'God Is Not Dead' and How Christian Films Rally the Base By Vilifying Everyone Else
An atheist Jew walks into a Christian film… The beginnings of a joke maybe, but also a thing I did this week. Why? The answer to that question likely lands somewhere between masochism and a martyr complex. I went (and paid money!) to see God’s Not Dead, for your sins. Now I stand before you fully resurrected and ready to tell you tales of my experience.
God’s Not Dead is a bona fide hit at the domestic box office, so far bringing in an impressive $45 million on a $2 million budget. Its success has sparked conversation about the largely untapped theatrical market for Christian-themed films; only a decade after church groups were bussed en masse to cinemas to see Mel Gibson’s record-breaking The Passion of the Christ. That there’s been a market for this fare has long been clear, but the success of God’s Not Dead perhaps sheds greater light on the cultural bubble of fundamentalist Christianity than Mel’s more broadly appealing biblical retelling ever could.
I stepped into the theater, slightly ashamed of myself, hoping nobody would see through my disingenuousness. There were people of all stripes in the audience, including at least one family with children. I was here in part to mock the film, but I became uneasy at the thought of mocking the people who’d come in good faith to see it. Here was a group of people simply eager to consume the message promised by that title: God’s not dead.
God’s Not Dead comes from a long line of films by Pure Flix Entertainment, a company specializing in films that spread the Evangelical message. It stars Kevin Sorbo as Professor Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor and all around asshole who begins his first lesson by having his students write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it so that the class may skip debating a topic that’s already been settled. One student, Josh Wheaten (Shane Harper) stands against this unjust oppression. “I’m Christian,” he tells Prof. Radisson. So Radisson proposes a challenge: Josh must stand in front of everybody at the end of class for the next three weeks and deliver lectures to convince everyone that God is not dead. If he fails—and Radisson assures him he will—he will fail that section of the course and lose 30% of his mark.
It’s a battle for the ages! An epic showdown! Religion vs. atheism in the halls of a public university! Two worldviews enter; only one can leave.
There are the other storylines, too. In fact, God’s Not Dead is like a Christian version of Crash, which multiple interconnected stories of true believers, earnest seekers of faith, and the atheists and infidels who try to push them down.
Thinly drawn characters all of them, of course. Straw men everywhere. Every atheist is an awful, mean person. Even Josh’s nominally Christian girlfriend comes off as a horrible shrew for not being as good a Christian as he is. A Chinese student’s father hushes down his God talk for fear of communist government reprisals. A Muslim father forces his daughter to wear a veil and then literally drags her out of the house when he discovers her newfound interest in Christianity. Meanwhile, the true believers are unambiguously good and just. It’s all setup for classic false dichotomy in a film more interested in didactically hocking an ideology than being any sort of good storytelling.
Of course, storytelling has never been the point of these sorts of films. They aren’t even meant to change minds or convert the heathens like me. Films like God’s Not Dead are equivalent to the likes of Fox News; designed for consumption by an audience who want only to have their convictions bolstered. They perpetuate an unwarranted persecution complex so that the audience may feel vindicated in their beliefs. That the logic in the film is faulty at best and its various subplots hint at profound xenophobia and disturbing conceptions of patriotism is all part of a single-minded attempt at preserving a tenuous ideological bubble. A bubble threatened by the mere hint of dissent.
Coming at film like this as an outsider is folly in itself, but also instructive. The rest of my audience was totally wrapped up in the film, commenting along and making known their agreement with the young hero. “Damn straight,” uttered the man behind me as Josh made yet another point in favour of God’s existence. A smattering of applause as the credits rolled by with a list of court cases in which Christian students and teachers were apparently oppressed by the tyranny of the secular state. That so many people buy into this skewed narrative is a sad reflection of a society where our differences of faith and politics are reason for discord and distrust.
I walked into God’s Not Dead looking for a bad film to mock, but came out of it alarmed at its brazen rejection of meaningful dialogue and lamenting its success. In a world of severe religious and political stratification, the war is ongoing, every other group is the enemy, and movies like God’s Not Dead are propaganda for a very willing audience.