own mind.

godsnotdeadThen there’s just the overall poor nature of Josh’s debates. If you’re going to put God on trial, then devote the majority of the movie to this exercise. Cut the many subplots just floating around gunking up the narrative. Josh is in charge of presenting a compelling case for the existence of God. He opens with the notion that man cannot prove God exists but they also cannot disprove God. Huh? Josh, you’re tasked with proving the Almighty and you start with this rhetorical nonsense? Let’s apply this logic elsewhere: I can’t NOT prove that eating ice cream spares me from getting struck by lightning. An intelligent case can be made for a Creator, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, Josh relies on circular logic while blasting others for circular logic. He cites Genesis as the accurate scientific account for the Big Bang, saying science had it wrong, forgetting that science is, pardon the term, an ongoing evolution building off the previous ideas and breakthroughs. He also grossly misrepresents the theory of evolution, the timeframe of developing life, provides a ham-fisted rationalization for the existence of evil, and finally resorts to pressuring Radisson to admit he is a lapsed Christian who has never forgiven God for the death of his mother. Because, you see, an atheist can’t simply come to their beliefs logically. The final head-scratcher is when the class unanimously votes with Josh “I am Spartacus” style, not a single soul, in a philosophy class no less, quibbling over the flawed presentation (Hey, he made animated PowerPoint slides! That’s all we need). I also doubt that any modern-day college class would be filled to capacity especially a class as potentially boring and esoteric as a philosophy class for eighteen-year-olds.

Let’s focus on the really nasty core of God’s Not Dead, which states explicitly and implicitly that anybody who is not a Christian is without morals and judgment. Josh, in his concluding argument, cites Dostoevsky (though it’s really a character in his book) saying, “If God does not exist then everything is permitted.” His argument boils down to the concept that those who do not believe in God are without moral clarity. That’s generally insulting and downright hostile, presupposing that the only reason people treat other human beings with kindness and respect is because of religious faith and not, you know, an innate personal sense of  right and wrong. Newsflash: no one religious group has a monopoly on moral values. Hammurabi didn’t need Christianity to come up with a system of moral laws to live by in 1700 BC. I don’t kill my neighbor merely because I fear cosmic retribution. Likewise I don’t help a person in need because I want my brownie points; I do it because I know it’s right. The entire movie exists in such a black and white terms, and to keep up with this edict every non-Christian is presented as a terrible, often mean-spirited human being. The Muslim father believes in God, but not the Christian God, and so he must beat and threaten his daughter for her clandestine conversion. The superficial businessman (Dean Cain) has riches but at what price? The liberal blogger has her career but in her time of need nobody close to comfort her. The film posits that atheists or non-Christians are without morals and cannot be truly happy in life. It’s this gnawing and unnecessary sense of superiority that infuses the film, leaving an unsettling aftertaste of smugness for a movie purporting to castigate others for their own smugness.

Let’s talk about the liberal blogger and Radisson for a moment. It’s not enough that we can’t allow intelligent people to have differing perspectives and beliefs, and respect those differences; no every person with a different view on God must be punished. The liberal blogger finds out she’s dying from cancer. Big spoilers ahead: Radisson is fatally hit by a car. Our kindly reverend character has just enough time to get Radisson to profess his love for Jesus on his deathbed before stepping off into the light. And so, our voices of dissent are unceremoniously killed off. Literally we jump from the death of a man outside to an extended Newsboys concert that asks people to text bomb their pals, a text which just happens to be the name of the movie and the Newsboys’ 2011 album. It’s a little unseemly from a dramatic standpoint but from an ethical standpoint more so.

kevin-sorboI’ve expended a lot of words examining the content of God’s Not Dead, so allow me to judge it as a film. For starters, there are way too many subplots that eat up valuable time, mostly people on the periphery meant to provide validation to Josh for his actions. Tonally, several of these segments clash, especially the kindly minister and his wacky misadventures trying to drive to Disney World. The time in the classroom is the hook of the film but it gives us about equal time with the liberal blogger or the Muslim daughter or any other distracting side character. Also, the filmmakers have the annoying habit of cutting to another scene and then back while their first scene continues to play out. I assume they’re forcing parallels but in reality it’s just shoddy editing that disorients an audience. Then there’s the sequence where the Muslim girl’s younger brother is entering her bedroom, going to discover what she’s listening to on her iPod, and it’s played hilariously like a horror movie with the lurking shadows. There are directing choices that take away from the potential drama of scenes. From a technical standpoint, God’s Not Dead looks slightly better than other Christian widespread releases, but the filmmakers are worse storytellers than the Kendrick brothers (Courageous).

The acting is inoffensively bland with one notable exception. Despite what you may think, Sorbo (TV’s Hercules) is actually pretty good as the raging atheist. He digs into his character’s pool of anger and arrogance and produces a performance that weirdly feels moderately grounded, even for a character that is not. I don’t really know why the Duck Dynasty cameo was necessary but I suppose the filmmakers felt they needed additional star power to lure their target audience.

God’s Not Dead is a surprisingly mean little film that hides its purpose under the auspices of evangelism. I expected a pro-Christian message and it has every right to put forward its own viewpoint, but the film isn’t so much pro-Christian as anti-everyone not already following the same limited interpretation of Scripture. This is not an inclusive film that will reach out to those lost sheep. Putting aside the poor filmmaking and plotting, the misplaced persecution complex, and the straw man arguments, the most disappointing aspect of God’s Not Dead is the illusion of intellectual rigor. The merits of Josh’s less-than-stellar arguments are not the point, though any person skilled in critical thinking should be able to poke holes in his faulty rationale. The point of the film is to feed into an unjustified sense of being wronged, that even though Christians are a clear majority in our country, that somehow they are under attack simply because others are allowed equal opportunity to share their own valid views and beliefs. In the black and white universe of God’s Not Dead, there is only one way to be happy, to be moral, and if you’re not on this team than there’s no way to achieve anything of substance in your life. Do you see the difference? It’s not that my side is good, it’s the notion that my side is better, that your side is worse. It’s a distinction that adds a decidedly sour note. This is a movie after all where the purveyors of atheism have to be struck down with death. God’s Not Dead is likewise striking ‘em dead at the box-office, but you should hold the movie to a higher standard.

Last note: the very title is a misuse of Nietzsche’s quote. The full quote is, “God is dead and man has killed him,” which implied man no longer needed religion to serve as its lone basis of moral authority.

Nate’s Grade: D

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on April 9, 2014, in 2014 Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Nate . . . I believe you doth protest too much . . . seriously . . . has any other film you have “critiqued” been given the same kind of prejudicial and moral judgment you have given this film with all your obvious atheistic baggage? After you try to dismantle the film for being so morally motivated and filled with “dangerous” Christian thought, you then tell us that you will now judge the merits of the film . . . right . . . sure you will . . . and then go right back to opining in ways that seek to drag us down the same atheistic paths you never really learned on your own, but were borrowed from, and taught to you by others who were just as foolish in their arguments against the Lord. Nate, you make such foolish statements about morals, that you believe to be wise . . . for instance . . . how we don’t need Christianity to be kind, etc. No one who is a Christian has ever proposed that. Kindness and the other wonderful qualities that we might agree are “good” can be found in the lives of all people. But none of us will ever be as good as “God”. We all have sinned. We have all fallen short of being good enough to live with God, and as the truth goes (I’m thinking you have rejected this) God has provided a plan by which to save man from his sins. Simple truth, simple story, simple gospel. The whole idea that you can believe in all kinds of theories, and all kinds of claims (like such and such happened 60 million years ago) and pretend that your belief in something is not faith is embarrassing at the least and a lie at its worst. You must believe in something, and to those who have faith in the evidences of intelligent design and creative order, it’s a piece of cake to see the handiwork of God all over this creation. It’s not a matter of myth but reasonable assessment. it’s not a matter of relying on fables, but relying on strength in faith. There were many witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and science, which relies on repeat experiments and observation, is not able to prove or disprove anything recorded in history, just as we have no need for science to prove the existence of Abraham Lincoln. We don’t need to spend time arguing with atheists about God’s existence. My bible (as do all bibles) clearly state that that which can be known about God, like His Divine nature and power, tec. are clearly understood because we see Him through observing His creation. (aka Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, stars, sunsets, moon . . . etc. Romans chapter 1) so that man is “without excuse”. (Romans 1:18) You don’t need me to try to prove the existence of God. God has already offered more than enough proof. Darwin tried to explain the origins of life and he failed. Even weak scientists will admit that openly. No what we “observe” when we witness the birth of a human is the amazing handiwork of our loving creator. who wants all men to seek Him, that He might save them. If a man says, “No, I refuse to believe in God. I want nothing to do with Him. I don’t believe in Him and I am not planning to live with Him”. God will do the just thing, and give that man, on judgment day . . . exactly what he wanted. Life without God. And I pray, if you have read what God has prepared for those that reject Him (rather His Son as a sacrifice for our sins) I pray that you do not end up there. I pray for all souls to give God a good look and a serious glance before hardening your heart and saying no to His love and His once and forever offer of redemption. God’s Not Dead is a great film. Persecution of Christians is growing because it’s our duty to share the good news with others and to proselytize. And, as Penn Gillette, devout atheist stated, “He has no respect for Christians that don’t proselytize”. I agree. Nate . . . think it through. Forget religion and the mess man has made of it. I beg you to take a really good look at Jesus. He’s God in the flesh. He’s loves you Nate. He wants you to be saved. Atheism will lead to eternal death. Faith in the blood of Jesus the Christ will save your soul. Seek Him Nate.
    Sincerely, the Dark Knight 😉

    • My comment is awaiting moderation? what? the newspapers like to call it “editing” . . . the truth is it’s called censorship . . . but we wouldn’t want anyone to think we did that ever! so we just tell folks . . . uh . . . your comment is waiting for “moderation?” do you believe that all the people that might post and comment, are really dumb folk who cannot express themselves quite the way you have expressed yourself in your blog post? shall I volunteer to “moderate” your blog before you make it public Nate? give me a break. please.

    • I guess you missed the part of my review where I said I was a Christian. But being a Christian doesn’t mean I turn off my analytical side, nor does it mean I cannot accept opposing viewpoints from others. For your information, I’ve written extensively on many films. If you’d care to check out my review of “Fateful Findings”, that one was over 3000 words, as have several reviews about Uwe Boll and the “Twilight” films. I think my “Hunger Games” review was as long as “God’s Not Dead,” so word count wise, this isn’t new. Now, your criticisms of my review seem to amount to dismissing my points as “atheistic baggage” and then explain why you believe in God. I’m glad you do, I do too, but that doesn’t make this film good. It’s still intellectually shallow and a mean-spirited parable that says there is only one way to be a good person. You say no christian states you need Christianity to be kind, but the movie itself SHOWS this’ it’s a crux of Josh’s concluding argument. He makes it clear that without God then human beings have no reaosn to be good. That is his argument, and I countered it. Your comment lacks details to my critique so I’m going to assume that you didn’t read it all. That’s fine. But please, before you leap to conclusions, at least do some due diligence. Also, when 80 percent of this country identifies as Christians, I don’t even understand how there can feasibly be a persecution of Christians out there.

    • This is anecdotal. This doesn’t mean it is the norm. Also, the school district agrees with the family, which means it finds the teacher’s actions in the wrong.

  2. “I consider myself a Christian” – you are either a Christian or you’re not what is this “consider myself” nonsense?

    I didn’t like the movie, but one can’t pretend that Christianity is not attacked and ridiculed on college campuses, in films, on television, in music, in art, everywhere. The Muslim girl being attacked for her Christianity is a mild version of the too horrible truth of honor killings.
    Christians may not be “persecuted” in this country on a grand scale but that doesn’t mean they aren’t under attack.

    You use words like “inclusive” and seem to think all viewpoints are valid, and that Christians are wrong to consider their own beliefs superior to anyone else. That would be completely contrary to the Bible which says that wide is the way which leads to destruction and narrow the gate which leads to life and that the only way to the Father is through his Son. This is a Christian film why would you expect the filmmakers to take any other view? The entire Christian religion posits that there is no real happiness without God and that life on this Earth is brief, you seem to think this is some kind of new thought the filmmakers just invented.

    Now I really think the film was poorly made and the non-believers were all uniformly portrayed as losers in one way or another, this is somewhat shallow of the makers and worthy of criticism as well as the rather disjointed storytelling and lame humor. The idea that the whole class would side with the Christian is not believable. The music was horrible. The miracle of the non-starting car rental was silly, etc. But to criticize the filmmakers for putting forth the basic tenets of what millions of Christians who will constitute their audience believe is asking a bit much.

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