“God’s Not Dead”

Movie For Christians, Not the Unchurched

 A Christian freshman sits down in his Intro to Philosophy class, to find the professor insisting that every student write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign their own name.

This one student decides this act violates his conscience, and refuses.

The professor challenges him to prove to the class that God actually exists – or lose 1/3 of his semester grade right off the bat.

While “Christian” films have gotten their share of grief over the years for sappy plotting or lazy writing, my personal reaction to this film was mostly positive.

Characters

Multiplicity

The movie opens much like a C.J. Cherryh novel: rapid introductions of a variety of characters, jumping from one to the other in order to set everything up before the actual inciting incident.

Unlike a Cherryh novel, however, the film has much less time to explore each and every little side story to its full potential, leaving me and my viewing partners to wonder if there was an original book that was much longer and that actually made use of all the characters. A Muslim girl, a Chinese young man, a pushy reporter, the protagonist student’s girlfriend…all these faces and more are thrown at the viewer with very tenuous connections between them.

This is perhaps the film’s biggest flaw. Dissecting the experience afterward, we easily picked out characters that, while developed at length, didn’t even connect back to the student protagonist in a real way.

Giving the film a longer run-time, or cutting some of the characters and reassigning their screen time, would probably have strengthened the film as a whole.

Nuance and Broad-brush

Another facet of this teeming cast is that the characters had to be drawn in broad strokes of stereotype. This has upsides and downsides: stereotypes are what they are because we can all relate to a certain degree – and there are statistical realities hiding behind them nine times out of ten.

And the writers did work to add depth to their characters. The student protagonist is not infinitely knowledgable, and his arguments against the atheistic professor sometimes fumble realistically.

While the professor – as the obvious antagonist – sometimes pushes the boundary of Cartoon Villain, even he has backstory secrets that add finer shades to his person and motivations.

A few minor characters also get sprinkles of personality, including a pastor who balances “impatient hypocrite” and “wise, omnipresent mentor” with a realistic struggle not always seen in fictional clergy.

Writing

Spiderwebs

Something the film does well is paint a picture of concentric circles of impact. While the protagonist makes his decision based on his own reasons and his own relationship with God, the effects of that decision reach out to people he doesn’t even know.

The image is obviously of the hand of God, working behind the scenes to make connections and achieve His plan, even though we may never be able to see it in this life.

Again, if the film had been longer, the connections would probably have been even clearer – and I’m sure the book (if there is a book) was better.

Philosophy and Theology

God’s Not Dead has its share of awkward, “churchy” moments. Viewers will no doubt feel free to dissect the conversion scenes, cringe with up-turned noses at the evangelism dialogues, and rant (as my brother does) about straw-man arguments for theism.

And yet, I think anyone who’s shared their faith with someone else will agree there’s a certain awkwardness attached to the real thing, and while several of the conversations could have used another drafting, the philosophical dialogue (as set up by the inciting incident in the classroom) has a lot to be said for it.

I especially like the protagonist’s/filmmaker’s response to the Problem of Pain. How can an All-good, All-powerful God allow evil?

“Free will.”

As my pastor puts it, God can punish evil, and He will punish evil, but for now He allows us to make our own decisions and live with the consequences.

While my brother despises the closing argument, I understand it as just an extension of the discussion of choice. The evidence is what it is – all that remains is for each and every person to decide what they will do about it.

Personal choice. Accept God, or reject Him. That’s all there is, and all there ever was.

While this climactic scene could probably have sustained a few more rounds of revision, I think the point is adequately made.

If you or your friend watching this prefer deep, meaty discussions of philosophical principles, you might prefer to watch Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed by Ben Stein, which not only gets into the deep issues concerning evolution, atheism, and their social implications but does it in a way which appeals to those who might consider themselves too “intellectual” for a “Christian” movie.

Also check out Dr. David Berlinski. Just do it.

My Favorite Things

The premise is thought-provoking. Knowing my own temptations, the film was convicting and inspiring all in one.

If given the chance, I could see taking a twist on the premise where the protagonist is the son of a think-tank philosopher who’s been listening to church board theological discussions since he could poke his head over the table. This would lead to him confidently accepting the professor’s challenge, champing at the bit to try out his guns on a live target…and falling flat on his face because he would be arguing in his own strength, not God’s.

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

—I Cor. 2: 1-5

And as snooty as I might get about the portrayal of characters or the depth of the writing, there were scenes of real emotional impact. Watching a woman break down as she faces her death by cancer, I was stirred with compassion for the real people in my life who need comfort, and the Word of God. Real people are suffering real hurt — Am I as disturbed and driven to help by their needs as I was by hers?

Driving people to change their hearts – to care for others more and God most – is always a noble task, and by assisting the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s Not Dead has raised itself above the forgettable, “clean” popcorn-munchers.


God’s Not Dead was directed by Harold Cronk and released by Pure Flix Entertainment. Image is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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