Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plods onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies that have been out for a while.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. —Matthew 6:5, English Standard Version
I’m afraid to mention this in casual conversation: I’m atheist-agnostic, somebody who feels he can’t say there’s no divine entity in charge of things but who lives his life on the premise that there isn’t in the same way the average North American lives his life on the premise that there is. It’s germane to the discussion because there’s a lot of debate that specifically surrounds who God’s Not Dead and its sequels are “for,” exactly. My view has always been that all art is for all people—at least all art you can rent for three bucks on Amazon. But, we’re in the realm of disclosing biases here, when we start talking about this franchise.
There are few ways in which I could dunk on this series that the secular press and indeed, pop culture critics who write from a Christian perspective, haven’t already. The two entries that have already been released have been panned by Christians I know personally and Christian writers who have more authority than I do on this stuff.
Instead, as the third one of these things hits theaters, I want to talk about what a completely missed opportunity this all represents, whether you’re the intended audience or not.
Prepare to witness a riveting thriller that revolves mostly around a PowerPoint lecture.
A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word “darkness” on the walls of his cell.—C.S. Lewis
To greatly simplify, apologetics is the discourse of convincing people of something—in this case, Christian apologetics is the academic neighborhood of theology that aims to convince people of the premises of Christianity. The book on which the first God’s Not Dead film is loosely based is in this wheelhouse—billing itself as a sort of how-to when you, the observant Christian, find yourself in a hostile conversation with a non-believer and want to have some concrete arguments to defend your worldview.
This is an important line of inquiry. If somebody would talk to me about it, I’d listen even though I would likely not come around, any more than my girlfriend, a committed member of her Presbyterian church’s choir, will come around on Steven Universe being actually the best thing ever. This makes me an absolute oddity to the fictional world of God’s Not Dead, in which every non-believer is a raging, caustic jerk, recoiling from churchgoers as if they’re diseased and not, you know, the vast majority of our friends, family and coworkers.
The first movie follows Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), an earnest young kid in his freshman year at some (godless, liberal) university, trying to juggle his class load with the draconian anti-theism of a philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo, complete with villainous goatee) and an unsupportive girlfriend (whom he’s been dating for six years?!?!?!?). In the first of many things that would be outright illegal were this a public university and possibly disqualifying of accreditation were this a private one, Professor Sorbo forces each of his Philosophy 150 classes to sign a piece of paper reading “God Is Dead.”
This is the face of a strawman.
Josh does what anybody with the most basic understanding of Constitutional law, or indeed, a diploma from a public K-12 education, would also do under such circumstances and refuses to sign the damn thing. For no reason other than he’s a dick, Professor Sorbo decides to entertain a debate between the two of them over whether or not God exists. Thus begins the main plot of the movie, which has him doing intellectual battle with Professor Sorbo, with many digressions detailing the banal travails of everyman campus pastor Dave (David A.R. White, a co-founder of Pure Flix, the company that makes these and other Christian-aimed films).
Also on hand: Amy, a career journalist dating a callous money-worshipper played by Dean Cain, who dumps her when he finds out she has cancer; Martin, a student from a country on track to having the largest Christian population in the world (that would be China) who has never heard of Christianity; and Ayesha, a Muslim girl whose father mandates that she cover her entire face and head with a scarf (but lets her wear short-sleeved shirts…?) and whose brother rats her out for listening to Franklin Graham on her iPod.
There is nothing plausible or recognizable in the scenario God’s Not Dead lays out. Professor Sorbo is vicious—wounded by the untimely passing of his mother and thus determined to hate and denounce God. Amy the career woman has nothing and nobody—I guess because she decided to go have a career—and Dean Cain views everything as a cold monetary transaction. None of this is my experience or the experience of other atheists and agnostics I know. The idea that, lurking under every atheist, there’s actually an amoral robot or a mean-spirited apostate is as destructive a viewpoint as saying all Christians are the mom from Stephen King’s Carrie.
Professor Sorbo inevitably gets owned by Josh in his own class, loses his Christian girlfriend (to whom he has been a belittling, dismissive prick the entire movie) and then out of nowhere just gets hit by a car. Pastor Dave is there to save him at the end—not by resuscitating him or the like, but by getting him to recant his atheism on the concrete in the rain so he can go to heaven when he dies.
It’s exhausting even to go into how many ways this is an insult to all of the people and things it insults: It diminishes the Christians who perform meaningful charity here on Earth, espouses the view that wickedness and stridency toward your fellow humans is fine if you say the right words right at the end, and weaponizes the great yawning doubt against agnostics while also taking the opportunity to maim an atheist while insisting that no, really, we’re doing him a favor.
This is happening concurrently with a happy, celebratory concert where all the good characters are having their end-of-the-movie dance fest. It’s apparently Christian, according to this movie, to obliviously dance it all out while your ideological foe dies of collapsed lungs.
The Constitution Doesn’t Work Like That 2
She may not be a teenage witch any longer, but Melissa Joan Hart is being publicly burned in God’s Not Dead 2.
God’s Not Dead 2 is an insult to all the same things the first one is, and an insult to any high schooler’s basic understanding of the judicial system to boot. Schoolteacher Melissa Joan Hart gets dragged before a courtroom to be prosecuted for violating the separation of church and state by answering the question of a student who compares Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence to that of Christ’s—the least controversial inquiry one could make. This sets off alarm bells, bringing out a serpentine Ray Wise as another lawyer who hates God (this time for no reason), and who sneers that he’ll prove God is dead and get Hart fired.
I’m sure some will insist that non-believers pan these movies because they don’t like the message, but I’m serious: This is a dumb plot that rests on a premise that makes no sense. I agree with the film’s assertion that Hart did nothing wrong, but that’s because nobody would have given her any trouble about it. I can recall similar discussions from my own public school days where explicit mention was made of some Christian doctrine or tradition somewhere, and nobody made an issue of it because it was in an academic setting.
For that reason, it is a long, painful march to the final court appearance, complete with every kind of nonsensical gotcha testimony and impromptu witnesses that any legal expert will tell you don’t actually happen in real life. At last the jury comes out in favor of Hart and a pissy Wise goes frowning back to his law firm. At least he didn’t get bodily wrecked, I guess.
Foiled again … by Jesus!
If the message here is that you need to be brave about your personal beliefs and stand by them, that would interest me. I’ve never publicly written what I did in my first paragraph up there because it frankly makes me wonder if I’ll get loads of hate mail. Is this a thing we might have in common? This movie is not interested in knowing.
Threading the needle with $84 million in box office take
The first movie hit theaters in 2014 and, on a $2 million budget, grossed $64 million dollars. Those Get Out-like levels of return basically guaranteed we’ll be seeing sequel after sequel to this from now until the End Times. While the 2016 sequel did way less business at $20 million and the production budget isn’t listed, I can’t imagine it was all that much more expensive to make, as the movie looks, sounds, and plods along just like the first one.
It’s deeply unfortunate for a lot of reasons that these are, as I said, bad movies. My question is this: Why do Christians deserve such terrible movies when the history of Christian-influenced art is vast and rich, even as it is full of the acknowledgment of doubt and human imperfection, and, you know, when they’ve ponied up enough dough at this point to afford something at least as well-made as a lesser Marvel movie?
Who is it for, then?
I’ll go back to the assertion brought up at the beginning, that these movies are not intended for a non-believing audience. It’s a hollow excuse for a bunch of lame movies from a studio that is actively harming the evangelism it purports to espouse, while also making loads of money off the arrangement. Black Panther “wasn’t for” me, and many parts of it did not resonate with me, but it spoke to me rather than at me. Its worldview seems not to have turned off others, since the critical consensus seems to be that it’s good and audiences seem to have gone to see it three times.
The biggest missed opportunity of the God’s Not Dead series isn’t that it’s cheaply made or that it’s essentially That Chain E-mail Where a Professor Gets Owned by a Student: The Movie. It’s that it apologizes for nothing, in either the theological or the literal sense. These are movies that aren’t asking you why you don’t feel a need to worship God, but telling you why you’re empirically wrong for not doing so. That feel like they need to prove what is, for billions, a matter of faith.
Whether or not you think that’s productive is a deep question, but the God’s Not Dead films are not deep movies.
Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer to Paste, and you can reach him on Twitter.