God's Not Dead, The Apostle, and Deathbed Conversion Scenes

God's Not Dead, The Apostle, and Deathbed Conversion Scenes October 19, 2015

It’s a classic trope of any story targeted to a Christian audience: the conversion scene. Most commonly, the film saves it for the climax, when the hardened atheist or the back-slidden Christian relents and turns his life over to Christ. Recently, the movie God’s Not Dead took this trope one further and made it a deathbed conversion scene. When the atheist villain is hit by a car, a conveniently on-hand pastor prays with him to accept Christ.  In my review of the film, this scene was one of the things I criticized about it. Sure, it could have been worse, but it still felt forced and rushed. This is a common problem with this type of scene (made worse in this particular case by bad editing).

However, it doesn’t always have to be that way. Through the years, a handful of authors and screenwriters have found ways to craft conversion scenes that are technically well executed, unforced and authentically moving.

One example comes from The Apostle, actor Robert Duvall’s passion project. While Duvall is certainly no Christian saint, his film engages Christian culture in an insightful, respectful way and is a true artistic tour de force, made all the more impressive since he wrote and directed it himself. Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny, who has his share of besetting character flaws but appears sincere in his drive to serve God. Early in the film, he encounters a young couple in a rural car accident—the girl probably dead, the boy barely alive. Somehow, he manages to slip inside the perimeter unnoticed and deliver an impassioned prayer over them. If Sonny’s behavior elsewhere in the film justly raises some eyebrows, it’s still worth noting that he couldn’t have anything but pure motives in this scene. Think about it: What does this dying couple have to offer him? Absolutely nothing. A charlatan wouldn’t waste any time praying over them, because they would be of no use to him. (But I digress. I do highly recommend the film as a whole, which provides much food for thought to the discerning viewer.)
Both of these scenes are on Youtube, so I’d like to put them side by side here and make a few comments about why the scene from The Apostle works, and the scene from God’s Not Dead needs work. First, the God’s Not Dead scene:
[EDIT 12/27/15: I’ve just noticed that the God’s Not Dead scene was removed, so regrettably you won’t have a visual reference, but I’ve described it as vividly as possible.] First of all, notice the exaggerated slow-motion effect coupled with a bird’s-eye view at the moment the professor is hit. This sort of cheesy, attention-grabbing device takes the viewer out of the film, rather than drawing him in. Having it begin to rain at the instant before the professor starts to cross the street is another example of a dramatic crutch. If your scene is dramatic enough to stand on its own, it doesn’t need the help of the weather.
Another problem here is that the writing is very wordy. Both the pastor and the professor are talking too much. In particular, speaking is so painful for the professor that he should realistically be doing a lot less of it. The dialogue feels like an excuse to squeeze in as many sermon illustrations as possible.
Not shown in this clip is one of my main problems with the scene’s construction, and that’s the cringeworthy editing on its buildup and immediate aftermath. Both are very distractingly intercut with a Newsboys concert, which gives the audience whiplash and fails to establish or maintain the proper tone. And in a moment from that aftermath, the pastor’s African missionary friend smiles and even gives a hearty laugh when he receives his “God’s not dead” text. Yes, I get his explanation that the atheist’s conversion is a cause for rejoicing in heaven, but psychologically, it just rings false for someone to bounce back so quickly from the shock of witnessing such a grim scene.
Now, watch the scene from The Apostle:

I’d like to touch on just a few of the ways this scene sidesteps common “conversion scene” cliches. First of all, what do you notice about the music in the background? That’s right… there isn’t any! Well, except for the car radio at the very beginning, which is a very chilling and effective touch. Of course, the boy would have no strength to turn it off. Notice how this arises naturally from the moment and immediately puts the viewer in the scene, by contrast with God’s Not Dead‘s puzzling, heavy-handed inter-cutting of the Newsboys concert. Notice too that the weather is beautifully clear and still. This creates contrast, which is far more interesting than forcing the weather to match the mood.
Also, while you could argue that a college professor would have more to think and say than a highschool kid under these circumstances, the boy’s whispered, one-word responses certainly seem more like what I would expect from someone on the brink of death. This adds to the scene’s realism. And while Sonny is full of calm conviction, at no point does his attitude seem to trivialize the gravity of the moment, either here or as he is walking away from the scene.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the verse Sonny quotes at the very beginning as he raises his hands over the car. It’s a powerfully applicable verse, but it’s one you hardly ever hear, from the book of Ezekiel: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” But Sonny knows his Bible forward and back. Obscure Old Testament verses leap to his mind like breathing in and breathing out. Think about how much less effective it would have been for him to quote John 3:16, as great as that verse is.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is Robert Duvall’s acting and Sonny’s lyrical, Pentecostal speaking style. For sheer dramatic power, the combination pretty much blows anything away by comparison. This, in fairness, I cannot fault God’s Not Dead for, since their pastor obviously comes from a very different preaching background and realistically can’t be expected to sound as impressive as Sonny. I also can’t blame actor David A. R. White for not being Robert Duvall, because nobody is Robert Duvall. (Like, duh.) However, I suppose one general takeaway is that evangelical film-makers seem stuck in a very particular cultural rut. It would bring color and variety to the genre if they expanded their horizons to different denominations of Christianity and the characters that can be found there. (The Kendrick brothers gave a taste of what this might look like with the character of Miss Clara in their latest film War Room.)
Those who’ve seen the film may wonder why I didn’t instead look at the conversion of The Apostle‘s big villain, also a well-done scene. Maybe somebody else could make that comparison in the comments. I think I chose this one because even though it involves a character who’s a nobody relative to the rest of the film, the setup and delivery are more directly parallel, making for an easier comparison. (Also, The Apostle‘s villain doesn’t convert from his deathbed.) If anything, I find it even more powerful to focus so much attention on a character who only shows up in one scene. It reminds you that sometimes God shows up unplanned, unexpected, and unserenaded by Newsboys music. (Oooh. That last bit was harsh, but I’m not sorry.)
I doubt anybody from Pure Flix will read this bit of analysis, but I hope that it’s given you, the Christian viewer, an idea of what to look for as you seek excellence in the art you engage with. On the one hand, I hope it’s shown how even something that aligns perfectly with our views can be fairly critiqued and improved. But on the other hand, I hope it’s shown you that the Christian message of a scene need not dilute the power of its art.

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