Last time, we slogged through the gritty and imperviously dark Noah, which I unashamedly and unambiguously loved. So I only figured it fair to talk this week about the movie across the hall (such rich symbolism in so mundane a place as a movie theater!), God's Not Dead... which I didn't hate as much as I had planned to. But I don't think that this film is what people say it is.
"Film" stuff. Just to be fair.
To call God's Not Dead a good film would be to fundamentally misunderstand it, for it pretty boldly sets itself up to not be a good film. It's honestly just plain bad as far as art goes: it's fairly terribly acted, thematically heavy-handed, devoid of symbolism or metaphor (or any sense of literary subtlety, for that matter; I don't count as literary devices things placed on the center of the table, pointed to, and shouted about: "THIS PART IS A SYMBOL FOR SOMETHING, SO PAY ATTENTION"), overwhelmingly predictable, and not really that well written. Its pacing is Frankenstein's-monster-clunky, its plot devices are contrived, its villain is represented unimaginably unrealistically, its cinematography cut from the straight-to-Hallmark-channel playbook. It's too brightly lit, it's too cheesily scored, it's too emotionally heavy-handed, it's too blatantly product-placed (I swear, if I saw one more brochure, poster, or advertisement for the Newsboys' "God's Not Dead" tour, I was going to give up). I think that you get the picture. And I doubt anybody is necessarily surprised.
But I don't think that God's Not Dead ever set out to be a good film. It didn't want wide appeal, Philosophical chops, or even Apologetic merit, I don't think: it was designed as an affirmation to existing believers. This is not the film to take your unbelieving friends to in hopes that it convinces them that their ideological Atheism is unfounded, this is the flick to take your Youth Group to when you want something sterile, completely uncontroversial, and right in line with mainstream, layman Baptist Theology.
Honestly, the film by itself is harmless in every sense of the word. Bad art is not dangerous of its own right, it's merely bad art; what becomes a problem is what happens when we start zooming out to the big picture.
Preaching to the Pulpit
Enter the image of an Atheist philosophy professor conjured by somebody who's never seen an Atheist philosophy professor before. Hungover eyes. Diabolical goatee. Tweed and elbow patches. Vehemently, bitterly anti-God (you can spot from fathoms away a climactic yelling match in which baby-faced protagonist asks, "Why do you hate God?" and self-proclaimed intellectual Atheist falls directly into the trap by answering with anger. Zing. Drop the mic. Hip Christian, out.), lecturing on the first day of a Philosophy class nothing about Sophistry, Cartesian doubt, or Lockeian blank slates, but rather about a list of names on the board that sound daunting to people who've never read their material who all have one thing in common: their clearly demonic Atheism.
Philosophically speaking, this film is the prime example of deck-stacking, whether it's accidental or contrived. Either way, the Atheism it refutes is not Atheism at all, it's some sort of straw-man Anti-theism dressed up by big words and the insistence that "this is Atheism, trust me." The case it builds could be refuted by an Atheist subreddit in the time it takes you to text the words "God's not dead" to everyone on your contact list like this film (shocker) implores you to do before airing the final credits.
Why do I even bother pointing this out? Because increasingly, Christian media has become about preaching to Christian audiences. If you walk out of this film already believing as the filmmakers do, you are practically required to like it, for to dislike it would be disliking the message of Christianity. It's like a pep-talk for the Christian locker room.
I am a Believer, which is handy, because despite what the promotional materials of this film made it out to be, it will not bring the Word to an unbelieving world. The film wants very badly to be its protagonist: standing boldly in a room full of unbelievers, presenting a persuasive case, and achieving a cathartic conversion by the conclusion of its third act. Instead, it turns out to be an impassioned speaker in a small group extolling God and hearing, "Yes!" and "Amen!" while an unbelieving world looks through the windows in bewilderment and then continues on their merry way.
Should We Be Critical of Believers?
I'm quite used to receiving comments about being critical of Christian media. I've written a bit on my qualms with "worship" music and church musicians, done a fair share of internet rantings, and never been shy about how I feel about the culture of Christianity whenever the topic arises in conversation.
In case I've been confusing about it, I'll put it simply: I generally, categorically reject it. I believe a culture of Christianity to be precisely the thing that the Messiah would have balked at were he trodding, sandaled, through the Christian aisle at the video store. "Christianity" has become a genre rather than a revolution. We are becoming known not for the love we have for each other, but for the love we have for literary sterility, formulaic musical expression, skirting of issues that make us uncomfortable, public self-righteousness, hard-panned blending of religious conviction with a political party, glossing over of individual downfalls, and Facebook statuses with inspirational Bible verses.
Don't worry; the world knows exactly where we stand on Homosexuality, but what it should know is how we love homosexuals. The world knows exactly where we stand on Abortion, but what it should know is how we treat trembling mothers who believe they have no other options. They know we love to hate "Noah," but instead embrace rather poorly-made alternatives in the name of "it had such good intentions!" We've become conundrums rather than lighthouses beckoning ships lost in the fog to safety.
Pardon me if I find these things dangerous.
Of course, the above statements are blanket ones on purpose. There is a great number of believers far surpassing their "secular" contemporaries in terms of quality of product and quality of thought, but it's a trend that has yet to really grip the believing community at large. The things that a movement produces are merely thermometers for the hearts behind the movement producing it.
Especially when it comes to art, what you make reveals directly and measurably what you value. It is not valid to defend poor film quality with low production value; some of my favorite films were made on minute budgets (Psycho, Reservoir Dogs, Once, Pi, Following, Memento, not to mention films I find exceptional that are somewhat publicly divisive, like the Saws and Blair Witches of the industry). Unfortunately here, what came across was similar to what much of the Christian music scene was doing in the 2000s: "Look! We can make a movie that looks just as good as what non-Christians can do!" It seeks its identity in comparison, be it artistically, philosophically, or rhetorically, rather than in itself and the Creator it argues.
Cinema is simply one cropping up of a major theme in the zeitgeist: "us vs. them." Christians (and Chic-fil-a) against Macklemore. Creationists against Evolutionists. Republicans against Democrats. Gone is intellectual dialogue from both ends of the spectrums we find joy aligning ourselves with; dangerous are the words of someone saying there may be a middle ground. We (I) are (am) quite too preoccupied with being right to worry about the person on the other side of our little fights, for we (I) too often reduce them to the sum of their arguments.
Lucky for us, then, that our Savior isn't about that life. For Christ, people were not simply people who could agree with Him or be good fodder to volley proofs between. Sinners were everywhere and everyone who wasn't Him was wrong, yet He lived His life in service to them and died so that they could have the opportunity to assume positions in His kingdom, whether they hated Him or rebelled against Him or spat in His face or were crucified next to Him for crimes they most certainly committed.
Is this the man for whose namesake we're okay with cultivating a culture reduced to "we're right?" Is ours a Savior whose name is to be worshipped with anything but the absolute pinnacle of human expressive capability? Could it be that there needs to be a legion standing up and saying, "We (you, I, the person down the street from us) can do better than we're doing?"
Let us be as Bach was: perfect in his craft and consistently in adoration of his God. Let us be able to produce something worthy of receiving accolades, only to inscribe at the bottom of our scores, Soli Deo Gloria. Let our lives be such that someone looking in doesn't shake their head in bewilderment, just to continue on their way, let it be unmistakable that what we have is something they do not; and let us love in a way that makes them want to find out more.