God’s Not Dead (But even if he is, he deserves better than this movie)

 Editor’s Note:  Clergy Project member Mary Johnson is author of An Unquenchable Thirst, a memoir of her 20 years as a nun with Mother Teresa’s order.  This memoir was named one of the best books of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews.   Mary is currently working on a book about her move away from her religious beliefs, which evolved after leaving the convent.  Below, Mary comments on how the portrayal of atheists in the movie God’s Not Dead differs from her experience in the Clergy Project.

====================================

By Mary Johnson

I love a good movie. During the 20 years I was a nun in the community founded by Mother Teresa, we saw two movies a year, sixty of us huddled eagerly on the floor around a loaned for-the-day TV. Selection was limited by the need for the movie to hue to strict dogmatic orthodoxy: I probably saw Brother Sun, Sister Moon a half dozen times and The Song of Bernadette three or four. The Sound of Music was out of the question because it featured a nun who abandoned the convent.

Though I no longer consider myself a religious person, I remain intrigued by artistic explorations of faith. The trailer for God’s Not Dead pitted an atheist philosophy professor against a Christian student. When I made my way to a seat in the top row of my crowded neighborhood theater a couple of Sundays ago, I was pretty sure who would emerge victorious in the most popular film ever made by evangelicals for evangelicals. I didn’t mind. I enjoy a good debate almost as much as I enjoy a good movie and watching it with a crowd would enhance the experience

On screen, when freshman Josh Wheaton refused to comply with Professor Radisson’s insistence that each student write and sign a paper declaring (so that the class could move on to more substantive discussions), “God is dead,” the audience cheered. When Radisson suggested extra credit for a student who had written the statement using a lower case “g,” the audience sneered. And on it went. Virtuous believers: cheers. Evil, snide atheists: sneers.

I seemed to be the only person who squirmed in her comfy stadium seat. Why was every character on screen reduced to a single dimension? Did the audience really think that all believers were good and all unbelievers evil? As the movie progressed and Josh took up Radisson’s challenge to defend God in three presentations before the class, I was astonished both that the moviegoers applauded Josh’s feeble arguments about creation and that they found it plausible that a philosophy professor would wilt before them. (Even Creation Ministries International agrees: “Each of the points Josh tries to put forward to prove God’s existence are arguments that atheists would easily refute.”)

After Josh’s presentations, when the 80 students of the class stood to profess “God is NOT dead,” they seemed to do so with just as little thought as they had when they’d written “God is dead” during Radisson’s first passionate class with them. Such sheep-like teenagers did not square with my experience of young philosophy students. Their eagerness to follow wherever they were led more closely resembled the audience’s behavior.

Even the film’s Christians, including Josh’s girlfriend and two pastors, came off looking shallow. That the African missionary’s big goal for his vacation was to visit Disneyland, a man-made place of fantasy where everyone is always happy, spoke volumes as a (surely unintentional) metaphor for these Christians’ heavenly aspirations.

Later, I was heartened to learn that many Christian reviewers also found the movie offensive. Marybeth Davis Baggett at Christ and Pop Culture complains of the film’s “appalling superficiality” and “trumped-up emotionalism.” Sister Rose Placette at National Catholic Reporter calls God’s Not Dead a “contrived, implausible Sunday school lesson” that “leaves scant room for the imagination or mystery.”

Questions of belief deserve better. I began to imagine what a filmmaker might be able to do with the struggles with faith that are at the heart of The Clergy Project, a confidential online community currently numbering more than 550 active and former professional clergy and religious leaders who do not hold supernatural beliefs. Here three-dimensional people wrestle with the consequences of faith and with its lack. Here the stakes are far higher than a grade in a philosophy class or losing a girlfriend.

At The Clergy Project I’ve met pastors whose ongoing studies, originally undertaken to strengthen their faith, have revealed the Bible’s origins to be far more human than divine. They wrestle with the fact that they’ve sometimes unintentionally misled their communities for decades. Some of them say, wistfully, “I would so like to believe.” Others are simply relieved that they can finally stop forcing themselves to believe dogmas that had never really made sense to them.

This sense of intellectual integrity can rival any rush they’ve ever felt in prayer or in ministry. Yet, exactly at the moment these men and women rejoice in their new freedom, the earth begins to shift beneath their feet. If you’ve built your life on God, when that foundation shifts, buildings tumble.

No longer do these clergy people enjoy the comfort of a benevolent being who watches their every move. No one protects and guides. No one makes sure everything comes out all right in the end. They learn to depend upon themselves and – thanks to The Clergy Project– on others who’ve experienced both the trembling and exhilaration of such seismic shifts.

These men and women suspect that if they speak their thoughts aloud, they will be called heretics, blasphemers, or perhaps insane. Finding ways to navigate relationships is one of the most frequently discussed and most heartbreaking issues faced by members of The Clergy Project. Many have lost friends and family members, including spouses. They know that speaking aloud even once may cost them reputation and livelihood.  In Hope After Faith, former Pentecostal pastor Jerry DeWitt tells of his journey from belief to atheism. DeWitt had already left the ministry when he posted a photo of himself on Facebook, posed with Richard Dawkins at a Freethought Convention. As a direct result, Jerry lost his job as a building inspector. Jerry’s marriage of nearly twenty-five years didn’t survive the fallout. This is heartbreak worthy of cinema.

Some fortunate clergy suspect that a few in his or her own congregations would welcome a discussion of a more rational life. While introducing new ideas from the pulpit can be risky, they can sometimes begin new conversations by strategic choices in a book group.

Some ministers decide that the most loving solution is to abandon their communities without mentioning their newfound discoveries. They realize that, until the moment when the stories of God fail, they often work really well. These clergy people worry about depriving their communities of a source of strength and solace.

I was lucky. I was never an unbelieving clergy person. When I left the convent, I believed God was calling me to a fuller life. I’d realized that my superiors were more interested in my robotic obedience than in the creative contributions I longed to make. I’d fallen in love twice. Spiritual marriage with Jesus wasn’t enough for me and I didn’t want to lead a double life.

Several years, a long depression, and a lot of prayer and study later, I abandoned religious faith. Freedom, joy, and intellectual integrity returned.

I have yet to meet a member of The Clergy Project who abandoned belief in the supernatural lightly. We were invested in faith. We loved our religious communities even when the religion no longer made sense to us.

We struggle to be larger than our fears and the shame our traditions often spew upon us, but we’re not yet sure how to do this in a land green with new opportunity, but where milk and honey and alternative livelihoods do not yet flow. This is no Disneyland.

Would somebody please make me a movie about that?

The men and women of The Clergy Project are people who no longer believe in God, but we are not people without faith. We believe in the value of reason. We believe in love, community and in helping people. We seek new ways to minister that will respect both our new understanding and the needs of people who often continue to look to us for guidance.

The Clergy Project is a shelter where we can find community with people who are more concerned with living in reality than with upholding tradition, a place where we stand together while the earth shifts beneath our feet, a place where we don’t have to hide what we think.

In subsequent blog posts, I’ll be interested to hear more of the stories of those within The Clergy Project. In the comments below l’d love to hear what religious films readers have enjoyed and, if you’ve seen God’s Not Dead, what you think of it.  

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/5279651393/”>archer10 (Dennis)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

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  • Carol Hoenig

    I haven’t seen this movie, as of yet. However, my experience is too long to share in detail here, but, when asked, I tend to say that I came to the Lord in 1974, then came to my senses several years later. My experience with a fundamentalist Bible-believing church inspired my novel, “Of Little Faith.” By the way, I just started reading Mary’s book, and I’m enjoying it very much, even though I find myself shaking my head in wonder at the actions some people take in order to be worthy of a supposed loving god.

    • Mary Johnson

      Yes, Carol, sometimes it takes a while to come to one’s senses…. For me it took more than twenty years. Faith can be attractive — until we wake up. I think that happens when one is ready, not before. Religious faith seems to help some people lead fulfilling lives, but I must say I feel a lot freer (and continue to try to do good in the world) without religion’s limitations.

  • Jason Eden

    Great post Mary. I loved the accurate comparison between the movie villains and the community of non-believers that we have come to know. I saw the movie with my teenage daughter, who is still a Christian, and her reaction was much the same as ours. It’s easy to believe an enemy (be they atheists, the Russians, gays, or people of a different skin color) are all evil, shallow, self-centered, and stupid until you get to know some and start to care for one or more of them. My daughter knows my non-believing friends and – shock – they’re all great people, so it was easy for her to see through the flimsy personas in the movie. Her Christian school teachers and supposed mentors? Cheered like they were watching a basketball game. What does that tell you about the way that religious people isolate themselves from the rest of the world, and reality for that matter? Sad.

    • Mary Johnson

      Yes, Jason, it was really sad to imagine that many of the folks in that packed theater seemed to be very much at home with the us versus them mentality that movie exploited. I’d much rather have a conversation about faith than a debate anyway–we need to talk about experiences more, I think.

      • Jason Eden

        Mary, I think different people need different things, and I’d agree we need more non-believers giving their “testimony” (to borrow a phrase from my religious roots). I still think debates are important though, as it was that kind of discussion and hard scientific / logical evaluation that allowed me to see the flaws in my faith. I fully recognize, however, that I may be a bit of an oddball in that regard. 🙂

        • Mary Johnson

          I agree that there is a place for debate, Jason. I actually love debates–I debated all through high school and that’s never left me… But, especially when it comes to religion, I’m more interested in hearing about other people’s experiences: Where do you find joy? What aspects of your religion’s official teaching would you like to change? Things like that….

          • Jason Eden

            🙂 Yup. I imagine you’re 100x better at those conversations than I am. I’m *so* glad you, and other like you, are a part of the conversation at large!

          • JoAnne Braley

            Yes, Mary, you are very bright, and a good debate person. However, I think everyone believes in God, they just have the wrong name for lower case, god, him, her, it. If they do not, then they have made themselves the highest power. I have an atheist friend, a Muslim friend, two Catholic friends, one of the cafeteria type, my daughter is part New Age/Buddha, etc. And, one artistic, PhD person who works with Indians, the State of NM, etc. who is just a Quaker gone to non-belief, and she forbids me to speak of God. I never knew I was speaking of God. I think she was sorry she talked to me that way and took me to a Catholic Tribal Mass near Taos. Well, it sure look semi-pagan, and the Virgin Mary was a huge, paper made thing with Indians doing their little hop, step, down the aisles. I also enjoyed the Anglican Mass in London that the Bishop performed and went to the Communion. I got myself baptized Catholic at the age of 12. I still believe, but do not go to church. I think we should be able to have birth control with rubbers, not the killing of the start of a baby. I told “God.” You know we have enough babies, and the price of food is too far up, plus think of all the diseases.” I think the Pope allowed condoms in AIDS places in Africa (thank goodness).

          • Mary Johnson

            Hi, JoAnne. I love the things you say about all the different ways people have of worshipping. We are certainly an interesting species! I don’t quite understand what you mean when you say that everyone believes in God, otherwise they are making themselves the highest power. I don’t believe in God, but neither do I consider myself a very high power at all. There are lots of forces more powerful than I, lots of people more loving than I, loads of people smarter than I and with a lot more influence, etc., etc. What am I missing in your point here?

          • RobWatkin

            No JoAnne, everyone doesn’t believe in God, I never have done. Have I therefore made myself the highest power ? No, I see myself, the human race and our planet for what they really are, an insignificant blue dot in an unimaginably vast universe.

    • Maine_Skeptic

      Jason, I hope nothing I said in comments on your post was offensive to you. That wasn’t my intent, but when people disagree even on minor points, it’s easy to leave the impression of animosity where there was none.

      • Jason Eden

        Not at all skeptimal! I welcome comments and critique on any of my views. I try not to assume I am always right, and frankly, I consider people who are willing to “call my baby ugly” some of my truest friends. I found your comments to be very thoughtful, even if you were challenging something, and that kind of discussion is one I always enjoy.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          I’m that way myself. I don’t always like being disagreed with (or disagreeing with other people), but my life seems to go better when I pursue my own doubts and remain willing to hear the ideas of others.

    • stephanie sorensen

      Over the years I’ve dabbled in Hassidism, Hinduism, B’hai, Buddhism, Rosicrucian-ism, Catholicism, Anabaptism and Pentecostalism and was born again – and again, and again. And my Jewish parents asked the God they professed they didn’t believe in what they had ever done to deserve me. A spiritual freak? Perhaps. Today I simply turn my heart to God and pray the Jesus prayer, or just listen. I don’t attend any church but I strive to pray without ceasing. No beads, no books, no holy cards. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe we don’t know nothing about God.

  • Andy

    My experience confirms this one-dimensional portrayal of atheists. They willfully turn their backs on God, so they are evil personified. I was once guilty of the same stereotyping. I understand the feeling, and am now ashamed of what I once thought. Tasked with explaining why atheists did not always wilt in response to facile arguments (as the atheist ‘wilted’ in this film), I attributed it to the blinding effects of original sin, which had darkened their understandings. Of course I now realize that in any war, it helps to demonize opponents. This releases a ‘righteous’ person from the onus of compassion and justifies suspicion and hatred toward atheists.

    Fundamentalists have a strong belief in ‘separation’ (“come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord!”) They will disassociate readily even for far lesser offenses, like disbelief in an inerrant Bible, rejection of a literal virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, et al.

    • Mary Johnson

      Yeah, stereotyping makes for easy targets. I think we atheists have also sometimes been guilty of stereotyping believers. I think this is also one of the things that makes The Clergy Project so important–we are people who have stood on both sides of the belief/reason divide, so we understand that there are real, complex people and issues on both sides.

      • Andy

        You are absolutely right! I have to check myself constantly for stereotyping in the opposite direction. I’m reminded of this every Sunday morning when a Missouri Synod Lutheran attends and even enjoys our service and my sermons! I love how he keeps me humble. He tells me he likes to keep an open mind!!

  • Maine_Skeptic

    Movies like this help certain Christians imagine a narrative in which life is simple and they are the heroes. If you want to hear echoes of that narrative, read the comments from Christians at the Christian Post website. Or watch a Republican primary debate. You can almost hear the swell of the theme music as they make their noble-sounding but vacuous declarations.

    • Mary Johnson

      The stories we tell are so important….. And speaking of soundtracks: The music in this film was just crazy–so completely over the top!

  • Maine_Skeptic

    On a more positive note, I enjoyed “Leap of Faith” with Steve Martin. As cynical as Martin’s character was, I understood how Debra Winger’s character could sincerely enjoy the energy in the room when people thought miracles were happening. The fact that the gospel singers were believers, but they also had no problem with scamming the flock, touched on the doublethink that I see as a common element of all fervent belief.

    • gimpi1

      Big fan of Leap of Faith here as well. I also loved the tagline, “Real miracles, sensibly priced.”

    • Mary Johnson

      Yeah, I liked that one, too. Also “Life of Brain” — a classic! On a more serious side, I thought “Mission” and “Priest” were terrific films.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        I can’t think of a faith-based movie that I liked, but I saw a play last year that I enjoyed. Have you ever seen “Freud’s Last Session?” Sigmund Freud meets C.S. Lewis one night during the London Blitz.

        • Mary Johnson

          Another movie to check out…. Freud & CS Lewis–no there’s an imaginary pair!

          • Maine_Skeptic

            If you see the play, don’t get worried when the first few minutes feel like they were written by William Lane Craig. It gets more nuanced as they play goes on.

          • Mary Johnson

            Thanks for the heads-up!

  • I’m not sure I’d say that I liked the movie Blue Like Jazz (I was never interested in reading the book), but it exceeded my expectations. At least it presented characters with different points of view. And it showed characters who had significant doubts.

    I found The Quarrel interesting, even though I saw it long before I tossed out my faith. As a movie that’s more or less one long dialogue (although broken into pieces), it’s more like a play, really. One of them is a sincere atheist, and the other is a rabbi. Spoiler: neither of them ends up changing the other’s mind, naturally, no matter what points they make.

    • Mary Johnson

      Thanks for those suggestions, Gideon. I’ll have a look at Blue Like Jazz and The Quarrel.

  • Thanks so much for this, Mary. I’ve been appalled by the sheer number of Christian movies that have come out this year and have, I confess, not gone to one of them. I couldn’t bring myself to see Gibson’s bloodbath when it was out, either. I’ll have to push myself so that I can answer them responsible and thank you for bravely doing so. The Heaven is Real one is perhaps the worst premise of them all.
    Having come out as an atheist while still in the pulpit (and been fortunate enough to be able to remain there), I hear from a lot of clergy who also do not believe in traditional Christianity. They often say they are just biding their time until retirement or, if they’ve already retired, they stop participating in jurisdictional meetings and never go back to church. I understand the sentiment, but I bristle at the ease of that choice, particularly for those in liberal, mainline denominations that teach critical, contemporary scholarship in their seminaries but also teach how not to let parishioners get wind of that scholarship. If someone has made it through to his or her retirement and has nothing to lose, I wish she or he would make the choice to come clean, to speak openly, to press against the structures and work to bring about change. Change will not happen easily and it certainly won’t happen if those left bring it about are the people who are the most vulnerable.

    • Mary Johnson

      I never saw Gibson’s “Passion,” either, Gretta. I just have too much respect for myself, somehow…. I do like some movies with religious themes, though. Mission and Priest are two of my favorites. I, too, do hope that clergy will find ways to help their congregations towards greater clarity on the supernatural questions….

    • Jason Eden

      “…but also teach how not to let parishioners get wind of that scholarship.”

      Gretta, this is one of the most insidious things about religious education today. It’s subtle – or at least it was in my education – but devastating. When I was coming out, one of my essays was on the virgin birth and the problem with the mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 in the book of Matthew. One of the criticisms that stung the most – because it was true – was a question as to why I had been aware of this for decades before acting on it in terms of leaving my faith. No one explicitly told me not to talk about it in ministry work, but somehow I knew that was information just for us, not for the masses. It’s a little similar to growing up with an abusive parent. It’s not usually necessary to tell a kid not to say anything at school. Somehow they just know it won’t go well for them if they’re honest and open about it. The parallels, now that I think about it, are striking.

  • I’m an atheist blogger here at Patheos, and I critiqued the movie here.

    There’s nothing like a good apologetics argument (but this movie was nothing like a good apologetics argument).

    • Maine_Skeptic

      Bob! Weren’t you in the Atheist Prayer Experiment?

      • Good memory! Yes, I was. I wrote several posts on it, the first one is this one.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          Easier for me to remember than most, because I was part of it as well. I enjoyed your comments and posts. My handle at the time was “Maine Skeptic,” but for some reason disqus has been logging me in as an older name, Skeptimal.

    • Mary Johnson

      Bob, what a great job demolishing the apologetics in the movie. Really, I don’t understand how the writers of “God’s Not Dead” got away with it…..

      • In the credits, they listed Dr. Rice Broocks as their apologetics consultant. I can’t imagine that they gave him much of a workout.

        I hadn’t heard of the guy before, but this project isn’t much to add to his CV.

    • I enjoyed your review.
      The portion of the movie in which the Muslim father so angrily mistreated his daughter because she’d left his faith is indeed bad, as you said. So often I want to tell Christian friends that it’s no worse than the Christian parents who turn out their gay children and consider them dead.

  • mason

    Excellent well written blog Mary. I Tweeted it.

    • Mary Johnson

      Thanks, Mason!

  • I almost wish I’d been in the clergy just so I could hobnob with those in The Clergy Project. As an elderly person (72), I had a rude awakening when I lost my faith. Yet, I knew I was right because that night I had a dream in which I met Jesus (not the long-haired effeminate one) who told me, “You finally got it right.” Can I call that dream a vision?
    The dream really happened; just teasing about the vision part. I grieved as though my best friend had died. I missed my Jesus so much. But, once you’ve seen the truth, you cannot unlearn it. So I had to let him go.
    The movie is playing here in my town now, but the trailers were enough for me. I have no desire at all to see it.

    In her article, Marybeth Davis Baggett said: “Much of the real “stuff” of the Christian life—the co-suffering with
    Christ, the challenges of faithfulness, the necessary sacrifices, the
    risk of real persecution, and learning to turn the other cheek—is
    conspicuously absent.”

    In my opinion those things are absent from the movie because they are foreign to the everyday, American Christian. And those who know the suffering and persecution, such as Christians in Africa, tend not to be judgmental.

    But get ready. While the base is high on this movie, Focus on Family releases “Irreplaceable”, in which they traveled “the world over” getting people’s opinions of what a “real” family is. We all know where that is headed.

    • Mary Johnson

      Great points, Gale. I so agree when you say, “once you’ve seen the truth, you cannot unlearn it.” Christians keep telling me that the day will come when I will rethink my faith–but I can’t see myself falling for the man behind the curtain….

    • Jason Eden

      “I almost wish I’d been in the clergy just so I could hobnob with those in The Clergy Project.”

      Well, consider yourself hobbed and nobbed. 🙂 Glad you’re here Gayle!

    • Lonbo

      72 is elderly? We’re never too old for all manner of hobnobbery. Cheers!

  • Andy

    Ever since Mary’s post I’ve been thinking of a movie that provides a nice alternative to the movie God’s Not Dead. Although I’m not much of a Clint Eastwood fan, I do like the movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and particularly the theme song by Paul Williams. Words from the chorus:

    Tell me where
    Where does a fool go
    When there’s no one left to listen
    To a story without meaning
    That nobody wants to hear
    Tell me where
    Where does a fool go
    When he knows there’s something missing
    Tell me where
    Where do I go from here
    Where do I go from here

    Certainly an apt summary for those stuck in the pulpit.

    I’m not sure what the song has to do with the movie, although the opening scene does involve Pastor ‘Clint’ leaving the pulpit–under gun fire!!!

    • Mary Johnson

      I;m going to look at that movie, Andy–th song is great!

  • Elizabeth Roy

    I haven’t seen the movie, nor do I wish to – but I would love a movie like the one you suggested. One that perhaps follows three members of the clergy through their doubts – one who becomes an atheist, one whose faith comes back stronger, and one who doesn’t come to any conclusion – so that those of us who haven’t had this experience can see all aspects of it. The books I’ve read on this topic are great, but they don’t have the reach that a movie like that would. *wishes for millions of dollars to fund a movie*

    • Mary Johnson

      I do think it would make a great movie, Linda! Films can be so powerful.

  • Kingasaurus

    The movie I always recommend for people interested in these kind of questions is Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Irrespective of the director’s personal issues, I like how this film tackles god/morality questions. Cynical in some ways, uplifting in others. Real life isn’t like a movie where everything tends to turn out OK and you leave the theater satisfied. People are complicated, and real life is messy.

    • Mary Johnson

      Indeed, real life is very messy. I love complicated films, and will check out “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

  • Tony55398

    Not to change anyone’s mind, but for those interested check out the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, School of Medicine. A scientific study. I do not mean to offend anyone. It’s for those who may be curious, otherwise please, please ignore.