Early in 2014 I found a certain amount of devilish joy in giving the business to a halfwit Christian film named God’s Not Dead, a movie so wrong-headed, so angry and so offensive that I eventually had even further devilish joy naming it the worst movie of 2014.
It had nothing to do with its genre; it had to do with the intent. The movie was a closed-minded case of preaching to the choir by posing its Christian characters as beautiful, peaceful and humble while the atheists, agnostics and even Muslims as people whose lives were an unhappy slog of misery, bitterness and violence. Heaped on that was the presentation of the single-minded idea that atheists don’t disbelieve because of their beliefs or philosophies but because of a buried childhood trauma.
The movie posed an interesting scenario; a college freshman enters into an Introduction to Philosophy class helmed by a hateful, acid-spewing atheist (Kevin Sorbo, no less) who brow-beat the kid about his Christian faith and challenged him to prove that God existed. Fine. But the movie never dealt with any real issues or posed any real debates. It was a straw man movie designed to tell closed-minded Christians what they want to hear. And hear it they did – they inexplicably turned the movie into a sixty million dollar hit.
I’m sorry to say that the sequel – the oddly titled God’s Not Dead 2 – isn’t any better. It is less angry, but far more ignorant while still painting non-believers as rancorous brutes out to squash and decimate any discussion of God, Jesus, The Bible or church as a whole, all wrapped in a veil of persecution and victimization. While the first movie went out of its way to paint its few Christian characters as persecuted saints, this one takes it to a new low. Rather than a classroom debate, God’s Not Dead 2 is a limp courtroom drama in which discussions over faith and the existence of Jesus Christ are hauled into a case that never should have come to court in the first place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s back up. The movie begins with a school teacher named (get this) Grace, who is played by Melissa Joan Hart (apparently the Christian right wasn’t aware that she once played a witch), a dedicated AP history teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Hope Springs, Arkansas. One day, while giving a lecture about the philosophies of Dr. King and Gandhi, a student named Brooke asks how their ideals met with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Grace answers the question from a historical construct but she also quotes the bible. At this, someone in the back of the room sends an urgent text message.
Word gets back to Brooke’s parent, portrayed as a pair of vicious non-believers who define themselves as “rationalists” (code for atheist) and soon, Grace is being called before the school board – led by an atheist principal played by Robin Givens – to answer charges that she violated school policy. When asked to sign a document stating that she will never do this again, Grace refuses. The case, for some reason, goes to court with dear Grace on one side and the ACLU on the other.
The prosecuting lawyer whose named is (get this) Kane is played hilariously by Ray Wise who might as
well be playing the devil in a $500 suit. His role requires him to snicker and sneer and hiss all through the movie as if he’s possessed. Seated at the table of Brooke’s parents, he seems to be stifling an evil laugh when he tells them that “We’re going into that court to prove once and for all that God is DEAD.”
Kane is meant to be the personification of all the persecution that the Christian Right has convinced itself is working hard to do them in. In one of the many subplots, the reverend Dave (David A.R. White) – a holdover from the first movie – meets with a group of pastors, led by the late Fred Thompson, who convinces them that there is an all-out war against the Christian faith. So much so, this movie believes, that the pastors are instructed to turn in transcripts of their sermons for the past three months to a government agency. This is one of many subplots that is brought to light and never followed up on.
Meanwhile in court, Grace is defended by a hunky lawyer named Tom Endler, played by Jesse Metcalf, who is not a Christian but can appreciate his client’s tenacity. In court, the proceedings are seen over by Ernie Hudson who plays the judge as if he’s a caricature on an old TV show. Debates about the existence of Jesus provide the template for debates about his existence, but this case is so cartoonish that the jurors are selected on the basis of their favorite TV shows – the man who likes “Duck Dynasty” is okay, but girl who watches “Pretty Little Liars” has to go.
The case balloons up into a national debate that makes headlines with Christians on one side and those other people on the other side. The rancor on both sides becomes the stuff of comic books, up to and including a shameless candle-light vigil on Grace’s front lawn in which a group of supporters sing a hymn so loudly that I was surprised it didn’t wake her neighbors.
In much the same way that both movies have pulled forth ethnic minorities such as Muslims, Africans the Chinese without really knowing anything about them or their culture, so too does the movie drag out rancorous debates about the separation of church and state and The Constitution and even legal proceedings without bothering to really understand how any of it works. What the characters on either side of the debate show is the complete lack of any real understanding of how the law, or religion, or history, or The Constitution really work. It’s all propped up for easy-to-swallow sermons about subjects that no one in the audience cares to debate – the movie is telling them what they want to hear via a script that drives home every single word with a sledge hammer. The low-point in my mind is the scene in which Grace’s lawyer gives the black school principal a lesson on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
I am struggling to understand if the filmmakers knew what was really being said. When Grace’s lawyer gets down to his closing arguments, I’m not sure, but I think he was suggesting that if his case is lost, then religious persecution will eventually lead to the Christian faith becoming outlawed and Christians eventually being executed for their beliefs. That’s how low this movie is willing to play the victim card.
Look, I’m a believer. I have faith in God, but I’m also a rational and reasonable and inclusive person who tolerates those who don’t share my beliefs. I really don’t want to meet the audience that is informed by films like this. Movies like this are dangerous because they don’t play fair. Both God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 are not about issues, they are about stereotypes and persecution and victimization that turns against the ideals of tolerance and love and understanding. The message is that if you’re not part of the club, then you are unhappy, pugnacious and you won’t find any joy in your life until you come to Jesus. If you’re watching this movie, you probably already have found your faith, but if you abide by its point of view then God help us all.