So, I saw God’s Not Dead in theaters last month, and I lived to tell the tale. For those of you who may have heard of the movie and were wondering what I thought about it, here are all my pros and cons in one place. It surpassed all expectations at the box office, becoming a legit Christian blockbuster. $48 million was the last figure I heard. Clearly it’s connected with its grassroots evangelical audience. Premise: One lone Christian student takes up the challenge to convince his college peers of the evidence for God, or else face the wrath of the vindictive atheist professor. It’s a classroom David and Goliath drama, plus a little apologetics, Duck Dynasty, and the Newsboys. Did I love it? Did I hate it? Did I find something to like about it? There’s only one way to find out…
1. The apologetics: I personally didn’t learn anything new from this movie, but other people will, and that’s what matters. It is popularizing a few simple but effective tools that young people can use to bolster their own faith and start conversations with skeptical friends. One of the arguments that the Christian student uses, in its basic form, goes like this:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. (Should be self-evident.)
2. The universe began to exist. (Attempts to argue otherwise run into mathematical absurdity.)
3. The universe had a cause.
Now, what do you suppose that cause might be? Discuss. Another example is the conundrum of the Cambrian explosion, which sounds too close to the Genesis narrative of instant created life for the evolutionary atheist’s comfort. There wasn’t much time for the film to explore any of these arguments in depth, but as far as it went, it was solid. I was especially pleased to see them citing the wonderful John Lennox, an Irish apologist who also happens to be the uncle of modern hymn-writer Kristyn Getty.
2. Kevin Sorbo: Kevin Sorbo plays antagonist Professor Radisson, who threatens to sabotage our hero’s entire career if he won’t sign his name to the declaration “God is Dead” on day one of class. Christian hipster criticisms aside, yes, there are professors out there just like this one, and yes, Christian students really have been bullied and singled out for their faith. No, I personally didn’t encounter his type when getting my degree from a secular institution, but I know people who have. So although the execution is formulaic at times, I have no problem with this character in principle, and Sorbo plays it well. Radisson is arrogant but secretly wounded from a past tragedy that embittered him towards God. Again, people have criticized this as a one-dimensional perspective on atheism. While it’s true that many atheists will tell you they just “did their homework” (i.e., read two bad books by Bart Ehrman and trolled some Internet atheist websites) and became convinced that Christianity is false, the fact is many still do cite a personal grudge against God. Of course, this raises the obvious question of how one can hate something one doesn’t believe in. (Whoops, I just gave away one of the film’s big climactic lines there. Belated spoiler alert.)
The classroom confrontations are where Sorbo really gets to chew the scenery, but I was more impressed with the scenes he had with his Christian girlfriend. This relationship was one of the odder aspects of the movie. The viewer is left to infer that this nice girl simply allowed herself to be seduced by her charming atheist professor, and now they’re living together with no wedding ring in sight. And for reasons unknown, she’s only now “starting to wonder if she’s unequally yoked.” Well darling, you think maybe? But it still provided some thoughtful material. It awkwardly comes out at a dinner party that she’s a Christian, and later in the evening, Radisson retaliates by casually wounding her over a careless oversight she’s made with the meal. It was subtly played and all too painfully human. Without giving away details, I’m happy to say that this plot thread was resolved satisfyingly for the girl.
In the words of one reviewer, “Kevin Sorbo is a pro… He’s probably had to sell some bad lines in his time, but he knows how to do it, and he knows that you need to commit.” Whether gleefully rescuing a moustache-twirling groaner by going full throttle, or using a quieter moment to find the broken human being under the surface of Professor Radisson, Sorbo delivers in this movie.
3. Trisha Lafache: In one of the film’s many sub-plots, Trisha Lafache plays a wild-eyed reporter who loves to flaunt her liberal bumper stickers and ambush evangelical cult icons for juicy interviews. But her ambitions are cut short when she receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. I’ll just go ahead and say that this character wasn’t written very well, but like Sorbo, Lafache understands how to work with what you have, and there is one intense scene in particular that she absolutely nails. It’s not my absolute favorite scene in the movie (more on that in a minute), but it’s up there.
4. Some well-placed humor: There wasn’t a whole lot of humor in this movie (definitely not on a par with something like Courageous), but there were a couple genuinely funny moments. In another subplot, two pastors keep having car problems as they try to get to Disney World, and the car rental guy plays his small part to perfection. He probably had fewer than 10 lines, but I was still laughing over them in the car on the way home. Other moments of humor revolve around a Chinese exchange student in Josh’s class, whom the reviewers complaining about no likable non-Christian characters seem to have conveniently forgotten about.
5. The old woman with dementia: As you may have caught in the trailer, there’s an old woman who’s clearly suffering from dementia. A young man is mocking her in the trailer, and that man is revealed in the film as her son, who also happens to be the brother of Radisson’s girlfriend AND the arrogant boyfriend of Ms. Wild-Eyed Liberal Reporter. All together now: “It’s a small world after all…” But all kidding aside, there is one scene between this old woman and her son that made my jaw drop in the theater, it was so good. The son has reluctantly agreed to visit her, and while he is unkind, he also admits that he can’t understand why she is suffering while he lives out his upwardly-mobile yuppie lifestyle in complete comfort and ease. “You are the nicest person I know, and I’m the meanest.” Then, without turning to look at him, she suddenly opens her mouth and utters a stunning prophetic word about how sometimes, the devil lets a man live his life in peace. But one day, the cell door slams shut, and the man realizes it’s too late. When she finishes, she finally turns to him and asks, “Who did you say you were again?” BOOM. Nailed it. This actress, by the way, is uncredited, which frustrates me to no end. However, I think I have finally pinpointed her as Lois Smith, a highly regarded stage and screen presence. Why she is uncredited here, I haven’t the foggiest.
Okay, so there are some things I liked about the movie. Now we have to get into some…
1. The premise: I don’t want to minimize the problem with bullied Christian students in the universities, but in this particular story, the premise was handled unconvincingly. All the people Josh seeks advice from seem to be presenting him with only two options: Take up the challenge, or drop the class altogether. At no point does anybody suggest, “Have you spoken to the chairman about this?” Technically, Radisson’s behavior should get him fired and is probably even illegal, but everybody just assumes Josh has no legal recourse whatsoever. I’m concerned that students may walk away with the false impression that if faced with a similar situation, they too will have no other options.
2. Too many subplots: Each of the subplots had the seed of its own movie within it, but the sheer number of balls in the air made some of the producers’ attempts to connect them seem artificial and left everything a little half-baked. For example, there’s a well-acted sub-plot with a Muslim girl who converts to Christianity and is disowned by her parents, but it has almost nothing to do with the other events in the film.
3. Climax and (non)-resolution: If you know how this sort of thing works, you know I’m not spoiling much by saying that Josh’s impossibly slick video presentations and bedtime reading sweep all before him, ultimately leaving the professor speechless and bringing the whole class to their feet declaring “God’s not dead.” The missing ingredient? A light sprinkling of fairy dust over the whole scene. Not only is the final classroom confrontation awkwardly done, deteriorating into an overblown shouting match rather than a debate, but for ALL of Josh’s peers to be so easily swayed is completely unrealistic. I’ve gotten to know atheist students on my campus, even done a bit of outreach, and I can tell you that most of those students would still be rolling their eyes in denial by the time Josh was through. Far better would have been allowing Josh one converted student while leaving the others in their skepticism. That would manage a young viewer’s expectations while still offering hope of fruit for their efforts.
You also probably know I’m not spoiling much by saying that there’s a conversion scene in this film—a deathbed conversion scene, no less! I won’t say which character converts, but I’ll just say that the whole thing was handled really badly. The Apostle, this was not. The pastors on hand for the conversion are impossibly laid-back about the whole thing, and none of the other characters who were even connected to the dying character are present or affected by this character’s death. The movie just ends abruptly without showing ANY after-effects. Not only would it have been better to let the character die and leave the conversion part as a question mark, but the conversion itself had no sense of awe or gravity about it. The pastors are stopping just short of high-fiving each other and going “Welp, another conversion in the bag!” when it’s all over. When Jesus said “The angels in heaven rejoice,” somehow I don’t think that’s what he had in mind, and I’m 99.9999% sure it sounds nothing like the Newsboys concert with which this scene was bizarrely intercut. Which leads me to…
4. The product placement: First of all, it was “news” to me that the Newsboys were still relevant enough to play such a prominent role in disrupting this movie’s ending. I guess it must be because they have a song called “God’s Not Dead.” That’s pretty lame if you ask me. And it wasn’t enough for the producers to throw in an obligatory concert cameo somewhere in the middle of the movie. No, the entire climax had to be constructed around a Newsboys concert, to which almost every single cast member is drawn as if by an invisible hand. The only way it ties into the story in any meaningful way is that the Newsboys meet and pray for a major character before the concert starts, providing that character’s moment of grace. Otherwise, this gimmick fails on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. The fact that it’s juxtaposed with a major death and conversion is simply bizarre. It makes no sense from a story perspective, it makes no sense from an editing perspective…it makes no sense. Maybe, maybe if the music had some depth and substance to it, instead of being the “happy-happy” kind that you jump up and down to, it could work. Maybe.
And then there’s Duck Dynasty. I like Duck Dynasty, but seriously, what are they doing in this movie besides providing one of the cult icons for the liberal reporter to pounce on? And showing up on screen at the Newsboys concert to encourage all the attendees to “text bomb” their contacts with the message “God’s not dead”? Which is also just silly. Think of all the meaningful conversations that’ll start with your unbelieving friends! Or not! The only good thing to come out of that strange little twist is that when one of the only characters not to drift to the Newsboys concert gets the message, said character tosses the phone aside and vrooms off into the night of unbelief. That still sounds cheesy, but I actually liked the scene because it showed that not everyone’s story will be wrapped up in a nice little bow of happily ever after. Otherwise, it pains me to say it, but this ending played into all the worst stereotypes of the evangelical subculture: cheap, shallow, callous, and can’t make good movies.
Bottom line: One Christian critic said that it’s clear the producers of this movie really wanted to make a documentary, and they should have listened to that instinct. Instead of trying to turn Josh’s story into a fictional drama, while padding it out with awkward sub-plots along the way, the producers could have streamlined everything and focused on a few of the real cases they cite in the credits for inspiration. This would have resulted in a better product and avoided the criticism that “Oh come on, this stuff never really happens” by telling someone’s true story of how it did. As it is, the central conceit of the film ultimately gets maybe only half an hour of screen time. The producers couldn’t seem to commit to any one piece of the movie, resulting in a disjointed character salad—granted, a disjointed character salad with some isolated moments of brilliance, but still a disjointed character salad. Do I think the exposure it will give young people to apologetics, however brief, is still worth it? Maybe. Do I think you should see it? Let’s just say those few moments of brilliance might combine to give you your money’s worth, but chances are that money would be better spent on Captain America 2.
Rating: 2.5 stars