God’s Not Dead (2014)
Directed by: Harold Cronk
Premise: A freshman college student (Shane Harper) defies his atheistic philosophy instructor (Kevin Sorbo) by arguing that the Christian God is real.
What Works: There has been a growing trend of movies made specifically for faith-based audiences including titles like Fireproof, Courageous, Last Ounce of Courage, Black Nativity, and now God’s Not Dead. This latest picture is consistent with its predecessors, so viewers who liked earlier movies in this trend will probably like this one as well. God’s Not Dead is distinguished from the other films in its company in two respects. Firstly, God’s Not Dead actually looks like a professional production. In too many cases, these faith-based movies have been shoddily made (most notably Last Ounce of Courage) but God’s Not Dead is competently shot and edited. The movie is also distinguished by a few of its performances. Kevin Sorbo, who is best known to audiences for his work on the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, is well cast as the philosophy professor. Also giving notable supporting performances are Hadeel Sittu as a young Muslim woman who is in the process of converting to Christianity and Trisha LaFache as a reporter who learns she has cancer. These actors are better than this material and they do what they can to elevate their scenes beyond the film’s inherent silliness.
What Doesn’t: The filmmakers of God’s Not Dead have four goals for their movie. First, the filmmakers intend to present an argument for the legitimacy of religious belief. Second, they offer a narrative of religious persecution in which Christians are being marginalized and harassed for their faith on college campuses. These objectives support the ultimate intentions of the filmmakers, which are to excite the base of religious believers and to witness to the unconverted. But of the filmmakers’ ambitious set of goals, the only thing they accomplish with any sort of competence is tossing red meat at the base of religious believers. The rhetorical failure of God’s Not Dead is not found in religion or philosophy, although that is certainly problematic for the picture, but rather with the storytelling. The center of this film should be the religious awakening of the college freshman and were this story told well it could be a compelling tale of a young man standing up for his faith, taking risks and making sacrifices, and ultimately coming to a new understanding about himself and his religion. But the moviemakers fail to tell that story in a compelling way. Among the problems is that God’s Not Dead is crammed with subplots and there is such an overabundance of characters that none of the stories are told well nor do they develop in a way that gives them a dramatic punch. An indicative example of this problem is found in the breakup scene. The main character and his girlfriend mention that they’ve been dating for six years (which means they started dating when they were twelve years old) and she sacrificed her choice of college to follow her boyfriend to this safety school. She dumps him as soon as he picks the theological fight with his professor and so the breakup has no dramatic impact. Scenes like this one reveal the other problem of God’s Not Dead: the movie has no credibility. The premise of the story is absurd and has no bearing on reality. For that matter, it does not appear that anyone involved in the movie ever went to college. The movie posits that whether or not the main character passes his freshman philosophy course will determine all of his future success. That conceit is almost as absurd as the portrayal of the non-Christian characters in this film. Anyone who does not fit within the filmmakers’ narrow definition of “Christian” is a nasty caricature. Chief among them is Kevin Sorbo’s philosophy professor, who is a straw-man that does not behave in a way that is recognizable to anyone who has any sort of higher education experience. The rest of the non-Christian players in this movie suffer analogous character assassination. Among the worst is the family of a young Muslim woman converting to Christianity; her father beats her and throws her out of the house when he finds Christian sermons on her i-pod. These scenarios are intended to inspire righteousness but they just make the filmmakers look foolish.
Bottom Line: God’s Not Dead can be dismissed merely on the failures of its storytelling but the movie is more troubling because it is indicative of the trends in faith-based moviemaking and of the national discourse on religion. These filmmakers mistake criticism for persecution and plurality for suppression. God’s Not Dead is an anti-intellectual tract masquerading as philosophy and the way this film characterizes the religious debate and the people involved in that debate should be insulting not only to agnostic or atheistic viewers but to Christian audiences as well. This is a movie made by people less interested in a rigorous philosophical debate and much more interested in selling movie tickets by stoking the audience’s anger at straw-men.
Episode: #486 (April 13, 2014)