I am an unabashed lover of films. Films are among my favorite things. I am obsessed with Stanley Kubrick; I am very fond of the Coen brothers. I like to memorize Hollywood musicals and sing them in the shower. If you ever see me in public not watching a late 90s J-Horror movie, be assured that I’m only planning the quickest way to get home and watch a late 90s J-Horror movie. I love films more than just about anything in the world. And I knew, when I accepted the assignment to review God’s Not Dead 2, that I would not be reviewing a film. I would be reviewing an advertisement, a feature-length and very expensive advertisement for a product. And the product they would be advertising, I supposed, would be Jesus.
This was not a deal breaker for me. I actually love commercials as well. The economy, the swiftness with which they create a mood fascinates me; the way they deliver their message; the playing to stereotypes. You can learn a lot about a culture by its commercials, and I like learning about culture. I also love Jesus, a lot; in fact, Jesus is one of the only things I love more than I love films. I was prepared to enjoy a feature-length advertisement for Jesus masquerading as a film, if the advertisement was any good.
And this is the problem with God’s Not Dead 2. It’s not a good advertisement, and it’s not an advertisement for Jesus.
The plot centers on Grace, a perky white woman who looks healthy and wears way too much eye makeup. I am not deliberately mocking her appearance; it’s just that there’s nothing else I can say about her. She has no personality. She’s as close to vapor as an extant embodied human being can possibly be. This is mostly the fault of the script– Melissa Joan Hart’s performance is wooden because she’s playing the role of a dressmaker’s dummy, and I can’t blame her for that. Grace is a miscellaneous Evangelical Protestant and a high school history teacher who has stolen her perky teaching techniques from the teacher in Lean On Me, another film I dislike. She gives a legally permissible but unnecessarily long answer to a student’s question about the teachings of Jesus, and is treated like a pedophile from there on– called before the board, separated from her students, forbidden to teach and even put on trial. Her court-appointed public defender, who mercifully is only hinted to be a love interest, conjures a few experts from thin air to argue the historicity of Jesus’s execution; these experts are played by themselves and are the only interesting part of the movie. I would like to watch a documentary interviewing these experts, and I would probably learn something about Jesus from it if it was not directed by Harold Cronk. When this tactic proves to not be enough, the public defender buys an expensive gray suit, verbally abuses and badgers his client on the stand, and warns the jury that if they do not rule in Grace’s favor, the government will steal Christians’ money and non-liquid assets at gunpoint. He literally says that. Grace cries without smudging her makeup and prays “Father, take this from me,” but curiously does not finish the Bible reference with Jesus’s words “not my will but Thine be done.” There is no question, in God’s Not Dead 2, that the earthly vindication of His children is what the Heavenly Father wills. A reporter calls the Newsboys, who answer their phone in the middle of a packed concert they’re inexplicably holding in the morning on a weekday. They instruct the audience to intercede for Grace. The jury rules in Grace’s favor. This two-hour commercial winds up with an exhortation to text “God’s Not Dead” to your entire contact list, and a long list of the names of court cases where Christians have been harassed in the past.
God’s Not Dead 2 features several subplots and supporting characters as uninspired as Grace. I needn’t describe them because you’ve surely seen them already a thousand times. There is a clumsy white pastor with a bad appendix and a passing resemblance to Ryan Gosling, and there is a black pastor whose accent places him as being from sub-Saharan Africa; the only explanation for the black pastor materializing in the white pastor’s rectory is that “My pastor gave me permission to study for a PhD.” Do the pastors repeat the Protestant ejaculatory prayer “God is good– All the time!” to one another? Yes they do. There is an eager miscellaneously East Asian man who is smacked and disowned by his father for believing in Jesus; the Asian man then plays and sings “Nearer My God To Thee” on a grand piano and decides to become a minister. Does his father say “You have disgraced our family?” Of course he does. There is a feeble grandfather with high cholesterol who longs to be played by Dick Van Dyke but isn’t. Does he dispense homespun wisdom when even Christ remains silent? Naturally. There is a gaggle of attractive Christian students with picket signs, and a gaggle of ugly adult atheists with picket signs. Do the attractive Christian students hold white taper candles and sing a hymn in tentative harmony? Certainly. There is an evil couple who sue Grace because they think it will help their daughter get into an Ivy League school. Does the evil mother wear a leopard-spotted dress? Certainly she does. There is a grasping prosecuting attorney who hates Jesus; he is played by Ray Wise– you may remember Ray Wise playing the demon-possessed murderer in Twin Peaks. Does he smile sadistically with one raised eyebrow whenever a Christian suffers? Is the Pope Catholic? Actually I can’t tell you if the Pope in the world of God’s Not Dead 2 is Catholic, because there are no Catholics in the world of God’s Not Dead 2. There are only miscellaneous Evangelical Protestants, and bad people. Besides the Newsboys themselves, there are cameos by Mike Huckabee and Fred Dalton-Thompson, whom I honestly thought was dead.
Very well, so the writing is banal, the directing is hackneyed, none of the characters have any personality and frankly I don’t care for the sound track (provided by the Newsboys, of course). The cinematography is in correct focus, but it doesn’t provide any visual interest. This film fails as an advertisement. But what is it advertising?
It isn’t advertising Jesus. At one point, a character claims the film has “proved the existence of Jesus,” but it hasn’t quite done that. It’s provided a bibliography of experts which give compelling evidence that Jesus existed in history. The fact that belief that a man named Jesus existed in history has nothing to do with believing in His divinity is papered over. But the film doesn’t advertise Jesus. It advertises America, more or less. During the opening praise and worship number, an American flag is reverently raised; the experts in the stands have red, white and blue clothing; the Asian man displays a map of the United States on his wall as he argues with his father. Being an American is visually equated with being a miscellaneous Evangelical Protestant, and as an American Catholic I don’t care for that message. But I think the real message the film advertises is more sinister. The real message of God’s Not Dead 2 is the one expressed by the public defender, and by the white pastor in another scene. God’s Not Dead 2 is attempting to convince American Christians that they are each being actively persecuted by a sadistic government, and if they meekly accept the persecution they will have their money and non-liquid assets confiscated at gunpoint. If they engage in public protest, however, then God will rescue them and there will be no real consequences. Jesus did not preach this message. Jesus didn’t have much to say for or against public protest; He merely did the Father’s will no matter who was watching, stood mute before His accusers and accepted execution. His disciples also did the Father’s will regardless of their audience, and accepted execution. Throughout history and to the present day, devout Christians striving to do the Father’s will are persecuted, and have accepted persecutions even unto death for the sake of the Gospel. The message that my Lord handed down to me is that I, too, must do my Father’s will, which may or may not include a public protest at any given time, meekly accepting what persecutions come, hoping for the best but in the full realization that the best may not come in this life. I must take up my Cross and follow Him where He went. God does not promise He will save me from that hour. If He will save me, may He save me, but even if He does not, I should continue to do His will. This is the message of Jesus. If anyone, even an angel from Heaven or a bad film directed by Harold Cronk, should bring me a different gospel, let that one be anathema.
In short, I didn’t like God’s Not Dead 2 on an aesthetic or a theological level. I note with horror that just before the film I saw the teaser trailer for another Harold Cronk film, “God Bless the Broken Road,” which is “coming soon.” Perhaps in this film he’ll finally have discovered the Gospel, but I don’t hold out much hope.
(Image via Pixabay)