Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

“God’s Not Dead” preaches to the choir but general audiences will likely be turned off

posted by John W. Kennedy

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

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God’s Not Dead opens in theaters across the country today 3/31.

Cast: Kevin Sorbo, Shane Harper, David A.R. White, Dean Cain, Willie & Korie Robertson, Benjamin Onyango, Paul Kwo, Hadeel Sittu, Cory Oliver and Newsboys (Michael Tait, Jody Davis, Jeff Frankenstein, Duncan Phillips)

Synopsis (from the film’s website): Present-day college freshman and devout Christian, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), finds his faith challenged on his first day of Philosophy class by the dogmatic and argumentative Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Radisson begins class by informing students that they will need to disavow, in writing, the existence of God on that first day, or face a failing grade. As other students in the class begin scribbling the words “God Is Dead” on pieces of paper as instructed, Josh find himself at a crossroads, having to choose between his faith and his future. Josh offers a nervous refusal, provoking an irate reaction from his smug professor. Radisson assigns him a daunting task: if Josh will not admit that “God Is Dead,” he must prove God’s existence by presenting well-researched, intellectual arguments and evidence over the course of the semester, and engage Radisson in a head-to-head debate in front of the class. If Josh fails to convince his classmates of God’s existence, he will fail the course and hinder his lofty academic goals. With almost no one in his corner, Josh wonders if he can really fight for what he believes. Can he actually prove the existence of God? Wouldn’t it just be easier just to write “God Is Dead” and put the whole incident behind him? GOD’S NOT DEAD weaves together multiple stories of faith, doubt and disbelief, culminating in a dramatic call to action. The film will educate, entertain, and inspire moviegoers to explore what they really believe about God, igniting important conversations and life-changing decisions.

My Review: God’s Not Dead is a major missed opportunity because its central plot line — a college classroom debate about the existence of God — is so ripe for a thought-provoking film that could really engage a wide range of moviegoers on a question everyone has pondered. Unfortunately, this is not that movie. The title itself telegraphs a bias — which, as a believer, I happen to share but, nonetheless, it’s clumsy and suggests a finger on the scale that undermines the point of the film (namely, that it is quite reasonable to believe in God). That, in the end, reduces the impact of the (IMHO) very strong arguments in favor of God’s existence. (BTW, God: Dead or Alive? or The Eternal Debate spring to my mind as a couple of potential alternative titles.)

Beyond the title though, the movie simply tells too many stories. It would have been much tighter had the producers and writers focused on the central debate theme and foregone the apparent ambition to be seen as a faith-based Crash. That effort simply crashes and burns but more on the many subplots later.

The galvanizing conflict of the story is actually interesting. The pressure on the earnest student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to defend his face in a classroom environment made hostile by an aggressively atheistic professor of philosophy (Kevin Sorbo). That’s the crux of the movie — and where the screenplays attention should have stayed. Kevin Sorbo actually captivates as the arrogant and out-of-bounds biased Professor Radisson but, while his character works (after all, there are arrogant atheists out there), the movie should have found some room for some sympathetic doubters. The negative stereotyping of anyone who doesn’t believe in a Christian version of the universe may be well received by some (though not all) in the proverbial choir but it is apt to be off-putting to others, many of whom may otherwise actually be open listening to considering the case for God. Ironically, by stereotyping non-believers, the film may only succeed it feeding stereotypes of Christians as judgmental and narrow-minded. The same principal works in reverse, BTW — as when secularists paint all Christians with one harsh brush or go out of their way to mock the faith of others.

A classroom debate on the existence is an interesting basis for a movie but Raddison’s insistence that the students actually begin the semester by signing a paper declaring that “God is dead” seems a bit over the top. While a quick review of news items unfortunately suggests such a scenario is far from impossible, it’s also the kind of thing that would likely make national news — at least in the conservative and faith-driven media. But, in the movie, there was no suggestion that Raddison meets any resistance at all — not even from Bill O’Reilly (who would have made an interesting cameo).

Also, Josh Wheaton — who’s supposedly the underdog — is the one who shows up for the classroom confrontations armed with audio-visual aids (i.e. videos depicting the Big Bang, etc.). Professor Radisson, meanwhile, is reduced to verbally responding to Wheaton’s rather incongruously well-crafted presentations. Moreover, the professor’s main argument seems to boil down to Stephen Hawking says the universe doesn’t need God to exist and he’s really smart so shut up. Little if any exposition is given to that straw man of an argument. When the manipulation of the arguments is so clear, it has the impact of making the young protagonist’s refutations all-the-less dramatic, provocative and convincing.

As for the subplots, they drain the energy out of the central story. Dean Cain’s almost cartoonishly money-loving businessman, for example, seems like he wandered in from another movie.

More problematic is a tangent involving the plight of a Muslim student whose desire to convert to Christianity brings a violent reaction from her father. While such scenarios happen, it’s worthy of a full movie and not the sort of drive-by treatment it receives here.  As Christians, we should remind ourselves that we don’t like it when secular filmmakers deliver sucker punches aimed at our faith. We shouldn’t do it to others either. A smarter, fairer and more positive approach would have been to make the Muslim student an ally of Josh against Professor Radisson’s stacked deck.

And getting back to cameos. Bill O’Reilly would have worked. You know, he could have been seen addressing the topic on his show — or even could have sent Jesse Watters to the campus to interview students about the controversial professor.  But having Willie and Korie of Duck Dynasty pop to inexplicably get into a mini-debate about hunting and guns is just weird and unserious. Likewise, while using the Newsboys’ song God’s Not Dead on the movie soundtrack is fine, having the group members actually take part in the plot gives the whole movie a sort of cheesy Love Boat feel.

Bottom line: God’s Not Dead central theme is worth exploring in an intelligent and serious way. Unfortunately, that’s not what this movie delivers. As a believer, I wish it was.

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

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