We need to talk about God’s Not Dead. It’s available on Netflix streaming.
Horror fans are a lot like Christian fiction fans: there are so many truly terrible horror movies out there that when one comes out that’s even half-good, it gets lauded by fans of the genre as a masterful piece of filmmaking and praised way beyond its quality. Horror and Christian films are difficult genres to get right, but when they’re done properly, they can be extraordinary.
God’s Not Dead was not done properly. It’s a terrible movie. I can’t believe that anyone who liked it can say how great it was without including some pretty massive caveats. You shouldn’t do that. Don’t make excuses for bad art. Despite how bad it is, it made, according to IMDB, a staggering $60,753,735. That’s a lot of money for such a bad film.
I understand that the film’s intent is not to convert the non-believer, but to preach to the converted. That’s perfectly fine. As a Jew, I’m not the intended audience. Nevertheless, I came in wanting to like the movie, not to poke holes in it or express derision for its explicitly religious themes. I like Christian fiction, even though I belong to a different faith.
The most glaring problem with the movie was its utter lack of subtlety in every aspect. None of the characters had any depth to speak of, and none of the situations portrayed were at all believable. Our willing suspension of disbelief works for horror movies and superhero flicks because we go to the theater expecting unbelievable things. God’s Not Dead isn’t a science fiction movie: it’s a film about Christian apologetics, and requires a certain amount of realism to successfully carry its theme. The film was entirely unrealistic because almost every single character in it was a caricature, not an actual person. This is extremely problematic in a character-driven story like God’s Not Dead.
Radisson, the antagonist, was awful in every particular you can imagine: he belittles his girlfriend in public and in private, insults anyone who disagrees with him, and even threatens the protagonist Josh with flunking out of school. He’s not just an atheist, but an anti-theist. He literally hates God. Why? Because his religious mother died of cancer when Radisson was twelve. It’s a popular belief that under the skin of every atheist is a living, breathing Christian once tragically disappointed by the apparent capriciousness of God. But there’s no difference between that belief and the thinking that people who dislike homosexual behavior do so because they are themselves gay and fight against their hated urges through gay-bashing. Neither of these beliefs is accurate. They’re childish. Some people just don’t believe in God. Radisson’s deathbed conversion (well, deathstreet conversion) was not just unsubtle, but insulting. None of Josh’s arguments were persuasive enough to plant even the smallest seed of doubt in Radisson’s mind. It simply took the fear of an eternity in Hell to get him to accept Jesus Christ. Doesn’t that undercut the entire intellectual basis for becoming a Christian? The screenwriters had the nerve to use this quote from C.S. Lewis: “Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief,” but entirely forgot Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” Sometimes, even a lot of times, that’s what it takes: careful consideration over time. Subtle changes leading to acceptance. It shouldn’t take hitting people with cars to get them to see your point of view.
Amy Ryan’s story was a carbon copy of Radisson’s in theme if not circumstance. She begins as a ludicrous caricature of a leftist journalist, asking questions no real reporter ever asks (even on MSNBC), and finally begins to see the light of Christ when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. We can only sympathize with her because she’s going to die of cancer, not because she’s nice or displays admirable qualities of any kind. Also, the Duck Dynasty stars’ cameos were, let’s face it, included to add dubious (and now waning) star power, not because they added value to the plot or characterization. Christian apologetics, as a philosophy, is deeper than the “no atheists in foxholes” argument, but we get little else in its practical application in Amy and Radisson’s stories.
Marc the businessman was laughably evil: he broke up with Amy because she had cancer, and was later called the Devil by his own ailing mother. Josh’s girlfriend Kara was the typical unsupportive, controlling female Josh had to get rid of to complete his task (the actress’s performance of her was horribly wooden). Ayisha the Muslim got thrown out of the house because she just couldn’t conceal her love of Jesus from her mute younger brother, but without buildup or conclusion, her story seemed out of place, unfinished. Reverend Dave’s story was kind of nice, if clumsily written.
For the most part, the performances were fine. Kevin Sorbo was the stand-out, obviously relishing his role as antagonist. Shane Harper did okay, though his face could only make three expressions throughout the film. They didn’t give Dean Cain very much to do. I’d last seen David A.R. White in Six: The Mark Unleashed, so it was nice to see him in this role. Benjamin Oyango had the best lines, and did the best with them (the accent helped).
Obviously, if all you want to do is reinforce faith, then you don’t have to work as hard as you would to convert a non-believer. But don’t you deserve better than this ham-handed effort? It could more easily have been made into a blog post pointing to great Christian philosophers like Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and William Lane Craig. Heck, Dinesh D’Souza made a documentary called America. Why not a well-produced documentary on Christian apologetics? You don’t need Duck Dynasty for that.
If you saw it and liked it, great. You deserve better, though. You deserve something with depth. Don’t subsidize bad movies because there’s nothing else out there. Demand quality.