The Problem With the "God's Not Dead" Films
A month ago, I talked about Warrior and why I thought it was arguably the best Christian film of the last 15 years or so. Today, I want to talk about why I think the God’s Not Dead films are, well, not, and what it means for our witness and engagement with the world around us.
The God’s Not Dead (and neither are the Newsboys) franchise has been remarkable. The first movie made over $60,000,000 on a budget of just $2,000,000 and the second film seems on track to net similarly impressive numbers. The films, at least so far as explicitly Christian films go, are competently made, well-paced, and decently acted. They also check all the “Christian film” boxes– too much exposition, cameos by the requisite Christian celebrities (Mike Huckabee, some of the Duck Dynasty guys, various apologists), a definite Subject Matter.
But none of those are related to what I perceive to be the problem with the God’s Not Dead franchise, why I dislike them, and why I wish Christians would think twice before supporting them: they are wildly unfair and condescending, both to their audience and to the non-Christians they think they are disagreeing with.
(On that note, go read Alissa Wilkinson’s review of the second film – it’s much better than this little essay).
The films have different, but similar, central conceits. The first film centers on a college freshman and his debate about the existence of God with his philosophy professor. The second centers on a High School teacher and her battle to be allowed to mention Jesus in her history class. Both conceits, of course, are wildly implausible. In the first film, the idea that a college professor would stage a debate about the existence of God with one of his students whose grade was dependent on the outcome is laughable. That such a debate, were it somehow to occur, would end in any fashion other than the freshman feeling woefully inadequate and intellectually embarrassed by the PhD even more so. And in the second film, the notion that a history teacher can’t mention a historical figure in her history class is, well, farfetched. But films are allowed to have their conceits, and they don’t have to be realistic, so we’ll let these slide.
In both films, the audience plays a critical role. In the second film, there are ostensibly jurors, but they aren’t the critical fact-finders – that role is reserved for the audience. The same can be said for the other students in the first film – they merely stand in for the audience. Clearly, to some degree, the filmmakers conceive of Christianity as a topic that society has placed on trial (quite literally in the second film). And the films, as we are told to in Jude, are more than ready to give a defense of the faith.
The problem is that the defense they give is not very good, full of strawmen and ad hominem attacks and every other logical fallacy you can think of. They clearly think that Christianity is being unfairly represented by the culture around us. But in attempting to prove their point, they unfairly represent those they feel are making the unfair representations.
One of the discussions that is prevalent in minority communities is the issue of “representation.” Perhaps the classic visual example is of the little children given the choice between two dolls, and asked which one was “nice” or “mean” or other both positive and negative terms. Even dark-skinned children consistently associated the darker-skinned dolls with negative terms and light-skinned dolls with positive terms. The theory is that everyone, including ethnic and racial minorities, consumes, relatively speaking, the same movies and art and media. And minorities are both underrepresented in these forms and, where they are represented, are often two-dimensional. As we see from the experiment with the children and dolls, this results in actual, psychological harm.
All that to say – representation matters. And people pick up on the fact that how they are represented by others is not coincidental. For God’s Not Dead to consistently represent non-Christians as biased, not as smart as Christians, terrible parents, addicts and bigots says something to non-Christians about what Christians really think about them.
And the shame of it all is that it’s a wasted opportunity. At the conclusion of the second film, in the credits, the filmmakers list a series of cases where religious liberty was arguably threatened. (Full disclosure: I interned with the organization involved in defending religious liberty in many of these cases). An artistic representation of one of those cases (or a conglomeration of them) would have served a useful and educational purpose, and could have been a great movie to boot. But those cases were nuanced, interesting cases with no clear monsters to root against – in other words, it worked much like real life often does. Instead of portraying that, the filmmakers chose to create a dumb, spiteful (mostly non-existent) foil whose purpose was mostly just to show how smart Christians are.
I suppose my question is – who are we trying to convince, and how are trying to go about it? What non-believer will watch these films and say to themselves, “You know what? Apparently non-Christians are dumb, silly, spiteful alcoholics who don’t care about their kids; Christians, on the other hand, are very smart and right about everything. I want to be a Christian! I GUESS GOD IS NOT DEAD AFTER ALL!” Is it more likely that the films serve as stories of redemption and hope, or as self-congratulatory polemic editorials whose main purpose is to reassure frustrated Christians that while culture might not take our viewpoints very seriously, we are right and they are wrong?
I sincerely hope that the third God’s Not Dead film remembers that we aren’t called merely to proclaim that God exists, but that He saves. I hope that it uses its platform to portray hope, justice and righteousness, not just diatribes against the ACLU, state universities, public education, people who hate the military, and every other Christian bogeyman out there. I hope that it humbly, compassionately (and accurately) portrays non-Christians as something more than just our dumb foils. And in doing so, now that they are interested in the courtroom, I hope they also remember why Federal Rule of Evidence 404 generally prohibits the use of character evidence – it’s not sufficiently relevant to decide the truth of the matter at issue.