Monday, March 28, 2016

“God’s Not Dead” and the Bastardization of Christian Filmmaking

If you’re a fan of the 2014 film God’s Not Dead, and if you’re excited about its upcoming sequel, you and I probably have several things in common. We likely agree that historic Christianity is becoming less and acceptable in the public sphere. We likely agree that many of our nation’s college campuses are becoming more and more hostile to individuals who adhere to any form of absolutes. We also likely agree that there is an increasing need for believers of all types—students, teachers, pastors, filmmakers, etc.—to engage with our world in an effective and countercultural way.

It’s actually because of these shared beliefs that I’m majorly concerned with the popularity of God’s Not Dead (and other movies like it). And it’s because of these shared beliefs that I want to explain my concerns to you.

I’ll put aside most of the artistic issues I have with the film. (For that, I’ll direct you to my cyber friends Steven D. Greydanus and Peter T. Chattaway). My main focus here will be on the movie’s message. In short, the film utilizes three dangerous techniques to craft its story: caricatures, wish fulfillment, and deception.

1. Caricatures

Don’t you hate how Christians are repeatedly misrepresented in movies and television? It’s as if screenwriters take no thought to learn what true Christians are actually like. We end up with a lot of hypocritical, narrow-minded, and/or worldly characters who don’t rightly represent the vast majority of genuine believers. It’s highly unfortunate at best, and outright shameful at worst.

This misrepresentation is exactly what God’s Not Dead does to all three of the main atheists (or antitheists) in the film. All of them are evil or absurd in the extreme: no redeeming qualities, no shades of gray. Each of them is one-dimensional, robbing them of any real humanity.

What do atheists think about this? Blogger Neil Carter says it well:

In the end the central injustice of this movie is its failure to fairly represent a class of people whom Christians purport to love. But it’s not loving people well to misrepresent them this badly. This movie caricatures, dehumanizes, and depersonalizes people like me, portraying us in the worst possible light.  How could I not find this movie disgustingly offensive?

Carter is right. You don’t caricature, insult, and demean skeptics and unbelievers if you want them to actually engage with you in a meaningful conversation. You can’t practice deception and then expect people to trust you, let alone hear you. It’s Evangelism 101.

2. Wish Fulfillment

Like many Christian films, God’s Not Dead takes places in an alternate reality, where circumstances unfold unnaturally or illogically so as to work toward a contrived outcome. The suspension of disbelief is heightened to nearly insufferable levels.

Consider just a couple examples. First, the film gives us a view of persecution so watered down that it’s practically meaningless. In an early scene, the movie sets the stage for its main protagonist, college student Josh Wheaton; he is told what his experience will be like in the philosophy class he signed up for: “Think Roman Colosseumlions, people cheering for your death.” That’s the kind of persecution young Josh has in store for him, according to the movie. (I guess it’s possible to interpret that line of dialogue as hyperbole, or even as a stab at humor, but nothing about the film lends itself to such an interpretation.)

What does Josh’s experience actually entail? His atheist professor ends up giving Josh three 20-minute segments in three separate classes to explain his faith to the entire class. And other than one girl asking Josh a question during his first presentation, there’s never even a hint of mob mentality persecution.

This is in stark contrast to what Christians actually experienced in the Roman Colosseum. Violent deaths aren’t usually inspiring, and yet historical accounts of Christian martyrdom fill us with a strong sense of catharsis. Why? Because martyrs show us most clearly how a person can lose the whole world and gain his soul. All his losses are temporary and all his gains are eternal.

In spite of what the movie foreshadows, Josh’s victory over his college professor isn’t anything remotely like that. He ends up losing nothing and gaining everything—including the accolades of pop culture icons in front of a massive crowd. (Technically Josh does lose his girlfriend, but it’s obvious almost from the beginning that he was better off without her anyway.)

One more example of wish fulfillment: Josh’s victory is based on a string of unrealistic circumstances. He is somehow able to prepare three apologetic presentations, complete with Hollywood-level visual aids, in a matter of a few days. Each presentation leads to a completely unreasonable response from his professor: dastardly threats after the first presentation (even though the professor wasn’t seriously challenged at all), a vulnerable confession after the second presentation (after Josh did directly challenge the professor’s authority), and a complete meltdown during the third presentation (which, with its infantile rhetoric, wouldn’t goad anyone).

As a result, every student in the entire class—each of which agreed just a few days before that God is dead—demonstrably joins Josh’s side and declares that God is not dead. To top it all off, this little squabble somehow makes it into the news, which quickly reaches the ears of the folks at Duck Dynasty, who mysteriously collaborate with the Newsboys to interrupt their concert that weekend to give a shout out to brave young Josh.

These contrived plot elements are nothing more than fantasy masquerading as reality. That’s not inspiring; it’s stoking up the fires of paranoia and victimization.

3. Deception

This isn’t so much a third factor of the movie’s message as it is a result of the first two factors. The film dishonestly handles almost every thematic element it touches: human nature, logic, philosophy, character development, etc. We’re not just talking about being sloppy. We’re talking about lying. In a court of law, it’s called perjury. Does anyone see a problem with Christians—supposed proponents of truth—resorting to lying as a rhetorical device?

Even as the end credits roll, several real-life court cases are highlighted as the supposed inspiration for the movie. YouTuber Kevin McCreary (a.k.a., Nostalgia Christian) actually researched every single one of these cases (which he begins discussing at the 32:40 mark). Here’s what he discovered:
                                                                                                                        
…most of [the court cases] don’t have anything to do with religion, but rather political issues that tend to be more conservative. And without exception, they’re cases of Christians filing lawsuits against schools. . . . Not a single one of them are cut-and-dried cases of Christians being mistreated, and they all result in the Alliance Defending Freedom [an organization that gets an ad at the end of the credits] making a lot of money.

In spite of all this, some might argue that believers have found genuine encouragement from movies like God’s Not Dead, or that some people may have actually gotten saved as a result of watching these films. While those are real possibilities, it’s still no excuse for dishonesty in our discourse. God forbid that professing Christians play fast and loose with the truth because “the end justifies the means.” As Andrew Barber says in his excellent examination of Christian films, “The idea that one conversion validates even the worst means can be used to justify all sorts of evils.”

God’s NOT Dead…But So What?

It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, that God’s Not Dead 2 will be an improvement on its predecessor. However, the filmmakers have shown no remorse over how they handled things the first time around. In fact, it seems clear that they’re copying everything about the original film that made it a financial success. Heck, even God’s Not Dead 2’s release date is problematic: April 1 (what many Evangelicals like to self-congratulatingly call National Atheist Day). Seriously? Are they being unnecessarily offensive just so they can get another one of their fingers in the eyes of their atheist neighbors? God’s Not Dead 2 is looking like it has all the subtlety, grace, nuance, and Christian spirit of the first film—that is to say, none.

Brothers and sisters in the faith, if we continue to push artistic and moral trash like God’s Not Dead on the world, we will only continue to sour the taste of Christianity in the mouths of those in our culture. By playing in a fantasy world of our own making while simultaneously vilifying those who disagree with us, we will fail to engage with our culture in any meaningful way. In fact, we will actually damage the very gospel message we seek to proclaim.

When we play dirty like the filmmakers of God’s Not Dead have done (and are still doing?), we show ourselves to be so desperate to spread our message that we will stoop to any level in order to get our society to hear us. In effect, we act as if…well, as if God is functionally dead. As if it’s solely up to us to make a difference in the world. We tarnish the best news in the universe, all for the sake of our own therapeutic hubris. And that is something for which we should be greatly ashamed.