GOD’S NOT DEAD Review: Stomp Thine Enemies
[Note to readers: this review contains third-act plot information]
What’s young Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) got on her iPod? We don’t know, but she’s never far from the device. What is clear is that she’s privately rebellious, removing her head covering every time she’s out of sight of her forbidding Muslim father (Marco Khan), blending into the non-Muslim world with all the ease of a cat whose tail keeps getting stepped on, quietly observing – with the dartingest eyes filmmaker Harold Cronk can direct her toward — Christian student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) in their university’s dining hall. It could be anything in those earbuds, of course. It could be Carly Rae Jepsen or Beethoven. And based on the way he tries to tuck in his daughter’s head covering, grabbing her face, either would be plenty non-Muslim enough to make Dad murder-angry.
Eventually we learn the truth, as Cronk’s camera slowly creeps up, Amityville Horror-style, on the closed door of Ayisha’s bedroom (almost welcome, and one of the few moments of deviation from the old-fashioned, Mannix-esque, TV drama close-ups that dominate the rest of the visuals). The score turns fearful and anxious because Muslim homes are terrifying. Ayisha is holed up in her room listening to a Franklin (son of Billy) Graham sermon. She is a Christian. And that is dangerous. When her secret is discovered, her father, as expected, becomes violent.
Being a Christian is dangerous for Josh, too. He could fail his philosophy class because of his faith, thanks to smug, atheist Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Clearly bored with teaching and now simply taking smirking pleasure in bullying teenagers, Radisson uses the occasion of the first day of class — before any significant mention of Friedrich Nietzsche has taken place, before any discussion of what the philosopher actually meant by “God is Dead” or what the historic invocation of those words has entailed — to force every student in the room to write the expression on paper and sign their name to it as part of a group assertion of godlessness, otherwise fail the course.
Does Josh hit the dean’s office with a report of obvious and ridiculous infringement on his personal freedom? No, he goes to the library to prep for a series of debates on the existence of God. Never mind that he lives in a country where about 80% of the population identifies as Christian and Christian ideas have informed/dominated social and political thought for most of the country’s history: Josh is a lone voice in a chaotic, God-hostile universe, the only person bold enough to defend Christianity and teach his entire class the truth about Jesus.
There’s a vintage Jack Chick tract* all about this. It’s called Big Daddy and, like all Chick tracts, it’s wild-eyed and bizarrely funny. But this story of godly vengeance didn’t start with that goofy, histrionic comic series. It’s an apocryphal tale, one that goes back to the early part of the 20th century, a fiction passed around from Christian to Christian, one that always comes with an assertion of truth. It happened to your cousin or your brother’s friend. It’s the story of patient, thoughtful believers in the cultural lion’s den, systematically dismantling atheism, evolution and all other forms of non-faith. Enter “Dropped Chalk” into Snopes.com and its curious history will unfold before your eyes. It happened, but only about as much as that Richard Gere and the gerbil story happened.
Still, though, it’s an important narrative to understand, because its existence bolsters this historical moment’s wave of conservative American Evangelical indulgence in persecution fantasy, neatly weaving a collective fear of lost cultural power with a triumphant trouncing of what the film refers to as “anti-theist” forces. In the convenient, highly constructed universe of God’s Not Dead, non-believers are never benign. They’re warriors against God and, more important for the film’s purposes, first class dicks – smug, haughty, greedy and heartless, consumed with vanity and the desire for power. Alongside the violent Muslim and the vicious academic – the latter’s threats mount and include a touch of physical force before his screen time runs out – the movie trots out a cruel, moneyed executive (Dean Cain) who ignores his elderly, dementia-afflicted mother. We also witness a rage-filled, bad-at-having-a-job, left-wing blogger (Trisha LaFache), a woman obsessed with conducting pointless “ambush interviews” of Christian celebrities like Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson and arena-rock band Newsboys. Her approach to these interviewees runs along the lines of: “How dare you be a Christian! Respond to my accusations! The people have a right to know!”
This actually makes a sort of terrible sense. The mainstream media, rightly or wrongly, is filled with stories of conservative Christians behaving in a decidedly un-Christ-like manner, all but foaming at the mouth in the direction of their enemies (aka everyone who isn’t a conservative Christian). The need to feel like the underdog is very real, even if there’s no real-life threat to warrant that feeling. If scratched, the makers of this film would probably assert their desire to see it used as a tool for evangelism. And it may succeed as that. But along the way it also succeeds as a kind of mean-spirited cinematic pep rally for the home team, one where each and every non-Christian character receives earthly justice, a comeuppance of some sort, from merely “getting told” by a lucid Christian bystander all the way to public shaming. The final classroom debate between Josh and The Professor involves Josh yelling, “Why do you hate God?” as his opponent breaks down in confessional mode. Radisson’s mother died when he was young, see, and child-professor prayed to no avail. In this moment of humiliation and vulnerability, does Josh respond with empathy for the broken man’s pain? Nope, that’s not how this film’s Christian soldiers win battles. His closing statement: “How can you hate something that doesn’t exist?” Audience applause, at least at the screening I attended.
From life-threatening illness to sudden death, the most extreme punishments in the film are necessarily entwined with nick-of-time conversion experiences, but the punishments are meted out all the same and the film is heavily weighted toward that tangible justice. It rejoices in third-act soul salvation but the amount of screen time devoted to those conversion experiences is minimal compared to the amount spent detailing the nastiness of the very people Christians claim to love most.
Its final call to action, one delivered by the Newsboys in the closing concert sequence? Text bomb everyone you know with the words “God’s Not Dead,” which just happens to be the name of the film you’re watching, as well as the name of a 2011 Newsboys album. Don’t call your friends and loved ones and ask them how their lives are going. Don’t see what you can do to help them with whatever need they may have. Send a brand-building mass text to everyone on your call list. None of them will find this at all annoying. You’ll be the first person they think of when times get tough and they need a friend. And that transforms God’s Not Dead into the opposite of its stated intention for existence; it’s not just bad filmmaking, it’s bad Christianity.
Real life Christians are as thoughtful as anyone else. They know that the world is complicated and people aren’t stereotypes. They live among non-believers and believers in other religions, people who are just as kind and thoughtful as themselves, and they do so peacefully, understanding that winning debates and humiliating people with whom they differ is almost always a useless aspiration, one that goes against everything they want to achieve. So the real debate question now becomes: Why does this movie hate God?
[*Thanks to Jay Brownlee, Chick tract enthusiast and cuddly atheist.]