There are movies that come along every so often and ask the big questions of life. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is our purpose on this earth? What is love? Is there a god, and if so, why is there evil? There are films that show the inner depths of belief and struggle, of doubt. There are movies that dispense with tired stereotypes and facile phrases in favor of meaty discussion and deeper meaning. “God's Not Dead” is not one of these movies.
The movie follows Josh Wheaton,a freshman at a public university, who does battle in his philosophy class over the existence of god, even though it costs him his relationship with his overbearing girlfriend. He's pitted against his evil atheist professor. Josh wins, the professor is killed by a car driven by the other evil atheist male in the movie (but not before he gets to spit out a blood-filled conversion), and we get to rock out to the Newsboys at the end. Side stories concern a gotcha, leftist, vegetarian journalist who finds out she has cancer, is dumped by her Ayn Rand-like evil boyfriend (the one who runs down the professor at the end of the movie), and finally gets saved by the Newsboys, as well as an Asian kid from China, who gets saved because of Josh, and a young Muslim girl who is eventually beaten by her father because – you guessed it- she has become a Christian. The evil atheist professor's verbally abused girlfriend is a Christian with a dying mom, sort of martyr within a film with a martyr complex. There is a pleasant little subplot of Reverend Dave and his amicable missionary friend from Africa, both of whom just want to go to Disneyland, but God won't let their rental cars start. And, for almost no reason other than marketing, there is a cameo from Willie of Duck Dynasty fame.
Now, usually I would discuss the arguments used in a movie like this, but seeing as how almost everything any character says is a quote and an appeal to authority, I can't find any real arguments to analyze from either side. Instead, I'd like to focus on honesty, stereotypes, and the process of projection in the face of reality. Let's start with projection first.
The premise of the movie is that the evil atheist professor forces his students to sign a pledge that “God is dead.” At a public university. In an introductory philosophy class of all places. I'm not kidding. Now, for anyone who has actually been to and/or worked at a public university, and especially those who have taken philosophy classes, you will recognize this as pure fantasy. Such a pledge under threat of class failure would lead to the professor's termination and open the university to legal action. And it should. In fact, I can think of only one place in America, one type of university, where students are required to sign a pledge over the existence of god and their conduct toward their private beliefs or else be expelled or not admitted: select Private Christian colleges.
Evil Professor Raddison not only wants to make his students sign a pledge, but he wants to, as he states “avoid senseless debate all together to arrive at a consensus,” because apparently the idea of professors following a syllabus as carefully laid out by department protocol isn't as plausible as some idea where the professor teaches according to what the students want to learn. Riiiight. Philosophy courses are as much about vigorous arguments as they are about conclusions, so “reaching a consensus” is not what philosphy classes are about. They have never been about that, and they will never be about that. They are about the exchange of ideas and the intellectual arguments that go into those ideas. But, there is a place where an intellectual consensus is what is desired, where the answer must always be the same: the apologetics departments of select Private Christian colleges.
The arguments throughout the movie are mostly quotations and appeals to authority, both by the professor and the student. This type of argumentation is a fallacy, and is dismissed almost at once in real philosophy courses. You can hold any faith position you want in a philosophy class, and argue, so long as you explore those arguments in the context of philosphy. But, there is one place where this type of reasoning, appeals to authority, holds sway, where you could replace the names of Sartre and Russell on the evil professor's board with those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: can you guess it.
In the cases above, and many more, the movie is a projection of the world in which fundamentalist Christians live, not the world which is supposed to be portrayed by the movie.
And now we come to the stereotypes. Here's a list
Good looking Christian white kid as hero: Yes
Attractive but overbearing girfriend: Yes
Random black kid who uses the word “dawg” and is obviously 'street”: check
Female gotcha reporter: check
Who is a leftist vegetarian: check
Ayn Rand: see: Dean Cain
Richard Dawkins: See: Kevin Sorbo
Good hearted but overwhelmed middle-class pastor: check
His missionary friend, from Africa, and thus simple and wise: check
Chinese kid who morphs into an awkward sidekick and is comic relief: check
and is really good in math: check
and his commie dad back in China who fears Big Brother: check
and his commie dad back in China who fears Big Brother: check
abusive male Muslim: check
terrified Muslim daughter: check
sneaky Muslim boy: check
plainspeaking duck-huntin' honest as the day is long folks: check
Is every non-Christian fantastically evil: check
Is every Christian fantastically good: check
Do the non-believers get what is coming to them in the form of death: check
Are the leaders male: yep
Are the females only strengthened in their faith after getting advice from a male: yep
Or else are they seen as controlling or vindictive if they go agains a male character: yep
Are university professors all portrayed as godless wine snobs who constantly berate their students as they listen to classical music: indeed.
And on and on.
All of this plays into the idea of honesty. For a group who constantly espouse the desire to know and spread the truth, the makers of this film show a remarkable amount of dishonesty in the way in which they portray people of other faiths or no faith, in the actual workings of public universities, in physics, where they either quote-mine or distort arguments, and in philosophy, where they ignore the actual nature of the subject at hand.
This dishonesty is extended to the court cases listed at the end of the movie and cited as “inspiration.” While a few are actually very compelling cases in which a student's rights have been trod upon, the majority of them involve cases where campus orginizations have failed to follow the guidelines of the university in the policies of discrimination or in where and when they can gather. In other words, they have to do with the Christian organization being given or not given the ability to deny membership to gays, Jews, Muslims, or other outsiders to their faith. These are not cases of persecution of Christians denied the right to believe, but are cases of Christians fighting to deny the right of membership to others. While interesting, they have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the film under review.
In short, “God's Not Dead” is an internet meme come to life, one in which you can almost here at the end a sactimonious voice boom: “and that boy was Albert Einsten.” The film is as detrimental to believers as it is to people of other faiths or no faiths at all. My Christian friends deserve better. Go see Ben Hur again.