I know, it’s not every day you get a strange 80s metal reference, especially about a song as risque as Girls on Film.
So, Christian films are usually not that great in terms of cinema. I’ve seen the Left Behind films, The Omega Code, Fireproof, and others. So I count myself qualified in saying that, at least when they’re blatantly faith-driven, Christian films kinda suck.
So seeing the film God’s Not Dead surprised me because, well, it doesn’t suck. It’s not Dr. Zhivago, for sure, but it has actors who I believe might be human, a script that doesn’t sound like it was written in ten minutes for the children’s sermon, and mostly decent cinematic understandings of camera placement and direction. (Mostly.)
Christian film is a tough thing because it’s usually fairly low budget without much star power, but also because it sits at the uncomfortable intersection of entertainment and information. Trying to do both is incredibly hard, which is why summer blockbusters rarely cause introspective journeys and focused documentaries rarely sell out worldwide ticket counters. But this film manages to be somewhat entertaining and also gets its message across without too much of the AND THEN YOU REPENT BECAUSE JESUS DIRECTED THIS FILM Gospel stuffings faith films tend to have.
The premise is a little irksome—arrogant philosophy prof challenges wee baby Christian freshman to prove God exists. I say “irksome” because I’m tired of the dichotomy of faith and academics—trust me, not all professors are atheists, and definitely not all atheists are professors. But as the film goes on, it does start to address the fact that Christians don’t have to check their brains at the door—in point of fact, some of the most beloved theologians were brilliant scholars in their own right (C.S. Lewis and the entire cast of the Middle Ages, for starters).
So I liked the film, but there were 4 main things that made this film just that short of really good:
1) Villains: The thing that drives me totally nuts about Christian films is that the characters are horribly flat. The good guys are always a little rough around the edges but basically nice at the core, while the adversaries are freaking Satan (until they learn to love Jesus). “God’s Not Dead” gives a little more dimension than usual, but it still draws a giant black line of division in case you missed that the atheists were The Bad Guys. While it does make script-writing easier, that’s crap. I know a lot of good, funny, moral atheists (and Jews, Muslims, pagans, agnostics, etc.). I also know rather a lot of asshole Christians. People are grey like that, and it’s so frustrating to me when Christian films flatten out those complexities as if saying “Yay Jesus!” flips some kind of personality switch. It doesn’t. Trust me. I still have my fair share of bitchy days and really great days, and so does everyone else.
2) Other faiths: The presence of other faith systems in Christian film is rare. Usually it’s the general non-believers and the Christians, which is again totally not how the world works. This film introduced an Islamic family—yay!—and proceeded to make them intolerant, harsh, and—well, I won’t spoil it, but the outcome of that subplot isn’t good. Which is such a foolish move on the filmmakers’ part, because it’s not like Christianity and Islam are BFFs to begin with, so slamming their faith onscreen when they would be crucified (!) for doing the same to yours is just mean. And unnecessary. We’re not getting anywhere as a global culture if we continue to caricature each other. It has to do with respect, not agreement.
3) Believers: Seriously, not every Christian has memorized the Bible. Or has the perfect words as a gift from God at exactly the right time. We’re not that smooth. Trust me. Sometimes, it happens, and this film tried to have a believer who wasn’t totally “on”—but she was so obviously “off” that I couldn’t take her seriously. Again, grey areas, y’all.
4) Conversions: It’s just not a Christian film until some unbeliever comes to the light. I get that, and that’s fine, but conversions are hard to film because staging them inherently ruins the authenticity and impact. I get the point of the conversion in this film (I’d say spoiler alert, but really, you know it has to be there). But that scene was AWFUL. SRSLY, EVEN I CAN’T SUSPEND MY DISBELIEF THAT FAR. I would definitely spoil things if I explained why the big climax scene was stupid and fake, but I will say that there is no universe in which I could buy that particular exchange actually happening (well, actually there is one, but no one wants to be around that universe. It’s annoying).
All of that being said, I reiterate that I liked the film. It was well done, and entertaining, and I have a particular love in my heart for the main Newsboys song because I first heard it at camp and it was intense. The biggest thing that stuck with me, though, is that at the end of the film the audience is asked to text “God’s not dead” to everyone they know. And, as the credits rolled, the couple in front of me actually started doing so. I was blown away; no way could I even think about doing that, not because I’m afraid of the repercussions but because I can’t do random, out-of-context texts (they irk me) and also because I can’t do bumper sticker theology like that anymore (thanks, Interpreter). But man, it was both utterly dismaying and super cool that this pair was systematically going through their contacts informing them that God has not, in fact, kicked the celestial bucket.
What a fascinating conversation starter that would be if you had a contact who didn’t know that already.
So go see it, if you get a chance. Then come tell me about it; I’d love to hear your reaction, Reader.