“God’s Not Dead”
A problem faced by Christian artists – not only filmmakers, but also poets, painters, and rappers – arises from the idea that a believer’s faith encompasses their entire identity, and so their work: where faith is fixed, is there room for invention? Does a Christian filmmaker have a peculiar and personal worldview to imbue his films with, distinct from that of other Christians? Can he create, embellish, or discover a self by way of cinema, where Christianity has not already provided for this? The very best devotional art would argue in the affirmative, and the music of Bach, the poems of John Donne, and films such as Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder prove some of the most daring and original, while also profound and heartfelt works existing. To contradict Dr Samuel Johnson, great minds and great wit do not sink under the heft of the good and evil of eternity, not merely content with calm belief and humble adoration.
Unfortunately, Harold Cronk, the director of the overtly Christian film God’s Not Dead, seems no great wit at all. I’m not aware if Cronk is Christian himself, but the film’s subject and story allow for no other stance. The main plot, a sort of update of the David and Goliath tale, is simple enough, both immediately obvious in purpose, and ludicrous in conception. A first year university student, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), aspiring lawyer and devout evangelical, enrols in a philosophy course taught by the zealously atheistic Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Intent on not disappointing astute forecasters in the audience (and those of us who saw the trailer), the two partisans collide, in the first class no less. Radisson – obnoxious, high-handed, and fanatically protective of his reputation – requires each student in the class to hand in a signed statement of just three words: “God is dead.” He insists that anyone who disagrees will have no luck in arguing to the contrary, and a failing grade surely awaits anyone who tries. This consensus affirmation, he claims, is in the interest of efficiency, so that a section of the syllabus, with a conclusion agreed upon by millennia of respected philosophers, may be gotten through with minimum fuss. Josh refuses to hand it in, citing his faith, and Radisson commands that Josh must then contend his case over three lectures, with the class deciding the winner.
The preposterousness both of a university professor who so clearly goes against a constitutional imperative (freedom of belief), and of an entire class, save for one student, complying to such fanatical whims will no doubt be a hurdle for South African audiences. I’m not sure how likely this is to happen in America – though a list of legal cases given in the end credits seems to suggest it’s not an uncommon event in that country – but in South Africa, such conduct is expressly forbidden, widely condemned by liberal and conservative society alike, and rather unlikely to take place. And so God’s Not Dead will have to play to South Africans as a hypothetical case study, a “What if …?” scenario posed to kindle discussion.
I wrote in my post on Dear White People that to start a conversation is a weak place to begin making a movie at, since characters serve as talking points and narrow, pointed illustrations rather than people. But the failings of God’s Not Dead are more glaring than those of Dear White People; besides the main plot’s arrant implausibility, the subplots that fill up the running time are banal, tedious, and nearly quite useless. They provide a small set of situations of Christians standing up for their faith in support of Josh’s struggle: Radisson’s girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), leaves him when he belittles her in front of his academic colleagues because of her faith; Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) is thrown out of the house by her Muslim father when he discovers her secret faith in Jesus; Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) defends his habit of praying to Jesus on his show to the self-righteous, godless liberal hack blogger, Amy (Trisha LaFache); an old woman dying of dementia (Lenore Banks), in a brief moment of lucidity, launches a short diatribe on Satan’s deception to her immoral son, Mark (Dean Cain). These mini subplots, each tiresomely lacking in humour, brightness, and spark, are linked, though it’s hardly important how. Nor is it at all important to the filmmakers to show what Christianity or the defence of it means to any of these characters. Mina assures us she loves Jesus, and leaves Radisson who does not, but we can understand her doing it just as much for his mocking her for not understanding Greek as for their difference in beliefs. The filmmakers make no effort to convey characters’ subjectivity, or their experiences, spiritual or otherwise, and it’s this disregard for experiential wisdom and any sincere emotion on top of the entire film’s banality that compels it all to fall flat. Christianity is far more than the reciting of scripture, the spewing out of biblical references, and the assertions of doctrine. It’s a living, pervasive, compelling, and challenging way of life, permeating throughout one’s conception of oneself, and manifesting throughout one’s actions. In ignoring these realities, to be blunt, the problem with God’s Not Dead is not that it’s brusquely Christian, but that it’s not Christian enough.
The centre of the film is the arguments for and against God’s existence, which are nothing new to those who have ever observed such a debate. For those to whom the lines of reasoning are new, the points made might be interesting, and the rhetoric with which they’re delivered might be pleasant enough, but no great changes are likely to take place. An atheist watching this film will most probably not undergo any religious conversion, nor will he really understand much of what Christianity is about. A Christian watching the film will find nothing new to consider, nothing moving, and nothing throwing any new light on their faith. Well, nearly nothing. I found the smallest element of possibility for radical Christian reflection, in a scene near the end of the film, drowned out by dull music and the cloying tone of self-congratulation. An African missionary (Benjamin Onyango), having just witnessed a newly converted man die in a car accident, observes what a happy event it was. It’s a thought we don’t hear enough in the delineation of Christian dogma and its implications: Because of what is believed to await those who believe after death, the death of each believer is a blessing, and a most joyous occasion. The movie reflecting on this thought, and tracing its inferences and repercussions rippling through the lives of the faithful is the movie I want to go see.
A regular complaint of mine, expounded upon in my recent post on television series, is that many filmmakers pay too little attention to the sounds and images of their film, thinking that their story gets the point across. Ideas and visions are conveyed just as effectively – even more so, in the hands of a good director – through framing, timing, movements, colours, distances and sizes as through text. God’s Not Dead relies wholly on text, and, in that, would fit right in on a selection of message movies made for television, except that the thinness of its conceit and the absurdities of plot and character hardly hold up against the current mainstream on television. I can’t speak for other viewers of this film, or do more than speculate on the ardency of the reactions of Christians who go to see this film (though its box office success would suggest that it’s no small movie event), but I fail to see the attraction in this ham-handed, ludicrous, vapid, makeshift quasi-philosophy that eschews both reason and humanity to drum out a message that most viewers would either unhesitatingly affirm (and then what’s the point of going to see it?) or scoff at.
God's Not Dead is available on DVD.
God's Not Dead is directed by Harold Cronk; written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, from a story by Hunter Dennis, Konzelman and Solomon; music by Will Musser; director of photography, Brian Shanley; edited by Vance Null.