There’s a joke waiting to be told in the fact that God’s Not Dead 2 is coming out on April Fool’s Day. The Psalms suggest it takes a fool to say in his heart that there is no God, so perhaps the filmmakers thought they were having a private laugh at the unbeliever’s expense when they picked the release date. Thing is, given all the sloppy apologetics, preachy dialogue and silly plot contortions that lie within this “faith-based” film, it isn’t the atheists who come out looking foolish in the end.
The lousiness — and harmfulness — of this film will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original God’s Not Dead two years ago. (You can read my review of it here.) Like that film, the new one tells a story of Christian underdogs being persecuted by representatives of the establishment — but while the filmmakers claim their stories are inspired by real-world cases, the dramatic form the stories take makes no sense whatsoever, and God’s Not Dead 2 is a classic case in point.
In the first film, a first-year college student was told he would fail his philosophy course if he didn’t sign a form in support of atheism. In the new one, a high-school teacher is put on trial for quoting something Jesus said in response to a question from a student about the non-violence of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Both films assume that there is no real form of redress for the Christians who have been put on the spot: the institutions involved are completely behind the people oppressing them.
The first film at least benefited from the comparatively loose structure of a first-year college class: the atheist professor gives his Christian student a special assignment and heckles him from the audience as the student makes his presentation. The new film, on the other hand, is a full-fledged courtroom drama, and the legal logistics defy any sort of common sense.
For starters, when the teacher, Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), is summoned before her school board (after a student’s parents complain about the Jesus quote in class), the union rep who is supposed to defend her turns against her immediately. (“What were you thinking, Grace.”) The school board then declares that it will suspend Grace without pay until such time as “a court of competent jurisdiction” can determine whether she violated any local, state or federal guidelines — but instead of taking Grace to court themselves, they sit back and wait for the ACLU to sue her. And they do this because the ACLU has privately promised one of them that the school board will not be sued as a co-defendant — though when ACLU lawyer Pete Kane (Ray Wise of Twin Peaks and RoboCop fame) meets with the student’s parents, he tells them they can get a big cash settlement out of the school, so maybe the school board is in the ACLU’s sights after all. Meanwhile, even though Grace is defended in court by a union-appointed lawyer (played by Dallas’s Jesse Metcalfe), the union rep who threw her under the bus in the first place appears in court to testify against her.
Confused yet? Normally, as I understand it, the union would defend the teacher and then, if the school board fired the teacher anyway, the teacher might sue the board for wrongful dismissal. But making Grace Wesley the plaintiff wouldn’t suit the agenda behind this film: it is essential that she be the defendant, and that she be all alone, isolated in her persecution, no matter how implausible the scenario becomes.
Naturally, everybody in this film makes everything sound like a much bigger deal than it really is. Kane, the ACLU lawyer, assures the student’s parents that they’re not only going to get the teacher decertified, but “we’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead.” And when a juror who is known to be Christian has to leave the jury for medical reasons, Kane declares to his colleagues, “I guess that proves there is no God, because they lost the only juror they could count on.”
Meanwhile, Grace and her lawyer decide to use the court case as an opportunity to prove the historical existence of Jesus, as if that had any bearing on the case. And so real-life apologists like Lee Strobel show up as witnesses who make various arguments for the existence of Jesus, some more dubious than others. (No, of course I’m not questioning the existence of Jesus myself. But I’ve come across people who do, and I would never give them some of the arguments that are made within this film.)
For example, Strobel points to the fact that our calendar counts the years from around the time of Jesus’ birth, and he says this would be an “incredible feat” if Jesus never existed. But Strobel never mentions that the calendar was invented by Dionysius Exiguus six centuries after Jesus lived, long after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman and Byzantine empires, or that calendars often point to mythical rather than historical reference points; e.g. the Jewish calendar says we are currently living in the year 5776, and virtually no one — not even young-earth creationists — thinks the world is actually that young.
Strobel also makes a point of citing atheists and agnostics such as Bart Ehrman who believe that the evidence for Jesus’ existence is pretty solid. But eventually you start to wonder why Grace’s lawyer (who is not a Christian himself) didn’t call these actual atheists and agnostics to the stand. The Christian subculture might be content to listen to professional apologists selectively rehash the arguments of others, but a non-Christian lawyer building a case before a mostly non-Christian jury would surely want witnesses who were more credible than that. Even if the real-life Ehrman and others would have wanted nothing to do with this movie, the filmmakers could still have invented some sympathetic agnostics.1
But then, the God’s Not Dead franchise simply doesn’t do sympathetic agnostics or atheists. With the possible exception of Grace’s lawyer, who exists purely to argue the Christian case in court, virtually everyone in these films is either a friendly believer (or proto-believer) or a dastardly villain who harbours some sort of deep-seated animus towards religion. And so, yes, Pete Kane gets speeches similar to the ones that Kevin Sorbo’s professor had in the earlier film, in which he says he “hates” what people like Grace stand for. But alas, Kane does not get any sort of personal story like the one Sorbo’s professor had; he exists only in the courtroom (and in meetings, like the one with the student’s parents, that lead to the courtroom).
One of the stranger elements in this film is the way the Christian characters — especially the pastors played by David A.R. White and Benjamin A. Onyango — can never quote Bible passages without also giving the exact chapter and verse that they are quoting. Sometimes a character simply states the chapter and verse, and lets the other person provide the actual quote, which is reminiscent of that old joke about the people stranded on a desert island who are so familiar with a certain joke book that all they have to do to make each other laugh is cite the page number. Eventually Kane, the ACLU lawyer, argues in court that if he were able to quote the Koran and cite the exact sura or chapter that he was quoting, it would be reasonable to assume that he was not only a Muslim but believed Islam is superior to other religions — and that’s such a lame argument (why couldn’t he simply be educated in the ways of other religions?) that you start to wonder if the filmmakers know it’s lame, or if they’re inadvertently revealing how they themselves want to be profiled.
In addition to the aforementioned pastors, a few other characters from the first film return for the sequel. The Newsboys are back, of course, as is their friend Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), the vegetarian ambush journalist who became a Christian at the end of the first film; since Amy is a believer now, the cancer she had is now in remission. Also back for more is Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), the Asian student who also became a Christian in the first film; in this one he sits down at a piano and sings ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as if to suggest that liberal-infested America is going down like the Titanic. And while Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson do not reprise their cameos in this film, their daughter Sadie does play one of the high-school students.
Alas, we never get to see Josh Wheaton or that ex-Muslim girl from the first film, so we never find out if they ever got together like the first film hinted they would. But that raises another interesting point: the first film revolved around a male protagonist for whom losing one girlfriend and possibly getting another were significant plot points. (“Josh Wheaton proves the existence of God and he gets the girl!”) The new film, on the other hand, revolves around a female protagonist and never shows any interest in her love life; her only personal attachment is a grandfather (Pat Boone) who grumbles about his medication and says things like “People seem to forget that the most basic human right of all is the right to know Jesus.” Are Christian films reluctant to hint at the romantic or (deferred) sexual satisfaction of their female heroes in a way that they aren’t with their male heroes? Would it be unseemly for a good Christian boy to be the supporting character in a woman’s story? Make of that what you will.
Like its predecessor, God’s Not Dead 2 is competently made on a technical level, but on a creative level it represents the worst kind of storytelling — not just because it is full of plot holes and thinly-written characters, but because it espouses a harmful message. It encourages sloppy thinking and sloppy apologetics, and it encourages deeper divisions between Christians and their non-Christian neighbours.
Films, at their best, can encourage a kind of empathy, but there’s no room for that in a film like this that draws clear lines between its heroes and its villains. Kane, the ACLU lawyer, is a hater pure and simple, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if he had had reasonable or even commendable motives for objecting to teachers talking about sensitive religious issues in a public classroom? An atheist parent says at one point that teachers shouldn’t contradict what atheist parents have taught their children — but haven’t Christian parents also asked teachers to respect what their children are taught at home? There could be room for common ground here, but the film would rather dig trenches and prepare for war.2
And “war” is indeed one of the metaphors used by this film. If you stick around to the end of the credits, you’ll even see a bonus scene that hints at where this “war” could go if the series gets as far as a third film. God’s Not Dead and its sequel belong to a strange genre of paranoid wish-fulfillment fantasies: they tell their audience that the world is out to get them, but they also hint that it’s possible for Christians to have their stories celebrated by Christian rock bands playing in sold-out stadiums. Whether you think Christians are an oppressed minority or (as the box-office success of films like this might indicate) a demographic with some clout, the sort of tribalism espoused by these films isn’t helping anybody.
God’s Not Dead 2 opens in some theatres Thursday night and goes wide Friday.
1. One other problem here is that Kane, the ACLU lawyer, doesn’t even try to cross-examine Strobel. This makes sense if you think of Strobel as an evangelical celebrity who mustn’t be challenged in an evangelical propaganda film. But, given how weak some of Strobel’s arguments are, it does not make sense if you think of Kane as a lawyer who is trying to win his case. (Kane does briefly cross-examine another apologist who takes the stand, but Kane seems a bit befuddled, and the apologist quickly thwarts him.)
2. Indeed, even when it has an opportunity to suggest that average citizens can come to the defense of people they disagree with, the film opts instead to suggest that the only hope for Christians in this world is to infiltrate society and work behind the scenes for each other. Pardon my vagueness on that point, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers.