Friday, March 27, 2015

The True Message of God's Not Dead

Netflix recently added God's Not Dead to its streaming service, and I was excited to see it without having to pay for it in any kind of direct way.  I'd heard it was awful and took its pro-Christianity stance way too far, so I thought it would be fun to know, kind of like a religious-themed version of The Room.

What I discovered was that the film contains a touching and universal message.  If you ignore the masturbatory fantasies of Christianity conquering all its critics, the one-dimensional characters, the not-so-subtle implication that anyone who isn't Christian or in the process of becoming Christian is a terrible person, the flimsy debates, the overstated persecution complex, the obvious intellectual shortcomings of a professor who's supposed to be "brilliant," the weird karmic schadenfreude exhibited through the torture of the non-Christian characters, the way several of the leads foist their religious views on others in inappropriate settings, the muddled excess of subplots, the baffling understanding of the word "prove," and of course the unrealistic conclusion, it's actually a wonderful story producing several caricatures of human nature that combine to illustrate an important and poignant warning to us all:  poor communication can be a terribly destructive force.

(That might be the longest sentence I've ever written in my life.)

Case Study 1:  Our Noble Hero and his Bitchy Girlfriend
When Josh Wheaton (Our Noble Hero) refuses to sign a paper saying "God is dead" for his introductory philosophy college course, Professor Atheist Vendetta gives him the alternative of proving to the class that God actually exists.  Our Noble Hero will have the last twenty minutes of the next three lectures to accomplish this...but should he fail, he'll lose thirty percent of his grade for the semester.  His Bitchy Girlfriend of six years is all about the two of them building a successful future, and she tells Our Noble Hero not to take Professor Atheist Vendetta up on his challenge because a bad grade in the class will hurt his chances of getting into law school.  Our Noble Hero, believing that God wants him to rise to his defense, does it anyway.  And in one brief conversation, Bitchy Girlfriend dumps him.
My mother knew that a handsome, respectful, college-bound,
God-fearing guy like you would be nothing but trouble.
In expressing his shock to her, Our Noble Hero makes an important observation about their relationship:  "You didn't ask me," he insists.  "You told me.  It wasn't a decision that we made, it was a decision that you made for the both of us."  Bitchy Girlfriend hadn't brought her concerns to him or welcomed any discussion on the matter.  She'd told him what to do and left no room for compromise.  Unsurprisingly, this closed-off form of communication ultimately unravels their relationship.

Case Study 2:  The Upwardly Mobile Asshat and the Uppity Liberal Blogger
The Upwardly Mobile Asshat meets his girlfriend, Uppity Liberal Blogger, for dinner to tell her that he's just been named a partner at his firm.  Unfortunately, she has just learned that she has cancer, and Upwardly Mobile Asshat is annoyed that her somber news overshadows his promotion.  This violates some kind of deal they have for their relationship, but she doesn't seem to understand the deal to which he clung so closely.
Dean Cain has no time for your bothersome life-threatening illnesses!
"Grow up, Amy," Upwardly Mobile Asshat admonishes her.  "Love is the most overused word in the English language.  It's what we say when we want something, when we need something, and you're as guilty of it as anybody."

He terminates their romance and Uppity Liberal Blogger feels blindsided by his callous lack of empathy.  He clearly feels that his speech about love was something she should have known all along.  But it would have been helpful if he'd just said all this on their first date and saved her some trouble.  Uppity Liberal Blogger would have realized what a heartless bastard he was and not invested so much time in their relationship.  Instead, she's left heartbroken and alone in a time of great emotional distress.  Healthier communication could have avoided this.  She could have been dating a much more sympathetic and supportive man by now if she'd known enough to dump Upwardly Mobile Asshat at the get-go like the scumbag he is.

Case Study 3:  The Hot Chick and her Muslim Dad
The vaguely Middle-Eastern Hot Chick has been secretly listening to some kind of Christian podcasts despite her father's strong allegiance to the Islamic faith.  Her younger brother betrays her by informing their father, who angrily storms into her bedroom to confront her.  When he sees the track that's playing on Hot Chick's iPod, he stares at her for a moment...and then without a word, he backhands her across the mouth.  Then he demands that she repeat a tenet of Islam, but she refuses, instead professing her belief in Jesus.  So father of the year smacks her around some more, drags her down the stairs and leaves her on the street.
I realize this is a really troubling time for her and all, but is she rocking those jeans or what?
Had he acted less impulsively and instead talked with his daughter like an adult who knew better than to immediately resort to extremely punitive, violent measures, perhaps their relationship could have been preserved.  Instead, Hot Chick was practically forced into the arms of the people her father couldn't stand.  Once she'd lost her family, Pastor Dave and the Christians were her only refuge.  The dad may have been losing his daughter in a religious sense already, but because he had no patience for talking things over, he lost her in a very physical sense as well.

Case Study 4:  The Atheist Professor and his Trophy Girlfriend
Professor Atheist Vendetta's Trophy Girlfriend is growing tired of her lover's publicly condescending attitude toward her and his increasingly dismissive comments about her Christian faith.  Unknowingly taking a page out of Bitchy Girlfriend's book, she approaches the professor on campus while he's at work and simply announces, "Jeffrey, I'm leaving you."  Just like Bitchy Girlfriend, she offers no discussion and not even an ultimatum.  She just decides to end a relationship in an instant (also like Bitchy Girlfriend and also like Upwardly Mobile Asshat).

An earlier scene depicted the two of them talking at home and alluded to the professor's policy that the two of them not discuss religion (ostensibly to avoid conflict within the relationship).  "Except the not talking is starting to get louder and louder," Professor Atheist Vendetta complains, "and soon it will be deafening, and I don't know if I can put up with that."  He realizes that avoiding a dialogue on potentially divisive issues that are important to both of them is starting to cause tension in their relationship.  Trophy Girlfriend agrees.

But later, instead of trying to silence the "not talking," she plainly tells him that she's leaving him.  She doesn't even bother giving him a reason.  At every stage of the deterioration of their union, an open and respectful exchange of opinions could have done wonders.
I think, in this case, a breakup by text message instead of
in a public place might have been more humane.

Case Study 5:  God and Various Characters
Our Noble Hero "feels like" God wants him to stand up for his beliefs, but he doesn't always seem sure of it when he tells people about it.  Professor Atheist Vendetta, as a child, prays that his mother be saved from her cancer but she dies and he is given no answer from God.  Reverends Chill Dude and Wise Foreigner struggle with repeated automotive trouble, which keeps them from taking their road trip and allows them to be in the right spot when Professor Atheist Vendetta is hit by a car so that Chill Dude can convince the professor to accept Jesus before he dies.

God doesn't do a very good job of communicating in this movie.

There's no moment when Our Noble Hero is struck with a clear understanding of what God wants him to do and how God needs him to do it.  Young Professor Atheist Vendetta never receives an explanation for his mother's death or even some comfort in its wake despite his many prayers.  And God sets up a ridiculous series of busted rental cars to keep Reverend Chill Dude in town just so that he can talk to the wounded professor and save his soul at the end.  God really couldn't have found another way to convert Professor Atheist Vendetta other than having him killed?  And he couldn't have figured out another method to get a reverend there to get him to profess faith in Jesus?  Some straightforward correspondence could have made all this easier and spared a life in the process.
God's Not Dead:  glorifying loyalty to Jesus out of mortal fear instead of sincere belief since 2014.
Through the thick growths of religious vines throttling the narrative of God's Not Dead, a simple and somehow beautiful message lies at the center of this clumsily-conceived story:  So much painful stuff happens to these characters, and almost all of it is due to poor communication.  We can learn from these fictional examples that when people don't take the time to discuss their decisions, their expectations, their beliefs and their problems, they can expect things to get worse.  Open dialogue, free communication and the mature exchange of opinions can facilitate the happy endings that so few of these situations achieved.

Just look at arguably the healthiest relationship depicted in the film:  Reverend Chill Dude and Reverend Wise Foreigner are good buddies and they disagree from time to time, but they always talk about why they feel the way they feel.  At the end of the movie, their friendship is intact and they've learned some stuff.  Plus, both of them are still alive.  No hit-and-runs or cancer scares.

This movie isn't Shakespeare (although it quotes Shakespeare at one point and does it a surprising amount of justice), but somehow, despite all the blundering around in a mess of oversimplified, hypercontrasted tales of Christians and non-Christians, it actually manages to drive home a meaningful least, for whatever viewer isn't interested in an absurd, overindulgent tale of implausible Christian triumph.

It's interesting to me, however, that this accidental moral is somewhat at odds with the central theme of the film.  God's Not Dead is basically a war story, with the good Christians being assailed for their faith.  Hot Chick is disowned.  Trophy Girlfriend is patronized by her boyfriend.  Chinese Exchange Student pisses off his dad.  And of course Our Noble Hero is compelled to defend his faith in front of a live audience in the crosshairs of a derisive authority figure and he loses his Bitchy Girlfriend in the process.  Reverends Chill Dude and Wise Foreigner even discuss "being in the trenches" when it comes to doing God's work.  Atheists and non-Christians are pitted against our pious protagonists and they go for each other's metaphorical jugulars with dogmatic gusto.

But if the filmmakers would learn from their own unwitting lessons, they would understand that the world could be improved immeasurably if religious differences were discussed openly and honestly instead of being glorified as battlegrounds.  Instead of freaking out when someone undergoes a faith shift, we could embrace the good things about different beliefs because we've communicated and we know them well enough to understand them instead of fear them.  We could stop thinking of things in terms of atheists and Christians and start seeing each other as people instead of warriors on opposing sides of an endless conflict.  And we could stop producing media that depicts various groups as being in a constant clash with each other because we don't want to perpetuate the myth that different religions cannot coexist peacefully and happily and productively.

That is what I learned from God's Not Dead.  And that is what makes the movie so beautiful in its completely unintentional depiction of such an important concept and so blunderingly glorious in its oblivious irony.


  1. I remember seeing promotions for this movie when it first came out and thinking how dumb it would be. Thanks for confirming that for me so I won't waste my time with it.

    You make a great point about communication. I mean, couples and families break up all the time, because the culture of the church doesn't tolerate not towing the line. Therefore you risk divorce and being ostracized just for expressing doubts.

    I mean, look at the response in the news stories and on the internet to the people who voted "opposed" yesterday in general conference. Those people have set themselves up for an immense amount of trouble. Rather than friendly, loving, fruitful discussions with their bishops and stake presidents, I would bet they're more likely to face cold "courts of love."

    1. I was at the movies the other day and I think there's a new film out from the same people that made this heap of garbage. If I remember right, it's called Do You Believe? And there's also a sequel to God's Not Dead in the works too, I think.

      I'm morbidly curious about what will happen to those who voted opposed yesterday, especially the ones who have been identified by name. They're probably in for a world of emotional hurt, and that's obviously not a good thing, but it will be interesting to see what waves they've made in the community.

      Hopefully, at least, they and their families can communicate well enough to preserve those relationships, though.