God damn, where do I even start with this one…
This vacation, I promised myself I’d catch up on an ever growing list of entertainment that demands consumption (The Last Guardian, for one). In the end, I only found time for one, but it found a way to stick with me like a catchy song that I positively hate. Pure Flix’s movie “God’s Not Dead” is the story of… you know what? It’d be easier if you just watched the trailer.
A film heralded for either affirming the Christian faith or being “so bad, it’s good”, the film is about a college freshman named Josh Whedon (ho’ boy…), as he faces off against his Philosophy 101 professor, Hercules (fine, Professor Kevin Sorbo). After a confrontation in which our hero refuses to sign a paper that God is dead, required “to make the most of his time”, the professor proceeds to give up 20 minutes per class to let a student talk about God. What follows are intertwining tales of people finding faith and the idea that everything, good and bad, happens for a reason, and are all a part of God’s complicated design. The celebration of God and divine intervention leads to a series of coincidences intended to leave the viewer with the feeling that God, is in fact, not dead.
Though the setting of a majority of this film is a philosophy class, the discussions rely on circular arguments and semantics (neither of which constitute philosophy, which is the study of knowledge and existence, not the study of “you can’t prove it, so I don’t have to either”). For the record, there ARE philosophical arguments that can be made about the existence of God, many of which are fascinating and would make for a very powerful film about faith, but for the life of me, I can’t recall the movie making any. Instead, we stick to why atheists are wrong and bad for claiming God is dead.
… Which is wrong, because atheists don’t believe God’s dead. They believe he doesn’t exist.
And I feel like that misunderstanding of the argument is a microcosm of the issues with this movie.
I’d like to preemptively extend an olive branch regarding my next argument: religious fanaticism is a pretty easy brush to paint a villain with, in film or any other medium. The idea of sacrificing free will to an almighty voice that doesn’t have to answer to anyone is an easy (and at times, lazy) out for character development, and if you are a person of faith seeing that kind of depiction, you might feel as though your religion is being picked on. How you bully someone who is so clearly in charge is a bit odd to me – for example, the year itself, 2017, is determined by how many years have passed since the birth of Christ – but I get it. If I felt that people were after me and misunderstanding me, I would want to speak up for myself, and I would want that representation to be something more positive.
But my problem here is the misunderstanding of the fight they are fighting. The idea that liberals and people of different faiths are rotten because of their lack of a Christian faith is disturbing. Especially because none of the movie’s “good Christians” show growth or, comically, evolution. I am not saying they should grow to love or question God more, but Josh Whedon never advances as a character, and that’s a problem. He’s right at the beginning, he’s right at the end, and all he does is study in between. Instead of showing Josh’s development, that middle time is spent painting how “wrong” the other side is, while our stalwart hero was right all along. That isn’t a story about faith; it’s a story about stubbornness. This isn’t about a kid who has to struggle to retain his faith, who is outnumbered and fears he’s wrong. In fact, only a handful of people ever think he’s wrong, and he ends up convincing all of them by the end (and the ones he doesn’t convince lead awful unfulfilling lives… or die). Isn’t faith about finding assurance in the unknown? Isn’t it about believing without proof or justification, even if the whole world is against you? But the world of this film is clearly turned against those who don’t believe. It’s not a movie about faith; it’s about conversion.
I can go on forever about the things that make this movie so disturbing, between its openly racist and sexist portrayals, the way the “characters” are more like odd caricatures, the bizarre cruelty of every nonbeliever depicted, the preachiness of those who believe, and the punishment visited on those who don’t. But I think the biggest thing I want to mention is the title.
God’s Not Dead. That’s the crux of the movie, the argument, the battle of wills, that the whole plot is built upon. And yet at no point is it made clear on either side why it’s important to establish that God is dead. On the one hand, concluding he’s dead, apart from not actually being what atheists think, is an incredibly closed-minded attitude to bring into a Philosophy class, one that has no place in any college. On the other hand, if God is alive… well, what does that mean? How does that change literally anything? It’s fine that this kid argues with his professor; arguably, that’s what College is all about. But whether he’s dead or not, why would that stop the celebration and thanksgiving of his followers… this is the very essence of the movie, and it’s never explained why establishing this is important.
See, someone being dead does not belittle or end their accomplishments. Has there ever been an important figure in our history that post death, became irrelevant? Did Martin Luther King Jr.’s death mean all he accomplished for civil rights has to be thrown out? If an artist dies, does that mean their works should be tossed out of the museum they’re being kept in? And if you’re looking at it from a Christian perspective, isn’t the fact that Jesus – otherwise known as God – died to save humanity more important than the fact that he came back?
But you know what? I think the people who made this movie need to be validated in life. And as far as I can tell, that yearning for validation in this world before the next seems prideful, antithetical to the very nature of what Christianity was founded upon. My knowledge of Christianity is admittedly limited, but I was always under the impression that Christians do charity work because it’s what Jesus would have wanted, keeping his teachings alive, even if there is no actual second coming on the horizon. What is to be gained in the semantics of dead vs. not dead, other than the pride and glow of being told “You were right all along”? What martyr’s story ends with “and then he won everything and hooked up with a hottie at a concert”? Religion should be about doing what’s right, not doing it because you are right. Right?
The point is that it’s just a simple way to rephrase an argument that isn’t even happening to make the person posing the question correct. There is literally no atheist arguing that God is dead, nor would it change anything if he was. Hell, when did he die? Does it matter?
I think of the counterbalance to movies like this, specifically “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, about the Scopes “monkey” trial. Religion “lost” in that play/movie, with the liberals in the argument depicted as right minded, rewarded for fighting the good fight. And yet, it never calls religion “wrong”. Rather, over-reliance on it, to the exclusion of thought, is the enemy. To quote the play itself, “The Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” Religion is not an excuse to stop growing and learning. It should be a guide, not the navigator.
For a movie taking place in a philosophy classroom, God’s Not Dead gets an incredible number of arguments wrong about the nature of religion and why people believe. The film even claims that morals would not exist without religion, and though an argument can be made that religion may have been how humanity first conceived of morality, the idea that it’s the glue that keeps society from pulling itself apart is absurd, considering how many conflicts have started over religion to begin with. And the idea that organized religion ever did do that does nothing to strengthen the argument that God is or is not dead. All it does is prove that the business of religion has a good PR person. No point is made about why the premise of the movie is important except to state that “My faith matters more than yours, now that I’ve rephrased your argument.” And the only place where God seems to play any factor is in a scene of divine intervention…
In which he kills a liberal for being an atheist. Don’t worry – there are two pastors there to convert him. After which they celebrated his demise by going to Disney World.
Dead or alive, if God was around to see this, do you really think that’s the message he wants to share?