SPOILER ALERT: This review will discuss key plot points of the film. If you have not seen it, I encourage you to watch it before reading this review.
Having grown up in a Christian family and having learned in private, Christian educational environments, I can probably relate to the characters in God's Not Dead more than most. I really do understand their motives and I can see that many of their intentions are good.
But it is precisely because I am a Christian that this movie angers and upsets me so much. Beneath the disjointed plot of the film is, in my opinion, a dangerous theme - that intellect and learning are enemies of the Christian faith.
The movie's plot centers on Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a freshman student at a local college. We meet him as he is scheduling classes, including his general philosophy class. He signs up for Professor Radisson's (Kevin Sorbo) philosophy course, and the reaction of the upperclassman scheduling Josh for his classes lets us know that Professor Radisson is a man to be feared. We see Josh in class, and we begin to understand why.
Professor Radisson begins his class by putting names of many famous philosophers up on the board. (A notable omission was Rene Descartes, who attempted to use philosophy to prove the existence of God.) I hope this encouraged people viewing the film to investigate what these philosophers thought and said, but what happens next undoubtedly had the exact opposite effect. What do all these philosophers have in common? Well, of course, they were all athiests. Professor Radisson then makes everyone in the class write on a sheet of paper that God is dead. Josh cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he challenges Professor Radisson to a one-on-one debate with the rest of the class deciding a winner. And thus, we're given our main storyline in the film.
And it is a storyline that is broken from the very beginning.
Professor Radisson says early on in his class that he does not want to waste precious class time talking about religion. So why is he then using up so much of this first class talking about God? On top of that, why would he devote 20 minutes of the first three classes to this debate on religion with one of his students? It is a contrived storyline meant to get us to bitterly dislike his character. But it doesn't make any bit of sense whatsoever.
There is one thing I like about the storyline, however, and that is how Josh's character reacts to this challenge.
He pours himself into studying and learning how to refute the assertions of Professor Radisson. Josh does so against the wishes of his girlfriend, Kara (Cassidy Erin Gifford), who tells him to either drop the class or give in (seen in the movie clip on the left/above). Her character is one we must have in such a story. Someone who our hero loves but who tells him to turn aside. This adds to the dramatic tension because it puts another roadblock in our hero's path. Once he decides to push forward, we will see how much the journey means to him.
But I can't simply bypass that scene so quickly. The above scene, like the whole movie, has good intentions. But it's built upon a cracked foundation - that God wants us to defend Him. News flash: God doesn't need us to defend him through arguments. He's already won! He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is Love and He is majestic. As Christians, we are called to love Him and love others. I believe our lives should be outpourings of praise for the greatness of God and witnesses of the love He has shown us. Not a series of arguments to appease him with our staunch defense.
Many people will automatically throw 1 Peter 3:15 in my face and say that we need to "have an answer." I agree! But having an answer doesn't mean we should be constantly looking for arguments and debates. Look at that verse again. That's someone coming to you and asking you about your faith. It's a major difference in attitude. Our modern Christianity is extremely confrontational. We're looking for arguments. Instead, as I read the Bible, I see God calling us to love others but to always be ready to give witness to the Hope within us if we are asked about our faith.
There's also another problem that stems from the Josh/Kara subplot. I think the creators of this film want to encourage viewers to react like Josh, to prove the tenets of faith by engaging with opposing views. But, in reality, this film encourages its viewers to react like Kara. No, I don't think Christians are being told to give in and write down the statement that Professor Radisson first commands of his students. To be a Christian is to believe that God is alive and at work in our world today. I certainly believe that. But the essential message here is that the mean philosopher is bad and we should have nothing to do with such heathen ideas - essentially that we should "drop the class."
It's also interesting that the above scene throws in a C.S. Lewis quote while simultaneously refusing to follow it. This film doesn't encourage people to test their beliefs against opposing ideas. It encourages people to do the exact opposite - shut out opposing ideas.
This is my biggest issue with the film. Its main source of dramatic tension - the debate between Josh and Professor Radisson - is another feather in the Christian cap of anti-intellectualism. The main antagonist in the film is a professor. A philosophy professor at that. He is built up as the enemy of Christianity. But that simply isn't true. Sure, I disagree with Nietzsche's thoughts on religion. But I believe that I can engage with the claims of Nietzsche without losing my faith. God's ways are higher than our ways, remember? We begin to place Him in a box, I think, when we ascribe human reasoning such a great ability to derail our faith. I know God is real and alive in my life, and investigating the thoughts of some of history's great thinkers will not change that.
But I'm pretty sure I've already given more thought to the film's main plot than it does. Because, as soon as we begin to sink our teeth into the dramatic tension of this storyline, we're given numerous others to distract our attention.
The most impactful of these to our main plot is that of Mina (Cory Oliver), Professor Radisson's Christian girlfriend. Once again, for someone who we are meant to believe has such a bitter disdain for Christianity, Professor Radisson sure spends a lot of his time around it. If all we were given were Professor Radisson and Josh debating their ideas with their two love interests pulling them away from the fight, this would be a much more effective film. There is enough drama in just those storylines to fill up an entire movie. But the movie seems to be afflicted by persistent levels of inattention to its main story, and I think that detracts from its overall goal.
We're also given the storyline of Mina's brother Mark (Dean Cain). His character is such a caricature that I don't think it even bears much analysis. He is so hateful towards his mother and all people in general. Mark's girlfriend, Amy (Trisha LaFache) provides another storyline. Hers is more fleshed-out, but I still think it is too peripheral to our main story. She is a left-wing blogger who writes articles that are critical of the TV show Duck Dynasty (which in modern Christianity must be a cardinal sin for the way it is handled in this film). In fact, it seems the main reason for having Amy's character in the film is to give some semblance of a reason for a Duck Dynasty cameo - this time coming from Willie and Korie Robertson. Let's put aside the fact that the movie grossly misrepresents the media as people who only partake in ambush interviews and gotcha questions. At least Amy's character is given some of the more emotionally hefty scenes in the film when she is forced to wrestle with a cancer diagnosis. But even that isn't given the full attention it deserves because there are so many other storylines to cover. In fact, at one point Amy's cancer diagnosis is played to give us more reason to hate Mark's character when he callously dumps Amy after the diagnosis.
I haven't even discussed the storyline of Reverends Dave (David A. R. White) and Jude (Benjamin Ochieng) who can't get to Disneyland because of a flat tire. Though theirs is a minor plot point, I must discuss it because it shows how carelessly this film was written. When they meet, Reverend Dave remarks that Jude has just arrived after a 36-hour flight. How is that even possible? Did he fly from New Zealand, connect in Siberia and then finally make it to Los Angeles? I joke, of course, but such a line is only worthy of being lampooned. The fact that it made it into the movie's final cut shows that this film's underlying premise is that we should turn our brains off in a Christian movie. If you can't tell, it angers me that Christians would hold up such ludicrous writing as being worthwhile.
Finally, we get possibly the most offensive and problematic storyline of them all. That would be centered on Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu). She comes from a Muslim family, but secretly converts to Christianity. When she is caught by her father (Marco Khan), he beats her and disowns her from the family. Not only does this further inflame the feelings of white Christians towards those in the Muslim community, but the film's high and mighty attitude subtly betrays itself. The film obviously sees the Muslim family as being wrong, and the way the camera watches over the father's beating of Ayisha is almost voyeuristic. But the interesting thing here is that this film is actually performing the exact same function as the father in this scene.
He is so hateful towards outside beliefs that he will disown and injure his daughter to keep them out. This film is so hateful towards people it views as outsiders that, it too, does not want to hear what they have to say. It is more interested in partaking in a "holy huddle" and shutting out the world.
The film suffers from all these ancillary storylines. If it would focus on its main plot - the debate between Josh and Professor Radisson - I think it would be a much better film. If it were to focus on that plot, we would build to a final showdown between the two where the opposing ideas are presented and the class decides which is more convincing. That would be the logical conclusion to the narrative.
We do get the showdown between Josh and Professor Radisson, and it even provides a powerful moment - when Professor Radisson admits that it is because of the death of his mother that he has such a disdain for God. But then the film participates in some gotcha journalism of its own, completely bypassing this opportunity for a heavy moment of emotional drama and instead having Josh ask Professor Radisson how he can hate someone that he believes isn't real. Instead of always being ready with an answer, it seems that we're always to be ready with a confrontational question.
But this isn't the film's finale. Instead we build to a...concert?
Our large group of cast members congregate at a Newsboys concert at the end of the film. I feel compelled to admit that I don't consider this iteration of the Newsboys to be the true Newsboys. The original band is one of my all-time favorite music acts. But that amounts to nothing more than a personal problem. Obviously we see the connection between the title of the film and the famous Newsboys song. Which made me wonder - which came first, the song or the movie title?
If it was the movie title and the song was added in, that would make sense. Except we'd still be left wondering why the film's finale is the Newsboys concert as opposed to the classroom showdown. If that had been the finale, the song still could have been included during the closing credits - a common way that many Best Original Song Oscar nominees are included in films these days.
But if it was the song that came first, that explains the need to end with the concert. If the whole point of the film was to be a promotion for the Newsboys' latest single, well then it seems this movie performed its task. But that brings up its own question?
What was the point of everything that came before the concert?
While this concert is going on, we watch as Professor Radisson is going through struggles with his beliefs. After the final debate with Josh, he begins to rethink some things. He decides to reconcile with Mina, who had left him after his repeated belittlements in front of colleagues. But on his way, he is hit by a speeding car. As he lays on the ground dying, our ancillary character Reverend Dave comes to lead him to Christ. I think this is supposed to be a poignant moment where the movie's villain changes his mind and believes in God. But the way it is handled makes it jarring and harsh. I shudder to think of how many watching this film might be tempted to rejoice in his death. Why does the Professor Radisson character have to die at all? The answer is: he doesn't.
As I said before, the climax of this film should have been the classroom debate. We could then intercut to scenes showing Josh and Professor Radisson considering what has just happened. The film could end with a quiet conversation between Professor Radisson and God. This conversation would show that Professor Radisson has changed his belief - that he now believes God is, in fact, real. I believe that would have better served the purpose this film seeks to embody but fails in grasping - to bear witness to the presence of God.
I empathize with the creators of this film. I want to believe that their goal was to bear witness to God to those who do not believe. But even if the production of this film was well-intentioned, good intentions are not enough to make a good film. You need a good plot and you need a good script. That is the foundation. From there, the direction and acting can flourish. This film has a faulty foundation. Its premise - that God is not dead - is true. But the movie handles that truth in a clumsy fashion. Instead of speaking to those outside the church (as its title might initially suggest that it seeks to do) this movie preaches to the choir. In its fervor to prove its point, it becomes distracted from the main goal. The result is a disjointed mess that draws hard lines between differing people groups and blurs its viewers' vision of the world around them.
Note on content: This is definitely a family-friendly film. As such, there is no sexual content or profane language to speak of. Although some may be offended at the way Professor Radisson talks about God, especially early on in the movie. We do get a couple depictions of violence, when Ayisha is beaten by her father and when Professor Radisson is hit by a car. To me, the most offensive aspect of this movie is how it paints thought and education in a bad light.