The queasy appeal of “God’s Not Dead”

SDG Original source: Crux

Mirroring its populist tale pitting a devout young undergraduate against Kevin Sorbo’s hostile philosophy professor, the faith-based hit indie God’s Not Dead sharply divided enthusiastic faith audiences and scoffing critics.

For critics of God’s Not Dead, meanwhile, the movie’s ample cinematic sins — one-dimensional characters, ubiquitous stereotyping, ham-fisted plot contrivances, shallow arguments and a jaw-dropping climactic act of authorial aggression toward the antagonist, among others — may make it tempting to dismiss the film’s fan base as smug, angry, anti-intellectual zealots.

To the film’s fans, the divergent reactions might have looked like life imitating art: jaded critics — professional intellectuals with more than a little in common with the sneering, condescending atheist Professor Radisson — mocking an earnest, ultimately triumphant underdog of a film that, despite caustic criticism, won over the masses as young Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) wins over Radisson’s class with his case for God.

Of course there are smug, angry, anti-intellectual Christian zealots in the world, as well as sneering, condescending atheists. A quarter of an hour online is more than enough to verify that. Does having very different experiences of a movie, even a movie like God’s Not Dead, necessarily warrant putting each other in these boxes?

People who respond to movies on different levels often talk past each other, not so much disagreeing about the pros or cons of a particular movie as thinking about what they offer in completely different ways. “Naive” viewers often accuse critical viewers of “ruining” movies by overthinking them, while critical viewers disparage the indifference to artistic merit that makes the discovery of a brilliant film transcendent, like a wine connoisseur encountering some noble vintage that to casual drinkers might as well be ordinary table wine.

My friend Alissa Wilkinson, chief critic at Christianity Today, recently wrote a provocative essay in which she suggests that when a story connects with audiences in a sufficiently powerful way — whether it’s God’s Not Dead or Fifty Shades of Grey — the question “Why is this popular?” becomes as important as questions about the content (and, I would add, the artistic merits or demerits) of the thing.

Wilkinson cites C. S. Lewis’s invaluable book An Experiment in Criticism, which proposes that one of the most useful ways of evaluating different kinds of books is noticing that there are different kinds of readers, or rather different ways of responding to a book — any book. Lewis describes two such ways, which he calls “egoistic castle-building” (unliterary reading) and “receptive reading” (literary reading).

A couple of years ago, the writer “Film Critic Hulk” went further, outlining four stages of artistic responsiveness, from those who experience movies “in a state of childlike naivety,” or who seek to recapture that experience despite wider exposure, to those who approach movies critically, seeking to “contextualize the emotional experience into a cerebrally coherent process,” or who are so expert in the craft of moviemaking that they watch movies with a sort of X-ray view of the process.

People who respond to movies on different levels often talk past each other, not so much disagreeing about the pros or cons of a particular movie as thinking about what they offer in completely different ways. “Naive” viewers often accuse critical viewers of “ruining” movies by overthinking them, while critical viewers disparage the indifference to artistic merit that makes the discovery of a brilliant film transcendent, like a wine connoisseur encountering some noble vintage that to casual drinkers might as well be ordinary table wine.

Wilkinson suggests, in effect, that fans of God’s Not Dead are responding to the film on the level of what Lewis called “egoistic castle-building,” in some ways not unlike fans of Fifty Shades of Grey. What both stories offer, Wilkinson says — even if they do so in disordered, unhealthy terms — is a fairytale-like drama depicting an ordinary, unassuming protagonist confronted with an intimidatingly powerful, worldly, domineering man who, despite their very uneven power relationship, is ultimately overcome by the vindicated protagonist.

I don’t disagree with any of Wilkinson’s observations, but I would add a few things. I think the heart of the appeal of God’s Not Dead for its target audience lies deeper. For one thing, the film’s multiple overlapping story threads and interrelated cast of characters — including, among others, a callous businessman (Dean Cain), an aggressive left-wing reporter and a young girl from a Muslim family who is secretly a Christian — suggest something more comprehensive than a fairy tale with a single hero and villain.

Like Wilkinson, I find God’s Not Dead rather queasy viewing — not least because in my youth I had quite a bit in common with Josh Wheaton, and I wonder now how I would have responded to this film in high school. From that perspective, what most strikes me today about the movie is the extent to which it confirms certain ways of looking at the world.

First, believers are opposed, harassed and even persecuted by a variety of adversaries: an atheistic teacher or boyfriend; a stalking left-wing reporter; a pair of unsympathetic fathers; even Josh’s controlling, Type A girlfriend, who demands that he drop Professor Radisson’s class and dumps him when he won’t.

To American atheists conscious of being a small, unpopular minority in a country where 9 in 10 profess belief in God or a higher power and three-quarters identify as Christian, it may seem bizarre that American Christians could see themselves as persecuted.

But many Christians see themselves as underdogs fighting an uphill battle against hostile elites at the top of cultural and institutional establishments, from judges overturning popular votes on the definition of marriage to movies and TV shows depicting clergy and people of faith as hypocrites or simpletons to educational systems in which many young people lose their faith.

God’s Not Dead paints a starkly binary picture in which true believers are essentially without moral faults, have no need to grow or change, and generally sacrifice nothing of value for their faith, while unbelievers are essentially devoid of redeeming traits, lead empty lives, and are left in the end with a bald choice between conversion or despair.

In this narrative, stories loom large of Christian bakers, photographers and municipal clerks punished for not wishing to participate in same-sex marriages, of believers facing professional disciplinary action for views expressed on their blogs or Facebook pages, of college faith-based groups losing recognition for religious discrimination because they require leaders to profess the group’s religious identity, and so forth.

This narrative is not without merit. Restrictions on religious freedom in the United States have increased in recent years, according to the Pew Forum, from low-level to “moderate” restrictions.

Christian sensitivities to such concerns, though, are often aggravated by a number of factors: a sense of a loss of prior cultural hegemony, the larger American culture of the politics of victimhood, and the foundational place in Christian self-understanding of oppression, rooted in the persecution of the early church and the crucifixion of Jesus. The real and appalling persecution of many Christian communities around the globe, which might be expected put the low-level issues faced by most Christians in the United States, can also have the opposite effect, suggesting a larger pattern.

God’s Not Dead reinforces the narrative of Christians facing oppression, while also offering a vision of triumph in which every believer is vindicated and rewarded and every opponent defeated. For Christian fans feeling bruised by culture wars, the film offers a happy tonic — a sort of pep rally for the soul, culminating in the climactic Christian rock concert with the Newsboys. In the film’s allegory of the Christian life, the Newsboys concert serves as a kind of symbolic immanentization of Heaven in which believers are rewarded with a euphoric, unifying worship experience. Josh even gets a shout-out from the band on stage: a this-worldly stand-in for “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

This isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but there’s a darker side to the film’s appeal. God’s Not Dead paints a starkly binary picture in which true believers are essentially without moral faults, have no need to grow or change, and generally sacrifice nothing of value for their faith, while unbelievers are essentially devoid of redeeming traits, lead empty lives, and are left in the end with a bald choice between conversion or despair.

Am I oversimplifying? Perhaps, but only slightly. Josh struggles a little in the beginning but has no real faults and faces no real crises, wins everything and loses nothing of value. Yes, his longtime girlfriend dumps him, but the film makes it abundantly clear that she was bad news and Josh dodged a bullet not marrying her.

Radisson, conversely, loses everything: his control over his classroom, his aura of intellectual respectability, the argument, his girlfriend, and ultimately his atheism and even his life. His 11th-hour conversion as he lies dying on the street in the rain after being struck by a car might have been intended by the filmmakers as a representation of mercy, but it’s the ultimate subversion of his whole position, denying him every shred of integrity or conviction.

The same pattern plays out with nearly every character. The movie knows in theory that bad things happen to good people, but in practice only bad characters experience real trauma. Of the film’s three important atheist characters, one is killed by a car, the other gets cancer. Both convert. The third is left alone with questions about the emptiness of his life.

One Christian character, the Muslim convert, Ayisha, faces a real cost: she is kicked out of her home. Yet the movie has no interest in the concrete outcome of this cost: where she will stay, what adjustments she will have to make. It simply shows her happy at the Newsboys concert at the end, connecting with Josh. (I knew from the beginning, when Josh smiled at Ayisha in the cafeteria after his first fight with his girlfriend, that Josh was with the wrong girl.)

Another Christian woman, Mina, who is dating Radisson, finally has enough of his abuse and leaves him. Her character theoretically has a growth arc — she’s told she suffers from a “Cinderella complex” that makes her dependent on Radisson — but there’s no actual character development, just a decision to leave. (The pattern of vulnerable women victimized by abusive boyfriends or fathers recurs at least three times.)

Nothing has ever more reliably alienated me from a movie that wants to be taken seriously than a schema in which one group of characters are all nothing but sympathetic and another group nothing but unsympathetic. Rewarding all the good characters and punishing all the bad characters is even worse.

Why is God’s Not Dead so popular? Partly because it offers a variation on the attractive theme of David and Goliath, of the underdog who makes good. Partly because it resonates with the fears and frustrations of Christians over what they see, not entirely wrongly, as an increasingly hostile public square.

But also partly because it flatters Christian viewers with the triumphalist message that we are the heroes, that our enemies are bankrupt and miserable, that we will be rewarded and they punished. It tells its target audience exactly what they would most like to hear, rather than challenging them with what they need to hear. It’s not just bad art, it’s bad morally as well. God’s not dead, but movies like this don’t help His cause.

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God’s Not Dead [video] (2014)

I took two minutes to talk about this one, and still got in less than half of what bothered me about it.