Late Sunday night after a topsy-turvy weekend of emotions on the homefront, my life settled enough for me to peruse the B-lists of movies that were on Netflix. For those who don’t have Netflix, there are a bevy of second-rate movies that usually live up to their B-list nature. Occasionally there are a few box office flops that turn out to be pretty decent on Netflix, and there’s usually one or two box office blockbusters that make it onto the queue. As I was scrolling looking for something new, I saw the movie “God’s Not Dead” as a new listing. Content to actually watch the movie, I did. Within the first five minutes I quickly discovered that this movie was going to require me to have a glass of wine to endure it. I paused it and watched it from beginning to end replete with a few poignant tweets and a running text message conversation with a close friend about what I was watching.
As I was trying to organize my thoughts around this I kept wondering Where to start because the movie was just that, well, bad.
The movie’s central plot hinges on the super-Christian kid, Josh Wheadon, going up against the atheist professor, Jeffrey Radisson (yes, like the hotel chain). After realizing, that I knew that the entire movie was going for the low-hanging fruit from beginning to end. For a point of reference, there is a chain-email about the dynamic between the Christian student and the atheist professor–in which the student was named as Albert Einstein–that has been circulating for a few years. My experience teaching an Introduction to Ethics class was brought to my recollection throwing out some red meat writing “God is real” on a classroom board and the inverse of the movie happened. While the majority of the class udnerstood the point I was making concerning various definitive, yet potentially unprovable statements through whatever lens of ethics I was trying to teach, there was one student who decided to dump various conflated philosophical statements reaching back to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Watching this movie was a clear indication just how much this teacher-student dynamic is affixed in the culture of our minds as Americans.
This professor and pupil paradigm has been a trope in evangelical Christendom for a while. Even I remember hearing a story from the pulpit as a teenager that pitted the the young student against an atheist teacher. It was hard for me to buy the argument in the context of this movie because of the practicality that a freshman student would have time to mount such an indepth response to a tenured professor who is seemingly an expert in his own field. Josh was planning to be a lawyer so I hardly could think that he have so much time to absorb any of philosophical theory that is relatively obscure to those outside of the field. That a professor in an Introduction to Philosophy class would have made their atheist views so fundamental to teaching the class made it seem unbelievable. Even with the credits, where there were cited legal cases in which various students and Christian religious life groups on various campuses were having issues, presumably, in classrooms at various state universities, the set-up seemed forced.
The movie is eye-roll inducing on two fronts: the bad cinematic approach and the over-the-top evangelism. By the end of the movie, the flat characters are worthy of a Disney Channel after-school special and there is no two ways about it. The lack of character development and the ways in which the lack thereof fuel the ham-fisted evangelical agenda is downright scary. The characters existed in very clear binaries, no gray areas, which is very much from the evangelical handbook that you are either with us, or against us. The central character, Josh, is this exemplar character without any detectable flaws throughout the whole movie. Josh acts as this Davidic figure, going up against the uncircumcised atheistic Philistine of Professor Radisson.
Among the many things that irked me was that it operated in heavy fear-mongering tactics that are so often associated with the Christian right-wing. There was one character who was a journalist, Amy, and she was painted as being left-wing and summarily she seen as “evil” before her conversion. Another character was a young female college student, Ayisha who was growing up with a Muslim father and is secretly a Christian; her younger brother rats her out to her father after he discovers her listening to a Franklin Graham podcast. Her father beats her and throws her out of the house. The girlfriend of Professor Radisson, Mina, who was previously one of his students, eventually leaves him after she grows tired of the verbal abuse surrounding her beliefs–yup, she’s a Christian. Automatically, we have the social gerrymandering of conservative thought against the liberal media, how Islam is just evil and reprobate, that to be atheist is to be amoral.
For one, the treatment of the women in this movie was appalling. I was watching asking myself do people really think this is an okay social architecture of gender norms within the evangelical community? The reporter has her conversion moment, but is left in a backstage green room and the end-of-the-movie concert featuring the Newsboys; the in-the-closet Christian, daughter of the “evil” Muslim father was kicked out; and the ex-girlfriend of Radisson, has a random meeting with a pastor. What all of these female characters have in common is that none of them have an character conclusions. The women only exist to further the men central to the movie: Josh and Professor Radisson. Even Josh’s girlfriend, who falls in the “evil” category because her common sensical approach to telling Josh to drop the fight against Radisson, comes into the story and immediately leaves after she breaks up with him.
I would actually go so far as to say that leaving the women’s story inconclusive is a form of creative cinematic violence. Particularly because Ayisha is physically beaten and thrown out of the house, but magically shows up at this Newsboys concert and her basic human welfare is left to mystery. Domestic violence and homeless youth are a very real issue in which our present social welfare structures are not at all equipped to handle. Erasing their stories follows on the same narrative arc of the biblical inerrancy that fails to question why biblical narratives fail to name women characters, develop their story, or even choosing to preach against their stories simply because it doesn’t fit into their theological viewpoint. I guess in some weird form of interpretation they are being biblically true and that’s the whole point, right?
I never thought I would ever feel the need to defend atheists, but the ways in which this movie made Radisson and his colleagues seem like cruel individuals was an intentional stripping away of their humanity. After watching this movie, every blunt headed argument that atheists (or anti-theists for that matter) lob at Christians about the wars started in the name of God and the violent normalcy of civilization on behalf of Christians rings true. The hypocritical hubris in which this movie operates was nothing short of tactile nonsense.
The movie worked the notion that to be atheist is to be amoral. They worked it incessantly once they decided to bring Radisson’s personal life into the movie. It bothered me the most because it’s simply not true. The scene in which Josh and Radisson have a face-to-face shouting match in the classroom and the topic of amorality was proceeded by the scenes in which Radisson’s mistreatment of his girlfriend are first put on display. It was the movie’s way of saying if you didn’t get what we were trying to say through creative scriptwriting, let’s just say it plainly because blunt is always best. To make the blanket statement that to be atheist is to be amoral is just wrong and stereotyping at its fullest. The direct inversive inference was also there: to be Christian is to be moral. Do we honestly need to call the roll on the number of self-professed Christians who live so-called immoral lives?
In some form of evangelical schadenfreude Radisson is hit by a car in a hit-and-run. The atheist dies, but “God’s not dead.” However, Radisson does not expire before some death-bed confession. [Editor’s Note: I was practically yelling at my TV by this point and had already paused to pour a second glass of wine and took a gulp worthy only of Olivia Pope.] I couldn’t help but wonder who honestly thought that this plot arc was even remotely believable. By this time the viewer had been subjected to violence toward women, negative stereotypes about Islam, and an international story with the student Martin who was from Asia (I’m assuming Chinese). The one black kid introduced himself as G-Money and his second line was proudly standing up in class declaring “God’s not dead” worthy of a Broadway musical before the chorus broke out in a final song. [Editor’s Note: I laughed out loud at the absurdity of having to type G-Money.] When I texted my friend that “they killed the atheist,” she responded back “of course atheists don’t get to live…no hope of redemption.” His death came off as this recalcitrant evangelical air that seems to know the heart and mind of God so much that “the wages of sin is death,” even a physical death. The tone to Radisson’s death was succinct and complete that it seemed as though the writers and producers wanted every atheist to be killed in that moment, to suffer that immediate pain of being hit by a car, and be the one who knelt beside them and offered them Christ. It was as though the screenwriters finally got play a role in the cosmic clean-up of the reprobate and it was all symbolized in Radisson’s on-screen death.
It was truly emetic.
Through the magical Negro, we learned that Africans, yes, the Rev. Jude is from Africa (I can’t recall what country he magically arrived from) have supernatural powers over that of the run-of-the-mill white Christians: who was the same minister that counseled Mina and happened to be at the corner where Radisson was killed to offer him Christ. He was magically the one who was able to get the cars started. And he was gleeful and content the whole time. Just happy, and go-lucky. Just the way they like their Negroes, á la Ben Carson.
Without going too far down the rabbit hole, I think my own bias needs to be stated that I don’t subscribe to this brand of Christianity that is evident in this movie. We can call this evangelical Christianity for the sake of argument. Part of what makes evangelical Christians is that which comprises their social aesthetics wrapped up in their sensibilities. They overwhelmingly identify with conservative values, and many tea partyers come from this ilk. That’s why the “Duck Dynasty” cameo exists, this tacit endorsement of backwater thinking with racist undertones. Self-identifying as a black man in this country, these values and morals are dangerous to me. They support xenophobia and flat out hatred to those who don’t look like them or think like them. For them, The Other, is a boogeyman that must be defended against at all costs through the sanctity of their God and their guns. I was ashamed to be called Christian after watching this.
To say that this movie was over-the-top is a puerile understatement. Not only was this a propagation of bad theology, but it gave credence to bad social norms that the mostly white evangelical movement supports ad nauseum. The lack of diversity of in the cast was telling enough. The movie was patriarchal in tone and xenophobic: Ayisha’s father’s lines only existed in a fit of anger to physically abuse her. Ultimately, this movie fails because it attempts to paint with a broad brush the inhumanity of atheists while trying to assert a definitive answer on what a real Christian should be and it gets it wrong on both fronts.
Christianity, because of the Protestant split and the plethora of denominations and various fellowships and other loose bands of churches across the world let us know that not all Christians think and believe the same way. I am sorry that this movie was produced and released in theaters across the world because it is not at all representative of the whole. While nationally there is a major following within the evangelical tradition, it still does not speak for the composite of what is American Christianity. The likes of Franklin Graham, Joel Olsteen, Pat Robertson and even the late Jerry Fallwell are not earthly idols who speak conservative maledictions like prophetic words that carry weight with all of American Christendom. Men like Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary exist as the white and male face of what many consider to be orthodox American Christianity that has been transmogrified into Americanity; a type of cultish and religious fervor exacerbating that which undergirds the imperialism of American exceptionalism.
I feel the need to apologize to atheism and to atheists that were fully maligned in this movie because it failed to see the humanity in them. This movie created the division that to be a follower of Jesus one is required to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but to be a Christian is follow a obdurate doctrine that highlights moments of inhumanity and calling it love. The movie’s narrow understanding of salvation was pitiable and placed God in a box. To bind one’s belief into a set of rules and regulations I think misses the beauty of God. The holy scriptures and the rules of religious organizations are mere signs pointing to a larger intangible belief; those rules have changed over the centuries with each progressive revelation of God. Understanding that “God is still speaking” has allowed many more to experience that mystery. And for many, such as atheists, that’s just not their cup of tea. And Christians must respect that.
The old song says “They’ll know we’re Christians by our love” and this movie couldn’t be farther off that mark. Failure to “love your neighbor as yourself” says more about your inability to love yourself than it does about your neighbor.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL