Apparently, Hollywood has discovered that Christians exist. This spring of 2014, we are witnessing a slew of Christian-themed movies. Son of God and Noah top the list, with Ridley Scott’s Exodus coming out later in the year.
My wife and I went to see the surprise film of the season last night, God’s Not Dead, directed by Harold Cronk, based on a book written by Rice Brooks. The basic plot set in Louisiana involves a young college freshman, an evangelical Christian, who gets pitted against a rather annoyingly obnoxious and atheistic philosophy professor. The freshman takes on the challenge to defend the thesis that “God is Not Dead” in front of the whole class under the glaring watch of the atheistic professor’s superior intellect.
I am not really much of a film reviewer, but I woke up this morning early with a little insomnia and since the subject directly covers matter that we address here on Veracity, I thought I would share an evaluation. Here is the trailer.
God’s Not Dead: The (Mostly) Good Stuff
First, let us consider the positive aspects of the film. If you are not sure why the study of apologetics for Christians should really matter, then you should consider seeing this film. The principle of giving honor to our Lord Jesus Christ despite the costs is highlighted against the self-serving of personal goals often promoted within many circles of the Christian church today. Furthermore, the positive conviction that God is indeed alive is inspiring. So for people who are kind of reactionary, “knee-jerk” atheists or others from a Christian background who are troubled by the growing hostility towards Christianity, I can see how God might use this film to point them to the Savior.
Most of the major issues faced by Christians, not simply on college campuses but around office water coolers and at the local gym, are presented in this movie. The film hits many of the vital topics that folks like John Paine and myself view as vitally important that Christians think about deeply: Is there evidence for a Creator? Is God necessary? What about those who embrace other religious faiths? Is Christianity just an American thing, or does the Gospel have something to say to people in foreign cultures? Does God reveal Himself personally to people through the Holy Spirit? How does one know when God providentially intervenes in someone’s life? Does atheism have any basis for morality? But the standout question being raised is this: why does a supposedly good and loving God allow evil and suffering?
With a few bothersome exceptions noted below, I thought that the apologetic arguments presented in the film were fairly sound. If the film encourages Christians to better arm themselves with thoughtful arguments to defend and present the Gospel, then despite any perceived flaws (of which I think there are more than plenty!), the movie is completely a winner for me.
The film unfortunately made so many logical fallacies in terms of an appeal to authority that I simply lost count. But hopefully the name dropping of prominent apologists like C.S. Lewis and John Lennox might spark some interest of believers to investigate their writings. Hey, whatever it takes to get folks to think critically is fine by me!
As an interesting aside, God’s Not Dead would not be a film that a Young Earth Creationist could in good conscience support, as it employs the evidence of the Big Bang theory to support the notion of God as Creator. Those who hold to a more traditional reading of Scripture for a literal six 24-hour day Creation would not like this film that much, which explains why Answers in Genesis does not endorse this film.
God’s Not Dead: The Not-So-Good Stuff
There are some significant problems with God’s Not Dead to note:
- The main plot of an annoyingly obnoxious atheist professor terrifying Christian students is very, very contrived. There is a bit of a “spoiler alert” here, but having attended a secular college myself and working on staff at one for over thirteen years, this type of overt discrimination simply does not happen. Admittedly, there are those like British pastor and charismatic blogger Adrian Warnock who would differ from me. The ending credits of the film do list a number of important cases from the Alliance Defending Freedom where various Christian student groups have experienced attacks upon religious liberty at public tax-funded universities. While these are serious problems of discrimination against Christians, I would contend that these cases are different from the in-your-face hostile treatment being portrayed in the film. Sorry folks, it just does not happen the way the movie presents. The reality is more subtle. When you find out that there are some really nice atheists and agnostics out there, you might be really disappointed by the caricature described in God’s Not Dead.
- The film sets up unrealistic expectations regarding the product of effective apologetics. There is another spoiler alert here, but the idea of a naïve college freshman walking into a philosophy class over a few weeks and converting all of his peers to a form of theism is simply an evangelical Christian fantasy. In this sense, God’s Not Dead serves as more of a propaganda film designed to rally the troops instead of an authentic engagement with those who have serious, well-considered objections to the Christian faith. The study of apologetics bolsters the credibility of Christian faith, but unless God moves within the human heart, serious intellectual argumentation does not lead to mass conversions.
- This leads to another criticism that the establishment of friendships within the context of apologetic-oriented evangelism is downplayed in God’s Not Dead. The film does not effectively show that the main purpose of apologetics is to relationally win hearts, not simply to win intellectual arguments. “Texting for Jesus” is no substitute for sacrificial relationships demonstrating Christian friendship to those who are lost and hurting.
- Curiously, in the movie’s endorsements, you will find “ordinary” type of folks like race car drivers and athletes, but aside from a few campus ministry spokespersons and some pastors, you will not find one noted Christian philosopher, scientist or Bible scholar listed. Not a single one. That should tell you something.
- The apologetic focus was skewed somewhat in the film. While the apologetic arguments based on astronomy and physics were strong, the ones from biology were a bit weaker. But pretty much, the focus was on promoting Intelligent Design. So while defending the notion of God as Creator is vitally important, it was not necessarily clear in the film as to who this “God” actually is. There was plenty of “Jesus” talk about Christ’s atoning death and the forgiveness of sins, but there was little in terms of explanation as to what that all really means. This was clearly a missed opportunity by Harold Cronk and his team. In their defense, they probably did what they could within the confines of a two-hour feature film. Okay, I understand that. But the glaring disproportion of emphasizing “Intelligent Design” misses the significance of the Resurrection of the Crucified Jesus as the central defining event of the Christian faith.
- In terms of style, God’s Not Dead has plenty of consumerist appeal that plays on the American fascination with youth culture. Apple Computer corporation probably should receive a boost in sales due to all of the blatant built-in advertisements for things like iPhones and MacBook laptops. A cameo appearance or two from Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson was one of numerous nods to popular culture. In many ways, God’s Not Dead serves as an extended music video for the popular contemporary Christian music band, the Newsboys. I am not too bothered by these peculiarly overt pop-culture promotions, but some might be.
God’s Not Dead, unfortunately, fans too many of the flames of the “culture war” for me to seriously recommend that a Christian take a thoughtful atheist to see this film. Within days of the film’s release, I found that this one atheistic blogger has managed to take the movie and the intellectual scaffolding supporting it apart piece by piece. This is very disappointing, but hopefully, as Christians do support evangelically-oriented movies in mainline theaters, I would hope that this might serve as incentive for more thoughtful engagements.
That being said, if someone is simply uncritically ingesting Internet atheist fodder like the movie Zietgeist, then God’s Not Dead might be truly a help to that person. But the real positive of the value of the film is that it should urge Christians to give serious thought to the study of apologetics, which if presented in a way that values tactfulness and friendship, is desperately needed today.
So, all ye Veracity movie goers: am I right or am I wrong about the movie? I would enjoy to hear your analysis of the film in the comment section below. Thanks!
UPDATE: April 13, 2014
I wanted to direct readers to very good, brief review of the film by Hugh Ross, director of Reasons to Believe, an Old Earth Creationist apologetics ministry. Some have been surprised by a number of my negative criticisms of the film, which frankly, I find disturbing as it tells me that the triumphalist approach that tends to lump all skeptics into an unrealistic extreme caricature is deeply embedded in American evangelical subculture, and it really needs to be rooted out and replaced with a more Christ-honoring orientation that Hugh Ross is pointing us towards. It was also helpful to know that Hugh Ross was one of the mentors for Rice Brooks (see below). In a recent conversation with Brooks, Ross learned that the extreme character of the atheistic professor was actually put together by the film’s script writers, a composite of multiple real-life academics who, rather than picking on students, mostly used peer-pressure tactics to marginalize other professors. Though realistic in a sense, such an extreme portrayal of one individual simply did not work for me, nor will it work for most skeptics who raise many of the important questions mentioned in the film. Having empathy for the skeptic is essential for a Christ-like ethic of apologetics, a principle for which the film did not adequately convey. This is still a good movie for Christians to see, just view it with a critical eye. So before you cheer the freshman for beating his professor, PLEASE read Hugh Ross’s review here.
Lecture by Rice Brooks below, the mind behind the movie: Rice Brooks is the senior pastor of Bethel World Outreach Church in Nashville, Tennesse, a multiethnic, multisite church. He starts off a little like “Apologetics for Dummies” in his talk, but in my view, this is a step above the movie. If you are looking for follow-up resources designed to work with the movie, look here: