Review: God’s Not Dead

God’s Not Dead

Trailer

This sums up the movie.

This sums up the movie.

I want to fully admit, at the start, the only reason I actually watched this film was because I had heard how legendarily bad it was, in a whole lot of different ways. You might well wonder if this perception might skew my appraisal a bit. But from the moment that a black character made a glib comment and then introduced himself as “G-Dog” in the first five minutes  – and proceeded to have no more lines for the rest of the film – I knew I was in for something especially terrible, and I have no compunction saying so.

Christian college student Josh (Shane Harper) refuses to sign a document that his philosophy lecturer, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), insists his class agree to, a paper that proclaims “God is dead”. Annoyed at his intransigence, Radisson challenges him to a series of debates on Josh’s counter assertion that “God’s not dead”. Meanwhile, several people connected to the two undergo their own experience with faith – or the lack of it.

Though I am a fairly terrible Roman Catholic by the official standards, I still count myself as a Christian, so you could say that this is the kind of film, heavily religious in every facet of its being, which is aimed at me. Well, I’m here to tell you that not only is the religious message of God’s Not Dead horribly offensive, the actual film itself is as bad or worse than anything else I have seen this year (and who am I kidding? The people behind films like this hate Catholics).

The central premise is a hackneyed and clumsy attempt to film a version of the “atheist professor” strawman story some might be familiar with. A needlessly aggressive and morally bankrupt atheist takes on a determined, brave resourceful Christian, and, sorry to spoil, the former gets humiliated and shown up. All of the sequences involving the two would be comical if it wasn’t for the films apparent popularity with its core demographic, who you worry might actually buy into the terrible logic, the circular reasoning and, ultimately, the total dismissal of the main characters failure to actually prove the existence of the almighty, despite the indication that he somehow has. Atheists have no bedrock for morality, sections of Genesis describing the Big Bang and evolution, tu quoque assaults on the Professor and his sources, it goes on and on, leading up to a vomit-inducing finale of total victory.

This main plot provides an outlet for the production teams apparent bitterness at academia in America, portrayed as a breeding ground for infectious atheist thinking, where a packed class of philosophy students do not even offer the slightest objection to being ordered to renounce any belief in a God. Why would they? In a later scene two religious characters blindly agree that such students have probably never encountered the message of Christ before. In America. The skewed view of the world presented here is staggering, making God’s Not Dead positively fantastical.

And then there is the swarm of sub-plots surrounding the main circus, featuring more of the same strawman characters and ridiculous narrative. The Professor’s God-fearing girlfriend tolerates his amazingly brutal put downs before dumping him. A female liberal blogger (as focus shots on her bumper stickers make clear, she’s the trifecta of suck for the films target audience: atheist, vegetarian and believes in evolution) mocks God and those who worship him (including what I took to be a redneck stereotype, but who turned out to actually be one of the “cast” of Duck Dynasty, playing himself) until she gets struck by cancer, inevitably repenting. Her gleefully amoral boyfriend (played by Dean Cain of all people) dumps her after finding out about the cancer, later taking time to mock his dementia suffering mother. A student from China is inspired to convert against his father’s wishes (because we have to hit all of the Christian bogeymen, even communism). The local reverend tries to plan a trip to Disneyland (wait, what?).

My favourite sub-plot involves a young Muslim woman, encouraged by her devout father to adhere to their traditions, no matter how difficult it might seem. I thought God’s Not Dead was miraculously going to make a decent point about the similarities between Christianity and Islam, since adherence to religious tradition seemed to be the crux of the other plots. But no. Once said Muslim girl is revealed to be a secret Christian, we get some domestic abuse and abandonment. Yeesh. Sexism, racism, bigotry. God’s Not Dead has it all and wears them proudly.

The films bounces around its sub-plots in a hectic manner, eschewing character development for cobbled together stereotypes that reinforce a message of condescension, insult, hatred and discrimination towards any non-Christians, inventing a version of the United States where Christians are an oppressed minority. The narrative tries to act clever in stringing all these plots together, but fails totally, the effect being comical more than endearing, making for a confused and untidy story.

The acting matches the trend. Sorbo is clearly enjoying himself, given authority to overact to the fullest in this vaudevillian interpretation of an internet meme, and he’s basically the only one worth talking about. The rest, from Trisha LaFache’s liberal screecher to Dean Cain’s evil elite, just can’t seem to get any kind of acting talent to shine through the terrible dialogue and worse characterisation. Playing a cardboard cut-out is one thing, but playing a religious sub-set’s picture of the “bad guys” is another. The lack of enthusiasm (and talent) is plain to see.

Director Harold Cronk, with a pedigree in films of this nature, can’t really do much to liven up proceedings. Many of his shots are framed rather strangely, particularly when it comes to centring characters and the like. There’s also an avalanche of dialogue-less establishing shots and scenes frequently seem to last far longer than they should have to because of it. The script is flaky and full of trash-level stuff, the product of a writing team more obsessed with getting their religious viewpoint across as directly as possible than actually crafting decent dialogue. The score is lax, only the half-decent pop rock of Christian band The Newsboys saving it – and even they don’t get a pass, offering an extended cameo in one of the films worst scenes near the conclusion.

I did not expect much from God’s Not Dead at all. Maybe just some “goodbad” level stuff, like a Christian version of The Room. There was plenty of that, but it all came with a horrific core, one of intolerance towards non-believers and a celebration of their misfortunes. No part of the production comes out of this thing looking good. Go and check out Calvary if you want to see a film built around a dignified and positive message of the Christian faith. Run like the wind from this film, which will only make you laugh in the brief moments between the sections that will make you outraged. Not recommended.

More in-depth discussion, with spoilers, follows.

Jeez, what more do I want to say about this piece of nonsense? What we have here is a startlingly poor film, one that fails on nearly every level of its story and production. Christian themed films are one thing, but this is an utterly warped version of the Christian message, turning it from one of forgiveness and loving thy neighbour into segregation and barely concealed scorn for your fellow man – if he doesn’t happen to be from this very specific sect of evangelical Christians.

That main plot man, I dunno. Kevin Sorbo’s philosophy professor would be laughed out of his job if he actually attempted some of the things he does in the classroom here, but presumably the people behind God’s Not Dead actually think things like this are happening the way they portray it. This fantasy land of Christian oppression in America is the setting for an increasingly crazy plotline. It isn’t just enough that this extraordinarily aggressive atheist professor does not want to discuss the issue of God in his class. He can’t just move on to other things. No, he has to get the class to all sign their names to a piece of paper proclaiming “God is dead”. And the craziest thing about this scenario, the most baffling, is that every person in the class – bar our “hero” Josh – signs it without the slightest bit of questioning or protest. They all nod their heads and sign.

Shane Harper's Josh is about as charming and convincing as Kevin Sorbo.

Shane Harper’s Josh is about as charming and convincing as Kevin Sorbo.

This is because, as a later scene between Josh and understanding/inspiring Reverend Dave  – the “cool priest” if I ever I saw one – indicates, the people behind God’s Not Dead actually seem to think that a class of philosophy students in America today will never have been exposed to Christianity in their lives, that is, that Josh’s debate lectures will be their first brush with the Christian faith. In America. You know, the country where nearly 75% of the population is some form of Christian.

This all comes from a position held by some evangelical Christian communities, that everyone outside the circle is an enemy and is to be regarded in the worst manner possible, whether it is because of your religion, nationality or political beliefs. This includes nasty liberal progressives, the worst of the worst, who have raised, apparently, an entire generation of young people who have no understanding of Christianity. Until Josh turns up, with his good looks, terrible acting talent and (picking my words very deliberately) God awful debate logic. He’s not totally charming of course, as his whiny girlfriend decides to inexplicably dump him when he refuses to back down in his debate with Radisson. You’re better off Josh, she was sort of a cardboard cut-out (“I have our whole lives planned out Josh. I’m sorry, but that’s just the kind of girl I am” – actual lines).

It’s not hard to argue with a strawman of course, and Kevin Sorbo’s Professor Radisson is so stuffed full of straw he should have a fire warning on him somewhere. Here is a character with an unyielding hatred of theists that he expresses at the slightest opportunity, and who vindictively goes after Josh for no other reason than…because he’s an evil atheist? This cartoon villain was funny at the very least, especially when, inevitably, it turns out he believed in God all along, he just doesn’t like him very much (which led me to remember a line from Pitch Black, a much better movie: “You got it all wrong holy man. I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker”).

I could get into the finer points of the debate, but I fear I would just start to aggravate myself, so I will be brief. What starts out as an attempt to prove the existence of God rapidly becomes a game of circular arguments, specious reasoning, tu quoque attacks on the Professor and some terrible tripe where vague verses from the Bible are insisted to be descriptions of the Big Bang and evolution. In the end, Josh absolutely does not prove the existence of God (who can, scientifically?) but instead “wins” the debate by attacking his opponent and goading him into revealing his previous religious upbringing. Since Professor Radisson is, apparently, a hypocrite, this means that his assertion that “God Is Dead” must be false. I don’t have to waste my time explaining why such reasoning is badly flawed, or why it is such a terrible thing to try and pull in a debate about religion.

This adaptation of the “atheist professor” fiction you might have seen on different parts of the internet (here’s a relevant page discussing it) is the main plot and takes up most of God’s Not Dead’s running time. But I was struck, and surprised, by the sheer amount of concurrent sub-plots, all with tenuous connections to the main one. Let’s take them one by one, briefly:

I suppose the biggest secondary plot involves Amy, the most straw filled of the strawmen. She’s hits a multitude of the bad points for the fundamentalist evangelical Christians this film is aimed at: working female, liberal, blogger, atheist, vegetarian, believes in evolution. Add in the typical traits to make female characters look as bad as possible: cattiness, irrationality, hypocrisy, shrillness and you’ve got yourself a piñata to beat up.

As mentioned, Amy is a blogger, but apparently some kind of professional one doing a story on Duck Dynasty. I admit I sort of zoned out on the set-up, because when I watched her “interview” with what appeared to be the very picture of a redneck stereotype, I thought God’s Not Dead might actually have been making some kind of satirical point about how liberals might view them. But no, it was an actual member of the Duck Dynasty crew, playing himself. Anyway, in a scene that actually caused me mild indignation from the sheer brass neck of it, Amy is rude, condescending and generally unprofessional with her interview style, while Mr Duck Dynasty is calm, reassured, polite and reasonable. It was an amazingly set-up scene, all designed to make us hate the poor woman soon to be struck by cancer.

Call it God’s wrath I suppose, this film certainly seems to think it is. Amy is bitter about this, of course, and eventually chooses to lash out at The Newsboys, a Christian pop rock group (again, playing themselves), pulling a Radisson and blaming a God she is supposed to not believe in for her troubles. It’s OK. They pray with her and set her on a peaceful path in the light of the Lord. Cool, I guess all the nonbelievers just need the horror of a potentially terminal illness and some condescending pity to make them praise God. This recurring fiction – that atheists actually do believe, but are hiding it because… – is an incredibly warped perception to have.

Her plot is connected to that of Mark, played by Dean “I was Superman once, remember?” Cain of all people. He’s a high powered business executive, with nice suits, fast cars and an easy lifestyle dominated by the pursuit of money and pleasure. Naturally, he also doesn’t believe in God, and all of his negative traits can be traced back to this. What else would you expect, in the main plot this film trots out the childishly inane argument that atheists have no basis for morality because they don’t believe in God. Anyway, Mark dumps Amy, his girlfriend, a minute after he finds out she has cancer because, you know, atheists are like that. He later decides to taunt his dementia suffering mother for no other reason than it appears to amuse him, but he gets his own back, as she warns in an atypical moment of lucidity that all of his success is probably down to Satan, something that leaves him visually disturbed. Actually, that was one of the better scenes just because the creepiness of it was so effective, but the inner message – that financial success without belief in God is the work of the Devil – is as disturbing as anything else God’s Not Dead can come up with.

Mark’s sister is Mina, the girlfriend of Professor Radisson. He’s a crazily aggressive atheist, she’s a meek believer. They’re the original odd couple! Anyway, this subplot exists purely, and I mean that in the strongest sense, so that Radisson can be made to look as bad as possible. He insults his partner constantly, belittles her in public and gets all sorts of domineering whenever she tries to stand up for herself. This all ties back into the fantasy God’s Not Dead is trying to portray, that evangelical Christians are somehow an oppressed minority in America. Anyway, Mina eventually finds her balls, and dumps Radisson publicly, which would feel great for the audience, if I felt like this erstwhile love plot actually had an inch of believability to it.

Then there are two people that Josh meets/inspires in the course of his one man atheist wrecking mission. Chinese exchange student “Martin”(!) ponders Josh’s arguments and discusses things with his strictly secular father back in the PRC. I suppose every other Christian bogeyman is getting a hit, might as well throw in some communists. Martin eventually becomes so convinced by Josh’s non-argument that he decides to convert. Take that China!

Much worse though is Ayisha, a young Islamic girl who works at the university. She is lectured by her stern but seemingly affectionate father that the traditions of her religion are important and she should not be swayed by the lives and practices of those around her. I thought, fervently hoped even, that God’s Not Dead was about to make a half-decent point about the similarities between Christianity and Islam, since one of its main points about Christianity was the importance of adhering to tradition through the Bible’s teachings, even if this is difficult to do in your present circumstances – denying your faith is seen as a problem for both creeds.

But nope, God’s Not Dead decides that it can’t have us viewing something as traditionally bad (to Christians) as Islam in a sympathetic light, so when Ayisha turns out to be a secret convert to Christianity, her previously loving father beats her and throws her out of his house. Nice God’s Not Dead. Adding to the casual racism and more upfront bigotry in a major way. It all turns out fine though, Ayisha becomes a well adjusted Christian and goes off to listen to the Newsboys concert with Josh.

I noticed the promotional material heavily emphasises the brief cameo of one of the appalling Duck Dynasty guys.

I noticed the promotional material heavily emphasises the brief cameo of one of the appalling Duck Dynasty guys.

That leads into the finale, which involves the aforementioned Reverend Dave. He’s been trying to arrange a trip to Disneyland with a visiting African missionary, but all of his plans keep falling apart! It’s played as comedy (really, really bad comedy) but has this underlying hint of “Oh, God doesn’t want you to go to Disneyland for some reason!” It turns out to be true. Radisson, the latest atheist to change his mind about the whole “strongly held personal beliefs” thing decides to track down Mina at the Newsboys concert, but gets run over by a car in the presence of Reverend Dave and friend (I think it might have been implied that Dean Cain’s character did the running over? Not sure).

Anyway, this leads to another of my favourite moments of the film where said African missionary takes a five second look at Radisson’s prone form, without even taking his shirt off, and declares confidently that Radisson ribs are crushed, his lungs are punctured and filling up with fluid and “there’s nothing we can do for him”. Man, you must be a hit with the people of Africa if they ever need medical help.

Anyway, it’s all just a means to an end, as Reverend Dave, the friendliest cleric in the world, convinces Radisson to express a belief in God before he dies, because we all know that the most sincere baptisms/repentance occurs when a person is going into shock and about to die. But hey, suck it atheists, we got another one! The scene that follows with Reverend Dave and his missionary friend laughing and joking about the incident is incredibly disturbing, shot and placed by someone who does not know how to real people react to such situations.

Which leads on to the actual finale, a celebration of Josh and his “achievement” in debating away the terrible arguments of a character as fantastical as Mickey Mouse. At least the title song was catchy. Duck Dynasty’s last second inclusion, not so much (are they, like, poster boys for this movement or something?). God’s Not Dead ends the same way that it framed most of its narrative, celebrating the victory of evangelical Christianity over the forces outside of it: women, atheists, liberals, Muslims, communists, business men, vegetarians, “G-Dog”. OK, maybe not so much with the last one, but seriously what the hell was that?

What themes does God’s Not Dead have? None that I really care to talk about in too much detail. The overwhelming message is that only faith in God and an acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savoir will save you from unhappiness, disease and eternal damnation. The characters who endorse the  ”God is dead” message, either directly or indirectly, are the monsters of the piece, all destined for some bad end, whether it is outright death, cancer, familial alienation or the threat of hellfire. The ones who embrace the titular message are the saved, the righteous, the happy, the fulfilled, the people destined for good, decent lives. I am sure there are plenty of people across the world who would subscribe to such a message, but that absolutely does not make it right. The main theme and message of God’s Not Dead is a sickening one for me, utterly distasteful and, frankly, unchristian. This is the kind of message for people who like to add various shades of “unless” to the most boiled down lesson of Christ: “Love thy neighbour”.

I did not expect much from God’s Not Dead at all, so I suppose you could say my expectations were largely met. Maybe I thought I would just find some “goodbad” level stuff, like a Christian version of The Room. There was plenty of that, but it all came with a horrific core, one of intolerance towards non-believers and a celebration of their misfortunes, which causes unease, to put it mildly.

There is something truly poisonous about a film like this. No part of the production comes out of this thing looking good. Go and check out Calvary if you want to see a film built around a dignified and positive message of the Christian faith. Run like the wind from this film, which will only make you laugh in the brief moments between the sections that will make you angry.

Woeful.

Woeful.

(All images copyright of Pure Flix Entertainment).

 

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2 Responses to Review: God’s Not Dead

  1. Pingback: Review: Lucy | Never Felt Better

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