God’s Not Dead is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Here is a movie that buries itself in the guise of a “Christian film” which suggesting that if you’re not a practicing Christian – if you’re an athiest or an agnostic or a Muslim – that your life is an unhappy slog of misery, bitterness and violence. It contains a microcosm of an idea, debating God’s place in the natural order, but spends most of the time as a recruitment drive for the Christian faith in which you are recruited with your arm twisted behind your back and made to cry Uncle. It’s an offensive, messy, badly made, poorly acted film that ends on a note so idiotic that you find yourself waiting in vein for a punchline.
Buried somewhere in this mess is a serious intellectual debate struggling to break free as a student is forced to defend his belief in God against an implacable philosophy teacher. You’re led to believe that this will be the film’s major focus, but actually it occupies a minor corner of the movie as the movie sinks further and further into the realm of the ridiculous. How ridiculous? Well, ends at a Newboys concert at which Willie Robertson gives a video message calling for all Christians to text “God’s Not Dead” to all of their contacts.
As the movie opens we meet an earnest young college freshman named Josh (Shane Harper) who, on the first day, finds himself under the gun by his philosophy teacher, Mr. Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), a fire-breathing intellectual snob who informs his students that he means to do away with any silly debates about a Supreme Being by asking them to write “God is Dead” on a piece of paper and affixing their names. He’s an atheist, and wears it angrily on his sleeve. Josh can’t bring himself to sign on to such a thing. He’s a Christian and won’t give in to Mr. Radisson’s demand. Radisson intends to humiliate the kid by handing him the lectern and asking him to defend his belief in God over the course of the next three classes.
Periodically, throughout the film, the movie returns to this debate. The kid comes off like a pro, defending the point of creation, the meaning of philosophy and God’s place in the grand scheme of things via a PowerPoint presentation that would bring Al Gore to tears. He brings into question, philosophical ideas presented by Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins and Aristotle. Meanwhile, the teacher dispenses the slings and arrows to try and trip him up.
As long as the movie stays in this realm it finds a workable angle. When it steps outside that debate it falls flat on its face. The intellectual discussion has to fight for space against a series of unfocused supporting characters and half-written subplots that are introduced but never really dealt with. We get disapproving parents, faith-curious kids, dying parents, car accidents, break-ups, heartbreaks, cancer, dementia, dishonest rental car agents and stern Muslim parenting, all to the tune of a movie that looks and feels like it was made for public access television.
These elements wouldn’t bother me if they mixed together into a convincing story, but they’re all piled on top of one another like bits and pieces randomly glued onto the plot. There is, for instance, a hard-headed left wing blogger (Trisha LaFache) who confronts “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson about his “business of duck murder.” He preaches to her about the miracle of Jesus Christ and than, what do you know, an hour later she is told she has terminal cancer. Then we meet her boyfriend (Dean Cain), a guy so mean that he gives her a tongue-lashing when she breaks the news about her illness.
We also meet a Muslim college student (Hadeel Sittu) who lives under the stern brow of her father who insists that she wear her burqa on campus. He might be shocked to discover that she’s a closet Christian, listening to sermons by Franklin Graham behind closed doors. That story has a lot of potential, but is never resolved.
Then there’s some recurring nonsense about a minister (David A.R. White) who can’t get his rental car to start until he appeals to the all-mighty for help. He’s being stalled, you see, by divine intervention so he can help a non-converted soul who will cross his path. The movie cuts back to this man over and over and plays his problems as comic relief. Actually, it leaves you longing for a Fast Forward button.
The only character in this movie that has any meat is the Mr. Radisson, played with spit and vinegar by Kevin Sorbo. He, at least, brings a challenge to the table and offers an opposing viewpoint. Radisson is proudly an atheist and, it goes without saying that his reasons have to do with a family tragedy, not philosophy. He has a final scene that comes right out of a romantic comedy, only instead of running after his true love, he’s running after Jesus. At this, my forehead is still red from a self-induced face-palm.
What starts as an interesting idea about the meaning and origin of God’s creation is ultimately saturated into movie that ends up cheerleading the Christian faith. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that except that it began with an idea of challenging atheism and then gives into preaching to the converted. The movie ends at the Newsboys concert with all of the major players coming to Jesus in a way that feels like a Pepsi commercial. When it was over, I wanted to offer a prayer those responsible for such a cornball and half-baked movie. They could use it.