Professor Strawman and the Right-Wing Fantasy Circus: a review of “God’s Not Dead”

Professor Strawman and the Right-Wing Fantasy Circus: a review of “God’s Not Dead” April 28, 2014

God’s not dead, but if he had to sit through the movie currently in theaters by that name, he might wish he were. A cinematic romp through stereotypes, caricatures, and gross generalizations, “God’s Not Dead” is one of the worst movie experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

I suppose I should give a spoiler alert here, though it’s hard to imagine spoiling a movie already so thoroughly rotten.

For those who haven’t seen its comical trailer, “God’s Not Dead” is about a heroic Christian college freshman named Josh who defies his maniacal philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo) by refusing to write and sign “God is Dead” on a piece of paper in a bizarre opening assignment, earning him the course requirement of defending the antithesis: that God exists and is very much alive.

I’ve taught college classes, and Sorbo’s class bears little to no resemblance to reality, but then neither do the myriad other caricatures throughout the film. Indeed, that is really all this film is: a Christian Right exercise in stereotyping all manner of God haters and God deniers.

There’s an anti-religious, vegetarian reporter who ambushes one of the Duck Dynasty crew to get him to admit he kills ducks when he hunts them (a very strange scoop indeed). She ends up with cancer and of course converts.

Her corporate tycoon boyfriend, played by Dean Caine, cares only for himself and his success, going so far as to ask her if their discussion about her cancer diagnosis can’t “wait till tomorrow.”

There is a Muslim girl who removes her hijab, has secretly converted to Christianity, and listens to Franklin Graham surreptitiously on her iPod before she is found out by her traditional Muslim father, who of course beats her and kicks her out of the house. This disturbing scene (which the filmmakers attempt to mitigate it by showing the father’s remorse) counts as one of the most offensive in the movie’s many stereotypes.

That scene cuts directly to an equally stock portrayal of a Chinese student’s father, who warns his son (who of course tested out of his math and science classes – or just “science” in general, I guess) to leave all the God talk alone, since “you never know who might be listening.”

Josh’s blonde Eve-like temptress of a girlfriend, with whom he has been since he was twelve, apparently, tells him to sign his professor’s “God is Dead” statement and move on. They break up and we never see her again.

But of course the most absurd caricatures are of college professors in general, led by the unbelievably villainous Sorbo, who has his faculty colleagues over to sip merlot to classical music while snobbishly condescending to his Christian girlfriend (they also unsurprisingly break up).

Sorbo opens his philosophy class by declaring they are going to “bypass debate”—even though debating philosophical positions is the entire point of the discipline of philosophy. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, is treated as though he is an academic philosopher (he’s not) and the professor’s students apparently read his mass paperback “The God Delusion” as though it’s an academic text (it’s not).

In the fantasy land in which this film is set, people who are not Christians are bad people, because, as Josh sums it up, “With no God there is no reason to be moral.” This is a place where Muslim fathers beat their daughters if they step out of line, where the Chinese are all paranoid anti-religionists, where liberals or vegetarians or intellectuals or whatever target du jour the film is serving up are merely “angry at God” because of personal letdowns.

In the film’s “You can’t handle the truth!” moment, Josh goes personal on the professor, and gets him to scream that he “hates” God because he “took everything from me” (God failed to listen to his prayers as a 12-year-old boy when his mother was dying) – again, a standard evangelical rationalization as to why anyone believes any differently from them. In fact, the existence of anything other than conservative evangelical Christianity is absent from the film. There are only really two types of people: good people (evangelical Christians), and people who are bad (Muslims, Darwinists, Chinese, atheists, reporters) until or unless they convert.

The film can’t be bothered by nuance or complexity, like the (actual) philosophical arguments against theism, not to mention the myriad arguments and positions for it; no, all theists are apparently the same, and all believe in the same sort of God: a supernaturally intervening, sovereign and separate deity. It’s as though the entirety of 20th-century theology never happened.

The shocking though not surprising final “twist” of the film sees Sorbo’s character killed after a flash of lightening and peel of thunder (yes, really) in a hit-and-run by Caine’s character (yes, Superman runs over Hercules with his car)—a revenge fantasy saved only by the fact that Sorbo (finally!) accepts Jesus, thanks to an intervening minister and missionary who, lovable as they are, take advantage of the situation to score a conversion.

Comedy, not drama, is supposed to dabble in simplistic stock characters, but this film purports to take itself seriously. It would be only laughable if it didn’t also provide a disturbing window into the narrative fantasy in which fundamentalists live their lives. That “God’s Not Dead” is not presenting Sorbo as an outlying anomaly at a particularly bad and strange college is made clear during the closing credits, when the filmmakers note that the movie was “inspired” by dozens of court cases (all dutifully listed) involving poor Christians targeted by their evil universities. There is even a solicitation to contact a legal advocacy group if you yourself are facing discrimination.

But consistency and reality are not a part of this world, or of this worldview. This is not the reality the rest of us live in, but it’s disturbing that it’s the reality these folks (and the many flocking to this movie) do live in. The rest of us are perplexed by conservative Christians who are outraged at being supposedly targeted at colleges while being simultaneously outraged that they’re not allowed to discriminate against LGBT people.

But that’s because they have The Truth, and the rest of us do not. So anything in the service of that Truth—even inaccurate, offensive stereotypes—is fair game. I guess Jesus enjoys his lies with a side of popcorn.

Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

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