christian, christian art, christian filmmaking, david a.r. white, dean cain, duck dynasty, faith-based, god's not dead, greg jenkins productions, jesus, Joshua Wheaton, kevin sorbo, micheal tate, nate fleming, national religious broadcasters, newboys, Professor Radisson, pure flix entertainment, pure flix productions, screenwriting, shane harper, thimblerig, willie robertson
In part one of this review, I explained that God’s Not Dead has merit as a movie if you embrace the fact that it was made squarely for the Christian movie-going subculture. However, if you judge the film against other films being made for mainstream audiences, it comes up woefully short. I’d like to take this time to express what I liked about the movie, and where it failed me as a moviegoer.
Warning: abundant spoilers ahead.
What I liked about God’s Not Dead.
1. I appreciated the way the film attempted to take separate stories and bring them together. This is a film style that can be very effective (thinking of Babel, Traffic, even Pulp Fiction – all films that did this well), and I don’t recall any Christian-made films attempting it before, and so it was a bit of a risk. I’m not sure that it succeeded in the execution, but kudos to the filmmakers for trying to do something a bit different in a faith-based film.
2. The cinematography. In my former two reviews, I complimented the cinematography, and this film was also nicely shot. It seems like one thing our tribe is starting to do well as filmmakers is to hire people who know what a film needs to look like to be taken seriously. It was a well-shot film.
3. The casting of Shane Harper in the role of Joshua Wheaton. Shane was a good choice, and he did a good job. In fact, one of the things I didn’t like about the multiple storyline idea was that it took away from Joshua’s story, and that was the story I wanted to see more of. I do think there was much more that could have been done with the character (more on this later), but the actor was earnest in his portrayal and he was very likable.
4. As a Christian, the film inspired me to not be afraid to stand up for my faith. For that reason, I’ll probably show it to my children to encourage them as they learn and grow. My guess is that this was a big motivation to the filmmakers for the creation of this film. In that way, they succeeded.
5. The filmmakers didn’t tie up all the loose ends. It is certainly to their credit that they avoided the temptation of having Amy miraculously cured of cancer, Dean Cain’s character repent and have a change of heart, and/or Ayisha’s father seeing a vision of Jesus and taking her back home.
What I didn’t like about God’s Not Dead.
1. The Christian celebrity cameos designed to appeal to evangelical audiences.
This was my biggest beef with the film.
Coming from southwest Virginia, I understand completely that Duck Dynasty is a cultural force. But seeing the Robertsons on the screen in this film just further reinforced to me that this film had been made solely for the entertainment and edification of the Christian audience.
Let’s say for a moment that Willie is the face of Christianity in America these days. Just how exactly did his inclusion help propel the storyline forward? It was an incredibly preachy, on-the-nose scene – from the obviously antagonistic questions asked by Amy to the junior sermon answers given by the Robertsons – it was just completely unnecessary except as a chance for the Robertsons to preach.
And this movie was already more preachy than it should have been, even without the Duck Dynasty scene.
(As a side note, if Amy really wanted to cause a stink then she should have asked Willie Robertson to explain the church of Christ theology on the role of baptism in salvation. That would have made lots of Lifeway bookstore owners a bit more nervous about carrying Duck Dynasty products in their stores! If you don’t know what I mean, just Google it.)
Another example of Christian celebrity overkill was the Newsboys. I like their music, but I found that having a huge Christian band included so intimately in the plot at the end – when they hadn’t been involved up until that point – immediately brought me out of the film. After all, how many people actually get to have private one-on-one prayer times with Michael Tate and the boys? I know it happens (see my story of meeting Rich Mullins), but in God’s Not Dead, it just seemed forced. Like the filmmakers wanted be able to say, “Hey! We got the Newsboys! Come watch our movie!”
Why didn’t they take Amy’s prayer in a more natural direction? It would been truer to the storyline to have Amy hear about Josh’s ongoing battle with Dr. Radisson and decide to interview him. Then, as she did with the Newsboys, she could let it slip about her cancer, and he could have been the one to pray with her. If they had done this, the stories would have been more closely interweaving, and someone we actually cared about could have been the one to do this pivotal action of praying with the dying journalist.
2. The generalized characterizations.
Why, in Christian movies, do we so often have Christians portrayed as all good, wonderful people while the non-Christians are all narrow-minded moustache-twisters?
In God’s Not Dead, the exception to this was Josh’s weird and ultimately unlikable Christian girlfriend who breaks up with him for standing up for his faith. This was the most unpredictable thing that happened in the film, but it didn’t make sense based on what we saw of their relationship.
Here’s the thing about being unpredictable in storytelling – it must make sense in the context of the story! The way she suddenly began treating him and the subsequent breakup was out of character from what we saw at the beginning of the film, when things seemed perfect for the young couple.
Back to the portrayal of Christians versus non-Christians…. Haven’t we all known despicable Christians? Heck, I can be the most despicable! And haven’t we all known kind and loving non-Christians? And yet with God’s Not Dead, they were just a step away from dressing the non-Christians in black and the Christians in white to further drive home the point that Christians = good, non-Christians = bad. This was an unfortunate and easy choice in the writing.
3. The weak writing with regards to Professor Radisson’s character development and arc in the story
This is the part that bummed me out the most, because I really like Kevin Sorbo, and respect the position he takes in public regarding his faith. I really, I really wanted to like his performance in this film.
And I did like him.
For a while.
I completely bought the character during the first and second classroom scenes, and felt like Professor Radisson was an interesting and real person who was simply antagonistic towards theists.
And then we had the ridiculous hallway scene after Joshua’s second presentation where Radisson confronts Joshua and threatens to make it his personal mission to destroy Joshua’s future if he continues to present his arguments. I felt like he was going to point a clutching hand at Joshua and as the kid starts choking say, “I find your abundance of faith disturbing!”
And then there was the confession he made to Josh, about his mother dying of cancer. I didn’t buy that he would admit that to his adversary. And I also didn’t buy that the character from the first part of the film would ever admit that he hates God, because he denied God’s existence altogether! And to admit it to the kid who is showing him up in class? And to admit it in front of the class? I might have bought it if he’d admitted the fact to his girlfriend, but not Josh. That just didn’t make sense.
And speaking of the girlfriend…
Why did the professor spend so much time humiliating his beautiful girlfriend in front of his colleagues? Why would he bother dating an outspoken Christian in the first place? The dialogue seemed to suggest that they started dating when she was a student in his classroom, but why would she – as an outspoken Christian – date the professor who was reputed to be rabidly anti-Christian? Because of the multiple story lines, we never got to know or really even care about these two.
This was my complaint about the execution of the multiple storyline technique – while I admired the attempt, we didn’t learn enough about the supporting characters to care much about their situation. The exception to this for me was the story of the Muslim girl who had secretly converted to Christianity. I bought her storyline, and felt like it was well-executed and acted by both daughter and father.
But back to the professor’s relationship with his girlfriend… this was especially important, because it is apparently Radisson’s realized care for the girl that drives him to make that fatal run to the concert hall (and why didn’t he drive?). As it is, Radisson’s character arc seemed forced and contrived, all to get him to the intersection at that time.
Finally, I was completely dissatisfied with the predictable fate of Professor Radission. The characters arc seemed so – again – forced and contrived, all to get him to the intersection at the right time to be hit and saved. I know that he was apparently in the middle of having a change of heart, but if all it took to push him back into faith was a little car accident, couldn’t Josh have just run the professor over ten minutes into the film and we’d have had a much shorter film?
In conclusion, while God’s Not Dead did some things right, it still didn’t achieve what a Christian film should – in my opinion – be able to achieve. I still hold strong to my argument that the reason we keep coming back to this – film after film – is because of the handcuffs and lack of artistic freedom the American church gives to her artists to make a better product. If an extremely well-made film doesn’t check all the right boxes, we won’t support it. If a film checks all the right boxes but suffers in the writing or directing, rendering it a film that most non-Christians would never see, we’ll support it.
Church, when will we stop doing this? When will we release our artists to do what they are trained to do? God’s Not Dead was a decent made-for-Christians movie, but it could have been a fantastic made-for-everyone movie. The ideas and motivation behind the film were laudable, but the finished product – being so handcuffed by oversensitivity to the Christian consumer – was far less than it could have been, and that’s a pity.
Christian artists – I know you have to be able to fund your films, and the evangelical American church-going dollar is mighty attractive, but just know that there are lots of us out here rooting for you, and looking forward to the day when you have the freedom to make such amazing, well-written, professionally produced films that we will proudly show them to our non-Christian friends.
And please cut out the Christian celebrity cameos when you make the films. Isn’t the idea of Christian celebrity counter to the whole idea of the Christian faith anyway?
Yes, Christian superstars, I’m looking at you.
But that’s the subject of another blog post. For now…
God’s Not Dead – 2.5/5 Golden Groundhogs