Saturday, March 29, 2014

God's Not Dead

Give me strength.

"God's Not Dead" is not really a movie from the dimension you and I live in.  There are two Americas today, parallel universes running opposite each other.  There is the mainstream culture where we focus on money, teenaged pop stars, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and Taco Bell breakfasts.  Then there is the other America - one which believes itself constantly under threat from secularism, liberalism, and Democrats.  The Other America is a land ruled entire by gaudy megachurches, an overwhelming obsession with Evangelical Christianity, and its own little microcosm of popular culture.  It has its own rock bands, its own best selling novels, its own celebrities, and its own movies.  A film like "God's Not Dead" would typically float around churches, religious book stores, and bible camps, until it would inevitably be forgotten in the span of a few years.  Yet somehow, "God's Not Dead" slipped by past the dimensional boundaries and reached this plane of existence.

One problem with sealing yourself off from secular America is that you lose access to all of the talent, money, and more importantly, basic technical expertise of the rest of the world.  For the most parts film made by the Evangelical community are bad - laughably bad.  "God's Not Dead" is really the upper echelon of their capabilities, starring several major stars.  TV stars... from the 1990s, but stars none the less.  The fact it made it to real movie theaters is probably an impressive achievement of some kind, since the film has all of the production values of a made-for-TV piece of crap.  Pure Flix Entertainment, the distributor, apparently has made over a dozen films* in the past few years, and their filmmaking skill is barely above Asylum levels.  Worse though, is the storyline.

"God's Not Dead" is supposed to be a vast epistle on the issue of faith in the modern world, as a diverse cast of Christians confirm their religious devotion against all odds.  Its like "Crash" but with Jesus replacing racism.  Instead it feels like an improbable fairy tale, relying not on honest affirmations of faith, but rather strawmen tropes, cheesy lines to incite applause from the audience, and worst of all, celebrity cameos.  Forget Jesus, what church-going audiences really want to see is some bearded redneck from the show "Duck Dynasty" apparently.  I'm not entirely sure if "God's Not Dead" is really about Christianity vs. Atheism, or if its all an overly long advertisement for the Christian Rock band, Newsboys**.  The story is underwritten, painfully slow, and pandering.  "God's Not Dead" had the opportunity to give honest, heartfelt statements of faith and acceptance, but instead builds viscous stereotypes for its fans to boo at mindlessly.  There is merely being cynical and stupid, then there is actively being hateful and confirming ignorance.  "God's Not Dead" is truly despicable, and in ways well beyond merely mediocre filmmaking.

The primary storyline of "God's Not Dead" is the tale of a college Freshman Josh Wheaton, played by minor Disney Channel alumni, Shane Harper.  Joss Whedon enrolls in an Intro to Philosophy course to fulfill a Humanities pre-req, but discovers that this course is being taught by arch-atheist, Professor Raddison, played by a former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo.  Professor Raddish insists that all of his students begin the semester by writing down on a piece of paper that "God is Dead".  This could be reference to a broad array of nihilistic literature and philosophers, none of whom the writers of this film have ever read or would ever care to understand, but is in fact a far more simplistic attack on organized faith.  Kevin Sorbo's character - forgive me for calling this hideous empty-headed strawman a "character" - is insisting that his students reject faith outright in order to receive thirty percent of their grade.  Wheaton refuses to simply abandon Christ, so he debates his insane professor in front of the class for the rest of the film, standing firm in his beliefs against all odds.

Kull the Conqueror attempts to conquer Christ.
Naturally this main storyline has any number of problems.  The immediate one is that no college professor would ever act this way, no matter how out of his mind.  Most colleges have strict guidelines against infringing upon student rights - it never once occurs to Joss Whedon to bother talking to the dean or any other authority figure.  Or getting a lawyer and suing.  But more importantly, why is the existence of God so damn important to an Intro to Philosophy course?  These kids paid good money to hear Kevin Sorbo teach about Plato's Cave and Cartesian Dualism, and these things are never once mentioned.  Maybe Professor Raddison could actually teach what Friedrich Nietzsche meant by "God is dead"***?  The further debates take place on tired grounds such as the Big Bang and Evolution, which are astrophysics and biology respectively.  What do either of those things have to do with a philosophy class?  Its only in the final argument that the Problem of Evil comes across - how can omnipotent and perfectly good deity allow for, if not create, evil? - and the arguments are tiresome cliches.

It all boils down to ultimately this, Kevin Sorbo cannot disprove the existence of God, so Joss Whedon wins.  They come to a draw, after jumping to ridiculous conclusions about the scientific subjects they've covered.  Nobody bothers with the actual math, research, or study of the universe.  Nobody bothers with any real philosophical arguments.  A real philosophy professor would ask "does it matter if Gods exists or not, can you argue that existence itself is a meaningful concept?"  Instead Professor Raddison goes off on polemics exactly like the Ivory Tower boogie men that exist only in the minds of zealot Right-wing politicians who want to defund education.  "God's Not Dead" is not merely stupid, its bordering on anti-education.  It is willfully stupid and it wants you to be stupid too.

But I guess half the kids in the class couldn't give two shits about philosophy beyond a graduation requirement, it might not be such a big problem.  Woe be to the one philosophy major in Professor Raddison's class.  Not only because he has to sit through these grammar school-level theological arguments without dozing off, but because that poor fucker is going to have to get a job with a Philosophy Degree too!

"Um... Professor, when do stop this bullshit and learn about Aristotle already?"
Ultimately though the conclusion "God's Not Dead" draws is not that atheists and religious people should simply live and let live and move on, but rather than all atheists are just spoiled bullies who refuse to admit the truth of the world.  All atheists are really angry Christians with a chip on their shoulder against God.  Professor Raddison goes increasingly insane over the course of the film, getting very close to physically attacking Joss Whedon at one point.  Atheism soundly loses and one Chinese student converts to Christianity, even though the existence of God has not been proven let alone a specifically Christian one.  Guess what?  At the end Raddish tearfully converts back to Christianity.  The professor had to get hit by a car first and had to settle for rainsoaked concrete for a deathbed, but I suppose a soul saved for Christ is a soul saved for Christ.  Screw any kind of coherent tone, forget about that flattened professor outside, tet's play some rocking Newsboys songs and party!

But don't party too hard, gotta stay abstinent, kids.

The remaining storylines are a small galaxy of various faith tales, all of them tangentially related to the main tale somehow.  Its a mess of unfunny comedy, relationships, and tragedy, almost none of them are actually resolved.  "Magnolia", this isn't.  The professor's girlfriend is a religious woman with a mother with Alzheimer's.  Her brother is Dean Cain (TV's Superman from "Lois and Clark"), who is an amazingly dickish business asshole.  Dean Cain's girlfriend is a left-wing blogger who likes to ambush religious celebrities, such as the Duck Dynasty actor, and blog about their interviews****.  Dean Cain, by the way, find Jesus in the end, but still cheerfully abandoned his girlfriend, and never once corrects that.  He ditched this chick over dinner after she told she was dying - "this couldn't have waited until tomorrow?"  Dean Cain left his dying girlfriend with the check too!  Also, there are two pastors who keep having car trouble and never quite manage to make it to Disneyland.  And the editing is so bad "God's Not Dead" completely loses track of time juggling its stories - apparently four Philosophy classes happened to take place over the course of a weekend, which was also a week and a half.

Then, in the single most offensive storyline, a young Muslim student abandons her faith because she doesn't like to wear a hijab.  Forget that wearing hijabs is a popular choice amongst young Muslim women, one they wear with pride to show off their faith which is no less powerful or meaningful than the faith that drives Evangelicals to buy Newsboys albums, no she's a Muslim and that needs to be cured.  The Hijab is depicted as a crushing weight of oppression, not a cultural statement or a religious icon.   It is disgusting how little the director understands or cares about other faiths.  Her father, being a usual intolerant Muslim, kicks her out.  This is where "God's Not Dead" grows from being merely clueless propaganda into being outright offensive and horrible.  If you're wondering why "God's Not Dead" got the lowest possible rating, this is why.

The real star of "God's Not Dead".  Why is this guy famous again?
The actual filmmaking, scripting, and cinematography range from terrible to pathetic.  Luckily "God's Not Dead" is a film that mostly takes place in houses or a single university building, so there is not much of a filmmaking challenge.  Kevin Sorbo flying across the street after getting hit by a car looks like a gag, its all unconvincing CG.  "God's Not Dead" is so incompetent that it cannot manage to get a foley effect that sounds anything like a car unable to start.  It cannot make a door slamming noise, how the Hell is it going to do a car accident?  What kind of a great story can you tell when out of your entire cast, half of them are amateurs who have no place in front of the camera - including your star?  Kevin Sorbo is the best actor in this film by miles!  The script is so bad at pacing, every line has to be unnatural exposition.  I'm sure Jesus was there to help, but even he can only push bad moviemaking so far.  God helps those who help themselves.

Ultimately the point of "God's Not Dead" is not to challenge its audience.  If you're in on the Evangelical circuit, you'll be a ready and willing mark for this sort of product, which does nothing but confirm your own worldview.  I came in as a man generally without faith - I'm no atheist but the problems of God simply don't concern my daily life - I was willing to sit down and see what kind of grand humanizing experience these people could make.  You could tell a good story about faith overcoming an obstacle, and people coming together in a community of love, even if it is based upon a Christian God.  I'm not actively offended by the idea of religion.  Religion is important, it gives meaning, it holds together civilizations, it gives charity to those who have none.  "God's Not Dead" had as much chance as anything else to be good.

But it wasn't.  It was willfully ignorant, and miserable.  It had no argument to make, because to its audience, the argument had already been won.  Kevin Sorbo did not play a character, he played a narrative inconvenience, just there to waste time until everybody could go to a (admittedly not terrible) Christian rock concert.  He doesn't challenge anything, he sets up sound bites from Joss Whedon.  And then the audience notices this fits into their religious-political worldview, so they hoot and holler to show support.  I wonder if these people can even notice how awful this movie really is.  So to me, and the rest of secular American, "God's Not Dead" is simply bizarre.  It has no interest in us, and we ultimately have no interest in it.  Two languages are being spoken here, nobody wants to really talk.  This was a moment for Evangelical Christianity, now having a major platform to converse with an audience who would normally never see their culture and artwork, really show off the power of their faith and the power of their morals.  Instead they created strawmen, pridefully separated itself from the rest of the world, and had the Duck Dynasty guy show up to preach to the choir.

Maybe God wasn't dead before, but he is now.  "God's Not Dead" finally killed him.  It is that bad.

* Pure Flix Entertainment has made no films that would surprise you in any way.  These include "Sarah's Choice", an anti-abortion drama, "Jerusalem Countdown", a film about the coming apocalypse, and an adaptation of the Book of Daniel.  The Book of Daniel is probably the biggest letdown, since I was thinking it would be a metaphysical horror film, involving beasts from the sea and other weird apocalyptical imagery.  Instead it looks like a dull sword and sandals film of the Prophet Daniel's life in Babylon complete with a cheap CG model of the city.  What about the little horned beast waging war against the Most High?  I guess that costs too much.

** "God's Not Dead" couldn't get Creed?  I don't care how many Jesus people come to the concert, I would watch the shit out of anything with Creed in it.

*** Primarily Nietzsche believed that the current world, the physical world, is more important than any spiritual or religious universe.  Nietzsche was a champion of the human powers of creation and strength, above any vague abstract moralizing.  "God is dead" (which Nietzsche never said directly, but rather through the character of a mad old man in a parable) did not quite mean that God does not exist, but rather than human beings do not need divine guidance.  Rather he was saying that secular society was powerful enough on its own to govern its own morality and decide its own ultimate destiny.

**** Apparently she gets a million hits a day.  That's double the traffic I've gathered in my entire life!  Fuck me, I gotta hunt down Kevin Sorbo and ambush him about this movie.  I'm totally misjudging the market here.


  1. Of course a movie about Christianity is complete garbage. I wanna make a movie about struggling with religion just to spite this movie.
    Somehow this got me to the thought of me being one in my friend group that a majority of what's being put out in media is bad. I have a couple that agree with me on most things, but otherwise not much. I blame the internet for turning me into a cynic. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go write an ignorant rant on my tumblr blog.
    There really is a lot you could do about struggling with religion, I could probably think up a few right off the top of my head, yet this movie doesn't even try to create a believable struggle. I feel bad for Kevin Sorbo, nothing he may have done would be enough to deserve this.

  2. Ugh. I just got back from this piece of crap (luckily I didn't pay to see it) and I only have one word to say about it: Shit.

    This piece of SHIT is nothing, but Craaaaazy Christian propaganda and not the kind you can laugh about. This is the kind of stuff that is filled with hate and ignorance to the point were it can be a danger to those who don't know better. The asshat who wrote this piece of crap didn't even get what Nietzsche was trying to say. Nietzsche wasn't saying that God is dead or doesn't exist, he was trying to say that he wasn't a motivating force in people's lives anymore. This movie mocks every religion including the one it's trying to say is the ultimate truth.

  3. .....I think I owe Last Ounce of Courage an apology. It at least didn't openly mock other religions, just hypocritically trying to act tolerant while saying Christianity was the true faith of America. That says something if you can somehow make that sort of drivel sane in comparison.

  4. Man you are putting yourself through a lot of crap lately Blue. Here have a internet cookie.

    I would honestly love to see a movie/ tv series that reaches mass audiences that deals with religions other then Christianity in a positive light be they Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism. I feel Islam and Sikhism especially are not well understood in USA and I would love them to get some good positive publicity.

    Sword Of Primus

    1. I know. That's why I'm not going to see Heaven Is for Real, I've put myself through too much this month already.

  5. Amen, Blue.