Once I have decided to watch a movie, for whatever reason, there is only one piece of information I want to know in advance, which is when the movie was made, because that provides the context that might be needed to appreciate the movie and understand it. Of course, I already have other pieces of information in advance, such as the title, but basically, I like to watch the movie without having any more foreknowledge than necessary. And thus it is that when I decided to watch God’s Not Dead, I did so with little appreciation for what I was letting myself in for, other than that afforded by the title and the date of production.
Regarding the title God’s Not Dead, it is obviously an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead in The Joyful Wisdom and again in Thus Spake Zarathustra. This can be interpreted in various ways, but I think we can eliminate two possibilities: first, Nietzsche did not mean this literally, that God used to exist, but then he died; second, he did not mean that no one believes in God anymore. One reasonable interpretation is that Nietzsche was talking about the intelligentsia, scientists and scholars, especially those that populate the universities. Sure, the masses are just as gullible and superstitious as always, but the intellectual elite have dispensed with the concept of God long ago. If we accept this interpretation, then God’s Not Dead is an appropriate title, for the anti-intellectual thrust of this movie is that the enemies of Christianity are primarily college professors, who sneer contemptuously at the devout.
Normally, when I review a movie, it is neither necessary nor desirable to talk about myself. But this calls for an exception. I majored in philosophy in the late 1960s, and my favorite philosopher was Nietzsche. Needless to say, I was an atheist and have been ever since, although now my favorite philosopher is Arthur Schopenhauer. It was just one university that I had experience with, and it was a long time ago, but I never experienced anything like what was depicted in this film.
The movie is set on a college campus. Josh Wheaton is a freshman. He signs up for an introductory course in philosophy. He is warned by another student not to take the course from Professor Radisson, but he is undeterred. During the first class, Radisson says he doesn’t want to waste time debating the existence of God, so he demands that every student in the class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it. Josh refuses to sign it. I must admit, Nietzschean atheist though I was, I wouldn’t have signed it either.
Radisson tells Josh that for twenty minutes in the next three classes, he will have to defend the proposition that God exists, with the implication that if he fails in this endeavor, he will flunk the course. On the first day that he has to defend his belief that God is not dead, Josh essentially advances the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which is that an eternally existing God is needed to explain how a contingent world arose out of nothingness in a Big Bang. On the second day, he advances the teleological argument for the existence of God, also known as the argument from design. The thrust of this argument is that God is needed to explain life. Evolution alone will not suffice. On the third day, he addresses the problem of evil, in which the all the sin and suffering of this world seems to be inconsistent with the existence of an all-powerful, loving God. His answer is that evil is the price we pay for having free will, which includes the freedom to accept Jesus as our savior, which will allow us to dwell in Heaven for eternity. He also presents the moral argument for the existence of God, which is that God is needed as a foundation for morality.
Naïve me. I thought that Radisson’s presentation on the first day was just a pose. I thought what would happen was that in the end, Radisson would give Josh an A for having the courage of his convictions, for being able to defend his views in front of the classroom, knowing that he was being judged by a militant atheist. Boy, was I wrong! That became clear after the first presentation, when Radisson becomes physical and threatening, presumably because he feels threatened by Josh. (Maybe I should have suspected something when I saw Radisson’s goatee, which is often seen in popular images of the Devil.) After the third day, Josh gets the better of Radisson when he asks him why he hates God, and we find out that he hates God because God let his mother die when he was young. Then Josh asks him how he can hate someone who doesn’t exist. Golly! Radisson never thought of that.
The rest of the movie shows how sweet and wonderful Christians are, and how mean and selfish atheists are, including Chinese communists. Of course, not everyone who believes in God is sweet and wonderful, only those who believe in the real God, because a Muslim kicks his daughter out of the house when he discovers she is an apostate who secretly listens to sermons on Christianity.
Radisson is hit by a car, receiving fatal injuries. But that’s all right, because God kept Reverend Dave in town by not allowing any car he got into to start until he was needed at that intersection where Radisson was hit. And so it is that in the long tradition of atheists in movies, Radisson repents and lets Jesus into his life just before he dies.
I learned something from watching this movie. I learned that it was made by Pure Flix Productions, a company that specializes in the genre of Christian-friendly films. At the beginning of this essay, I said that I try to keep my knowledge about a movie to a minimum before I watch it, except for such things as the title and the date in which the movie was made. I now add one more item to that list. From now on, before I watch a religious movie, I want to know if it was produced by Pure Flix, because I doubt that I will ever want to see another like this one. It is one thing to watch religious movies, of which I have seen many, but it is quite another to sit through something like this.
Scott Foundas, writing for Variety, argues that the idea that Christianity is under siege is a bit paranoid:
Though you wouldn’t exactly guess it from the surveys that repeatedly show upwards of 80% of Americans identifying themselves as Christians, “God’s Not Dead” wants us to know that Christianity is under attack in the old U.S. of A. — attack from the liberal, “Duck Dynasty”-hating media, from titans of industry leading lives of wanton decadence, from observers of non-Christian faiths, and worst of all from the world of academia, with its self-important evolutionary scientists and atheistic philosophes.
But the statistic he cites is misleading. Of the 80% that identify as Christians, many of them do not go to church, and of those that do, many of them give little thought to religious matters the rest of the week. They are casual Christians, the default attitude of most characters in a typical movie. It is those that believe too much or too little that Hollywood has been at pains to put in a bad light.
If Hollywood has been hard on atheists, it has been downright brutal when it comes to the religious, unless the movie is set in biblical times. While atheists typically have to repent (or be miserable if they do not), devout and pious Christians rarely exist as major characters, unless they are mentally weak. Priests are treated well, as long as they are pragmatic and somewhat worldly, but when religious characters start taking things too seriously, they are portrayed as hypocrites, as in Rain (1932), as evil, The Night of the Hunter (1955), or as fools, The War of the Worlds (1953). A good example of how both atheists and the godly are typically treated in a Hollywood movie is Inherit the Wind (1960). While the atheist (Gene Kelly) in that movie is put down as being lonely and miserable by the agnostic (Spencer Tracy), no less, he still manages to have some dignity by the end of the movie, and thus he gets off light compared to the two religious characters. One of them is a reverend (Claude Akins), whose fanaticism has made him so heartless that he condemns most people to Hell, including his own daughter. The other (Fredric March) is utterly humiliated, reduced to whimpering like a little child, while his wife, whom he calls “Mother,” rocks him in her arms, calling him “Baby.”
In the face of such cinematic history, it is easy to understand why there might be an audience for films in which a man can be genuinely religious in the modern world without suffering the ordinary indignities. It is important that it be a man, by the way. Women have always been allowed to be religious in the movies, where it is implied that their purity of heart is the result of a foolish and impractical nature. Their piety is tolerated by the men who understand the way the world really is. That is why the hero of God’s Not Dead is Josh, a male college student, rather than a coed. Having a woman be the defender of Christianity would not have stood the movie in stark contrast to the usual Hollywood depictions of religious characters the way having it be a man does.
And so, while I didn’t care for this movie, I understand why there might be a felt need for films of this sort. I do not begrudge those who want to see movies like God’s Not Dead from having their Pure Flix, any more than I would begrudge them their places of worship. We don’t have to watch these movies if we don’t want to, and if we do, we know it will be like sitting in Sunday School and not like attending a seminar in the philosophy of religion.
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