The latest Christian film to hit theaters has done so with a flourish of great success. God’s Not Dead sat in the top 5 for a month and grossed over $40 million before it almost literally ran out of steam and dropped off the flat edge of the earth. During the first 3 weeks they had lineups at the theaters and had to turn people away. By the time I got to the theater, five weeks after the release, it was playing to thinly filled movie houses. Apparently the ‘target audience’(Christians) had all seen the picture. It was great to see that the Christian community came out en masse to support it. This alone should ensure that more Christian films will be made and will survive in a universe filled with mostly ‘live’cartoon superhero action movies.
By half way through Kathy could see me fidgeting, and as we walked out of the theater after the credits she turned to me and said, “Now don’t say anything negative to anybody about this movie and ruin it for them.” She knew right away what was going through my mind. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things to applaud here. The production values were excellent, much better than others I’ve seen from the bible belt Christian producers. (Mark Burnett’s The Bible and Son of God are in a different category altogether.) And personally, I got a huge kick out of Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson’s ridiculous and random cameo. When a reporter accuses him of luring ducks to ‘maim and eat them’, he claims that ‘that’ would be cruel to eat them while they were still alive and so he makes sure he kills them first. Very funny… although I may have actually been the only one in the theater laughing. Kevin Sorbo did a great job playing the atheist Professor Radisson (he was Hercules in Xena the Princess Warrior) until the last 15 minutes when the writers had him fall completely out of character. Shane Harper did a stand up job as the uncompromising Christian freshman Josh Wheaton that was unwilling to deny his faith.
For the record, I really wanted to like the film and I do not want to come across as one of those overly critical people that I am always complaining about. But here is where I need to disagree with some of the rave reviews I have been hearing from many of my friends and peers. For me, the script writing threatened to kill an otherwise great idea for a story line. Before you write me off as just a grump, let me tell you what I mean because I think it is important for the cause of the gospel. The portrayal of every single non-Christian as a horrible human being was embarrassingly overdone. They were cruel, selfish, angry, bitter or all of the above. Actor Dean Cain’s character was depicted as downright sub-human and didn’t look like anyone I have ever met. The lone Muslim man in the script was portrayed as violent and abusive. The Christians on the other hand were for the most part principled and virtuous. The contrast was so stark as to be sure to offend any and every non-Christian sitting in the audience. It is impossible for me to even describe how exclusively they reinforced the unhelpful Christian stereotypes that make our job of presenting the gospel to skeptics even more difficult. The very thing the writers were trying to accomplish, answering the objections to the Christian faith, they successfully undermined by including the Christian cliches that make our message entirely unpalatable to those who would hold a non-christian worldview. They ran the entire length of front pew from the right wing politics, to Christian dating, to the notion of being the persecuted underclass, to the gross overuse of campy Christian slogans. “I am beginning to think we are unequally yoked.” and “God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good”… over and over again. Seriously as the producers employed one bible belt cliche after another I began to hope there was actually no non-christians in the theater watching it.
Perhaps the biggest misstep of all was the main premise of a philosophy professor requiring every student to sign a statement that ‘God is dead’. It was incredulous at best and the fact that 79 of 80 signed it was ridiculous. And then after Josh’s presentation, all remaining 79 changed their minds and were willing to publicly rebuff and embarrass their professor by declaring that ‘God’s not dead’. I felt this hyperbole insulted the intelligence of every viewer and took away from Josh’s actual presentation which was easily the best part of the movie. He did an inspiring job of arguing some well-reasoned apologetics. But again the producers dropped the ball by presenting Sorbo’s character as defeated and speechless, when anyone in his position would have come back with a volley of reasonable rebuttals. If you haven’t seen the movie I won’t ruin the ending for you but for me it was just another cliché.
To say this movie was preaching to the choir would be an understatement. Among Christians I asked what they thought of the movie, their responses ranged from ‘really good’ to ‘the best movie ever’. I think the most revealing exercise is to go on the IMDb website. The disparity between Christian viewers and non-christians was more than slightly disconcerting. Believers tended to rate the movie a 9 or 10 whereas non-christian viewers almost exclusively gave it a 1 out of 10 with comments like, “worst movie ever”. I guess the big question is; what are Christian movies trying to accomplish? If they are just trying to reinforce (arguably unhelpful) existing stereotypes to the Christian population then they are succeeding. If they are trying to reach the non-christian segment of the population and try to get them to rethink the possibility of finding faith then they are failing miserably. I feel we need to do better. God’s not dead but the clichés should be.