We’ve been talking for a while (pre-migration to Patheos) about the movie God’s Not Dead. A big part of the reason why I’ve been devoting time to this movie is that now that I’ve seen it, I see in it a lot of the self-delusions and self-serving fantasies of its target audience. It’s like a little slice of everything wrong with evangelicalism.
One of the biggest problems I see in the worst parts of Christian culture is its adherents’ frequent mistakes in figuring out who their enemies might be. As an example, the Christians inhabiting that lowest circle of the religion see their particular brand of science denial, Creationism/Intelligent Design, as being “Christianity against atheism,” rather than what it is: “a super-narrow brand of science denial masquerading as religious zealotry versus actual science.” As the National Center for Science Education points out, the number of Creationists isn’t actually that large–just very vocal. And Creationism isn’t the only place where evangelicals totally misidentify the combatants in the arena–or their own role in starting and maintaining the fight at hand.
Evangelicals can’t find it easy to square Bible verses advising Christians to turn the other cheek with the idea they’ve gotten lately to fight their hardest against oh-so-dreaded persecution and to sue at the drop of a hat any time they think something like persecution might be happening. It can’t be easy, either, to square the Bible’s constant admonitions about persecution and even martyrdom with the current attitude of jumping at shadows and cringing at any harsh words–when not taking swings at anybody who looks like an easy target.
And now that the movie industry has discovered that these overreactive, paranoid flocks–by turns whiny and jumpy, belligerent and pushy–have money to spend on movies that pander to their tastes, they’re happy to do any amount of pandering if it makes money; that’s why God’s Not Dead is completely and thoroughly evangelical in message and marketing despite being written by two hardcore Catholics–because those two hardcore Catholics readily admit that there simply isn’t money in making movies for Catholics, while there really is a lot of money in making movies for evangelicals.
That said, it has to be the right kind of movie. There’s a good reason why there isn’t a market for Catholic-specific movies but a big and growing one for movies aimed at evangelicals.
Evangelicals are long accustomed to dwelling in a bubble of kiddie-league of “separate but equal” culture–they are content with pablum as the price of holiness, so they get art that is dumbed-down, overly-obvious, telegraphed, hamfisted, unoriginal, willfully-ignorant, uninspired, blubberingly-sentimental, sexist (and often racist and bigoted as well), lowest-common-denominator-appealing, and yes, rinkydink. And that’s before we get into their numerous technical flaws, especially in the area of movies: the terrible plotting and pacing, the shoddy characterization, the dropped storylines and overly-simplistic conflicts, the unworldly way people react in them, the scenery-chewing and puppy-kicking villains devoid of any humanity, and the cardboard-cutout heroes.
Not for evangelicals, those confusing, complex, annoyingly grey-shaded real-life situations, well-rounded characters, and messy outcomes that we value in the best movies. Nobody would ever accuse most mass-market movies of extreme subtlety, but I’d ten times rather have one Smokey and the Bandit than a hundred of these grabby, baldfaced, dishonest-seeming, overtly-manipulative movies like Alone Yet Not Alone.
But then we come to one as bad as God’s Not Dead.
My friend Neil Carter found this story over at a site called “Christian Cinema” about a vote they ran for their fans regarding the “Best. Movie. Ever” in Christian cinema (that’s what they called it–sorry, I didn’t come up with the name). Over 100,000 Christians voted for this movie to beat out the likes of the Narnia movies and even Blue Like Jazz for the title of the very best Christian movie ever made. My own favorite, Prince of Egypt, doesn’t appear to have even made the list–but Mom’s Night Out, you’ll be happy to know, made the first cut only to falter in the second against What If. I bring this up so you can see what kind of taste we’re talking about here.
But out of all of these pieces of shit and bobbing logs of dreck, God’s Not Dead floated to the top of the toilet bowl and was crowned the king of the hill.
Its win means this movie isn’t going away.
This movie is set to become this generation’s Chick tracts: something endemic that most if not all evangelical kids are going to have seen and be familiar with and whose talking points the rest of us are going to have to endure and deal with time and time and time again–just like I’m sure non-fundagelicals in the 80s had to do that with those idiotic, ignorance-glorifying little comic-book tracts that seemed so ubiquitous for a while there.
I talk about this movie because I want to understand its appeal–and the battle plan inherent in its slack-jawed disingenuousness. I want to know why something this sheerly ignorant and hateful appeals so much to fundagelicals. I want to know why they want to be sold movies that are guaranteed to drive people even further away from the causes they claim to hold dear.
As a start, let’s understand that Christian media isn’t just entertainment. For many decades (if not centuries), pure entertainment has been seen with a great deal of suspicion and side-eye. Even in my day, we were allowed to have fun and be entertained, but that couldn’t be all that we got out of it. Like kids’ TV shows, entertainment also had to be “edifying.” A proper TRUE CHRISTIAN’S™ entertainment also had to teach, preach, exhort, encourage, and inspire. There are Bible verses telling Christians that it’s not what goes into a person’s mouth but what comes out that matters, but apparently someone forgot that when it comes to having fun. There can’t be a single thing that a Christian does that isn’t stuffed chock full of Jesus stuff. Otherwise it’s considered empty and worthless, and proper Christians should be very careful indeed in approaching it.
That’s why Christian movies like God’s Not Dead come off to non-believers like the most obnoxiously-preachy tracts imaginable.
That’s because they are, in fact, preachy tracts.
They are not only descriptive of what Christians desperately want the world to work like, but also prescriptive of how they think Christians should behave.
Fred over at Slacktivist pointed out a while ago that there’s another reason why the behavior of these movies’ characters is so utterly weird and improbable, and why their plots are so ludicrous: evangelicals’ worldview does not line up with reality much at all. The way they think people behave, react, and go through relationships is not the way real people behave, react, and go through relationships–hell, that exact disconnect constitutes probably half the stuff I talk about on this blog. So when an evangelical gets a chance to tell a story, it’s not going to sound much like a believable story at all when non-evangelicals sit through it. In fact it’s probably going to look pretty bizarre to us.
That’s why we’ll devour a story about a pair of Southern truck drivers hauling beer long-distance to win a preposterous bet, but reject a story about a slackjawed Southern-ish kid debating his philosophy professor to win a preposterous bet. Do truckers and slackjawed kids take preposterous bets in the real world? Certainly they do. But how they go about winning their bets is so different that that’s the only similarity that exists between the movies. I don’t know when or where you got raised, but I grew up in the Deep South as a military brat when Smokey and the Bandit came out, and I didn’t know a soul who didn’t think it was a barely-fictionalized documentary. The character of the Bandit acts exactly like people I knew growing up–including my dad, who dressed exactly like that. This movie’s characters act like how we’d expect characters to act in these situations. To some extent they’re aspirational, sure, but they hit home and strike a chord in their responses.
When Frog runs away from her wedding, that’s about how we’d expect someone to act in that case. When someone insults and threatens a trucker’s dog in a bar, the dog’s owner reacts exactly like you’d expect the character as presented to react. When a housewife objects to her husband leaving on a madcap adventure with someone she views as unreliable, she totally sells her outrage. Even the rich men offering the bet to the Bandit in the first place don’t seem out of place; they’re just as capricious and shallow as we’d expect such characters to act. Everybody in this movie responds to what’s going on around them in ways we expect with only one exception (I never did see why Frog kept her connection to the sheriff a secret from the heroes). Stuff happens, people react to it or start new stuff happening, and the movie unfolds in a pretty straightforward way. Everybody’s motivations are understandable and though a few plot tendrils get left hanging at the end, mostly it wraps up in a satisfactory manner. (It took me years to realize that the cops chasing Bandit and Snowman weren’t just going to show up at the fairgrounds at the end, go “Huh, wonder where they are?” and go home.)
Compare all that to God’s Not Dead. The bet is equally ludicrous in both movies, a really weird and contrived kickstart to get the action moving. But the similarities end there. God’s Not Dead is not meant to tell an iconic story but to preach an iconic message, and this bait-and-switch is only the first one of many that audiences must endure in watching it.
Not a single one of this movie’s characters’ actions and reactions are consistent or believable–or even vaguely consistent with reality. A guy gets dumped by his girlfriend of six years, probably losing the first and only romantic relationship he’s ever had, and his reaction is to pout a little and then it’s like nothing ever happened. A dad discovers his beloved daughter has rejected his religion and explodes into violence without even asking questions about what happened. Nobody’s reactions make any sense.
We’re not even talking about how this movie treats atheists–how utterly unbelievable their representation is and how completely nonsensical their reactions and behavior are. That treatment is certainly very egregious and nasty, but atheists are only one group abused by this movie to make a point. No, we’re talking about how everybody in this movie gets treated like cardboard cutouts, all to be manipulated and moved around to suit the movie’s preaching and exhortation needs. These characters don’t react like normal people in their situations would ever react. They’re just there to advance quite possibly the most repulsive and blatant storytelling agenda I’ve encountered since The Birth of a Nation.
This is the reason for existence for the movie God’s Not Dead:
ATHEISTS EVIL–ICKIE! BOO! HISS!
CHRISTIANS GOOD. YAY! AWESOME!
Long version: Atheists only disbelieve because of emotional reasons, but Christians believe for intellectual ones. There’s totally lots of evidence supporting Christianity’s claims, but atheists just choose to ignore that evidence because they are totally ickie and also totally incapable of love and devotion. Miracles totally happen all the time. Higher education is evil and atheistic and leads hapless, innocent Christian kids astray. Christians are completely, totally persecuted and martyred by a mean ole world that just hates them for their freedom, and every single bit of this persecution is totally undeserved. And if atheists face enough trouble in their lives, they’ll realize how empty and shallow their disbelief is and how bereft they are without “God” helping them and giving them hope–and thankfully, “God” is happy to give them trouble and hurt them for their own good so they’ll realize the truth before it’s too late.
Every single character in this movie exists solely to advance that agenda. That’s why it won’t let them do anything else but move like pawns in service to those goals.
God’s Not Dead is actually a sermon in graphical form.
This movie is worthless in terms of its storytelling value and interest to outsiders for the same reason that a fundagelical church service is worthless to outsiders: only those who buy into or who are at least sympathetic to its featured agenda would ever think it’s compelling. Those who don’t buy into that agenda will be so repelled by it that how this movie handles dissenters that they will become alienated and estranged even further from this movie’s core fans and target audience. Not that that will matter, of course; it’s not really meant to proselytize anybody or to persuade even non-target Christians to move further into the evangelicalism party van. It’s not even meant to tell an actual story or connect with people on a human level.
Rather, God’s Not Dead exists to solidify its target audience’s petulant fantasies of persecution and show them a world where, for once, everything works exactly the way they think it should work. It shows them a world where they can–and do–win all their fights, as opposed to the real world where they’re losing left and right in every single way. It sets up all their favorite strawmen and knocks them down nice and neatly. It sets out a by-the-books witnessing style that works every time. It hands them atheists who can be defeated, education that can be defused, and answers and conclusions that are always easy and tidy.
I mentioned earlier that this movie is not only aspirational but also prescriptive in that it models for Christians how they should interact with others–non-believers, other believers, etc. Next time we’ll talk about what this movie’s creators think that interaction should look like, because we’re not done quite yet here.