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God's Not Dead (2014)

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Great piece Ken. Not to delve into politics here, but just as a point of reference: I wound up on my state's Democratic party email list and whoo-boy - the level of vitriol that comes across just in the email headlines is astonishing (it's fun to watch Fox news and purge my email at the same time).

 

 

Of course. Absolutely. Dems/liberals have their issues. (Just rewatched We Steal Secrets last night and I've yet to see a more devastating critique of the Obama administration.) 

But the particular brand of cultural work being done here--you are persecuted, especially in college, because the institution is godless and hates your faith--is being pitched to a predominantly right-leaning audience b/c it is that audience's chamber that is echoing that particular cry.

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Saw it today. Tweeted some thoughts here. Don't know if I'll have time to write a post. Time permitting, maybe. First I have to watch Heaven Is for Real. (Hmmm, both films have scenes of someone being slid into an MRI...)

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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So, I was thinking that this was a no-brainer to skip. But then I read this post by my friend/teacher Sam Rocha, who writes for the Catholic channel at Patheos. Some excerpts:

 


Many people overlook the most important evangelical tool in the arsenal of youth ministry retreats, conferences, and alike: shitty plays. They are all the same play, really, and the acting can sometimes improve them, but most of them are fool proof. They often rely on music, like the overused “Turn Around” schtick of the late 1990′s. The point is that a play, even a bad one, often functions as more of an argument than an argument. It delivers a convicting message, packaged for an everyman that can often cover middle school to mid twenties.

 

What is perhaps most astonishing is how these canned, formulaic, and homemade skits can so routinely have such powerful and vivid emotional effects and manifestations. Especially when followed by music, therapeutic prayer, and psychoanalytic preaching.

 

In this respect, those who dismiss God’s Not Dead as being built on a mountain of bad arguments, faulty assumptions, and the rest miss the point: the performance belies the content.

...

I was shocked at my reaction. I choked up more than once. Some of this is simply the fact that my emotions are hair-triggered to begin with. But some of it was, frankly, shocking. I knew the game and the rules and the rules behind the rules, and still, the message had a particular resonance with my at a very basic affective level. Let no one doubt the bare reality of the evangelical Christian metanarrative: it works. Without the two blunders I mentioned, this movie may have even been persuasive in a way that would have been alarming and alluring.

 

I was also filled with a sense of fear and sadness when thinking of the present state of Christianity in the United States. I thought of my own work, this blog, my music, the album I’ll be recording in two weeks, the academic work. There needs to be more than just an alternative, I think; we must do more than give a better option. The problem is more fundamental.

 

I do not want to politicize these facts, but they are absolutely present and real: this is a film about and for suburban, college-going, mostly white (but increasingly cosmopolitan), privileged Americans (who say nothing at all about sexuality, despite facing very real questions of love, loss, and death) who live in a world where you have to be a certain kind of Christian to survive. This is the generation of young people who don’t bother to read the Book of Job.

 

None of these observations are surprising, except for the fact that unlike everything else I've seen this has me thinking that I kind of want to see this. Because I tend to think there's an inherent interest and value in this kind of bright cultural mirror, and there might especially be a certain fascination in a faithful big-screen version of the youth ministry tropes that, as a youth, I always treated with a mixture of devotion and uneasiness. In modified form, since my background is Catholic, not Evangelical, but with important convergences. I know those plays Rocha mentions, and I've been very moved by them.

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I dashed off a 2,500-word rant against this film earlier today and decided to park it, rather than rush it into "publication" on my blog, while I took care of other business this afternoon/evening (like picking the kids up from school, going to the local film critics' circle meeting, etc.). I was a little surprised by how quickly I wrote so much, but it still feels like I've left a number of the film's problems untouched. Which is probably just as well.

 

Sam Rocha wrote:
: As a result, you could say that God’s Not Dead is a perfect youth retreat, packaged inside 113 minutes. It has the identical effect that “Jesus Freak” had in its day, but it is now much more refined, intentional, and polished.

 

Wow, this film reminded me of 'Jesus Freak' too, and that certainly wasn't to the movie's credit!

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So, I was thinking that this was a no-brainer to skip. But then I read this post by my friend/teacher Sam Rocha, who writes for the Catholic channel at Patheos. Some excerpts:

 

 

Many people overlook the most important evangelical tool in the arsenal of youth ministry retreats, conferences, and alike: shitty plays. They are all the same play, really, and the acting can sometimes improve them, but most of them are fool proof. They often rely on music, like the overused “Turn Around” schtick of the late 1990′s. The point is that a play, even a bad one, often functions as more of an argument than an argument. It delivers a convicting message, packaged for an everyman that can often cover middle school to mid twenties.

 

What is perhaps most astonishing is how these canned, formulaic, and homemade skits can so routinely have such powerful and vivid emotional effects and manifestations. Especially when followed by music, therapeutic prayer, and psychoanalytic preaching.

 

In this respect, those who dismiss God’s Not Dead as being built on a mountain of bad arguments, faulty assumptions, and the rest miss the point: the performance belies the content.

...

I was shocked at my reaction. I choked up more than once. Some of this is simply the fact that my emotions are hair-triggered to begin with. But some of it was, frankly, shocking. I knew the game and the rules and the rules behind the rules, and still, the message had a particular resonance with my at a very basic affective level. Let no one doubt the bare reality of the evangelical Christian metanarrative: it works. Without the two blunders I mentioned, this movie may have even been persuasive in a way that would have been alarming and alluring.

 

I was also filled with a sense of fear and sadness when thinking of the present state of Christianity in the United States. I thought of my own work, this blog, my music, the album I’ll be recording in two weeks, the academic work. There needs to be more than just an alternative, I think; we must do more than give a better option. The problem is more fundamental.

 

I do not want to politicize these facts, but they are absolutely present and real: this is a film about and for suburban, college-going, mostly white (but increasingly cosmopolitan), privileged Americans (who say nothing at all about sexuality, despite facing very real questions of love, loss, and death) who live in a world where you have to be a certain kind of Christian to survive. This is the generation of young people who don’t bother to read the Book of Job.

 

None of these observations are surprising, except for the fact that unlike everything else I've seen this has me thinking that I kind of want to see this. Because I tend to think there's an inherent interest and value in this kind of bright cultural mirror, and there might especially be a certain fascination in a faithful big-screen version of the youth ministry tropes that, as a youth, I always treated with a mixture of devotion and uneasiness. In modified form, since my background is Catholic, not Evangelical, but with important convergences. I know those plays Rocha mentions, and I've been very moved by them.

 

The one thing I'll agree with Rocha on is that the whole thing is, frankly, terrifying.

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Oh ... on second thought, a few of the Shane Harpers I knew became youth pastors.  And, theoretically, that means that a number of evangelical kids would have had to listen to (and probably absorb) what they had to say.  They must be the ones going to see this movie.

As part of the tribe of evangelical youth pastors, it saddens me that this film draws so many connections and allusions with evangelical youth ministry. The thoughtlessness, the cheesiness, the straw men arguments, Duck Dynasty cameos...I hope that's not the legacy our tribe leaves. The Sam Rocha post had this quote:

You could almost say that God’s Not Dead is more documentary than fiction. I was left with the uncanny impression that there is something very real here, for better and for worse.

 

which, alongside the multiple comments in this thread about this being a film aimed at a demographic I care deeply about, has prompted me to go see a film I really don't want to see but apparently need to see, if only to examine and critique the cultural artifact of evangelical youth ministry apologetics.

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My review of the film ran to over 3,000 words and I could have said more. Hated this film. It has one or two redeeming qualities, I guess, but they're so, so minor compared to everything else...

 

Read it.  Ouuuuuuch.

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What's interesting is that a few people have now told me, publicly and privately, that they were grateful that I approached the film in an even-handed sort of way -- whereas it felt to *me* like I was writing some sort of rant.

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Maybe that just shows how much 

 

What's interesting is that a few people have now told me, publicly and privately, that they were grateful that I approached the film in an even-handed sort of way -- whereas it felt to *me* like I was writing some sort of rant.

 

Maybe that just shows how much more of a rant they would have written?

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So this is now the highest grossing film ever made by a Christian production company?
 

As part of the tribe of evangelical youth pastors, it saddens me that this film draws so many connections and allusions with evangelical youth ministry. The thoughtlessness, the cheesiness, the straw men arguments, Duck Dynasty cameos...I hope that's not the legacy our tribe leaves ...

... which, alongside the multiple comments in this thread about this being a film aimed at a demographic I care deeply about, has prompted me to go see a film I really don't want to see but apparently need to see, if only to examine and critique the cultural artifact of evangelical youth ministry apologetics.

It just opened in my town. So many of my family, friends and fellow church members are all going to see this (and walk out of the theater happy about it afterwards), that I may now have to see it just to be able to discuss it in more detail fairly.
 

What's interesting is that a few people have now told me, publicly and privately, that they were grateful that I approached the film in an even-handed sort of way -- whereas it felt to *me* like I was writing some sort of rant.

It felt, while I read it, as if you were using self-control. I would be afraid of writing a review because I how strongly I feel about it. Keeping in mind Kenneth's earlier wise warning to me to be careful about accusing anyone of intellectual dishonesty, my objection to this film is still a moral one. If I were to write anything on it, I would have to exert great energy into forcing what I wrote into calm, reasoned and fair discourse.
 
In other news, I posted Peter's review on Facebook and the apologetics teacher at my church posted the following:
 
"I liked the movie, despite its minor issues ... I think there could have been improvements, but none of the errors killed this one very important thing that happened and is still happening: Christians are watching the benefits of answering objections, making a case, and not just answering 'Just have faith.'  Sure, the case could have been stronger, the opponent more representative -- who really cares? If this movie gets the average church goer to dig a little deeper, HUGE progress has been made." [the all caps are hers]
 
Also, Donald J. Johnson, the leader of Evangelistic Ministries and the author of How to Talk to a Skeptic, has given this film his hearty recommendation:
"... 1. It’s tough (and getting tougher) for Christians to be vocal about our relationship with Jesus, but that is exactly what God wants from us. One of the main themes of the movie is Matthew 10:32-33: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” It’s a worthy point to keep in mind.
2. Following Jesus requires sacrifice. Characters in the movie lose relationships and jobs over their faith, and that is exactly what Jesus said would happen ...
3. The evidence for the truth of Christianity can be found in many places, including science, philosophy, and day to day personal experience. One of the strongest parts of God’s Not Dead is the way the screenplay shows the interplay between the various ways we know that God is real and Christianity is true. On one hand the main character presents solid classroom arguments for theism from a variety of disciplines, including cosmology, paleontology, and logic. On the other hand, one of the main subplots in the film revolves around a local pastor who is being providentially guided to be in just the right place at just the right time in order to help just the right people by way of otherwise sound cars that suddenly wouldn’t start. I loved this part of the story because, as mundane as it seems, God does use vehicle starters to accomplish his purpose and these types of divine activity have a profoundly faith-strengthening effect. Personal providence combines with intellectual arguments to provide a strong case for the truth of the Christian worldview, and the film balances both beautifully.
4. Personal peace and prosperity can insulate people from God. One storyline involved a cruel businessman who didn’t feel like he needed God. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say I thought his interaction with his mother near the end of the film was worth the price of admission.
5. Pain and suffering can work to both draw people toward Jesus and keep them from him. Again, I thought the film dramatized both sides of this truth. One character reaches out to God only after tragedy strikes, while another throws up a wall between himself and God in basically the same circumstances ..."

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My review of the film ran to over 3,000 words and I could have said more. Hated this film. It has one or two redeeming qualities, I guess, but they're so, so minor compared to everything else...

Peter, I'm not sure why my comments to your review are reported to me a spam and not being shown.

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Tangent: 

 

God's not dead…but he did die, on Good Friday. Even Google recognized this, when I took this screen shot: 

 

god-died-614x262.png

 

Alas, this "Good Friday Easter egg" is now defunct. I wish they'd bring it back! 

 

New blog post of scriptural and theological reflections on why we can say "God died on the cross"…and what this question has to do with controversy over the blessed Virgin Mary. 

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So apparently I've got my first hate tweet. Is it because of my review of this film, I wonder? Or is there just someone out there who really, really hates Noah?

 

J.A.A. Purves wrote:
: So this is now the highest grossing film ever made by a Christian production company?

 

As of a week ago, yeah. It took only three weeks to outgross Courageous and all other films made by and for evangelicals (the screenwriters might have been Catholic, but they weren't calling the shots, as it were). It has stayed remarkably afloat at the box office, thanks in part to the fact that it has widened its release every week (heck, it's even playing in Canada now, which almost never happens for these sorts of films!). I'm beginning to wonder if it might even outgross Son of God.

 

: It felt, while I read it, as if you were using self-control.

 

Possibly. I mean, I *did* want to give the film the benefit of the doubt in some ways; like I said in my review, I wondered if maybe the atheist professor would turn out to have been baiting his students for some sort of positive reason (e.g. to see who would rise to the challenge -- because rising to a challenge is a *good* thing!). But no, it turned out the film had nothing that interesting on its mind.

 

I've apparently made a new atheist friend or two on Facebook because of this review. Make of that whatever you will. One of them, though, by the name of Dan Fincke has a really interesting review that focuses specifically on the final scene with Radisson -- which was the very scene I said I *could* have written a full-length review of! There are so, so many problems with that scene, and I'm not surprised to see that someone zeroed in on them.

 

*** SPOILER ALERT, though frankly this scene is so stupid it almost deserves to be spoiled ***

 

All I can say is this: any Christian who sees an injured person and tries to squeeze a sinner's prayer out of them first -- without calling 911 or checking to see if any of the onlookers have any medical training -- is not the kind of Christian *I'd* want to be.

 

Tucker wrote:
: Peter, I'm not sure why my comments to your review are reported to me a spam and not being shown.

 

Tucker, I have No Idea how Disqus works -- sometimes it hold comments for moderation and sometimes it doesn't, and if there's any rhyme or reason to how it makes that selection, it's beyond me -- but I haven't banned or censored any comments, if that helps.

 

If Disqus is refusing to even send me the comment for moderation, then that's just one more thing about Disqus that I have No Idea about.

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Tucker wrote:

: Peter, I'm not sure why my comments to your review are reported to me a spam and not being shown.

 

Tucker, I have No Idea how Disqus works -- sometimes it hold comments for moderation and sometimes it doesn't, and if there's any rhyme or reason to how it makes that selection, it's beyond me -- but I haven't banned or censored any comments, if that helps.

 

If Disqus is refusing to even send me the comment for moderation, then that's just one more thing about Disqus that I have No Idea about.

well, I tried again, we'll see. Anyway, here's what I wrote:

 

Great review Peter. At some point I will see the film just to understand what it is more fully. But your review, which reads as thoughtful and genuinely hopeful in the film being what it finally did not become, is also a kind of call to better art by Christians. Really, why is Christian art (I'm not sure if I like that term) so often bad art these days? ("These days" meaning the last 50+ years or so.) Your reference to Schaeffer's book is interesting, and telling. That book was important for me in the mid-1980's as I struggled with my love for art in the midst of the baptist/evangelical culture of my youth & college years. It helped me see that all too often bad art is, at some level, representative of bad theology. I can't help but think of that passage where Schaeffer writes: "Whenever Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have attempted to 'reach the world' through the media—TV, film, publishing and so on—the thinking public gets the firm idea that, like soup in a bad restaurant, Christians' brains are best left unstirred."

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So apparently I've got my first hate tweet. Is it because of my review of this film, I wonder? Or is there just someone out there who really, really hates Noah?

 

 

The guy seems to be some sort of full-time troll; he tweeted the same thing at a bunch of other critics, including Todd VanDerWerff. So you're in good company. 

 

(Plus, most of his other tweets are nasty jabs at various celebrities or athletes.)

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So apparently I've got my first hate tweet. Is it because of my review of this film, I wonder? Or is there just someone out there who really, really hates Noah?

 

 

The guy seems to be some sort of full-time troll; he tweeted the same thing at a bunch of other critics, including Todd VanDerWerff. So you're in good company. 

 

(Plus, most of his other tweets are nasty jabs at various celebrities or athletes.)

 

 

I'd be careful. You might alienate both of his followers. Seriously, the guy has 2 followers.

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Tucker: I recognize that comment! I got e-mail copies of it both times you posted it, and they didn't require moderation. I see the second version of your comment under the blog post, but not the first. Odd!

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So, I was thinking that this was a no-brainer to skip. But then I read this post by my friend/teacher Sam Rocha, who writes for the Catholic channel at Patheos. 

 

 

That is such a wonderful, subtle review.

 

From Peter's: 

 

As I have argued before, there is nothing wrong with a Christian “niche”. Christians, like other groups of people, have special needs and interests, and sometimes they require special kinds of films that people outside our community won’t “get”.

 

 

 

Even if I see God's Not Dead I might try to withhold judgement. I have too little understanding of the culture that summons and embraces it, and enough of literature to sense that didactic art has its own conventions and purposes, and will fail by those of other genres.  My insecurity extends to Christian Cinema in general, especially because its audience has already been so condescended to by outsiders.  I can't meet the art on its own terms, only assume that it flourishes because somehow, for some people, it really works. And I've probably learnt more from discussion here, the linked reviews and personal accounts and expressions of frustration, than I ever could from the movie. I think this is a remarkable thread.  

 

There are a couple of things that trouble me about the premise/plot that do fall within my own realm.  The first is purely subjective: if apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him. The other is hopefully more objective. From all I've read, including here, the atheist professor is meant as a mirror to reality, not a fiction  or a projection of  fears and tensions. I know mainstream academia fairly well (and Bible schools not at all) and it is mistrustful of religiosity and conservatism, most markedly where the two intersect. There's a passive censorship of alternate voices- a hegemony of liberal complacency  - that I think I've chafed at most when it coddled my own beliefs. This has always struck me as shameful and wrong, and it needs to be confessed. But it's  a far cry from a professor bullying students to deny their faith.  

 

Few (any?) American schools are truly secular, because they aren't lifeless infrastructure or curricula. They're the people who attend and teach and administrate, run offices and libraries and tend to grounds and buildings. Many of them are Christian, and more still identify with some religion. Schools aren't truly "unChristian" either, because the models of Western art and culture so predominate, despite canon shifts and culture wars.  But what obviously sets mainstream schools apart also precludes the God's Not Dead scenario. Without religious affiliation, learning can no more be predicated upon atheism or agnosticism than it can upon a belief in God or the primacy of one religion. I've seriously tried, and I can't begin to imagine the department chair or administrator who would not be horrified and rush to intervene in that classroom. The Department of Education would treat it as a civil rights violation, which it incontrovertibly is. So while that professor could happen, and his flagrant abuse of authority and disregard for how philosophy is actually practiced and taught* could flourish unbeknownst to his peers and administrators, as the foregone conclusion of liberal Godless academia, he's a lie. Persecution fantasies are fine as long as they're recognized as such (and as long as oppressors aren't using them to cast themselves as victims) but it sounds like this one might be passing for reality. 

 

*if Peter hadn't already covered that point so well, I could have spoken to it too.

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All I can say is this: any Christian who sees an injured person and tries to squeeze a sinner's prayer out of them first -- without calling 911 or checking to see if any of the onlookers have any medical training -- is not the kind of Christian *I'd* want to be.

 

So, in addition to A Few Good Men, this film also rips off The Apostle?

 

Edited by mrmando

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mrmando wrote:
: So, in addition to A Few Good Men, this film also rips off The Apostle?

 

Ah, but Robert Duvall -- as writer-director -- is *aware* of his character's narrow focus there. I think I remember him mentioning that in the press notes: the fact that his character doesn't do what he does for human attention but he *does* do it for divine attention ("We made news in heaven this morning!").

 

Plus, the emergency vehicles are already there on the scene, so the Duvall character doesn't really need to summon any.

 

So, both diegetically and non-diegetically (i.e. from both within the story and outside of the story), The Apostle comes off much, much better than God's Not Dead.

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An excellent review, Peter, for many reasons.  It also explained why my fiancée received two text messages exclaiming, "God's not dead!" from folks who'd just left the movie.  Need I say that she was both irritated and unconverted?  Jack Chick tracts for the 21st Century, apparently.

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Andrew, I'm afraid I find it greatly funny that this film (and its marketing) tells evangelicals to text and tweet whoever they consider to be their unbelieving friends.  The error compounded upon error that it takes to be able to think that this would be a good idea - let alone some sort of evangelistic tool - is so dumbfounding that it is difficult to explain.  You can tell your fiancée that the utter embarrassment that some of us feel, being told that this is happening, is likely greater than any annoyance she felt.  I'd much rather receive stupid propaganda texts from those of a different belief system than have to know that those of my own belief system were sending them out.

 

Also, it just occurred to me this morning that an essay really ought to be written contrasting this film's garbage to the magic that happens in this film.  Of course, the first obvious difference (out of many) is that The Sunset Limited assumes that the audience is composed of thinking human beings (who have this thing called a brain) while God's Not Dead appears to assume the opposite.

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Thanks, Jeremy - I've found the response to this film at A&F to be reassuring, considering the zealotry with which God's Not Dead is being embraced in my region and apparently by many American Christians.  And I clearly need to check out The Sunset Limited.

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