Review of God’s Not Dead, Directed by Harold Cronk
As someone who has been involved in higher education either as a student or as a professor for the last thirteen years, I can tell you that the plot of God’s Not Dead is ridiculous. Seriously, no legitimate college would allow a professor to treat a student that way, and no legitimate philosophy program would hire a professor who basically said “I hate talking about ideas that I clearly have passionate feelings about, so what I’ll do instead is turn my philosophy course over to a freshman so that we can trade quotes from scientists.”
But to back up, if you haven’t seen the movie (and have had your head in a hole for the last year), the basic plot is that Hercules is a philosophy professor who wants to skip the “God” section of his “Intro to Philosophy” class so they can get on to the important stuff. In order to justify doing so he instructs all of his students to write and sign the statement “God is dead.” When Josh Wheaton—apparently the only theist in the class—refuses to sign, Professor Hercules accuses him of holding the whole class up with his stupid belief in God and requires him to defend his belief in front of the class. If he can’t convince the (apparently uniformly atheist) class of the existence of God over the next three class periods, he’ll take a major hit to his grade and have to struggle to pass. As an added bonus, Josh’s girlfriend (of six years!) breaks up with him because she’s obviously an awful person and wants him to bow to her every whim, which makes me wonder just what those six years they spent together were actually like. (Don’t worry—there’s another Christian girl out there for Josh! Because God clearly wants no one to be single, ever.) Meanwhile, a girl from a Muslim background copes with the consequences of converting to Christianity, a pair of pastors struggle with car trouble, a young woman ponders the relational difficulties of being ‘unequally yoked’, and another young women receives some very scary news.
In the end, Josh rises to the challenge, and does so well that Professor Hercules accosts him in the hallways and threatens him if he continues his stubborn resistance. He does not, alas, threaten Josh physically—just his grade and academic aspirations are targeted. Which is unfortunate, because casting Kevin Sorbo and not having him punch someone is just a waste.
As a movie, God’s Not Dead is entertaining enough. There are a number of interesting side plots and the pacing is timed well enough that the movie remains interesting and enjoyable to watch. The acting is decent, and of course: Kevin Sorbo. Also Dean Cain has a bit part, which means this movie has both Hercules and Superman. So if you’re looking for a way to pass two pleasant hours, you could do worse than God’s Not Dead.
But if you’re looking for a movie that deals seriously with problems Christians face in colleges around the country, look elsewhere.
As a side note: I don’t have anything to say about the philosophical aspects of the title—that’s not the point of the film anyway. For reflections on Nietzsche and God being dead, check out the Christian Humanist Podcast‘s episode of the same name. You’ll also get to hear their analysis of the Newsboys song, which includes the following observation:
This song means nothing. It is a string of disconnected worship music clichés, and I don’t understand what it has to do with Nietzsche, what it has to do with atheism, what it has to do with, really, anything. It has a good beat and you can dance to it as far as I can tell.
It is a meaningless song that makes people feel good because it’s upbeat and has got a crunchy chorus, and the Newsboys should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves for recording it….
[This song] doesn’t mean anything, it’s just nonsense. You could cut every line in this song apart, put it on a different slip of paper, put it in a hat, pull it out and put it in any order you like, and cut up twelve other songs and do the same thing and it wouldn’t change anything, because it’s meaningless…
And that’s one of the reasons I listen to the Christian Humanist Podcast, and why you should too.
Back to the stuff I do have things to say about: Again, this movie will teach you absolutely nothing about the relationship between universities (even “secular” universities) and Christians. In no way does what happens in this film reflect the reality of what goes on in a classroom. While there certainly are professors—even philosophy professors—out there who are hostile to Christianity, they certainly are not allowed to use their position in the classroom to bully students who disagree with them. Any professor worth his salt, especially one who teaches an idea-based course, is going to use his position to encourage discussion and dissent and thought among the students. In the general operations of a university, any professor who uses his position to harass those who disagree with him is going to be disciplined, and possibly fired.
In fact, the one place where this kind of behavior might be found is in a Christian college. It’s pretty unlikely that a Christian will fail a philosophy class just for being a non-Christian at a state college. But try going to a religious school and “converting” to atheism and see what the reaction is from the faculty and students. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that this is the normal course of events even at Christian schools. I am claiming that something like the plot of God’s Not Dead is more likely to happen to an atheist at a Christian school than it is to a Christian at a state school.And, well, there are lots of other holes that could be poked in this movie. For example, it simply isn’t realistic that in that large a class there was only one devout theist. We know there’s some kind of Muslim presence in the community; presumably they would also refuse to sign—as would the Catholics, and the Mormons, and other people who believe in some kind of divinity. And even those who don’t, well, college students are hardly bastions of obedience and submission to authority. When I was an undergraduate, there were any number of students in my classes who would have refused to sign something like that just to irritate the professor.
[Sigh] I know, I know; it’s just a movie. And I don’t go to movies to see realism; I can look out my window and see that. But clearly this movie is intended to portray something true, and that is really the biggest issue I’ve got with it. What’s far worse than the fact that God’s Not Dead has little connection to the classroom is the fact that it distracts from the serious problems which really are facing Christians in the universities.
At the end of God’s Not Dead, there are a list of cases that have involved conflicts between Christians and various colleges and universities. (You can find the list with brief explanations of each case here.) To be fair, these are all serious matters that we should be paying attention to, and a handful of them even involve conflicts between students and professors. But again, that is not the norm. The vast majority of the conflicts listed have little or nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom, and everything to do with administration policy. Let me explain by way of an imaginary example.
Imagine for a second that you’re a forward-looking, progressive university administrator. You genuinely want to do good things for your students and see them becoming better people. And what could help them be better people more than encouraging them to be slightly less hateful? So, using the tiny bit of authority at your disposal, you push through a new university regulation saying that student organizations cannot receive university funds or reserve university rooms if they discriminate in either their membership or in their leadership on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, belief, etc. After all, discrimination is bad; no one could possibly be against so wise and generous a policy as this; everybody wins, right? The haters have to change and the oppressed and marginalized are protected.
Except of course, for those Muslim student organizations with rules that say that only Muslims should be members (and that only Muslims should be leaders in those organizations); or for the LGBT organizations that argue that their leadership should be from the LGBT community; the fraternities that think they shouldn’t have to admit women, and the sororities that think they shouldn’t have to admit men; and, most relevant to God’s Not Dead, the Christian organizations that think their members and their leaders should have to sign a statement of faith. Clearly all of these organizations are just brimming with hate and need to be squashed, right?
Obviously I’m doing some exaggerating here, but not much. So far, this has been the primary kind of battle Christians have faced on (secular) university campuses. Not one of personal persecution (though that does happen, albeit far more often to faculty than to students), but rather one of institutional conflict. The challenge has been one of university administrations targeting diversity of student organizations. Rather than letting college students organize and join in a broad spectrum of student groups, each with their own rules and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, universities have been imposing their own form of conformity in the name of tolerance—an imposition that has the result of destroying the very things they set out to protect in the first place: diversity. Groups that had been created by and for individuals who otherwise would have no support network or peer gathering are gutted by being forced open even to those who are their ideological enemies. This is sad for a number of reasons, not least of which being that freedom of associationis both protected by the First Amendment and is one of the oldest liberties exercised in America. (For much more on this, see Walter McDougal’s Freedom Just Around the Corner, 138-167.) As Christians, we obviously want non-Christians to be able to attend events put on by Christian student organizations. But that is not the same thing as saying that we want those organizations to be led by those who reject the core tenets of Christianity.
God’s Not Dead distracts from this very real—and current—conflict in our higher education system. Granted, a movie about a trustees’ meeting involving presentations for and against changes to college’s ‘non-discrimination’ policy wouldn’t make nearly so good a movie, even if Hercules were chairing the meeting. And yet this is the problem Christians are most currently facing. Rather than exposing this problem, all this movie does is pander to the prejudices that some Christians already have against higher education. You know the ones I mean: that college is the place you go to lose your faith, or that it turns good Christian high schoolers into worldly atheist partiers, or even just that the academic environment is inherently hostile to Christianity because it is the intellectual side of a soiled and wicked world. None of these reflect the reality on the ground, and if we want to help out Christian students in universities we would do well to pay attention to the issues that currently matter most.
With that said, I’ll repeat that God’s Not Dead is an entertaining enough film, but don’t come away from it thinking you’ve seen anything true about either academia or the problems facing modern Christians in the university system.
Dr. Coyle Neal is an Assistant Professor of Political Science.