Today I saw the “Christian” film, God is Not Dead. Not since the Chic-fil-A fiasco over gay marriage have I felt such embarrassment, such a punch in the gut, by the fact that this kind of material has become representative of evangelical Christianity to evangelical Christians. We have already become such a caricature in many ways to our wider culture. What a sad thought that we Christians have taken the bait and bought into that same caricature, mistaking the caricature for biblical Christian discipleship.
If you have not seen the movie, perhaps you should. It is something I would gladly watch with my children, were they old enough to understand it. It is certainly a useful tool to open up conversations (although the function of the movie’s storyline is to effectively cut off conversations). For me, the film is important because these are my people. Evangelical, Pentecostal Christianity is my movement. I care deeply about how we engage our culture with the message of Christ. It is from this passion that I express disappointment in this movie.
I will not offer a synopsis of the plot here, as these are readily available on other websites. However, I will straightaway break the cardinal rule of persuasive rhetoric, by first offering a series of caveats as a foundation to my criticisms. No, this is not in the name of any sort of political correctness in the face of my many Christian friends who were inspired by the movie. Instead, these caveats are offered in the name of nuance, complexity, and truth; the very (Christian) values which this film completely eschews. Caveats often sound so droll in our cable news culture, where all arguments have to be dumbed down to visceral sound bytes focused purely on the singularity of the punch line. For that reason, I’ve come to think that a small part of embracing Jesus as the Prince of Peace is embracing caveats.
So here we go.
Caveat #1: I gratefully affirm the presence of Christian art forms in the entertainment marketplace.
There was once a day when art was considered a high calling of God. True Christian geniuses painted canvases, created stunning icons and stained glass forms, and raised majestic cathedrals because they understood their work to be reflective of the glory of God. There is a carving above the door of the cathedral at Seville, Spain, with a quotation by the dean responsible for building the structure. “Let us build a Cathedral so great that those who follow will think us mad for having made the attempt.” I believe that this same artistic impulse drove the gospel writers to jaw-dropping levels of artistry in their presentation of Jesus. I have always considered it a point of pride that we Christians have this artistic history.
This history continues to march forward in many arenas of art. I think of the folk artist, Howard Finster, the Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor, and the rapper, Lecrae. I think of the thousands of everyday believers who serve vocationally in the arts as teachers, architects, and performers. It may be that film is something of a final frontier for Christian artists, and we have only begun to take our first baby steps. For those steps to be wooden and even ugly is acceptable (jerking about from “The Passion of the Christ” to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” to “God is Not Dead”)…as long as they are taken in the direction of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy.
Caveat #2: The medium of film virtually requires stereotyping.
This is my main beef with God is Not Dead, which I will discuss throughout this article. That discussion should not take place, however, without recognizing that film is an extraordinarily two-dimensional art form, especially films that are targeted toward a younger audience. The art of the simple story requires heroes that are outlandishly heroic, and villains that are outlandishly villainous. What is remarkable is the gospels (which many scholars believe were written to be performed as stage plays) emphatically do not paint all things in such midnight blacks and lightning whites. They are chock full of villainous heroes and heroic villains. Mel Gibson’s film about the crucifixion fell into the same trap in his characterization of Jesus’ Jewish opponents, which is not reflected so easily in the gospel texts.
Caveat #3: We Christians should fiercely defend the right of any group to say what they want…even other Christians.
It is a good thing for the world to see that our faith, and our intra-faith conversation, is vibrant, robust, and heated. After all, we have four gospels, not one. We have Galatians where Paul is ticked off at Peter, and 1 Peter that jabs right back at Paul (when you use the term, “Our dear brother Paul,” the gloves have come off and been incinerated). We have, in Acts 15, Christian Pharisees who demand circumcision, and, in Hebrews, Christian Jews that want nothing to do with Judaism. Since we believe that these discordant voices form the gospel choir of the New Testament, somehow singing together to become beautiful, we should cherish diverse voices, and fight to preserve them. The censorship of any voice is the clearest road toward oppression, so we Christians should defend the freedom of (everyone’s) speech with a particular vigor.
Caveat #4: Seeing people come to transforming faith in Christ is awesome.
What the culture will probably find to be the most offensive part of God is Not Dead is basically everyday Christian faith. We Christians are emotional about seeing people personally embrace Jesus Christ, and it is this distinctly Christian emotion that the movie strikes so effectively. I found myself moved by the conversion stories of the film.
We must admit to our secular friends: “We know this make us oddballs to you, but we can’t help it. Jesus said, ‘Go and tell.’ It is what we do. We are not Judaism. We are, and always have been, an evangelistic movement.”
Now back to why I felt the wind knocked out of me throughout the majority of God is Not Dead. Piggybacking on the four caveats, I will list four problems with the movie.
Problem #1: God is Not Dead stereotypes the supposed “enemies” of the Christian faith.
We need to be ultra-sensitive about stereotyping. While the depiction of the college professor whose sole mission is to make sure none of his students are allowed to believe in God is disturbing, the portrayal of the Muslim father beating his daughter upon hearing the news of her conversion to Christianity is horribly offensive. These are visceral, powerful images that do not reflect the average science professor or Muslim, and many Christians do not enjoy personal friendships with Muslins or atheists to counterbalance these gripping images.
In an age in which Christians are increasingly stereotyped as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical (I would argue that we are none of these things, but that the Church’s “light of the world” mandate is actually getting along quite well), we should maintain a constant vigilance when it comes to stereotyping. If I understand the basic teaching of Jesus, we certainly should not fight stereotyping with stereotyping.
Problem #2: It feels good to draw up battle lines.
The late Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, famously wrote that we tend toward turning “I and thou” into “it.” There is something about human nature that is rabidly fed by an objectified “other.” We often use this objectification to mark out what we most believe about ourselves. This is important. Our beliefs are not like atheists or Muslims. But can we be comfortable and clear on these differences without vilifying and creating opponents?
Too often we Christians have wielded the sword of Malchus in the Garden of Gethsemane, wildly (and somewhat blindly) swinging away at whomever appears to be an enemy of Jesus. It’s the scientists! The atheists! The gays! The communists! Jesus, however, seemed to recognize that “they know not what they do;” that on a practical level the power of groupthink had prevailed in his death. The majority who lynched him were just following orders. All that to say, I am not interested in increasing the preexisting tensions between us and Muslims or us and atheists. How would this glorify God? Yet the film seems to do just that, painting Muslims as child abusers and science faculty as wine-bibbing, arrogant snobs.
Problem #3: God is Not Dead mentions nothing about the historical Jesus.
Let me repeat that: nothing. Nothing about his teachings, his death, his resurrection, or any of the implications therein. Instead, any theological content of the film consists of abstract arguments over whether or not the existence of God can be proven or disproven by science (oddly enough, a question which the film bends toward the inability of the latter rather than some body of insurmountable evidence for the former). Why does this matter? This one is actually quite simple: the existence of a divine creator bears no immediate evidence for the truth of Christianity any more than it would for any other form of theism, including polytheism.
Once again, we seem to be playing on the field of best-selling, shock-and-awe atheists, rather than our own. Their version of the Christian God, also presented in the movie, is typically a kind of fixed, dictatorial CEO of the closed system of the universe. Why are we having this debate with them when such an image has nothing to do with either the Old or New Testaments? Our version of God is not a version; He is a revelation. He has been revealed to us by the person, words, and work of Jesus. I think we should keep our eye on that ball.
Problem #4: God is Not Dead Simplifies Complex Conversations.
Although this one may be attributed to the medium of film and this movie’s target audience, it still earns its own headline. Rather than be baited into the same old hot-button issues, shouldn’t Christians be some of the primary voices of reason and nuance in the marketplace of ideas? Instead of out-arguing the atheists then fanning the same flames of hatred which have caused the War on Terror to mushroom into the longest active military engagement in United States history, what if Christians were engaging culture with different ideas, such as these examples:
- What sorts of questions does science ask that theology does not, and vice versa? How might each discipline benefit the other?
- How does the science of the origins of the universe push us to interpret the creation stories (yes, there are two) in Genesis 1-3?
- How might evolution instruct us about God’s infinitely creative character; a God who intentionally created things that created?
- How can we relate graciously toward our Islamic neighbors and foreigners, recognizing that most of us who are Christian were either born into a Christian family or a nation where Christianity is widely practiced?
In the end, perhaps what should be most remembered is the statistical reality that neither atheism nor Islam come close to matching the tremendous growth and impact of present Christendom. I would suggest that our more consistent opponents are apathy and materialism, especially in the west. To pick a fight with atheist scientists and devout Muslims is to severely miss the target.
Whatever the case, Jesus promised “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” If hell is powerless in the face of the Church, I’m not one bit concerned about a few rogues, whether atheists or militant Muslims. But I am deeply concerned about what this irresponsible response to them – God is Not Dead – says about us.