First, the good news: “God’s Not Dead 2” is almost kind of good. It is, in fact, an easier sit than “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The sequel to 2014’s surprise faith-based hit tempers some of its predecessor’s angrier tendencies and features characters who look more like people I’ve actually met.
Unfortunately, the film is hampered by the same persecution complex, which robs its main plot of logic and clouds the more compelling stories at its fringes.
The film’s protagonist is Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), the most beloved teacher at a local high school. Grace has a coffee shop encounter with young student Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), who’s been struggling with the death of her brother. Brooke asks Grace how she endures life’s hardships, to which Grace replies, “Jesus.” Later, as Salvation Army volunteers remove Brooke’s brothers items from the house, they come across his Bible and give it to her.
During an in-class discussion about non-violent protest, Brooke asks about Jesus’ influence on Martin Luther King Jr. That innocuous session leads to Grace being hauled before the principal (Robin Givens) and the school board, who ask why she would teach Scripture in the classroom. Grace soon finds herself the target of a lawsuit by the ACLU and its top lawyer (Ray Wise), who represents Brooke’s family and wants to “prove for once and for all that God is dead.” (He doesn’t do a maniacal laugh after that, but I was anticipating it).
This all takes place in the same Arkansas county as the events of the first film, which means several returning characters also appear. Pastor Dave (David A.R. White), the affable local minister, is now counselling Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), the young Chinese student who has decided to become a preacher following the events of the first film. Also returning is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), the former atheist blogger whose cancer has gone into remission following her conversion. Ryan is struggling with just exactly what she believes now that she’s free of her disease.
Despite my outright hatred of the first film, the first 30 minutes of “God’s Not Dead 2” gave me hope. Director Harold Cronk brings a gentler tone this time and the first act sets up several stories that could, conceivably, be worth watching. A young Chinese convert deciding to become a minister. A former atheist wondering what, exactly, she believes. A Christian teacher, known for her hope and joy, striking up a friendship with a mourning student. On their own, these are stories with the potential to illustrate the joy, hope and peace of the gospel.
But Cronk is only interested in a persecution narrative that steamrolls over the film’s more compelling stories. While kinder to its nonbelievers than the first film, “God’s Not Dead 2” suffers from the same belief that the power and influence of Christian culture is more important than stories of lives actually being changed and shaped by the gospel.
The trial at the center of the story is ludicrous, to the extent that I never really understood what was at stake or why. Grace’s dilemma could easily be mediated by a union representative, and I don’t understand why Brooke’s parents contact the ACLU at all, given that their daughter obviously had no objection to Grace’s statements. Eventually, the trial becomes less about Grace and more about proving the historical existence of Jesus — which seems a bit above the pay grade for the ACLU and an educational law attorney. The script by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon trots out J. Warner Wallace and Lee Strobel to give an apologetics lesson and hawk their books.
And those stories that initially had me interested? The persecution narrative eventually inserts itself into them and chokes out whatever heart they had. Pastor Dave becomes a juror in Grace’s trial and also gets a subplot about sermons being subpoena’d by the state government (based on an isolated, shaky story from Houston and used to set up a third movie in the post-credit scene). Amy’s faith journey is abandoned quickly; she decides she likes Christianity and dedicates herself to following Grace’s story. The only time that the collision of storylines works is in a scene between Martin and Brooke that is actually quietly moving.
But these raw materials are squandered in service of a story that perpetuates a lie, encourages hostility and pushes a type of Christianity that I find repellent. Let’s be honest: American Christians might face occasional hardships, but we’re actually doing pretty well. We’ve acquired a privilege that other faiths don’t have, and I think a lot of what many perceive as persecution is really just a fear about cultural tides shifting. Christianity isn’t on the brink of being abolished; evangelicalism, however, must deal with no longer being the only faith in America. There’s a fascinating story to be told in how Christians must learn to live alongside and love people of other faiths, just as there is an important story that we must tell about Christians who face life-threatening persecution in other areas of the world. Constructing a flimsy court case and calling it “persecution” is disrespectful for those who are killed or imprisoned for their Christian faith elsewhere.
“God’s Not Dead 2” didn’t anger me the way its predecessor did, but it did frustrate me and make me sad. The gospel is a powerful tale of hope and reconciliation, and I believe that Christianity can be a force for good and beauty in the world. There are personal stories to be told of spiritual growth, forgiveness and compassion, any number of which can be dramatically powerful. For years, the knock against Christian movies was that they were told without artistry or skill. Now that there are Christian filmmakers out there with technical competence, it’s disheartening that the stories they want to tell are ones that speak to our fear, encourage a further divide with those who don’t share our beliefs, and are more concerned with improving political and culture influence than in speaking to our souls.