by Sam Fragoso
Drawing from 40+ real-life US court cases where various students, clubs and ministries had their religious freedoms tested, God’s Not Dead tells the story of a college freshman who must defend his faith when his Philosophy teacher boldly proclaims, “God does not exist.”
Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is our entry point into this sordid, God-less collegiate milieu. Unless he wants to a.) Admit God does no exist or b.) Fail the class, our protagonist will have to “put God on trial”. This theoretical trial allows Josh to play the Christian crusader, attempting to convince his peers that God does exist, despite what their towering (despotic) professor may say.
At the end of each lecture (there are three) Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) attempts to pick apart Josh’s argument. Most of the time this entails Radisson deeming Josh’s ideas “primitive superstitions” for the unintelligent and uncivilized. No matter, our protagonist remains steadfast in what he believes. It’s all very noble.
There’s some initial intrigue in the film’s premise, but the film quickly shifts and shapes into a sort of theological Crash, interspersing a series of tangentially connected subplots in which various people examine and evaluate their relationship with God. However, any grand illusions the viewer may have of finding substance here are immediately destroyed.
The motives propelling God’s Not Dead become clear as time goes on. In an interview with The Blaze, executive producer Russell Wolfe explains that the film is intended to make viewers ask the question we’ve been wrapping our brains around since time immemorial: “Is there or isn’t there a God?” explaining, viewers must “answer that themselves.”
Unfortunately, what God’s Not Dead serves up on a silver platter is not freedom of choice or philosophical discourse about the existence of a higher power, but militant Christian propaganda. That answer is already provided for audience members, leaving no room for dissenting opinions or thoughts.
The few characters that are not Christians in the film are depicted as satanic creatures, malevolent beings incapable of contributing joy to this world. According to the film, all Atheists are strident intellectuals who act immorally and with reckless abandon, putting down anyone “of faith” without giving them an opportunity to speak. Of course the irony is unbelievably rich, as it is director Harold Cronk who is not giving the opposition a chance to chime in. The dialogue Atheist characters are forced to spew is often mean-spirited, close-minded and idiotic.
No character better encapsulates that description than Professor Radisson, a cartoonish human being who resorts to ad-hominem rhetoric and nasty threats when Wheaton challenges his Atheistic ideas in class (and by extension, the ideas of Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and other luminaries). Radisson treats Wheaton in a manner that would undoubtedly get him fired after review. Even worse, the man is an absolute dullard – a hackneyed professor who, as Scott Renshaw put it, “wouldn’t be able to make a “first principles” argument.”
Ancillary “non-believing” characters follow in suit. Chief among them is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), a humanist reporter who writes for a fictitious publication called “The New Left” until she is unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. After her demonic boyfriend (who is made out to be the worst individual since Adolf Hitler) abandons her upon receiving the news, she begins to question everything she previously believed in. We also have Aisha (Hadeel Sittu), a college student who practices Christianity covertly, away from her tyrannical Muslim father. This mini subplot is added to clarify that the film supports the Christian God, not any other. All of this leads to a sort of Christian enlightenment one would expect this film to deliver.
Sadly, no Atheists in God’s Not Dead are truly Atheist, but rather a former (or clandestine) Christian who rejected the faith early on in his/her life and has yet to recover. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case, as the film couldn’t possibly host people who truly believe in anything other than Christianity.
Dubious religious content aside, God’s Not Dead is, above all, a dismal piece of filmmaking. The characters are written as vapid outlines masquerading as human beings. The camerawork is sophomoric – moving in and out of each scene with a type of slow motion effect employed in cheesy ’80s action films. The music, which jaggedly alternates between dramatic piano pieces and on the nose Christian rock, is only used to signify how we should think and feel at any particular moment. The performers are given the short end of the stick here, though Harper does manage to imbue his resolute college student with a charm and intelligence absent throughout the rest of this film.
Not that what I just explained is of any relevance to those who subscribe to the film’s ideology. These people, as they did in my showing here in Fresno, California (the bible belt of California), will cheer, hoot and holler at a handful of scenes designed to elicit such uproarious responses. In the previously mentioned interview, even Wolfe acknowledges that his film unquestionably preaches to the choir, reaffirming what devout Christians already believe. And that’s okay. Films being made to propagate certain values are nothing new.
What’s disturbing (saddening, even) is that the film purports to accurately reflect the attitudes of contemporary Christians. Even more unsettling is that it may actually do just that. It’s seems obvious that Cronk’s ugly and myopic worldview – which is ingrained into every frame of God’s Not Dead – is not one to ardently subscribe to. How could anyone truly feel that if you don’t give your entire self to Jesus Christ, you are a bad human being, lacking a moral code to live by?
This is not a matter of many colors; this line of thinking (which can hardly be defined as thinking) is starkly painted in black and white. It’s a crime to strip away one’s ability to think for themselves. It’s a crime to act with ignorance and not listen to those with differing opinions. It’s a crime to believe that if you’re not a Christian, you are inherently an inferior human being unable to bring happiness into this universe. Above all, it’s a crime that this film was made and distributed into theaters.
The Upside: Despite being given very little to work, Shane Harper makes the protagonist likable enough
The Downside: Really, just about everything else; Christian propaganda; dismal dialogue; stale performances; complete sense of amateurism that hovers over this film
On the Side: The film is making some pretty large waves within the Christian community, already grossing 12 million + in its opening week.