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God’s Not Dead [video]

Posted Apr 12th 2014, 10:38 PM

I took two minutes to talk about this one, and still got in less than half of what bothered me about it. God’s Not Dead: my “Reel Faith” review.

Tags: Reel Faith Reviews (Video), Religious Themes

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Mail: Re: God’s Not Dead [video]

I’ve read your reviews for several years now, and appreciate your analysis of contemporary film. Regarding your recent video review of God’s Not Dead, which I have not seen, I’m wondering why the film seems to have earned your deep antipathy, which appears almost visceral.

I think I understand your general disappointment based on your comments, which I found instructive. But given that the film attempts to bring real Christian apologetics onto the big screen, in a context that (even if poorly executed and unrealistic in your opinion) does relate to the very real world of the modern American university experience, it is difficult for me to fathom why you would give such a film a “D” rating.

My uneasiness with your review was crystallized in your last sentence, in which you took visible pain (offense?) at the fact that the filmmakers neglected to mentioned that a key Big Bang scientist was a Catholic priest, instead referring to him as a “deist.” Isn’t this a rather trivial criticism? The term “deist” is used in multiple ways, and might have been used sloppily, but it conveys to the general public at least a belief in a Supreme Being.

If and when I do see the film, I hope to appreciate your perspective better, but this film review, given the seriousness of the film’s subject and the important role general Christian apologetics, was unsatisfying and smacked of ungraciousness.

Thanks for your thoughtful cross-examination.

I think you may have misunderstood my closing remark. Josh (accurately) describes Père Georges Lemaître, father of the Big Bang theory, as a “theist” (not a deist!). It’s true that using this generic term rather than acknowledging Lemaître as a Catholic and a priest is a trivial, fleeting thing — hardly worth citing in itself in a two-minute review. I cite it, not so much as a substantial criticism in itself, but as a straw in the wind, an indication of a much larger problem: not a problem with accuracy, but with honesty.

This was startlingly confirmed for me after recording this video review when I learned that the Protestant filmmakers deliberately removed a reference to Lemaître being a Catholic priest originally written into the screenplay by the Catholic screenwriters! To the filmmakers, this was an awkward fact to be omitted.

The intentionality of the omission — obvious to me in the viewing, even without that back story — speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ overriding wish to avoid anything in any way challenging to the intended message to their intended audience, i.e., American Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. It was this that set off my dishonesty detector. He who is faithless in small things will be faithless also in much.

More broadly, my feeling is that a movie like this in some ways actually does more harm than good. It conveys a message that is, in fact, not true: that science and reason are so clearly on our side that atheists really know it deep down, but they choose to deny God for emotional reasons.

It also portrays a picture of the Christian life that I find off-puttingly triumphalistic: one defined primarily by outspokenness and glibness, rather than by such things as charity, community, sacrifice, growth, repentance, forgiveness or humility. And it ends on a queasily celebratory note, with all the Christians joyously partying at the Newsboys concert while (spoiler warning!) the mean atheist dies, on the street, in the rain, after being hit by a car — but not before praying the sinner’s prayer.

I think I grade indie Christian films on a pretty generous curve. God’s Not Dead makes movies like Courageous, October Baby, For Greater Glory and There Be Dragons look like spiritual masterpieces. At least all those films challenge their protagonists to grow and change, or at least grapple with their flaws and weaknesses.

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Mail: Re: God’s Not Dead [video]

I heard your criticism of God’s Not Dead on the radio, and have to disagree with your point that the film portrays all the believers as perfect people who don’t have anything in their lives that needs to change, and that they don’t have to sacrifice anything for their faith.

You will no doubt recall that the decision to defend his faith cost Josh his long-time girlfriend who he intended to marry. The girl from the Muslim family was assaulted by her father and rejected by her family for her faith in Christ. The professor’s girlfriend had to choose between God and her relationship with the professor, and chose God. I would put those examples in the “sacrifice” category.

As far as the believers being perfect, the professor’s girlfriend struggled with where she sought her value, Josh’s girlfriend (a believer) put her own desires before God and anyone else, and the pastor hosting the missionary also seemed to have difficulty realizing that God was at work throughout the events of the film, at least until the end.

I will grant you, it is no cinematic masterpiece, but your criticism, oversimplification and near dismissal of this film come across as prejudice toward an evangelical film, rather than an honest review.

Oversimplification is impossible to avoid in the highly condensed format of a live call-in show, but I certainly have thought through all the examples you cite. In a written review I would do better justice to these points.

Certainly Josh loses nothing of value, and has no need of change. On the contrary, he dodged a bullet. Clearly the filmmakers believe Josh’s girlfriend has to go, given her domineering, selfish, unspiritual attitude. She was a shallow, manipulative control freak who had no respect for Josh’s conscience and equated her own life plans with what God wanted. When Josh declined to be bullied, she walked away without even a hint of conflict or regret. (You call her a believer, but does the film offer any evidence of real faith on her part, or of goodness, etc.?)

There was no growth or change on Josh’s part. A new situation brought out who he always was, and she didn’t like it, and left. If it was a sacrifice, it wasn’t one Josh was very broken up or conflicted over. The parting zinger, “My mother was right about you,” is proof positive: The engagement was a trap.

The professor’s girlfriend loses nothing but the shackles of being unequally yoked to an unbelieving bully. While she has no moral flaws, it is true that she has an arc, at least theoretically, of getting over her “Cinderella complex,” but since there’s no actual character development supporting that concept, I think my critique still applies. We don’t actually see her weakness or dependence on him, or her process of growing past that. All that happens is a guy says to her, “Get over it,” and she gets over it.

(Side note: The movie leaves her in the end euphoric and happy at the Newsboys concert — while her newly dumped lover dies outside in the rain. Presumably she’s going to leave the concert and be told that he was killed. How will she feel? That’s a complex, challenging question of the sort this film has no interest in.)

The one real exception is the Muslim girl, who has no flaws, but does pay a real price in getting thrown out of her home. Even there, I don’t recall that the reality of that cost is ever brought home or made concrete, in the sense that we don’t see what her circumstances are after this event (how she deals with being kicked out, where she goes, etc.). All we see of her is that in the end she too is happy at the concert.

I have a cheeky theory that the Newsboys concert, coming as it does at the climax, can be seen as an immanentization of Heaven, the culmination of the Christian life in symbolic form. If so, Josh’s on-stage shout-out from the Newsboys can be seen as a this-worldly stand-in for “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

And notice how Josh is rewarded here for his faithfulness in resisting and losing his girlfriend with a new love interest — the Muslim convert girl, who reconnects with him at the concert! From the very beginning in the cafeteria scene, when Josh and the Muslim girl smiled at each other after his first skirmish with the girlfriend, I was sure the Muslim girl was really Josh’s True Love, and his current girlfriend was the False Love.

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