19 July 2014

Some Thoughts on "God's Not Dead" (the motion picture) ...

Posted by at 10:47 PM

The storyline:
When a freshman (Josh Wheaton) enrolls in an introductory philosophy course to fulfill an elective requirement toward a "pre-law" curriculum, the professor (Jeffrey Radisson) of the class turns out to be a tyranical militant asshole atheist. Professor Radisson commands his students, just barely a minute after entering and introducing himself to them on the very first day of class, to sign their name on a sheet of paper with the simple statement, three little words: "God is dead." He tells them that signing it means they can skip right over the part of the course where students typically get their worst grades. The rest of the students sign their sheets without hesitation, but Josh, the only holdout of the entire class, can't bring himself to deny his god. He refuses.  The professor then puts Josh on the spot. If Josh will not sign the paper, he will then have to debate the existence of god against the professor before the whole class. If he fails to get his fellow students to change their vote, he forfeits 30% of his final grade right off the top.
[Spoiler alert! —Josh does in the end succeed in changing the hearts and minds of his fellow students and they live happily ever after—big surprise, I know.]

I write what follows by request. A dear friend, a Baptist minister that I used to work with, recently sent me a link to a preview of the film. Saying that he'd seen it, he warned me that it was not very good, but he said that he'd be interested in reading my opinion of it.
So here goes:


(It's impossible to separate the forest from the trees, but I'd like it to be the film that I review here—not the viewpoint it promotes—so I'll do my best to just focus on formal flaws that the film suffers from, rather than on any theist/atheist arguments made within.)

— — —

The most glaringly obvious problem in this film is its inability to present even a single character that is not two-dimensional or ill-developed:

• Josh: The most fleshed-out role is Josh Wheaton (there's the Prof. too; I'll get to him shortly), but even this central character is not much more than a thumbnail sketch. He's believable enough as an awkward teenager, but there's not much there in his performance to shape a character.
(He winds up being the guest of honor at a "Christian" rock concert at the end of the movie, though. How cool is that?)

• blonde girl: Josh's girlfriend (I forgot her name), a control freak determined to not let anything get in the way of her and Josh's future picture-perfect life together. She forbids Josh from taking Prof. Radisson on. Josh disobeys her, so she breaks up with him, saying, "My mother was right about you." She thus disappears from the film, never having congealed into a real person with any discernable depth. (What her mother was right about, we'll never know.1) She functions as the example of a "fake" Christian in the film.
(She had tickets to the concert, it was his anniversary gift, but I didn't notice if she was there or not.)

• Amy: Amy is an up and coming journalist/blogger. She is depicted as radical far left. The entirety of her character development consists of the camera panning across her car's abundant bumper stickers. She's a atheist vegan activist. Yup. She's one of them liberals. It's a disingenuous leftism, however. We later learn that she's in it just for the money. Nevertheless, she is intent on exposing and discrediting all that the good people of the American hinterland (represented by one of the Duck Dynasty guys) consider right and good and proper (hunting, Christianity, apple pie, etc.) on her blog. Scatterbrained and disorganized, nothing ever goes right for poor Amy. Upon discovering that she has cancer, she goes to interview the band (to trash them, apparently) but her inevitable conversion ensues after being stumped by a single question from the singer.
(Definitely at the concert that night, getting saved by the band backstage.)

• Muslim girl: Aysha wears a hijab to school to appease her fanatical father (who, incidentally, looks just like a stereotypical crazed terrorist), but she discards it as soon as he is safely out of view when he drops her off in the morning. We soon learn that Aysha is actually a Christian in secret. Where and/or how she became infected with this little religious habit we are not made aware of. Did she just pick it up it from sermons and podcasts? 2 Her malevolently psychic (¿ —it is a confused and confusing scene — What the hell was that about?) little brother betrays her, snitching to their father about her infidelities. Her dad then throws her out of the house onto the street. 
(She is seen dancing and swaying ecstatically during the rock concert.)

• cleric #1: We meet Reverend Dave3, who finds young Josh in his chapel praying for guidance just as he is about to close shop for the night, which must have been fate (of course—What else?), so, in what seems like an abridged Brady Bunch kind of moment, the good Reverend naively advises Josh (a freshman on his first day of college) to go ahead and debate the mad professor (a PhD in philosophy) on the existence of God. To assist him in in his noble quest task, Reverend Dave offers Josh a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (he backs it with an alternate one from Luke).
"Don't try to be clever," he says, "just tell the truth."
Yeah, okay. Thanks Reverend. 

• cleric #2: We meet Reverend Jude, a jolly platitudinarian [I hereby coin the word], a sojourning African missionary whose function seems to be to prop up Reverend Dave's ego with affirmations meant to dispel his feelings of inadequacy and ineffectuality ("Don't worry, Dave, I know it feels like you ain't doing nothing but weddings and funerals around here, but you just have to trust that the Lord knows what He's doing in giving you this vocation. Don't you worry now." [to paraphrase]). I suspect  that Reverend Jude may have been an afterthought meant to bring some folksy comic relief to this otherwise soulless and tepid film. 

• Mina: Mina is the subservient girlfriend of the asshole professor. She is a Christian but she never brings up the topic with Jeffrey for fear of antagonizing him. For his part, Jeffrey treats her like shit in front of all his friends, making fun of her religious tendencies, asserting his intellectual superiority at every turn. Theirs would be a believable passive/aggressive/enabler kind of relationship if we weren't also led to believe that they have simply avoided talking about religion all this time, that their broaching the topic of religion is really an anomaly. His hatred of God [oops—spoiler alert!] is so all-consuming that it is simply impossible for me to believe that premise. He is such a pompous ass, and she is so milquetoast, that I just can't envisage their having fallen in love with each other. They're not believable characters, not in context.
(She is at the concert too.)

• Mark: We meet Mark, Mina's brother (and Amy's boyfriend). Their mother is suffering from dementia in a home for the elderly. If such a thing were possible, Mark is an even bigger asshole than the professor is. He is only interested in money and in keeping up appearances. 4
(He's too busy accumulating wealth to care about some silly concert.)

• Martin: We meet Martin, an exchange student from Communist China. Josh's "debate" with Professor Radisson is enough to convert him to Christianity.
(Definitely at the concert. Like all newbie converts, he is extra-enthusiastic [if a little graceless].)

• Jeffrey Radisson: The straw elephant in the room. I saved the professor for last because he is the fulcrum on which the whole film turns  As far as characters go, he's the film's black eye shiner. Worse than a caricature, he's a boogeyman.  His character is a gross mischaracterization. It can only be the creation of someone who believes that our higher-educational institutions are actively involved in some insidious effort to silence religious believers on their campuses. This imagined affront to religious expression is the very motivation to make a film like this in the first place; it is its raison d'être. The screenwriter's/director's portrayal is a mischaracterization, nay, a demonization, of both what a freshman philosophy course is and what a philosophy professor's job is. As such, it is insulting to philosophy and to higher education in general.

Imagine for a moment that it's the first day of a freshman year philosophy class. Given such a bare scenario, what would we expect to see? Sure, one might expect an austere man to walk in and turn over a chalkboard on which he'd prepared a list of famous philosophers. Such a list, on the very first class session, might include a few of the Greeks, maybe a couple of the later influential thinkers—the course in skeletal outline, basically. But would such a list include Ayn Rand, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Dawkins? I dare say not. Why on earth would a philosophy department start with that angle? Ayn Rand? Richard Dawkins? Seriously? This was the first sign that something was terribly amiss in this movie. The producers don't seem to know what philosophy actually is. They seem to be under the impression that the central question of philosophy is about atheism. As someone who enjoys philosophy, it seems bizarre to me that in this film the professor relies exclusively on quotes from biologists (Dawkins) or physicists (Weinberg, Hawking) and not from philosophers (not even once) to counter Josh's all-too-recognizably Craigian nonsense spiel. Why would a philosophy professor quote an evolutionary biologist in this context? It makes no sense. What I fear is happening there is that the commitment and fervor that the producers of this film feel toward their religion is being projected, equal and opposite, to how a liberal arts professor 'might' feel for his corresponding "atheism." The missionary zeal projected onto him is telling.  In their view, Professor Radisson is not just an asshole, he's an active agent of the encroaching secularism that the producers of this film imagine themselves to be at war against in America. There are atheists waiting in ambush around every corner, chompin' at the bit, seeking to win souls for the other guy (wink wink).

This film owes almost its entire conception to this sort of projection, in fact.

  • Radisson demands written professions of faith. 
  • The arguments that he offers are all arguments from authority. 
  • He relays this received authority onto himself and uses it to coerce his students into compliance. 

The film presents these as normative in academia (or at least as tolerated on campuses). They are not. Quite the contrary, in the real world, a professor like Radisson would be reprimanded and corrected just for his combative stridency alone, nevermind for the fact that he is engaging in such unethical activity as that of religiously coercing students. These just wouldn't fly in an American University. The irony is, of course, that these sorts of things are normative in the Christian paradigm, where all roads lead to the authority of the Bible and where mandatory statements of faith as academic or professional prerequisites are standard fare. As such, these projections are all proverbial logs in the eyes of filmmakers too busy looking for motes in the eyes of academia to realize it.They know not what they do. 

This projection of academic intransigence onto institutes of higher learning, coupled with a tendency to believe that religion is being actively repressed by secularist forces within them (what a psychologist might diagnose as a martyr complex in an individual) is where the real interest lies in this subgenre of filmmaking for me. I get the feeling (films like this drive the point home) that there really are people out there who believe that the secular world is out to get them, that it is out to silence them and take their religion away. It sort of reminds me (and disturbs me in much the same way) of the current subculture of Americans who imagine that Obama is coming to take away their guns. There isn't any legislation pending that could conceivably be interpreted that way, but that doesn't seem to matter to them. They've decided that Obama is coming and that they have to stand their ground. This not only makes sense to them, they consider it their patriotic duty.  Facts be damned. And now these kinds of imaginary bogeymen are inspiring movies.  Oh, great. 

Now, it's not a sin to make a bad movie. People have been doing it for decades. The banal products of Hollywood far outnumber the sublime. They have from the beginning of the medium's history. The fact that art is such a subjective thing in the end always allows us a lot of wiggle room in our judgments, however. Criteria are flexible rather than absolute, and this results in the arbitrariness and ambiguity that are inherent in our perceptions of art. As an example, in the eyes of those within the particular subculture that God's Not Dead targets and panders to, namely North American Evangelicalism, the fact that its conception and execution are so facile and overtly apologetic (a deal breaker for me) does not at all mar the film's artistic integrity. In fact, if anything, it heightens it in a significant way for this demographic group. Their sense of piety easily overrides their sense of aesthetics and they tend to judge an artwork in relation to a cause célèbre rather than as simply a work of art.  Because they perceive beauty in piety, they mistakenly conflate these two concepts. In this sense "testifying" is beautiful by definition. 

I have to stress this conflation before I conclude my review because of the particularly weird movie-going experience I had for this film.  Many of the people in the audience were very expressive.  They felt free to sporadically utter audible paroxyms of approval throughout the course of the film. That's fine, I guess. I get that it is all part of the act of public "worship," but it was nevertheless kinda weird to me in context. I went to a movie theater, not to a church. It was more tactless and awkward than rude, but it needs to be mentioned. I am not that frequent a movie-goer, but I've seen my share, and this kind of audience-participation is definitely out of the ordinary in my experience. The round of applause that erupted as the end-credits began to roll was as ostentatious and out of place as all the "amening" throughout.  It just made no sense. [spoiler alert!] How the film ends: The bad guy dies, but not before the good guys (clerics #1 & #2) elicit a deathbed conversion from him. They go as far as calling the incident a "cause for celebration." It's perverse. Just when I thought this was the pinnacle of bad taste, there I was, scratching my head at this incredibly bad movie, when, as if the horrendous screenplay I am being subjected to weren't bad enough, here comes a syrupy over-produced saccharine musical number (performed by a band called the Newsboys). Finally the movie ends with the punchline of its only comic-relief tangent, involving the pastor and the missionary's "faith that the car would start."  This was the best ending the film's director could think of?  I mean, I'm a friggin' atheist and even I knew that the car would start! This film is so bad that when the audience applauded at the end, I wondered if the twilight zone had overtaken the theater we were in. Had we just watched the same movie? It boggles the mind that such banality could incite applause. Obviously, these people were applauding for their love for Jesus, not for any merits the film may have had. How could they? The film simply had none (again ... that is, unless of course one counts piety, which the film did have in spades). If what you are looking for in a movie is maudlin edification and/or reinforcement of the faith you already subscribe to, then you will probably think God's Not Dead is pretty good.

I found it to be nothing more than badly conceived, badly executed, alarmist, paranoid religious propaganda.

— — —

Loose Ends Footnotes

  1. A word of advice to aspiring novelists and screenwriters: if a character hammers a nail into a wall during the course of a narrative, there better be a framed painting hanging from that nail by the story's end.

  2. A podcast sermon about 1 Corinthians on her IPod is the unresolved nail in the wall in this instance.

  3. Is he a school chaplain? — We are told nothing about the community he pastors.

  4. Here, I'm going to take a moment to say something nice about the film. One of the only scenes I thought was well-written was when Mark finally visits his mom and where she, in a moment of graceful lucidity, responds to a question he asks rhetorically into the room about life being unfair, essentially scolding him for being a  selfish prick before fading back into her dementia, no longer recognizing him as her son. I liked that scene a lot. :)

  5. If these are attributes of the professor and his department that are to be rejected and rebuked, what does this say about the Church?

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