God’s Not Dead (2014)
Before 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.
It 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.
Then 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.
I’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