An Ugly, Arrogant Gospel: God’s Not Dead, But Is He Shaking His Head?

An Ugly, Arrogant Gospel: God’s Not Dead, But Is He Shaking His Head? April 12, 2014

Now, two of the finest film critics in Christian media agree: There’s something quite contrary to the spirit of the Gospel at the heart of the smash-hit “Christian Movie” God’s Not Dead.

Here’s Steven Greydanus, longtime critic for Christianity Today, The National Catholic Register, and Decent Films

I’m hoping that Greydanus will publish a longer, written review at Decent Films.

Until then, here’s an excerpt from some first-impression notes that Greydanus posted at

Caution: These are spoiler-ish notes:

Looking back, it seems to me that the movie basically divides the world into two kinds of people: true believers with no moral faults, and nonbelievers with no redeeming qualities. Am I wrong about this? The only middle cases I recall are the Muslim father, a believer but not a true one, who has some redeeming qualities (he really cares about his daughter, in his own misguided way), and the Chinese student, who may not be a true believer, but is a true seeker who eagerly and unresistingly accepts the faith as soon as it’s offered. I’m not sure Josh’s fiancee counts as an exception; presumably she has a nominal faith (since obviously a Christian as pure as Josh wouldn’t be engaged to a non-Christian), but nothing we see establishes her as a “true believer,” so far as I recall. Certainly she has no redeeming qualities that I recall.

Also, nonbelievers can have redemptive character arcs, but believers don’t need character arcs. Here I can think of one exception, the believing wife of bullying Professor Radisson, who has to get over her “Cinderella complex” and break the spell of the charm we’re told Radisson has, even though we never see it. Can’t think of any other complications. No Christians struggle with sin, temptation or selfishness, let alone anything like doubt or disappointment with God. Nonbelievers also are generally unconflicted about their selfish, rotten behavior, until touched by grace.

I’m also put off by the shallow yet thoroughgoing triumphalism: Josh takes risks, but his faith ultimately costs him nothing of value (obviously his engagement was a trap and had to go); neither he nor any other believer (except the Muslim convert girl, who does get kicked out of her house) are asked to sacrifice in any way for their faith.

UPDATE: And now, Peter Chattaway, also a longtime contributor for Christianity Today and Books and Culture

“… it pains me to see that God’s Not Dead — a sloppily written, badly argued, unevenly acted film … has been performing so well at the box office, to the point where it recently passed Courageous to become the top-grossing film ever made by and for evangelicals. If this becomes the standard for all Christian films to come, then the genre is truly in deep, deep trouble.”

What’s more:

How many have noticed that Christianity Today hasn’t reviewed it at all? If the film is as self-congratulatory, ill-advised, and propagandistic as it sounds, then it sounds like they’ve made the right call. The target audience for such a film will be inclined to see anybody who thinks about it critically as some sort of enemy of the faith.

In fact, just for posting these links, I’ve already received a comment from one Jon Matthews who says this:

Don’t parade yourself as a Christian if you are not one. Liberal religiousity has nothing to do with Christ. You have created your own god in your image. If you are ashamed of the Word, any of the Word, you have no part of Him.

See what I mean?

By calling for some critical discernment, I’ve inspired Jon Matthews to determine that I cannot be a Christian, when in fact it is my love of the Gospel that makes me recoil from such distortions as those reportedly presented in God’s Not Dead. The Scriptures I read strictly forbid Jon Matthews’ spirit of condemnation and judgment. Further, the Bible forbids mind-reading, which Jon Matthews appears to be doing. (No worries. He clearly knows nothing of my mind.) As a friend of mine replied when he saw Jon’s comment, “God’s not dead, but civil discourse is certainly an endangered species.”

Meanwhile, at Christ and Pop Culture, Liberty University’s Marybeth Davis Baggett says:

Here’s the thing: the cross Christians are called to take up by God’s Not Dead is more akin to a merit badge, a gold star on a class assignment, a “smile put on God’s face,” as Willie Robertson describes Josh’s achievement at the film’s culminating concert. A brand of Christianity is depicted in the film, but largely through emblem—a Newsboys t-shirt here, a cross necklace there. Evangelism reduced to mass communication, texting “God’s Not Dead” to all concertgoers’ contacts.

Such appalling superficiality should give Christian viewers serious pause. There are enough barriers in the way of authentic faith already; reinforcing the idea that evangelicals are willing to rest content with shallowness at best, reveling in it at worst, shouldn’t be among them.

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.


Sean Johnson at Film Fisher writes:

…the film’s entire last act also takes on the sense of Christian filmmakers converting and killing their enemies in effigy, then throwing a massive party in the Staple’s Center to celebrate.

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7 responses to “An Ugly, Arrogant Gospel: God’s Not Dead, But Is He Shaking His Head?”

  1. I don’t know if you’re still reading these comments, but if so I wonder if you could answer a question. As a devout movie-loving Christian, I have LONG been baffled by Christians’ general inability to make a good film. I’ve heard excuses like “We’re just too defensive,” “We’d rather preach than entertain” — but you’d think by sheer coincidence ONE Christian who just loved movies and wanted to make them would rise up, and make powerful, Christian-themed films. You’d think a believer who loves movies would just do it. But that’s never happened once. It’s almost as if being Christian MAKES you lame. I pray that’s not so; but then what’s the answer? Those who hate the Church are filled with talent and determination, and flood the world with their vision at every turn. Why are we so universally incompetent? I’m not assuming you have some magical solution; but you must have thought about this yourself. Do you have any insight? We should be making the best movies in the world. What happened?

    • Marcus, there have been — and still are — many filmmakers who are Christians who have given us extraordinary films. But they do so by striving for beauty and truth rather than results. They do so by studying the masters and pursuing their art for years and years. They understand that art is about asking and exploring questions, not presenting answers.

      Watch the films of masters like Tarkovsky, Bresson, Dreyer, Rohmer, Kieslowski, Wenders, and Malick. Some may question the veracity of claims about their faith, but I find a deep Christian sensibility in their films, and have read that they are/were Christians.

      Frank Capra and Leo McCarey had Catholic backgrounds.

      Watch the family-friendly entertainment from Pixar, where the “dream team” of the glory days had several Christians leading the way.

      Watch Whit Stillman finding amazing grace in communities of messed up New York intellectuals and socialites in “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco.”

      Watch Scott Derrickson scare the wits out of people with “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” provoking people to think about how evil works in the human heart.

      Watch new and gifted directors like Lee Isaac Chung.

      There are many Christians at work in television too. My friend Bradford Winters is a believer, and he wrote for “Boss” and is now working on “The Americans.”

      Whatever the case, I am not so concerned about whether or not a filmmaker is or isn’t a Christian. It makes little or no difference in what I feel about their work. If an artist seeks to reflect beauty and truth, they are serving God whether they know it or not. Beauty and truth — which are powerfully entangled — are evidence of God. They reflect his nature and his ways of working in the world. They draw people into his mysteries. We are all made in God’s image — whether we profess the name of Christ or not — and when we contemplate, respond to, or strive to create something beautiful and true, we are imitating our Creator.

      Watch the films listed in the Arts and Faith Top 100. Some were made by Christians. Some weren’t. All reflect the glory of God in powerful ways.

      • Steven, I mostly agree with you. (I actually have more of a plot-centered sensibility, so things like Andrei Rublev and Three Colors tend to leave me cold; but Barcelona is one of my favorite films, and indeed one of the most Christian I have ever seen. I’ve watched and enjoyed all the Pixar classics; and I admire Scott Derrickson, and am delighted he’s set to direct one of my
        favorite Stephen King stories.) I know there are plenty of movies with wonderful ideas out there, and I have no doubt that many believers labor in the vineyard of Hollywood.

        But to me, at this moment in history, that’s not enough. Many in
        Hollywood hate the Church and its values, and they work very hard to undermine it with their films. Subtly moving meditations on grace can be extraordinarily beautiful, but they won’t counteract all the Philomena’s and Da Vinci Code’s and The Mist’s and Chocolat’s out there — not to mention the projects that are just plain depraved. When Louis CK does shows about masturbation and diarrhea and oral sex with strangers, and is lauded on Charlie Rose as a “philosopher king;” when Amy Schumer jokes on TV about taking Plan B and so being “mid-aborsh” at yoga class; when Game of Thrones regularly features bloody violence and graphic incestuous sex; or even more broadly when Harvard decides to host a Satanic mass on campus (though happily they backed down at last)… we need great Christian films. Our vision needs to be promoted with all the skill and passion of our opponents’. I have tremendous respect for those who quietly live
        lives of rectitude and who trust that Christ will use them as lights in the darkness; but sometimes you have to fight the Battle of Lepanto.

        I think we may be nearing that point soon. And Christians have access to the very weapon our opponents have used so well, the media; and at every step we squander it on things like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is For Real. That’s my complaint, and the source of my question: why can’t we get our act together? I agree that Christians, and non-Christians, have made magnificent contributions to the canon of true, good, beautiful art. But they aren’t offering a popular alternative to the message of Louie, or Lena, or Miley; and I really believe that’s what we have to do.

  2. I think it’s sad that you have to criticise the film. It’s not trying to convert anyone. It’s a tool to open the discussion. Why be so down on it at all. I thought it covered a lot of angles. Like ” being yoked with unbelievers” and “God speaking through a person” (the old lady with dementia). The girlfriend being lukewarm about it all. Pretty good subject matter. Totally enjoyed it and got some non Christian friends asking questions. Good enough for me


    • You’re entitled to your opinion. But why should you be “sad” that Christian film critics are applying high standards to art?

      As Christians, we are called to “let our minds dwell on” what is “excellent and worthy of praise.” Steven Greydanus and Peter Chattaway and I are all Christians whose vocation is to pursue excellence in artistry. We’ve devoted our lives to that discipline. If we were to give this movie a free pass because we agree with some of its points, we would lose our integrity as writers about film.

      I thought the film looked third-rate just from the trailer. It looked like a mediocre TV drama. Reading reviews by critics I’ve come to trust over more than a decade of reading and moviegoing did nothing to persuade me otherwise.

      Did you listen to Steven Greydanus’s review, or read his summary? He is testing the film’s integrity just the way a mechanic looks for weaknesses and problems in a car. The “message” may be good (although I think that’s questionable here), but a good message doesn’t make a good movie. Greydanus and Chattaway and the others included in this post have highlighted what sound to me like very serious problems.

      I’m grateful for people who pay this kind of attention and hold Christian filmmakers to the highest standards of the art.

      • Ok it’s not the best made film ever seen but to say it does not show what real persecution is is silly because how many Christians today real persecution. The fact that josh was willing to stand up for his faith is the message I got. Or would it have been better to have his life threatened for his faith.
        It opens up discussions by non Christians. Why is that bad?

        • I don’t think anybody has said that there’s a problem with “opening up discussions.” But even the most mediocre movies… even the *worst* movies… can open up discussion. (Thank God!) The responsibility of the critic is *not* to decide whether or not this movie might do somebody some good.

          People can survive on cheap hamburgers if they’re starving… does that mean a nutritionist should praise cheap hamburgers as excellent cuisine? The job of the critic is to help us think about excellence, and to ask us to think about *how* the film does things.

          You could ask a bunch of random strangers to act out the story of The Good Samaritan. You could film that. And then you could use it as a commercial for the blue jeans that the Good Samaritan is wearing. It might be badly acted. It might be filmed without any intelligence about cinematography. The music might be a cheap pop song. And it wouldn’t be a work of art: It would be an advertisement. NEVERTHELESS, some people will be moved and inspired by it, because, well, it’s the story of the Good Samaritan. Should Christians who work to help us understand, appreciate, and strive for excellence in art then praise a cheap commercial as art worthy of preservation in a museum?

          I certainly hope not.

          I have seen many movies about Jesus. All of them have had some admirable “messages.” All of them would be likely to start discussions. But most of them? Terrible movies.

          Personally, I cringe at movies that portray the world as “Good Christians” and “Bad Non-Christians.” I’m embarrassed when Christians make movies about unbelievers in which the storyteller puts the unbeliever through all kinds of convenient suffering so that he gasps out the answer we want to hear with his dying breath. I’m embarrassed when the film congratulates the Christian hero by giving him the reward of acknowledgement from Christian celebrities. That is not the world I live in. Nor is it the kind of representation of the Gospel that rings true to me. I’ve grown up in a community of Christians, and I’ve spent many years working in city government offices in downtown Seattle, among “worldly unbelievers.” I’ve found just as much sin and corruption and arrogance and “worldliness” among Christians as I have on the streets downtown and in office buildings full of non-believers. And I’ve found just as much intelligence, just as many welcoming friendships, and just as much grace and goodness and wisdom (sometimes more) beyond the boundaries of the church.

          When art divides the world into “us” and “them,” makes “us” look good, and aims to please us by showing “them” surrendering and taking on our way of seeing things… that’s not art. That’s marketing. And most people can smell a salesman a mile away. So far, 99.9% of the positive reviews I’ve read of God’s Not Dead have come from fundamentalist evangelical Christians who talk and talk about how this movie is a “ministry.” Meanwhile 99.9% of the responses I’ve heard or read from unbelievers have been dismissive, because they think the film looks terrible and preachy and insulting and grossly biased.

          As Madeleine L’Engle said, “We do not draw people to the truth by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely they will long with all their hearts
          to know the source of it.” Or as Jesus taught his disciples, the *way* we spread the Gospel is by loving, not by out-arguing others.

          So… sure. There may be some good “messages” in the movie. Maybe. But this is a conversation about art, excellence, and about the heart of the Gospel. If I go in search of the world’s most nutritious and exquisite meals, and I’m served a sandwich and a napkin with a Bible verse on it, I would be a failure if I didn’t express some serious disappointment.

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