Posted by: minnow | April 5, 2014

Church Via the Movies

SPOILER: I’m going to tell you all about God’s Not Dead. So, if you haven’t watched it and want to don’t read this review.

I realized being as blunt as I plan to be won’t win points with the conservative Evangelical Christians on my Friends list.  But, I was so disappointed by the lost potential in God’s Not Dead I honestly don’t have kinder words than these.  The core idea in the film could have been brilliant.  The list of law suits in the credits testifies to the fact that students across the country have experienced bullying because of their faith. I even noticed a case from my home state of Montana.  But the contrived stories and continuous tell rather than showing undermined any hope for success the idea might have had.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critic score of 20% lines up pretty closely to my son’s assessment of 2 out of 10, suggesting non-Christians and liberals will find the film difficult to like. You can find Part 1 of my son’s review here and Part 2 here. I feel generous giving the movie a 5 out of 10 but Rotten Tomatoes’ audience rating of 87% is somewhat better than that.  Yet it begs the question, exactly who makes up their audience?

The film might be a “hit” with its target audience as reported by some Christian media, such as the Christian Post. But, their criteria for calling it a hit cannot be considered artistic.  Even some Christian reviews agree with this point.  Check out Cross Walk’s review if you have doubts. Interviews with the writers and the director don’t explain who they hoped to reach.  Yet, the cameo appearances of Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson, suggests the film has a distinctly conservative focus.  Even so, a conservative audience shouldn’t settle for a mediocre movie any more than a liberal audience should.

I understand the temptation Christian filmmakers face when they want to create an uplifting films about their faith.  It’s easy to ignore the good in other religions or emphasize the negatives while highlighting the positives in Christianity. It’s less confusing to rely on stereotypical characters and neatly fitted plot scenarios. It’s riskier to leave situations unresolved  or to paint the main characters less black and white.    Yet, taking the predictable route almost always backfires and less predictable choices do create more interest.

Christian movies often get a bad rap because of stiff acting or being too “message-y”.  I would argue however, in God’s Not Dead at least, the real problem is the script itself, not the message in the script or the portrayal of the characters. Seriously, the actors did the best they could with what they were given.  The writers’ attempt to weave several different stories into one might be seen as ambitious except for the fact that they did such an abysmal job of it.  The closest thing we see to a genuine struggle comes from Amy, a reporter, who doesn’t have time for God until she doesn’t have time for cancer. After she’s dumped by her classic bad boy boyfriend when she tells him her prognosis we see a tearful swiping off of everything on her desk. This counts as evidence of her struggle but then she’s right back on the job. I suppose she’s got to get back to work so the Christians in the white hats (the Newsboys) can pray for her and assure her she’s not alone.  [Seriously, I wonder which Newsboy is going to stick around after the concert to hold her head while she’s puking her guts out from the chemo?!]

As the main character saddled with the task of having to prove to his hostile atheist professor that God is not dead, Josh shows almost no emotional distress.  His girlfriend dumps him. His mom doesn’t support him.  His pastor throws a couple Bible verses at him.  And still, Josh is able to put together a solid enough defense that Professor Radisson resorts to yelling threats at him in the hall and losing it in the classroom. Josh masterfully baits Radisson into admitting he hates God and Josh’s classmates stand (almost unanimously) in support of his position that God’s not dead, since nobody can hate something that doesn’t exist.

I could write an entire post about how disingenuous it is to suggest Islamic parents don’t love their children enough by depicting a Muslim father beat and then throw his daughter out of their house because she “converted to Christianity”.  I know it happens, even in America.  But, when the only portrayal of  a different faith is negative it comes across as egotistical and implies that Christian parenting is automatically better.  Perhaps our teens aren’t “kicked out” when they say they don’t believe in our God but they’re still expected to go to church every Sunday and are often emotionally bullied into submission.  Let them claim to love someone of the same sex and we might need to tell a different story altogether.  (Like I said, I could write an entire post on the subject).  The point is we never look better by attempting to make others look bad which is exactly the cheap shot God’s Not Dead took, repeatedly–the bad boy boyfriend, the Chinese father, and of course the angry, atheist professor.

If that isn’t enough, sprinkled through out God’s Not Dead are contrived plot lines and missed opportunities. Conveniently Reporter Amy’s boyfriend is Mina’s brother and Mina just happens to be Radisson’s girlfriend.  The brother and sister are used to contrast the  heartless non-Christian and compassionate believer as they interact with their dementia ridden mother.  In her single lucid moment Mom delivers a harsh warning to her son,

“Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn’t want them turning to God,” she tells him.  “Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.”

Yet, it doesn’t seem to phase Mina’s brother.  Mina on the other hand finds the courage to leave Radisson with whom she is “unequally yoked”.  In fact she does so twice–once at the dinner party after he and all his guests belittle her choice of wine and again just in case we didn’t get it the first time when she tracks him down on campus and we’re treated to one more rendition of Radisson the Arrogant. Josh misses the chance to befriend his Chinese classmate, Martin, before Martin converts and only shows interest in having a friendship after Martin’s confession.  And while Ayisha manages to show up for the Newsboys concert (wonder where she got the money) how she ends up taking care of herself remains a mystery.  Of course the icing on the cake was Radisson’s deathbed conversion witnessed by none other than Pastor Dave and his missionary friend who miraculously got the car running (with a little prayer and encouragement to have faith) after it and two replacement cars wouldn’t start.

So what’s my problem with all these convenient story lines?  Like most of the sermons I’ve heard in the last 30 years they tie Christianity up into a neat little package of happily ever after half truths.  We “prove” the world could have been created and that’s supposed to be enough for Ayisha to leave her family and Amy to fight cancer alone.  The film was so busy preaching it forgot to invite the audience to actually walk with people in their hard places.  Josh isn’t a hero because the script writers didn’t trust us to like him, to understand his dilemma, to cheer for him, to identify with him even if he failed, even if Professor Radisson stayed stuck, even if Josh’s classmates didn’t stand up for him.  God’s Not Dead died because it forgot we weren’t in church.

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