Movies: God’s Not Dead

I had not planned on watching God’s Not Dead with the church youth group. I was taking our younger son, and since we don’t live nearby, I was going to spend the time in another room reading a novel rather than make the trip to church twice in one evening.

But the meeting got moved from the church to someone’s home, and when I was invited in to join them, it was naturally assumed I would be joining them all to watch the movie. I decided it was probably just as well, as this way I would know what my son had seen and be better able to answer any questions he might ask.

I have rather mixed reactions to the movie. On the whole, I’m inclined to give it 3 stars out of 5 – good but hardly great. It’s not one I would be particularly inclined to recommend if it weren’t being so widely viewed by church people. (Our youth group leaders are so enthusiastic about it, they want to have a movie night for the adults to see it also. And another church in the same town showed it this evening.)

But since so many people, at least in evangelical circles, are watching it, it makes sense to be able to join a conversation about it. What does it get right? What does it get wrong? Is it an effective vehicle for communicating to Christians? To non-Christians?

Assuming its intended audience is church youth groups (it seems to have been heavily marketed to them, and the inclusion of the Newsboys concert at the end seems to be aimed at that demographic), to give them confidence in holding and even sharing their Christian beliefs, I suppose it has to be considered a success. From what I heard at our youth group, as well as numerous reviews and comments I have read online, that message came across loud and clear.

But is that confidence based on the emotion of a story where Christians clearly carry the day, or on a sound philosophical basis that Christian young people can carry onto a college campus? And what message does the movie have for non-Christians?

I commented to my son on the ride home that the movie seems to be aimed at the people who already believe the message it conveys. If a movie’s primary purpose is entertainment, then that hardly matters. But you would think that a movie whose title proclaims “God’s not dead” would want to persuade people who are at best indifferent to God to reconsider.

I think the movie does a good job of suggesting reasons to at least consider the existence of God. While it seems unlikely that even an aspiring pre-law student (presumably more comfortable with speaking in public than the average freshman) could give such an effective presentation (complete with cool graphics) on pretty short notice, the most of the points he makes are good ones.

But I had hoped that a philosophy class would actually discuss … philosophy. Neither the professor nor the student ever brings up the subject of epistemology, how we know what we know. Do we rely on authority? Observation and experimentation? Logic? Nor do they discuss ethics as a philosophical subject. There is a whole subject called philosophy of religion (one of my most challenges classes in college), but it is never mentioned here, unless you count Josh’s references to free will as an explanation for why God allows evil to exist.

What I really objected to, though, was the whole premise of the professor requiring the students to write “God is dead” on a paper and sign it. I have heard plenty of stories of bias against Christians in secular universities, but I find it unlikely that a professor would try to coerce students so blatantly.

My husband and my older son, however, find it quite believable. My son says probably not at a private college, but yes, he could see it happening at a state university. Well, I suppose it’s not impossible. But even if some professor someplace might be so poor an example of good pedagogy as to try such a stunt, is portraying that example how to teach young people to deal with bias against their beliefs on the college campus?

At the end of the movie, a number of legal cases are listed, supposedly the inspiration for the movie. They scroll by too quickly to get much sense of what they are about, but a number are about student groups on campus who have been denied status as official campus groups. Other cases I have heard about deal with a student’s faith-based stance which was at odds with widely accepted views within a profession such as psychology or social work.

There’s no question that a Christian may face hostility of a kind from those in authority on the college campus, whether expressed as scorn and condescension or questioning the Christian’s ability to succeed in a particular field. So why not create a movie that depicts such realistic examples? Because it would be a more complex story, not so easily told? Many reviews point out how simplistic and stereotypical the various characters and situations are.

One of the objections I read in many reviews by non-Christians is that all the non-Christians are bad people. Based on the character of the professor, it also implies that atheism is likely to be based on hatred of God due to personal experience. My own experience is that relatively few atheists are anti-theists as this professor is (and it seems that many who are anti-theists were once evangelical Christians who became disillusioned).

As for the rest of the simplistic, stereotypical characters and situations, I realized this mostly after the fact. During the movie, I was caught up in the story. This is true of most movies, I think, regardless of their religious or philosophical viewpoints. The few movies that are truly great rise above this. But most movies are pretty simplistic. It takes a lot more skill to tell a story that portrays people as they are in real life, where very little is every resolved in two hours or less.

One of the reviews I read says that the movie “depicts real faith on an unrealistic campus.” Reviewer Jeanetta Sims says that “The absence of Scripture, rather than the presence of confrontational debates, most threatens the Christian walk of college students.” And that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with by better Christian education in churches, not only of children and young people but of adults of all ages.

Sims also points out what’s good in the movie, though. It “succeeds at underscoring the importance of demonstrating rather than merely talking about faith. It reminds us that God is good all the time. And it highlights the spiraling impact of a single courageous person of faith on those who believe and those who are frustrated by disbelief.”

And that’s why I do say it’s a good movie, disappointed as I am in some aspects of it.


 

Note: This is really a small point, in the larger context of the movie, but as one who loves learning languages I can’t help but take an interest in this, and be dismayed if what is claimed is correct:

According to the Goofs section at imdb.com, “The Chinese student Martin Yip spoke Cantonese on the phone to his father in China. The father spoke Mandarin. These are two entirely different and mutually unintelligible dialects. It’s as if a son were speaking Spanish to his dad while dad replied only in Italian.”

It is actually possible, thought not easy, to carry on a conversation in Spanish and Italian, and more or less understand each other – I did it once as a student traveling in Europe. But my understanding is that the different dialects of China are more different from each other than the Romance languages of Europe. And that seems like a very basic thing that a movie producer trying to portray characters of another culture ought to have gotten right.

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