God’s Not Dead: A Film Review

GNDAvatar

 

**Please be aware: this blog post contains spoilers for the film God’s Not Dead**

This is my third attempt at expressing my thoughts on this film. The first time, I took a stab at satiric writing and fake-gushed about how fantastic it was. The second time, I thought I’d do a character-by-character analysis delving into all the ways this film reinforced terrible stereotypes that have saturated the way evangelicals view those who believe differently than we do. But I realized as I wrote these things that while my issues with the film are quite legitimate, they don’t get to the heart of why this film is so problematic.

I believe the greatest travesty that God’s Not Dead committed was to reinforce the idea that Christians are courageous but persecuted in a culture that treats them with disdain and outright disrespect. The film played out on screen the same sentiments that many Christians want to believe about ourselves: we’re living in a culture that mocks and belittles our faith. We are modern-day martyrs, and we must fight to the end to defend the truth of God, and be kind but bold to those around us who are caught up in the bitterness of their own godlessness.

The main plot of the film’s storyline initiates when Professor Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor, demands that his students sign a statement that “God is dead” or receive a 0 for 30% of their grade in the class. We see the film’s agenda right from the start. Every student in the class has no issues with complying; they are all either atheists themselves, or willing to compromise their religious beliefs for the sake of a passing grade.

Every student except for one, of course. Josh Wheaton, a freshman who has been a Christian most of his life, refuses. In response, the professor challenges him to present the reasons for God’s existence in three 20-minute lectures, after which the professor will provide a rebuttal, and the class will determine the winner. Throughout this exchange—and truly, throughout the whole movie—Radisson is remarkably antagonistic, rude, and arrogant towards Wheaton. He is the absolute picture of the stereotype of atheists as hostile and rude, while Josh is presented as the kind young Christian victimized by his oppressive professor.

Throughout the film, other storylines emerge which are completely removed from the central conflict between Josh and Professor Radisson. Each of these reinforces the film’s agenda of presenting Christians as persecuted martyrs in a way that is laughably conspicuous. For example, a teenage Muslim girl named Ayisha who works at Josh’s college is revealed to have secretly converted to the Christian faith, despite having a father who is very fundamentalist and requires her to wear  a hijab over her head and face in public. When he finds out, the man is outraged, and after kicking her, hitting her, and screaming at her, he drags her out of the house and excommunicates her from her family.

Now, I understand that situations like this happen, and that men and women born into the Muslim faith who convert to Christianity sometimes endure the rejection that Ayisha endured in the film. But this story’s inclusion in this movie felt problematic to me for many reasons. First, this sort of thing is not likely to happen in the United States. It is as though the filmmakers capitalized on the very real oppression that occurs abroad and dropped it into an American, privileged, middle-class context. Ayisha’s family seemed to be an ordinary American family, and in fact, the hijab is the only indication we have that she is Muslim. Her story just doesn’t fit well into this nation’s context of religious liberty.

Now, all of this is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to the plethora of issues I had with this film. Granted, I understand why so many Christians are gushing with praise for the film—it reinforces all the beliefs most of them already hold and does nothing to challenge the status quo or make viewers think more deeply about the questions it raises. Instead, God’s Not Dead resolves those questions in the neatest ending imaginable. The Christians to whom this film caters would leave the theater feeling gratified and inspired, while everyone else—myself included—felt utter frustration at its unrealistic treatment of persecution, its stereotyping, and its rejection of any sort of complexity or nuance.

 

Advertisements

Posted on April 1, 2014, in Church, Film. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this review Tiffani. This is the first detail I have heard on this film.

    I see that it involves a resurrection. This antagonistic atheistic professor, who is stumped by a brave ‘real’ Christian, has been raised many times during my 60+ years. I grew up among the ‘abused’ and ‘persecuted’ Christians in America. But I got over it and discovered things are not as I had been told.

    If you are interested, I wrote a post on the claim that Christians are persecuted in America http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/are-christians-persecuted-in-america/.

    Thanks again for the review. I would now like to see the film, whereas before I did not. I like to keep up with the arguments for persecution of Christians in America, though this one doesn’t seem to add much creativity to the argument.

  2. I have wondered about that movie. On a Muslim note, you should look up Nabeel Qureshi. I have heard him speak and you want some reality about Islam and what he has given up for the Christian faith. Awe inspiring.

    I was wondering about the movie Noah. I am seeing mixed reviews.
    It is a Hollywood movie, so what do they expect? Have you seen it yet?

    • Thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely check out Nabeel Qureshi when I get a chance :).

      I did see Noah. It’s funny you mention it, because after I finish writing about the conference I went to I’m going to share what I thought of that movie too. I really understands why it’s gotten such mixed reviews; it does take a lot of liberties with the source material. But I though it was an exceptionally well done film that captures the spirit of the story of Noah beautifully. But like I said, I understand why people might not agree.

  3. I was excited to see a post on this movie as my husband and I recently did one on our blog and then I was surprised at the content. We 100% all have a right to our own opinion and in appreciation of you viewing this movie and being discerning on its content with your post, I want to be respectful in how I comment. I do feel though the need to provide some opposition as I saw the movie in a very different light. I read your post in full so I hope you can read my comment too. Sorry so lengthy…I tend to not have the gift of brief writing.

    I am a Christian, believer, follower of Jesus Christ – however someone wants to term it. My faith is ever-changing as my relationship with Christ deepens and I will try to always appreciate another Christians attempt to create a piece of art that can touch even just one person! I found it a tad bit of a stab to say “The Christians to whom this film caters would leave the theater feeling gratified and inspired” because my husband and I left feeling armed and ready just a little bit more to share our faith in a stronger more confident way. I don’t know what type of Christian that makes me necessarily…anyways, I will further give my opposition – or rather the positive aspects I found in this movie because I want people to see it for the good!

    My husband and I were curious of this movie as we can agree the skew that some Christian movies have is heavy and unrealistic. However, we were pleasantly surprised by this movie’s more realistic approach AND applicable arguments that we can respectfully utilize as Christians when shown opposition or persecution in any cultural context.

    To begin, we all view everything in life through different lenses so that is why I explain where I am coming from culturally, politically, or spiritually. Having lived in both conservative and liberal environments, I can see both sides of the view or stereotype on this movie. But I have to still see it positive! Currently my husband and I live in a liberal city and often times we find ourselves fighting to shine a little Christian light wherever possible because of the opposition in so much. It can be hard, so we aren’t naive to the feelings the movie presents. I don’t say that to seem like ‘oh woe is me’ but persecution is persecution as defined ‘hostility and ill-treatment, esp. because of race or political or religious beliefs.’ I don’t like to use the term too distinctly as there are thousands around the world that suffer a severe persecution for their faith as Christians that we could never imagine. However, this movie does well highlight persecution in an American context because although faint at time, it is present and maybe when depicted cinematically it can appear cheesy…but it’s real!! And walking away because it is awkward or not ideal for a grade or reputation is not an option. That is in fact what the main character does – not walk away – and it isn’t easy as there was a struggle from many angles! Not sure how many of us as Christians would really have the guts to try what this character tried – granted it was fiction – the movie overall was based from various legal battles at universities across the nation for Christian freedoms.

    The side stories that have been deemed irrelevant and not true to context seem slightly harsh and ill-informed. The persecution of an international student from China (or any country) from his father (or any family member) is definitely something that could happen. The back and forth struggle in this character to fight both sides was I believe very honest. The Muslim girl who is renounced by her family because of her hidden love of Jesus was also a well-painted portrait of acculturation and the battle for many who want to remain a part of their family and culture but have different beliefs. I have heard a personal account of this exact nature in our city and I am sure there are many more.

    I do agree the dramatically angry and rude portrayal of the professor may have been a little overboard as the only leading atheist in the movie – maybe a tad unfair and not always true to size. BUT I was a sociology major in college at a very conservative university and as a whole sociologists tend to be very existential and liberal. So to play devil’s advocate, I had many professors that did in fact act very similar to the professor in this film when given any opposition and I would try as I could to portray another side (whether it be Christian influenced or not) but often was not warmly accepted or considered.

    Just some ideas to consider…and if I seemed harsh I do apologize but the Bible does not deem righteous anger in defending our faith or injustice as sin.

    Lastly, to say “we’re living in a culture that mocks and belittles our faith” as such a comical statement regarding this movie…I ask, what then was your post attempting if not mocking and belittling?
    Thanks for reading and look forward to a possible dialogue.

    • Hey Natalie. Thanks for disagreeing so respectfully. For the sake of being concise, I won’t try to respond to every point you raised but I’ll do my best to address the more important ones.

      First off, I suspect that the negative reaction you felt for my review is quite similar to the reaction that atheists, Muslims, Asians, environmentalists, wealthy businessmen, and other groups would have to God’s Not Dead. I know that if I belonged to any of these groups, I would have been offended at the oversimplified stereotypes (which I believe were much more than a “little overboard” or a “tad unfair”).

      Of course persecution is real, but I found the way that this movie presented it to be very unrealistic. I understand where you are coming from, having experienced classroom settings similar to the one presented in the film, but I would guess that for every rude, close-minded atheist professor out there, there are just as many who are welcoming of dialogue from Christians in their classroom and respectful in their disagreement about the existence of God. I have read the stories of such professors (I too attended a very conservative college, and as such did not encounter any opposition to Christianity in a classroom setting), and I believe the way that the film presents Radisson is disrespectful to such people.

      Regarding the side stories, I think the reason I found them to be so problematic was the way they were so clearly tailored to a conservative audience: the Christian woman who lives a domestic role generally favored by conservative Christians (Radisson’s girlfriend) is kind and meek, while the environmentalist career-minded woman is abrasive and insecure. This is just one example, of course, and there are many more in the film.

      Essentially, I do believe that God’s Not Dead does more harm than good. It successfully keeps beliefs other than Christians’ at arm’s length and reinforces a lot of harmful stereotypes, instead of exploring reconciliation through collaborative dialogue. Essentially, I found that it made the lines dividing us in the culture war all the bolder.

      Anyway, I’m sorry if my review offended you. Just realize that I, too, felt the righteous anger you described. I, as a believer in Jesus, do not want a film like God’s Not Dead to be representative of my religion, because I think it had a lot more in common with American conservativism than the message of Jesus and the life he has called us to live.

  4. Tiffani,
    I truly do not want this to become a back and forth argument in any way, so me responding back is not meant to be anything in that nature. However, I appreciate a healthy debate on faith because as the movie we are discussing proves – we will always learn something about ourselves and what we believe more thoroughly when we dig a little deeper into what we believe and why! To start from that point, I believe the movie was ultimately created to empower (even though some could argue unrealistically) a Christian believer with better talking points to share the gospel and combat disbelievers. The link to the other blog post was enlightening specifically proving that the movie was made with intentions of creating a dialogue about these things among believers on how we can better approach sharing the gospel to our peers of any background.

    In a way the debate surrounding the movie (good or bad) does everything it is supposed to in depicting how we should approach sharing the gospel with others…what I mean by that is, offense is going to be taken! And people need to get over it – however harsh that may sound. If people are becoming offended by what the Bible presents, then maybe they need to reexamine or ask questions on how they are living their life ACCORDING to the scriptures.

    Jesus Christ did not come to this earth to only love – but also to teach and preach the mission of His Father in heaven. This message was never even slightly watered down and sometimes when studied in current contexts, it is seen as absurd and ridiculous. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, we see Jesus asking us to turn the other cheek when our enemy strikes. Does that sound remotely like what people do these days – taken in a physical or metaphorical context? Not really. Another example is in Matthew 21:12 when Jesus entered the temple full of merchants, his righteous anger built up to the physical point of turning over tables in rage of this disrespect. Don’t you think that offended or upset many people in that situation? Sure, but it wasn’t right because the temple was meant to be a place of worship and Jesus would not stand for it. And if you want to look beyond just what or how Jesus taught, look at the apostle Paul in nearly every letter of the New Testament and you will see clear and harsh instructions for living the Christian lifestyle but done out of love.

    So in a sense, this movie is taking a stand against and flipping tables of the naysayers of Christianity who defame our God by saying in some way or another, that He is dead. How is this wrong or how can as a Christian we not in some way respect the attempt and find a way to believe in its purpose.

    To your point of stereotypes in the movie…I for sure agree that stereotypes were present in some form or another within all the list you created. However, you left out one I believe – the stereotypes surrounding Christians. There are about a billion out there and this movie covered quite a few (positive and negative) There was the doubting girlfriend who says :be a believer but don’t stand up for it because it will hurt your reputation” OR the stereotypical difference seen between the pastor from overseas versus the American pastor related to their worth they feel in working for God. I agree the stereotypes were everywhere but the thing I see with them is…HOW CAN YOU EVER AVOID THEM!? I only capitalize because it is a frustration of mine that everyone is always getting super offended these days. Yes we do need to be kind in our words and interpretations of people but also remember that we all see things different so intentionally or not – stereotypes will exist. Stereotype is defined as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”. The definition says it – it is merely an idea or image. Christians get stereotyped all the time in tons of movies and in the media – I hope if a Christian gets offended by Muslims or Atheists stereotypes in this movie then they get equally offended at the stereotypes of Christians!

    I would be surprised honestly if a Muslim or Atheist didn’t get offended when watching this movie. They don’t share our belief in the gospel and therefore wouldn’t appreciate the sentiment just as we would watching a movie of this nature with their mission in mind. But I do believe there was truth behind much of what was portrayed within all stereotypes in the film, even ones of Christians. And to me that is ok. In creative works like a movie, a point of view for each character has to be determined in one direction or another and people won’t always like it.

    And to lastly touch on persecution, I am curious to understand how you feel the persecution in this movie is unrealistic?
    In my thoughts, if we do not see any truth or reality in the persecution of this movie, maybe we need to step back and consider whether we stand up enough for the teachings of Christ OR do we possibly water down the teachings of the gospel to fit the preferences of others so persecution doesn’t occur?

    • I too appreciate healthy debate; if we keeps an open mind, we can always learn something, even when we disagree. 🙂

      I believe your assessment would be fair if the film presented all of its characters in ways that were complex and well-balanced. Were that the case, I would agree that the message of the film, and not the way it was presented, is where the true offensiveness lies.

      However, Josh’s words/actions themselves were not what I (and I’m sure many non-Christians) found to be offensive. Rather, the way in which others’ beliefs/lifestyles are caricatured is where the film fell far short of a realistic and fair portrayal. Every character who is not a Christian (such as Professor Radisson, Mark, Ayisha’s father, and to some extent, Amy) is rude or selfish or even violent, while all the Christians (with the exception of Josh’s girlfriend) are kind and agreeable. That isn’t really how the world works, and sometimes those who profess the Christian faith do not have admirable characters, while those who don’t claim Christianity do have characters worth admiring.

      Also, shouldn’t we seek to avoid stereotypes? I know they exist, and they are unavoidable. But like I said in my post, it seemed to me that the film was intentionally reinforcing them when a more helpful message would have been to challenge them—to help us see each other’s humanity instead of an oversimplified version that has been hammered out by time and culture. A film like that would be worth seeing!

      You asked me why I felt the persecution in the film was unrealistic. While I’m quite willing to concede that the examples in this film (most notably, Professor Radisson’s treatment of Josh and Ayisha’s banishment from her family) may exist in our American society today, it has been my experience that they are the rare exception and not the norm. The fact of the matter is that Christians do enjoy incredible privilege in our culture because our religion is dominant. This movie makes it seem like our faith is more threatened than it really is.

      • I can see where you are coming from with some of what you say. And it has taken me a long time in my walk with Jesus to get to this point, but as followers and those who are called to spread the love of the gospel message – we cannot be more afraid of offending others as we are with offending our Lord because we don’t follow His call on our lives and His true and faithful word (with no personal skew of our own added)! We should care more of saving peoples hearts for The Lord than offending them in the process!

        And I will say it again, if we don’t feel persecution is all around us – then we aren’t stepping out in our faith according to the Word of The Lord enough.
        The Huffinginton Post claims that those saying they are religiously unaffiliated has risen from 5% to 20% in the past 70 years. That is a large portion of our American population – not including those with other religious preferences.
        So there are plenty not agreeable with the Christian faith where persecution may occur. It is not my belief that people are turning from Christianity because we offend or stereotype – rather if we look deep inside ourselves we will see a lack of focus on the true word of God. We try to pull our skew into it too much to fit everyone. God destroyed people and nations for trying to create their own religion from what He gave them! I don’t want to be responsible for that again.

        Jesus is Jesus – the Bible is the Bible – and it shouldn’t be changed to make anyone else feel better or more comfortable.
        Following Christ is about sacrificing the needs of our flesh to receive just a slice of Heaven on earth.

  5. I think at this point we must agree to disagree. Based on your latest comment it is very clear to me that our theologies are quite different, which undoubtedly has a lot to do with our difference of opinion over the film.

    For example, I don’t believe it’s possible to have an approach to the Bible that is not “skewed”. And I don’t think God destroyed people in the OT, I interpret those passages differently.

    Anyway, thanks again for this discussion. I did learn from you, and I think it is always helpful to receive constructive criticism when it is delivered respectfully. Of course, feel free to comment again, here or elsewhere on my blog. 🙂

    • I definetly agree, we shall agree to disagree. Thanks for a spirited and respectful debate.
      I just really wanted people to find some good in this movie and give it a try!! Like any piece of human created art, there is error or bias but also I felt a lot to learn and share. That’s all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: