I’m typically torn by most “Christian films,” as I am with God’s Not Dead, which opens in theaters this weekend. On the one hand, I believe it’s important that Christian artists and biblically themed stories reach mainstream audiences, rather than simply being aimed exclusively at churches and existing Christians. On the other hand, much that is labeled “Christian film” tends to be poorly crafted, one-dimensional, and thematically predictable.
In his article How to Respond to Christian Movies that Could Be Better Artistically, Andy Crouch offers two simple reasons why Christians should celebrate even poorly-crafted Christian films:
First, it is better to create something worth criticizing than to criticize and create nothing.
Second, one or two Christian kids with real talent somewhere in this vast land are going to see these movies, get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them at an early age, move to LA, work their tails off, dream, fail, and try again . . . and one day make truly great movies. These movies are significant not for their own excellence but for the door they open to cultural creativity that the church never should have lost. (emphasis mine)
In this sense, we have legitimate reasons to celebrate God’s Not Dead. Not only does it courageously step into a huge cultural debate (Creation / Evolution, Christianity / Atheism), the production quality of God’s Not Dead appears to be head and shoulders above typical Christian fare.
Jim Denison, President of Denison Forum on Truth and Culture offers 3 reasons to see God’s Not Dead. They are:
- One: it shows the real-life challenges believers face, especially on college campuses.
- Two: the movie asks us what risk we are willing to take for Jesus.
- Three: God’s Not Dead offers the kind of evidence-based reasoning Christians need in defending their faith today.
My reaction to the film’s concept, trailer, and pre-release buzz , is just the opposite. I will NOT be seeing the film, at least in theaters, for several reasons. Let me offer three of them:
One: I distrust many Christian reviewers. Granted, this could be a very unfair reason to avoid seeing the film. Nevertheless, I am suspect of many Christian reviewers, whether of film or fiction, whose agenda seems to be to endorse Christian art no matter how mediocre. Frankly, it’s hard to believe the gushing, uncritical endorsements for God’s Not Dead when those same reviewers are handing out five-stars to Fireproof and Courageous. To me, that says more about the Christian community’s myopia than the quality of the film. Call me overly-critical. But I’ve grown to be suspect of too many Christian reviewers. (One exception, and perhaps even more fascinating, is the number of Young Earth Creationists who are critical of the film for employing the Big Bang as evidence for God, primarily due to their belief that Big Bang cosmology speaks to an Old Earth.)
Two: The “culture war” narrative is front and center. As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s some aspects of the “culture war” mentality that I embrace. The problem, as I see it, is that God’s Not Dead goes straight for the jugular. For instance, Denison suggests that the film should be seen because it rightly portrays the “real-life challenges believers face, especially on college campuses.” I COMPLETELY agree that believers face real challenges on college campuses. The problem is when we make those challenges an apologetic unto itself, as if one reason for the existence of God is the secular academy. We set up colleges as a type of boogeyman out to stifle and suppress all Christians and further an Us-Against-Them polarity. Is this the type of image we want to lead with in theaters: Poor Oppressed Christians? Along this line, I find it puzzling that one of the lead images being presented for God’s Not Dead is the Duck Dynasty guy (see above pic). If ever there was a polarizing figure (whether rightly or wrongly), it’s him. So why align the film with such a controversial person?
Three: It trivializes a complex, important debate. Of course, many films tackle — effectively — other huge, complicated issues. But the Atheist / Christian debate continues to be one of the most tenured, heated cultural “conversations.” Having attended and listened to dozens of such debates, I can attest to the incredibly academic and potentially volatile nature of this issue. So is it possible for a film to really do justice? Especially when the objective of the film is to allow us to cheer for a specific debate winner? In a way, God’s Not Dead appears to be less an apparatus for swaying atheists than providing bullet points and inspiration for the Christian troops. Denison admits as much when he says, “God’s Not Dead offers the kind of evidence-based reasoning Christians need in defending their faith today.” Do Christians need to better learn how to defend their faith? Absolutely! But if we’re relying on a movie to do this, I’m afraid something is wrong.
As I said above, I have mixed feelings about God’s Not Dead. Christian artists and investors have put their time, talent, and treasure on the line to bring us this film. They seem to have produced a good-looking product. It’s definitely an issue worth exploring. And as Crouch said above, films like this keep Christians open “to cultural creativity.” For this reason, God’s Not Dead should be applauded.
Nevertheless, the myopic Christian bubble it exists in, the culture war narrative the film employs, and the potential trivializing of this important debate are just some of the reasons I’ll be waiting for God’s Not Dead to release on video.