I am prone to biting off more than I can chew, and I think this may be the case when it comes to the recent film God’s Not Dead. When I first saw the trailer, I posted it on Facebook with some joke about how awful I thought it looked. I was surprised when that post started a comment-battle about snobbery, art, and Christianity. I can’t say it was the first time I have been accused of being a snob, and it probably won’t be the last. Several people told me they thought I should stop bashing a film I hadn’t seen, so I decided to see it, with as open a mind as I could muster, and then share my opinion.
The film centers on a college freshman who stands up to his philosophy professor after being told to write “God is dead” on a piece of paper. It follows the Love Actually model of several seemingly unrelated stories that overlap and interconnect with one another. The film’s writers, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, said in an interview with National Catholic Register that they intended the film to be a “‘shot heard round the world’ as far as Christians saying we’re fed up with being marginalized and belittled.” The film, which cost around a million dollars to make, has already brought in around $41 million in the box office.
I want to begin by saying that I know this film has had a positive impact on some people. I am glad to hear that, and have no intention of belittling it. I do not think it takes a great or even a good thing for God to work in someone’s life. And there are several moving moments in the film. That being said, I have to give my honest opinion. And honestly, I found this to be a very poor movie. More precisely, I found it to be a poorly executed piece of propaganda.
I imagine that I have just ruffled some feathers. Yes — I do not think that God’s Not Dead is a work of art, but rather a work of propaganda. The writers take issue with this claim, which they accuse “intellectual” critics of using to tear their film down. But propaganda is defined as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” If you have seen the film, or indeed only the trailer, and cannot tell that this definition fits it, I’m sorry. It was made in order to inspire Christians to stand up against a culture that does not respect them. It is art in service of a message: propaganda. Because the message is paramount, writing, acting, pacing, and believability are all sacrificed. I will give a couple of examples
One of the storylines in the film involves an elderly mother with dementia. Towards the end of the film, her sociopath son visits her and asks why the God she believes let her suffer while he has the ‘perfect’ life. Suddenly, his mother has a miraculous moment of lucidity, in which she explains how the devil is sparing him suffering so that he will stay away from God, and then asks him who he is. For the viewer, this removes any credibility from the scene, which becomes nothing more than a vehicle for the old woman’s sermon.
A recurring bit of comic relief in the film involves a couple of ministers who keep having car trouble. After getting two rental cars in a row that will not start, they try to start Rev. Dave’s car again. But first, Rev. Jude insists that they put their bags in the car, to show that they trust God. Miracle of miracles, the car starts! Yep. He won’t cure the old lady with dementia, but damned if he won’t fix your car if you trust enough.
In the end of the film, the antagonist professor, recently bested by the freshman in his own classroom, is hit by a car while crossing the street. In the last moments of his life, the ministers (who have been sitting at that light for a full half-hour, if we are supposed to believe the other storylines) rush over, and get him to accept Jesus before he dies. The lack of subtlety here (and everywhere in the movie) is astounding. But that’s okay, because what matters is the underlying message.
If none of these examples are convincing, the film ends with an altar call, asking the audience to “join the movement” by texting “God’s Not Dead” to everyone in their contacts.
(End Spoiler Alert)
God’s Not Dead is a piece of propaganda. This really isn’t such an insult — advertising is propaganda. Plenty of movies are propaganda. They’re just not great movies. But I don’t think it is a particularly good piece of propaganda. The writing is poor, the acting worse, and the story is not believable. Taken all together, it’s an incredibly didactic message-movie.
Such films have nasty habit of preaching to the choir. I don’t imagine there are many people who walked into God’s Not Dead skeptical and walked out convinced. After all, I am the target audience. In their interview with NCR, the writers made it clear that their intention was to inspire young Christians “to begin to stand up and fight back for the Lord.” But instead, I found it laughable. I would argue that films like God’s Not Dead repulse most people in my age group — especially those from whom it is intended. For this reason, it runs the risk of scaring people away from Christianity. Is God’s Not Dead sending would-be converts away in droves? No. But I think it contributes to a body of work that makes Christianity unappealing to many.
And yet evangelicals, and many Catholics, are flocking to it. Why? I think people want to support it because it was made by Christians and has a strong Christian message, and most have become accustomed to this quality of “Christian” films. I do not want to spend the rest of this article making fun of God’s Not Dead (well part of me does, but I will resist). Rather, I want to draw attention to the underlying desire of the film makers and favorable audience, and offer some suggestions.
People in Hollywood have discovered in the last few years that Christians are a huge, and relatively untapped market (see Alissa Wilkinson’s fantastic article for IndieWire). Christians are looking for music, film, and literature that appeal to them. And people are starting to notice, creating Christian sub-labels are major record companies, and churning out “Christian movies.” In 2014 alone, you can choose from God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, Noah, Son of God, Persecuted, Left Behind, Exodus, and many others. But these films almost always fail either at being authentically Christian, being good movies, or both.
The desire of the film makers was to make a movie that appealed to this audience. And in so doing, they sacrificed everything worthwhile. This does not have to be the case! There are thousands of examples of great works of art that cause us to ask questions, instead of simply forcing the Word down our throats. Often without meaning to, they provoke their audience in such a way as to lead them to Christ. As Jacques Maritain put it: “God does not ask for ‘religious’ art or ‘Catholic’ art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth.” (H/T Marc Barnes) I would point to the films of Terrence Malick and Francis Ford Coppola, the fiction of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, and the music of Sufjan Stevens and Mumford & Sons, to name a few recent examples.
My take-away is this: God’s Not Dead is a poor movie, generally not worth the time or money, especially because there are so many better movies out there! Not sure what to watch? Start here. (D+)