Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Beyond box office success. Despite opening in fewer than 800 theaters, the Pure Flix production of raked in 9.2 million smackers in its opening weekend — good enough to place an impressive #4 on the B.O. — as, yet again, Hollywood finds itself stunned by the success of a faith-themed movie. You’d think after a while the so-called experts would stop being stunned.

In my review of the film, I headlined “God’s Not Dead but general audiences will likely be turned off.” I stand by that contention — but I know that that choir is huge. So, I’m not surprised at all by the film’s box office triumph. As The Wrap details, Ash Greyson (formerly of Beliefnet) did a masterful job of using social media to overcome the lack of a big-studio marketing budget to create awareness of the film among those most-likely to be motivated to go see it. Mission accomplished with flying colors.

And, now that the film is on people’s radar, others outside the choir (even, perhaps particularly, atheists and agnostics) may be motivated to check it out — which is precisely why I hate to see a Golden Rule opportunity wasted. And, by the Golden Rule, I mean the Golden Rule as expressed by Jesus in the The Bible — that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated. It is by doing that that, I believe, we best represent our faith to the world and draw people to it.

And, as Christians, we know from unfortunate experience that we resent it when we are scolded by Hollywood’s self-appointed arbiters of morality and labeled as being hateful, intolerant and/or crazed simply because we have a different way of viewing some of the issues of this world. And we know that being painted with a broad negative and judgmental brush hardly makes us more open to any (perhaps reasonable) point a screenwriter may be making (often, ironically, about the need to treat all human beings with respect).

It is not only morally right to make an attempt to treat those with whom we differ with respect and understanding, it is also a much more effective way of communicating our own ideals. When people feel condemned a wall goes up as a protection from perceived attack. But when people believe that you are making an honest attempt to respect them and hear them, the walls come down and they’re actually open to hearing what you have to say.

There are two kinds of Christian films. There are those which don’t deal directly with issue of faith but put forth the general Christian values of belief in a loving God, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, tolerance, wisdom, courage, self-confidence tempered with humility, personal responsibility and the all-important ability to resist hypocrisy and laugh at our own foibles (as opposed to arrogantly mocking those with whom we differ). These values are neither conservative nor liberal, Democrat nor Republican. They are not religiously sectarian. They are simply matters of Supreme Truth. IMHO, every story worth telling supports those values (which particular ones are highlighted depends on the tale being told), however subtly — and, often, subtle is best. It doesn’t matter if the story being told is a drama, a comedy, a fantasy or an action yarn. A story is always conveying a positive or negative moral message even if religion has nothing to do with the plot.

The other kind of Christian film deals directly with faith. Those films can certainly be excellent and important (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth among many others) — but, I believe, it’s important to tell them with a sense of embracing love and not judgment. I think that one of the things The Bible is clearest on is that we should not judge others — and should not presume to know if someone is going to hell. I think that’s one of the things that non-Christians resent most about some Christians — the perception that Christians are condemning others who aren’t like them. Any movie that is put forth as a “Christian film” should work to dispel that perception, not reinforce it.

And that’s my problem with God’s Not Dead — that, while having successfully engaged the huge Christian audience, it may squander an opportunity to project the positive Christian message to doubters, non-believers, people of other faiths and Christians who have drifted because of negative experiences of the past.

Here’s the rewrite I would have suggested:

First a new title – God: Dead or Alive?

The film begins as the third in a series of three classroom debates is about to begin. The event is being carried live online by Beliefnet and covered on television. That’s because the insistence by the arrogant Professor Radisson (very well-played by Kevin Sorb0) that his students  sign a paper declaring that “God is dead” has become the subject of a national controversy and led to a classroom debate series on the existence of God that has garnered worldwide attention.

As the movie begins Jesse Watters (of The O’Reilly Factor) is canvassing students on campus regarding their thoughts on the intellectual combat about to take place in the SRO event in the school’s auditorium. From there we flashback to the events leading up the climactic debate. Besides Professor Radisson, we meet the six students, three on each side, taking part in the event.

On the God Squad (as they refer to themselves) are the idealistic Christian student Josh (Shane Harper), a believing Muslim Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) and a jock who enrolled in the course by accident and actually doesn’t know what he believes (but will learn as the story progresses). They are coached by a Christian astronomy professor (played by David A.R. White) whose best friend is a Jewish rabbi.

Professor Radisson coaches the anti-belief side and does his best to stack the deck in their favor. His team includes Josh’s girlfriend who’ll do whatever it takes to please her professor and get an A (including betraying Josh), Martin (Paul Kwo) who was raised an atheist but finds his non-belief shaken and a third member of the team who remains unconvinced about the existence of God but who is offended by and takes on Raddison’s unfair machinations. I’d also keep the sub-plot about Radisson’s girlfriend secretly coming to belief.

(I should note not that I’m not against the idea of an atheist villain. I just think it’s not right and is counterproductive to present every non-believer as arrogant and unconcerned with matters of right and wrong. I’m also, BTW, not even against a villain who is presented as a Christian as long as I don’t feel that all Christians or Christianity itself are being attacked.)

As the flashback comes to a close, we move into the final debate which would, hopefully, carry all the drama of the climactic prizefight in Rocky. I’d have both sides make their best points (even consulting atheists to make sure what they contend is honestly represented). I believe when all the facts are presented the side for God wins — and that it’s all the more convincing when the audience senses an honest representation of both positions.

At the end, Josh calls on all those watching — and who believe in God — to text “God is Not Dead” and that message is carried around the globe.

Now, to be sure, my version also favors the side of belief — but I believe by presenting people of other faiths and of no faith as good people with dignity it would be received with more open hearts. I think this could be accomplished while still satisfying the Christian audience.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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