Monday, July 30, 2018

The True Message of God's Not Dead 2

I recently had the opportunity to view God's Not Dead 2, the sequel to 2014's masterpiece of thematic insight.  I was pleased to see that, not only had the storytelling and acting improved, but the first movie's legacy of accidentally making perceptive points outside of its professed purview had been preserved.
See, if you can get past the hamfisted drama of martyrdom, the contrived feelgood nature of the uber-Christian triumphs juxtaposed with the equally contrived woeful nature of the uber-Christian persecution complex, the fact that every character is defined first and foremost by religious beliefs alone, and the black-and-white atheist-and-Christian depictions of almost every single major player in this jumbled tale of tested faith, circlejerk vilification of different belief systems, manufactured threats, and implausible victories, there's actually a sparkling gem of wisdom a the bottom of the box of tasteless cereal—that blind fear begets unfavorable outcomes.

(That's not quite as long as the sentence I wrote last time.)

Just as a little background here, Melissa Joan Hart plays a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley.  One of her students, Brooke Thawley, asks a question in class about possible ideals that Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. may have shared with Jesus.  Miss Wesley fields the question pretty well and quotes a bit of scripture, while referring to the religious topic in more clinical, academic terms than she would outside of school.  Brooke's parents then file a lawsuit because Miss Wesley was supposedly proselytizing to public school students.  And a bunch of characters, many of which have returned from the first movie, are swept up in a frenzy of persecution paranoia as Miss Wesley and her charming atheist public defender Tom Endler lock horns in court with a bitter, scheming attorney whose last name is a homophone for Christianity's first murderer.  I think it's also worth noting that a TV role as the devil is among the most recognizable credits for the actor portraying that bitter, scheming attorney.

But now that we've covered the basics, let's delve through the first few malodorous layers of this thematic onion.

Case Study 1:  Brooke's Parents
When the legal team of Pete Kane visits the Thawley home to speak with Brooke's parents, the cunning lawyer pretty easily manages to coax them into filing a suit against Miss Wesley.  First, he mentions that colleges Brooke will be applying to the following year won't be able to resist her if she's a part of a "landmark constitutional case concerning the separation of church and state."  His associate also mentions the financial windfall from a successful settlement.  These are the two arguments that win over Brooke's parents.

See, Brooke's brother has recently died, and this has understandably rattled her. Her parents, however, advise her to move on, because she's a junior and it's her "make-or-break year" as far as her future options are concerned.  Her mother in particular, is adamant that she "stay focused."
State schools don't give legitimate educations, honey.  And you should feel
shame about grieving for your brother and not attending an Ivy League school.
Brooke admits later in the film that her parents think the lawsuit will get her into a better school and provide them the funds to pay for it.  Although the parents' doomsday scenario—Brook not attending an Ivy League university—isn't really much of a doomsday, it's their unwavering belief that their fear is becoming a reality that pushes them to not only embroil the family in a controversial court case, but also to steamroll their daughter's wishes and, in the process, utterly disregard her emotional distress over her brother's passing.

Case Study 2:  Brooke Thawley Herself
Pretty much everything that happens in this movie is a result of Brooke's struggle to cope with whatever happened to her brother.  Early on, she approaches her history teacher, Our Noble Martyr Grace Wesley, and asks her how she always remains so positive.  Since this is in a coffee shop and not a public school, Grace answers honestly that her faith in Jesus gives her hope and strength.  While pondering on that later, Brooke learns that her departed brother was a devout Christian and she begins reading his personal Bible.  This is what led her to ask Miss Wesley in class about the similarities in non-violent approaches between Jesus and other historical figures.  This is what gets everybody in trouble.

It seems that Brooke is driven by a fear that she'd let her brother slip away from her and that she hadn't appreciated him or loved him the way she should have when he was alive.  "The only thing that I really want," she tells Miss Wesley in the coffee shop, "is five more minutes to tell my brother how I really felt about him."  She later confides in a complete stranger (Chinese Exchange Student from the first movie) that, while studying and embracing her brother's religion, she felt like she was given those five minutes.  Equating Christianity with her relationship with her brother, she becomes an ardent advocate of her new faith.  Armed with the sword of righteousness and scared that her compassionate teacher was becoming a martyr, Brooke bursts into the courtroom to loudly inform the judge that Miss Wesley hasn't anything wrong.  She manages to then get herself called as a witness and accidentally reveals the religious discussion in the coffee shop to the jury.  The sinister lawyer Kane jumps on this as evidence that Grace Wesley was being dishonest and really had been trying to encourage students to join her faith.  Brooke later admits that, because of her testimony, she'd "ruined everything."
I'm not afraid of interrupting public court proceedings to inject my opinion,
but apparently I was afraid to privately tell my brother I loved him.
And none of this would have happened if she hadn't been so terrified that her brother didn't know she loved him.  Her fear may not be as irrational as some of the other fears that fuel characters' foolish decisions, but odds are that her brother knew she cared for him.  Especially considering how emotionally tone deaf the parents are, the love between the two siblings was probably the purest, most rewarding relationship in the Thawley household.  Had Brooke not been so deeply afraid that she hadn't shown proper appreciation for her brother, Miss Wesley would never have been suspended without pay and put on trial for her supposed proselytizing and we'd have never had this masterpiece of modern cinema.

Case Study 3:  Reverend Chill Dude
A peripheral protagonist here is the same reverend who accepted Kevin Sorbo's dying confession at the end of the first movie.  He's called as a juror for Miss Wesley's trial and, adhering firmly to the theme of the film, he becomes convinced that he's the vital finger in the dam that's holding back the flood waters of religious persecution.  So certain is he of his role in preventing the doom of Christianity that he refuses to leave the jury when he develops a stabbing pain in his side because he "really needs to be here."  He endangers his own health by avoiding treatment for a potentially life-threatening condition and even collapses on the floor of the courtroom—all because he fears the worst and acts as though his predictions are certainties instead of conjectures.

Reverend Chill Dude also becomes wrapped up in a side story about some nameless government entity requiring an undetermined number of pastors in an unspecified geographical area to hand in their recent sermons for undisclosed nefarious purposes.  This story unfolds in three scenes, the first of which involves a group of clergymen discussing the impending crisis at a luncheon.  The second is Reverend Chill Dude's receipt of the subpoena.  And the third is Reverend Chill Dude's bold refusal to comply with the subpoena.

The subplot begins with some kind of senior priest (played by the late, great Fred Dalton Thompson) explaining the "subpoena that just came down demanding that [they] submit copies of [their] sermons from the last three months for review."  The assembled men of the cloth then discuss the implications of this revelation.  One of them asks, "So now the government can determine what we can and can't preach at our churches?"  And the voice of reason, a character who is tellingly not even given a name, pipes up with, "Let's not overreact.  I'm sure there's no ill intent here."  Fred Dalton Thompson doesn't appear to give the voice of reason even a moment of consideration.
Not overreacting is for suckers!
And for people who haven't starred in seminal police procedural dramas!
After a bit of doom and gloom, another voice of reason—who is also unnamed—references the silent majority that can successfully oppose such gratuitous overreaches of government.  Reverend Chill Dude hops on the Fred Dalton Thompson bandwagon and steamrolls both voices of reason, explaining that pressure today will be persecution tomorrow.  When asked for reasons, Reverend Not-So-Chill-Anymore answers, "Speed of change, viciousness of the opposition."  He speaks of making enemies because powerful people oppose the gospel and declares, "Whether we admit it or not, we're at war."  And in a matter of minutes, we've gone from an ill-defined subpoena to an armed conflict.  The war may be metaphorical, but the rhetoric used closes these clergymen off to the complexity of the situation and reinforces the ideas that there are two clearly drawn sides that can never coexist peacefully.  In the context of this narrative, that may be true, but it's a uselessly naive oversimplification when this mentality is applied to the real world.

But what are the consequences of Reverend Chill Dude and his buddies entrenching themselves further into their spiritual warmongering?  What is it that their shared fears make them do?  We don't get a conclusion to this storyline (I'm assuming it may continue in the third film), but what we do see is a macho posturing and a stretching of the ideological gulf between the two sides of this fictional battle.  When Reverend Chill Dude turns in not his sermons but a written statement explaining why he refuses to hand them over, he has a tense little standoff with whoever's manning the desk at the district attorney's office.   Apparently offended by the reverend's refusal to comply, this man looks him straight in the eye and, with overwrought menace, warns him, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

So when one group involved in a conflict of ideas decides to treat it like a war, even if they're justified in feeling attacked, it can help escalate that conflict.  It's also interesting that this is the only scene in which we see this district attorney or legal clerk or whoever he is.  We don't know who he is or why he seems so dead set on making the reverend suffer.  Maybe if we could see more of his backstory and hear his reasoning, we would understand his apparent enmity for religion better and we might realize that he's not as villainous as he appears.  Maybe he's held just as captive by his own fears as the pastors are, and maybe that's what helped this whole stupid dispute ramp up to this oxygen-starved elevation.

Case Study 4:  Pete Kane
Kane is the lawyer who's rabid to see Grace Wesley burned at the stake for daring to mention Jesus in a public school (okay, maybe that's a little bit of exaggeration on my part).  He is brazenly and unabashedly opposed to Christianity.  When he convinces the Thawleys to file the lawsuit, he references the case's importance because of other children "being subjected to [Christians'] repressive belief system."  His legal opponent, Tom Endler, tells Grace at one point that, to Kane, "your beliefs are like a disease whose time has come and gone, sort of like small pox or polio or the Plague."  It is repeatedly and obviously established that Pete Kane has nothing but contempt for Christianity.

But, cleverly, he's the opposite side of the same coin as our more pious characters.  He makes the same kinds of ridiculous assertions and paints the same kinds of apocalyptic caricatures as the Christians do...but from his own twisted perspective.

The first example of this is his opposition to a particular juror during voir dire.  He removes a possible juror from the pool on the sole basis of his status as a former Marine because, in his mind at least, this would make the man a devout Christian who would be biased in favor of the defendant.
All Marines are Christians and all Christians are incapable of impartiality:
the gospel according to Pete Kane, Esq.
But, because Kane is so convinced that the Marine will spell disaster for his case, he unwittingly lets an even more disastrous candidate into the jury—Reverend Chill Dude.  By nixing the Marine, he uses up his final challenge so that when he tries to remove the ordained minister, he's stopped by the opposition counsel, who successfully reminds the judge that Kane has exhausted his peremptory challenges and that removing a Christian juror is discriminatory.  Kane is then stuck with Reverend Chill Dude, someone decidedly even more pious than the dreaded lay Marine.

In his opening argument a few scenes later, Kane clearly reveals the terror that fuels his ardor.  "If we grant Miss Wesley the right to [preach in the classroom], and by extension, everyone else, to violate the law based soley on our own private beliefs," he tells the jury, "then our society will crumble.  I believe that.  So implore you, please do not set this precedent.  Do not.  The future of our republic depends on it."  Maybe if this lawyer would take a deep breath and reflect with a little less fear, he'd realize that Miss Wesley answered a question posed to her from a student and did so with surprising deftness considering the awkwardness of the setting.  Maybe he'd realize that if she'd intended to preach she would have answered the question much differently.  Maybe he'd realize that her lifestyle is not so incompatible with his and that the strength of her beliefs does not lead down a logical, inevitable path toward the destruction of the republic.

Case Study 5:  Grace Wesley
As the hero of our story, Grace is the only major character who emerges triumphant despite brushing with the same tendencies to poison her decision making with panic.  An early scene in the teacher's lounge identifies her as an endlessly optimistic person, and that could be the characteristic that allows her to escape the clutches of fear and avoid shooting herself in the foot the way everybody else seems to.

She does, admittedly, shoot herself in the foot a little bit by refusing to apologize for what she said in the classroom—but this isn't motivated by fear.  It's motivated by philosophical purity and conviction and, of course, by her love for Jesus.
I'd rather embrace a false dichotomy and hold my head up high
than embrace my head and hold a false dichotomy up high...or something like that.
Grace's mastery of the fear so many others fall prey to is showcased in the climactic scene in which her own lawyer appears to turn against her in the courtroom.  Endler goes on what is clearly intended to be a heroically ironic rant about how "in the name of tolerance and diversity," the jury should hold Grace Wesley accountable for her actions because deeply held religious beliefs that color the way people act in the public square mean that these public servants are clearly untrustworthy.  It's designed to be a powerful illustration of the absurdity of those who oppose Christianity, and perhaps it's supposed to serve as some clever reverse psychology for the jury as well.  But in order for Endler to make this argument, he first has to demonstrate that Grace believes she has a personal relationship with God—a feat he accomplishes by bullying her into sharing, under oath, a personal story she'd told him in private about hearing Jesus's literal voice speaking to her.

Sobbing on the stand and insisting that the jury won't believe her—and also not privy to the supposedly brilliant bit of lawyering Endler is doing—Grace finally manages to push her fears of ridicule and scorn and unemployment aside to tell the truth.  Had she behaved as if the negative consequences of telling the truth about her spiritual experience were set in stone, she'd have clammed up and Endler's gamble of arguing against his own client in the courtroom would have been a complete failure.  For Grace Wesley, not only was limiting the credence she gave her fear the reason she was victorious, but doing the opposite would have guaranteed her defeat.

And that is, perhaps, the tragic genius of God's Not Dead 2.  Because as it tells this tale of the damage we can all do to our own lives when we entertain our worst anxieties and act upon our deepest dreads, it completely fails to understand its own point.  Because of course the filmmakers weren't telling a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions and treating fear like fact.  They were telling a cautionary tale about the persecution of piety and the suppression of faith.  The continuation of the warlike metaphors from the first movie speaks to their lack of perspective to the point of celebrating the absence of their own objectivity.

So terrified are Brooke's parents that she might not get into a top-tier university with a solid scholarship that they try to deprive her of her legitimate grief and wind up widening the emotional and religious gulf in their parent-child relationship.  So convinced is Brooke that her brother didn't know how she felt about him that she almost single-handedly starts a community uproar over the role of religion in public service and then she nearly torpedoes her beloved teacher's case with her testimony.  So paranoid of persecution is Reverend Chill Dude that he stops being chill, refuses to listen to reason, endangers his own health, helps escalate the conflict between the religious and the irreligious, and probably causes himself some legal woes down the road.  So convinced is Pete Kane that his anti-Christian vendetta is the direly required salvation of democracy that he makes some errors in judgment that do not befit his character's level of legal acuity.  And Grace Wesley comes so close to crumbling beneath the weight of myopic horror herself, only to escape unscathed when she sticks to her guns, does what she feels is right, and doesn't have to compromise her principles.

The moral of the story then, dear filmmakers, is that we don't need to spend so much time painting the landscape around the modern-day American Christian with the color palette of Mordor.  Sure, there are jagged rocks and slippery slopes here and there, but there are no volcanoes, there are no patrols of hideous orcs, and there are no relentless all-seeing personifications of undying evil.  Maybe we should keep our fears in check as best we can, at most let them passively inform our behavior as we do what we believe is right, and stop treating people who don't share all of our principles like enemy combatants.  Because—let's be honest—there are so many better movies we could be filming right now.