I debated for awhile on whether or not I should write a review of God’s Not Dead, last year’s surprise faith-based hit. On the one hand, it’s the type of movie at which it is easy to take cheap shots, which can be fun and cathartic, but at the same time, even if those shots are deserved, they can be unfair to the filmmakers and also unfair to people who genuinely like the movie and do not understand why it’s not only bad art but also bad theology.
However, last weekend saw the latest offering of “Christian Cinema,” War Room, top the box office, (which I have not seen and hope not to) and I decided I should comment on the movie which proved to Hollywood that “feel good” movies targeted to Christian audiences can be huge financial successes.
If you’re wondering why a self-proclaimed Catholic film critic is so emphatically negative towards a low budget film by Christian filmmakers that was intended to promote the Gospel, then please bear with me as I explain. I chose the title “Catholic Cinephile” for this blog for two reasons. First, I believe all the Catholic Church teaches and professes to be revealed by God, and that influences my movie watching. Secondly, I believe in the power of art to transform, inspire, and move us closer to the divine. Good art makes the world a more beautiful place, and bad art makes it uglier. Cinema is an art form, for which I have cultivated a love and which I wish to study in order to recognize and appreciate beauty and truth as presented by the artists who make films.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 letter to artists:
Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling the human artist to share in His creative power. Obviously, this is a sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: “Creative art, which it is the soul’s good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified with that essential art which is God himself, but is only a communication of it and a share in it”.
As I said above, the unfortunate reality is that movies such as God’s Not Dead (and Fireproof and Facing the Giants) are very bad art. As a result they neither contribute to the beautification of the world nor spreading the Gospel (which the filmmakers presumably hoped to do with said movies.)
If there is any doubt that God’s Not Dead is terrible cinema, here are some examples from the script. A woman is diagnosed with cancer; when the doctor tells her, she responds: “I don’t have time for cancer; I’m too busy.” When that woman tells her boyfriend, his response is: “Couldn’t this wait ’til tomorrow?” In case it’s not obvious, both of those characters are atheists, and in the world of God’s Not Dead, atheists are terrible selfish people with no social skills or basic human decency, which makes it odd that many of the atheists have prestigious jobs, because one usually needs those skill sets to acquire such positions. The reality is human beings do not speak as either of those characters do, but the makers of God’s Not Dead are not interested in portraying atheists as human beings, but rather as fictitious boogeymen out to crucify poor defenseless Christians, as blatantly reinforced by naming the pastor Reverend Dave (against atheist Goliaths). To which I reply: if one cannot love the atheist they have seen, how can they love God whom they have not seen? (cf. 1 John 4:20)
Nowhere is the disdain for atheists more apparent than the climactic scene, when Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) who challenged college freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to prove God exists or “commit academic suicide” and then blackmailed Josh outside of class, and is somehow next in line to be the department head, has been humiliated in front of his class, spurned by his girlfriend, and finally gets hit by a car. As he’s fatally injured, the film cuts to a God’s point of view shot (angling the camera downward at a ninety degree angle), suggesting that God has willed the vengeful humiliation and death of the antagonist, because in being injured he repents and accepts Jesus as his savior. My advice to anyone who thinks this portrayal of God as a petty, vengeful middle school bully is something to celebrate is to read Ezekiel 33:11. (I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked…)
I’ll mention three other examples of horrendous filmmaking. First is a scene in which a Muslim girl is secretly listening to Christian sermons on her iPod. The movie needs her extremist father to angrily throw her out of the house, so for no reason at all, as she’s quietly sitting in her room after school, her little brother sneaks in and takes the iPod and shows their father. Next, when Josh cites a renowned theist to correctly call Stephen Hawking’s argument against the existence of God an example of circular reasoning, Josh then turns around and uses circular reasoning to “prove” the existence of God. His philosophy professor, who’s supposedly very intelligent, fails to notice this. Finally, the woman who is diagnosed with cancer discovers her car with the window smashed in and her GPS stolen. She says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” That’s a good summary for much of the film, because in reality, the word which most actual human beings would use in such a situation is one that rhymes with duck (or maybe odd slam hit).
Art cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Consequently, good art will be aware of the condition of the world. A whitewashed world where you can tell heroes from villains by who looks forward to a Newsboys concert is neither realistic nor does it share in the divine creativity of God, because it ignores the reality of God’s greatest creation (humankind) in favor of contrived messages and code symbols designed to give those in the know a feeling of superiority.
The common objection to all these points is that faith-based films, such as God’s Not Dead, “made me feel good.” The question to ask oneself is “why did I feel good?” Is it because my preconceived worldview was confirmed as I was pandered to? Is it because an ostensibly Christian protagonist was vindicated, even if that involved clear hatred for one’s enemy? Joel Mayward fleshes this phenomenon out in detail, but he is absolutely correct here:
The response of “I liked it, so stop critiquing it” may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn’t invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy.
The belief that if you proudly stand up and proclaim your faith, God will reward you has an obvious appeal for Christians. Not only does God’s Not Dead twist that into be a jerk to your enemies, it also prevents a version of faith so naive that books of The Bible such as “Job,” “Lamentations,” and “Hosea” have absolutely no place in its world. Remember by what act Jesus draws the world to Himself (or uplifts us)? That is completely foreign to God’s Not Dead and many other examples of “Christian cinema.”
Personal Recommendation: F