I saw the movie “God’s Not Dead” on Easter Sunday, an appropriate time, I thought, for an agnostic to see it. As it turned out, I had a personal screening—there was nobody else in the entire theater. Could that be a sign? And if so, a sign of what, exactly?
I went into the theater expecting to see an unsophisticated, indeed embarrassing defense of faith. After all, it had an abysmal 13 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The experts had spoken. I left the theater convinced that “God’s Not Dead” may be the most intellectually invigorating general-audience movie we are likely to see on the big screen in a long, long while. It actually takes both science and theology seriously. It is two hours of philosophical discussion, masterfully alternating the articulate classroom debates with emotion-packed vignettes of a handful of college students, professors, and academic hangers-on struggling with their faith or lack of same.
With a movie like this, full disclosure should be a requirement for the reviewer. Here it is: After a very religious childhood, I have been an agnostic virtually all of my adult life. But I describe myself as a “friendly agnostic.” I try not to disparage your faith, since I think we all have questions about eternity; I just do not adhere to a particular creed. And that includes atheism, which I regard as a creed with one commandment: “Thou shall not believe in any god.”
That is how I entered the theater—as a friendly agnostic. And that is how I left the theater—as a friendly agnostic. But the movie itself was a delightful experience that I had not anticipated.
A devoted Christian and college freshman finds his faith belittled by an atheist philosophy professor with a grudge against God. The professor gives him three 20-minute class sessions to prove to the class that God exists, and passing the course depends on his convincing his classmates. It is an unfair test, of course, since the professor is an authoritarian god inside the classroom; but, of course, the student prevails in the end.
The professor’s girlfriend is a Christian, and finds their differences increasingly difficult to reconcile—while there is a loving side to their relationship, it depends on her bowing to his authority, and he is as demeaning to her in public as he is to the Christian freshman in the classroom. A Muslim girl has to hide her growing interest in Christianity from her father and family, and the result when she finally confesses her faith in Jesus is physically and emotionally violent. (The movie’s portrayal of Islamic intolerance will not win any political correctness awards. Good for them.) An exchange student from China tries to explain to his father over the telephone why he finds the debate increasingly engrossing, and the father sternly warns him not to talk about God on the telephone because “you never know who is listening.” A skeptical newsgal is diagnosed with advanced cancer, causing her to reevaluate her secularism. And there are several other secondary characters and themes, as well as intriguing “interviews” by the newsgal with the public face of “Duck Dynasty,” Willie Robertson, and his wife, and the members of the Christian rock group Newsboys. Not to mention a stirring final concert by the Newsboys—stirring, that is, to anyone except the most hardened anti-religious spectator.
Cardboard Characters and Stacked Arguments?
That is the near-universal and main criticism of “God’s Not Dead,” even in a posting on this site. I will concede the accuracy of the criticism to a large degree, while still maintaining that this is an excellent film. Let me explain.
When is the last time you saw a movie where the decks were not stacked in the direction the directors and producers desired? When was the last time you saw an intellectual discussion on television—forget that. When was the last time you saw any forum on television where the decks were not stacked and the sound-bite arguments were anything but superficial? Apparently everyone is allowed to employ predictable characters and stacked plots and arguments—except an unapologetically Christian film.
Now, I think it would be great if “God’s Not Dead” did not have these shortcomings, but the movie has compensating attributes. The acting of the secondary characters is excellent. Even the acting of the two main characters—the professor and the student—is excellent within the confines of the stereotyped roles given them. The personal vignettes are convincingly emotional and engrossing. The script is articulate and literate. Production values are stellar. In short, the movie succeeds despite its shortcomings.
With any movie, we have to ask, what is its primary intended audience? Here it is obviously young Christians who find their faith under attack in our secular educational institutions. I suspect “God’s Not Dead” gives them the emotional and intellectual support they are looking for. Indeed, the Alliance Defending Freedom had a role in inspiring this movie, and an epilogue lists the many instances where Christian students and their supporters have engaged in legal battles against campus discrimination. The movie’s practical success can be seen by the fact that it cost $2 million to produce and has already quickly grossed $50 million at the box office. Christian-themed movies have come of age, and a substantial audience is eager to see them.
Where I think “God’s Not Dead” is unnecessarily stereotypical is in its portrayal of the two main characters, the professor and the student who stands up to him. I don’t think atheist professors ever take as confrontational and arrogant a stance as in this movie; they are much more devious in undermining their students’ faith. And this freshman student is so articulate, he comes across as a young born-again Evangelical clone of William F. Buckley, Jr., only without the polysyllables. But hey, he is Daniel in the lion’s den and I can see the Christian student audience cheering him on against the evil professor.
The Bottom Line, Faith-Wise
Will “God’s Not Dead” create significant converts in the battle against atheism? I doubt it. I think any “converts” will likely be viewers with personal spiritual struggles who are predisposed to being converted, and just need the emotional support the movie provides. But I think that has been the case with religious movies from “The Robe” (1953) to “Son of God” (2014). I suspect that a movie director or producer who seeks to make mass conversions will find that task to be “above his pay grade.”
One final distinction needs to be made, and that brings me to the critical failure of “God’s Not Dead” from this agnostic’s viewpoint. The title of the film concerns the existence of God—a very basic philosophical question. The content of the film assumes that once you acknowledge the existence of God, you immediately become, shall we say, a card-carrying Christian. “God’s Not Dead” does a pretty decent job, as movies go, of disproving the arguments for atheism, of portraying Stephen Hawking as a fallible and false god, of arguing that a belief in evolution can coexist with a belief in God. That is quite an accomplishment in itself. Limited to that existentialist arena, and expanding those arguments, the film might make some real converts. But of course the film wants to do more than that. In making the leap of faith to a Christian creed it is preaching to the choir, and will have limited impact on the secularist hordes strolling outside the church. But the choir will absolutely love it.