Before I went to see the recent Christian movie God's Not Dead, I thought its surprising success could be attributed mostly to youth group sales, and not to people who actually like this movie. In most of the discussions I'd seen, viewers both Christian and not found it boring and offensive, and I can't say I disagree.
The film, from Pure Flix Entertainment, tells the story of a Good Christian Student who stands up to his Evil Atheist Professor (played with scenery-munching gusto by erstwhile Hercules Kevin Sorbo) in his freshman year at a secular college. It has been criticized as everything from manipulative to uninspired to, as AV Club put it, "a mess even by Christian film standards."
But at the screening I attended in New York City, which was half-full even at that weird time between matinee and evening hours, audience members seemed to love it, applauding at appropriate points and even witnessing via cell phone–more on that later–after the show was over.
Full disclosure: as a practicing Christian fresh out of college, I'm pretty close to the film's target demographic. I've been the recipient, multiple times, of the two separate email forwards on which this movie seems to be based. (It also appears to draw from this classic Chick tract–an art form if there ever was one–in which a student singlehandedly tears down all of evolutionary theory before his bewildered professor's eyes.) And I certainly wasn't impervious to the movie's tactics, which more or less amounted to patting Christians on the back for not backing down from their faith. Such actions, we are told, are extremely brave, since America is (apparently) hostile to believers.
The movie opens on Josh Wheaton, who we know is relatable because he wears a plaid shirt unbuttoned over a band t-shirt. We also know he's a Christian because he sports a gold cross necklace, and the band advertised on his shirt is Newsboys.
A freshman just starting college, Josh approaches a table set up right in the middle of the picturesque quad and begins registering for classes, including an introductory philosophy course. "You might want to think about a different instructor," the student behind the registration table tells him, seeing Josh's helpful costuming signals. "Let's just say you're wandering into the snake pit…Think Roman Colosseum. Lions. People cheering for your death."
Josh signs up anyway. On the first day of class, Professor Hercules tells his students that he has no time for this silly God nonsense. So, as philosophy professors so often do, he has every student write "God is dead" on a piece of paper (one girl gets extra credit for not capitalizing the G) and signing it. Our Christian hero is the only one to refuse, so the professor makes him a deal: Josh can try to persuade the class that God exists by speaking for 20 minutes at the end of each class. If Josh wins, he passes the class. If he loses, his grade gets docked 30 percent.
The "Roman Colosseum" theme carries the film from there, permeating not only Professor Hercules' classroom but also the numerous (one might say unnecessary) side plots. Going beyond the usual persecution complex apparently held by many American Christians, God's Not Dead seems to fetishize an oppression that, in reality, just isn't there.
According to Al Jazeera, 75 percent of Americans identify as Christian to some degree. Yet in God's Not Dead, Josh's classmates can't seem to grasp that Christians believe that Jesus is God, and one student even has to ask what a theist is. (Granted, she'd just been taught the etymology of the word "atheist," so it's possible that she's just especially dense.) The only primary characters in the film who start out as unabashed Christians are Josh, his pastor, the pastor's joyful African missionary friend, and Duck Dynasty's Willie and Korie Robertson. As themselves.
I wish I were kidding. In the universe of God's Not Dead, Christians are the noble minority. Unlike in many Christian movies, their role here isn't to proselytize so much as it is to make sure people know Christianity exists at all (and so does God).
The non-Christians are, predictably, not cast in a flattering light. We have Professor Hercules in all his villainous goatee'd glory; a redheaded liberal blogger with an "I ♥ EVOLUTION" sticker on her car who is offended that the Robertsons pray on their show; her CEO boyfriend (played with the coldest of hearts by Dean Cain) who thinks of love as nothing more than a word people use to get something; and a domineering Muslim father, the film's sole representative of another religion, who physically throws his daughter out of the family apartment when he catches her listening to a Franklin Graham sermon. The student from China isn't as bad as he could be, but maybe he gets a pass because it's his atheist nation that kept him from Christ, not his own choice. Don't worry; he converts later.
None of these side plots contribute substantially to the movie's central conceit save Martin, the be-sweater-vested Chinese student. Surprisingly, though, for all the movie's straw atheists and righteous cardboard Christians, Josh's arguments in favor of God's existence aren't as sermon-like as they could be. Far from being a young-earth creationist, he invokes Genesis in concert with evolution and the Big Bang, not in opposition to them. That's not to say there aren't problems of logic in both Josh's and Professor Hercules' arguments; there definitely are. But as an example of friendly, non-offensive apologetics, it isn't terrible.
And that's why it works. By conflating the Bible's view of creation with science's explanation, Josh stands on the side of those many American Christians who may be less likely to see a "Christian movie." Since he sticks to the questions of basic existence rather than, say, issues related to the Trinity or divine grace (or basically anything that sets Christianity apart or marks differences between denominations), the filmmakers can cast as wide a net as possible. And by having the professor ask logically flawed questions in defense of his own view, the movie constructs an all-purpose atheist who resembles very few, if any, of those the audience might actually know.
Professor Hercules is an atheist it's okay to hate, and Josh's arguments cast a net broad enough to ensnare even more liberal Christians. Combined, these scenes proved uplifting even for a redheaded liberal (Christian) blogger like myself. That is to say: they are completely manipulative. This movie could have been an opportunity to explore more nuanced questions, for atheists and Christians to learn from each other. But this is an inspirational movie, and we can't get too intellectual. Youth groups don't buy blocks of seats to movies about theology.
Reactions I observed from audience members after Josh and Professor Hercules' final showdown included the following:
- Dancing in seats
- (My personal favorite) "I knew it! He exists!"
In the end, it turns out Professor Hercules isn't even an atheist; he just hates God for killing his mom. Then everyone goes to a Newsboys concert that takes up so much of the finale that I wondered whether the whole endeavor was just a con to get me to listen to Newsboys music. The band witnesses to the liberal blogger, who converts right before they go onstage. Professor Hercules sees the light and promptly gets hit by a car. But it's okay, because he converts with his dying breath, which we're meant to believe is a happy ending. The car was driven by Evil CEO Dean Cain.
Of course, no one in the concert's audience knows about these horrific events. The band, in ignorant bliss, proceeds to sing about how God's not dead (no, really) while praising Josh's actions, though it's unclear how they heard about the Dead God Challenge.
Then Willie Robertson shows up in an onscreen projection to tell everyone to text their friends, "GOD'S NOT DEAD." The audience is urged to do the same. (21st-century witnessing, or clever marketing ploy?) Then the movie ends.
We never find out what happens when everyone learns about the car accident. We can only hope Josh passes Philosophy 105.
Look forward to a sequel. The name hasn't been released yet, but I'm crossing my fingers in the hope that it continues to stake the brave position that a higher power does, in fact, exist. God's Not Dead 2: This Time, It's Personal.