It is quite dangerous to talk about a movie one has not yet seen. Indeed I want to make very clear that this is not a movie review. I have not seen God is not Dead and I cannot comment on the acting, directing, camera work etc. If anyone wants to say Kevin Sorbo deserves an Oscar for his performance, I have no basis to argue with him/her. The only thing I want to evaluate is the main premise of the movie which has been widely discussed in Christian circles. That premise is in an area of my expertise; thus, I feel comfortable commenting on it.
As you may have heard, the main premise of the movie is that a student is asked by his philosophy professor to write “God is Dead” on a sheet of paper. He refuses. This angers the professor who tells him that if he cannot convince his classmates that God exists then he will fail the course. In the fashion of Hollywood the student triumphs in the end. I am not going to deal with the ending, which is a problem in itself since professors have so much control in their classrooms that a student will not triumph if the professor does not want him to, but I will merely deal with the premise that this Christian kid would put his grade at risk by refusing to deny the existence of God.
The problem with that premise is that it is unrealistic. I am not opposed to suspending reality when watching movies. I saw a couple of days ago the trailer to the upcoming X-Men movie Days of Future Past. I am salivating like Pavlov’s dog waiting for that movie to come out. Yet I know that mutations cannot give us such tremendous superhuman abilities. It is fairly clear to most of us that what happens in X-Men, or just about any other superhero, movie is not possible. I highly doubt anyone leaves the theater of the X-Men movie worrying about Magneto taking over the world. Suspending reality is part of what allows us to be entertained. The problem develops when the movie intends to tell us a story portrayed as realistic when in fact it is not realistic. The way some talk about God is Not Dead is problematic because they talk about it as if the premise really can occur in our contemporary society when I know this is not the case.
Why am I so sure that a professor would not threaten to fail a student who did not affirm atheism? Well, the first reason I am confident this would not happen is because the student would sue the teacher and university. Furthermore, I am pretty certain the student would, and should, win. Cultural progressives have been criticized about caring about freedom of worship and not truly caring about freedom of religion. But even if this criticism is accurate such progressives would defend the right of a student to believe any religion he or she chooses. What good is freedom of worship if a person is not even allowed to accept whatever religious belief he or she wants? So even if a professor wanted to force atheism on students, the legal system would not allow that professor to get away with it.
But there is even a more basic reason why the premise in the movie is not realistic. This premise misunderstands how individuals with anti-Christian hatred tend to think. Such individuals do not engage in overt expressions of religious bigotry. Such expressions would violate their stated values of religious neutrality. Part of their argument against Christians is that Christians are attempting to force others to adopt their religion. An overt attempt to punish those who do not accept atheism would be such a clear case of hypocrisy that they would not be able to maintain claims of religious neutrality. So even if the professor did not fear a legal lawsuit, it would be highly unlikely that the professor would directly tie a student’s grade to religious beliefs. This would rob the professor of a great deal of legitimacy he has for hating Christians and Christianity.
This is not to say that people who dislike Christians are unable to punish Christians. I do not argue that anti-Christian hatred or bigotry is merely the imagination of Christians. I have done the research documenting the reality and nature of this type of religious intolerance (some of which will come out in a book I currently have under contract). The way those with anti-Christian hatred attempt to punish Christians is more indirect than failing those who do not give up their faith. I liken it to a concept in race/ethnic literature known as symbolic racism. This occurs when whites who do not like people of color use an issue with symbolic meaning to punish those people of color as long as the issue contains non-racial justifications. For example, there are non-racial reasons for wanting tough immigration laws. However, those who do not like Hispanics can also desire tough immigration laws simply because of an antipathy towards Hispanics. The nonracial justifications tied to tough immigration laws allow them to support those laws without fears of being labeled a racist. Likewise, antipathy towards Christians can lead to support of legal and public policies with a disparate impact on Christians as long as a non-bigoted reason can be tied to those policies. Support of such policies and engaging in indirect religious discrimination is much more likely from those with anti-Christian disaffection than overt religious discrimination.
I point this out because it is important for Christians to recognize how those who hate them think. I fear that movies like God is Not Dead paint a picture of secular humanists willing to engage in activities such as putting people in jail for their beliefs or closing down churches. That may have happened in certain totalitarian societies but it is not happening here, nor do I see it happening for at least the foreseeable future. Constructing unrealistic boogey men about those with anti-Christian animosity inhibits the ability of Christians to have productive conversations with such individuals and work out solutions that respect the rights of both Christians and non-Christians. These stereotypes also create unnecessary fears about actions unlikely to occur, leading to unfounded claims of persecution, when instead conservative Christians would be better off dealing with realistic problems that anti-Christian antipathy does create.
I suspect that some Christians are pushing this movie because they are tired of being portrayed badly in Hollywood movies. I sympathize with such individuals as I do think there is a fair argument to be made about anti-Christian stereotyping in the media. Having a movie where the Christian is the hero with positive personal characteristics is likely a sight for sore eyes to such Christians. As long as they suspend reality as they watch the film there is nothing any more wrong with Christians cheering on a Christian character in a movie than a black cheering on a black character or a Jew cheering on a Jewish character. Others may argue that Christians should attend this movie because there are so few movies out there that buttress the values of Christians. If Christians do not support movies with a positive Christian theme then we can expect even fewer of these movies in the future. That is a fair enough argument and I would not mind seeing more positive Christian movies. But I fear that such Christians will not see this movie in the way I will watch that X-men movie and will be duped into believing that Christians face as much persecution in society today as they did in biblical times. Atheist professors are not going around intentionally flunking Christian students for their beliefs. I have previously written on the misuse of the concept of persecution by Christians and will not rehash those arguments here. However, it is clear that we do not need more efforts to misled Christians into accepting a persecution belief.
Some Christians have argued that this is a great movie since it will help other Christians to become more involved in apologetics. Seeing a student argue with a professor, and win that argument, may help Christians to more seriously consider the sources of their faith. I would welcome such changes as I believe that Christians, and other individuals, should engage in the cognitive activities necessary to investigate the underpinnings of their epistemological beliefs. Although I have chosen to not engage in theological and apologetic arguments with my blog writings, I am quite intellectually comfortable with my Christian faith and do not fear an honest interrogation of it. That lack of fear comes from truthfully engaging in the presuppositions buttressing that faith. I welcome the message that Christians should engage in a serious, open-minded investigation of their beliefs and if this movie happens to encourage that investigation then it is a message I heartily support.
Right now I am not planning on actually watching this movie in the near future. There are too many other movies (i.e. Days of Future Past) out there or coming out there I want to see. I will probably wait to see the movie when it comes on television or at best when it is at the dollar theater. So there are no plans for me to do a longer movie review that not only looks at the theme discussed in this blog but also evaluates the quality of the movie. There will be plenty of other individuals eager to provide that review. I want my Christian brothers and sisters to enjoy the movie if they so desire. All I ask is that we leave the characterizations of the professor’s actions in the theater and not believe that these actions are likely to happen in real life. Maintaining such a healthy attitude will help them to be prepared to deal with anti-Christian animosity in the real ways it manifests itself in our society.