August 10, 2014 by Devin
So after writing about God’s Not Dead and my problems with the trailer, I figured I should at least watch the movie in question. As a Christian-turned-atheist in the Bible belt of the South, I have a lot of stakes in this particular issue. I have met a lot of people that will probably take this film seriously, and I bet I will meet many more. As such, there is a good chance it will, to some extent, affect how people view me and other atheists, and I am not looking forward to people comparing me to Kevin Sorbo’s nasty professor routine.
I expected to get annoyed at this films faulty logic, which I did. I expected to be disappointed with its portrayal of people who are not Christian, which I did. I even figured I would notice a lot of problems with its script, which did have many problems. But I also was surprised by this film.
The film is about a college freshman named Josh Wheaton. He enrolls in a philosophy class led by the mean atheist teacher, Professor Radisson. In a move straight out of made-up email forwards, Professor Radisson insists the students write out “God is dead” on pieces of paper, but when Josh refuses, Radisson challenges him to defend his faith in front of the whole class.
The film, as expected, is not very good, but more than that it is intellectually insulting. Almost nobody in the film believes or does not believe in god because of logic. Character’s beliefs are dictated by the tragedies that happen in their lives, which should be insulting to Christians as well as atheists. The best way to make someone a Christian, the film almost argues, is to make them come face to face with their own mortality, thus giving the “religion is about comfort more than logic” argument more credibility.
The acting is also uneven. Ironically enough, the deepest characters are the non-Christians. Kevin Sorbo as Professor Radisson, the ex-Christian who lost something dear and is now bitter because of it, is a stereotype that has been featured in many films before, but Sorbo really sells that there is a lot of hurt behind what he does. Yes his arguments and bitterness are flimsily supported by tragedy in his life, but while he is a terrible representation of atheism, to an extent, what he does in the film seems reasonable. Of course the film takes it too far with his misogynistic attitudes, but he almost seems like a real person. Tristin LaFache as the liberal reporter who is trying to bring down the Duck Dynasty also does a fair job with the material she is given. She adds a small layer of subtlety to a movie with very little to go around. Heck, even the abusive Muslim father (yes there is a subplot about a Muslim girl wearing a burka) offers perhaps the most interesting viewpoint on what standing up for your faith actually means as his attempts to secure his faith are just as sincere as the main character’s, who like the other Christian characters, is played with very little depth or conflict.
(It also exists in a strange world where 79 out of 80 students in a required freshmen class are all willing to say, “God is dead,” and yet a nearby Newsboys concert is able to seat 100,000 people)
But while I did feel angry and annoyed at this film, I also felt something else that took me by surprise: nostalgia.
The film’s resolution takes place at a Newsboys concert where all the primary characters conveniently end up, and there is a strong emotional catharsis that is in line with the music. The climax has already happened, so now the threads of plot are all finding their different endings. And during this song, everything feels okay.
I remember being a young Christian, with an emphasis on the young part (well, and the Christian part). When you know God is on your side, the whole world seems open. I would pour my heart out into everything related to my faith, sharing the Word as awkwardly but enthusiastically as possible with anyone who would humor me (and some who wouldn’t). My youth group and I made it our mission to share Jesus Christ in everything we did, from the way we prayed before our meals to the way we didn’t drink or swear in hopes that our actions would have meaning, that they would speak to someone and inch them closer to Jesus in some capacity.
We were going to change the world. It may have been the youthfulness talking, but we were so convinced that not only was Jesus the right and only way, but also that it was so simple. All that was really required to change the world for Jesus was love for Jesus and a devotion to him. All that was really required to save our friends was a willingness to do what Jesus asked when he asked it. Literally everything else would be taken care of.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in worship. I will say this: God’s Not Dead nails that emotional high of worship, at least for me. Worship felt like the culmination of all the little details in my life that I believed were from God. My tough test was about me learning patience. My great camp experience was a sign of his love. My successful relationship was about rewarding my patience in him (until it didn’t work out; then it was a lesson in valuing him above everyone else). It was all apart of this master plan God had for our lives that we were a part of, even if the grand design of it all did not seem apparent to us at the time.
And worship was where I saw God in all those instances and where I became okay with whatever was happening in my life. During worship my life felt like it had direction. No matter what troubles or uncertainties life threw at me, during worship it felt like everything was going to be okay.
When I said emotional high, I really meant to compare it to drugs. I would not be surprised to find out that the effects on the brain of worship music are similar to actual drugs. In fact, I expect that to be the case. Many times, I even felt loopy, and in high school, I was an addict.
Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear: I am happy to be an atheist. Honestly, it has been the only theological position that I have been truly comfortable with, and the more I study it, the more confident I am that there is no god. This was the opposite case with Christianity, as my enthusiastic pursuits to know more about it led to more and more doubts about its authenticity.
But when I watched the Newsboys concert and all the characters get so wrapped up in their worship, I realized that at least part of me missed that. I missed being able to go into a worship session and get that high. I miss feeling like I was part of this grand and epic design that would change the world. I was sure that God was going to use me in some wonderful way.
To be fair, these feelings were gone long before I became an atheist. My last few years as a Christian were spent trying to get back to being able to have that high while at the same time being intellectually honest with what I believed and what I sang, something that was terribly difficult given the many awful worship songs out there.
Even after writing this, I am not sure what to make of God’s Not Dead. I see so much that is harmful and dangerous about it, from the many false arguments it uses to the way it mischaracterizes atheists and liberals. There is not a logical argument for theism to be found in this movie, even though there is a strong emotional argument.
I feel like so much of this film is wrong, but it is wrong in a way that I remember being and enjoying. I look at this film in the same way I look at myself 6 or 7 years ago: terribly misguided but with an almost refreshing enthusiasm. I have no doubt that people who did not grow up like I did will not share these same feelings, and they will probably argue, rightly so, that it is a film that perpetrates damaging stereotypes, and those involved should be ashamed of themselves for making it.
Yet I also cannot separate my feelings of nostalgia from my annoyances at the film in the same way that I cannot separate who I was from who I am today. And honestly, that leaves me unsure of how to take this film.