(CN: Spoilers, so many spoilers; religious and familial violence.)
Maya Angelou was right: It’s wise to believe people the first time when they show you exactly who they are. That goes double for people trying to sell us something, as the Christians making the current crop of modern religious movies are doing.
Lots of digital ink has already been spilled about some of the stuff I’m touching on here–by Neil in his new-classic piece, “What I Learned About Atheists from ‘God’s Not Dead'” and Dan Fincke in his equally-awesome “How ‘God’s Not Dead’ Makes Christians Look Even Worse Than Atheists”. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel there by re-discussing what they already have so well.
What I want to do to add to the discussion here is talk about the downright awful and dismaying–and shocking, and appalling, and grotesque, and ultimately inhuman–view of Christians that this movie advances as the ideal version and fullest flowering of proper and correct Christianity. Oh, it sells itself as a proselytization movie, but it’s Christians who are its largest audience and Christians who alone who seem sympathetic with anything happening in it. I haven’t yet heard of anybody converting because of what they saw in a Christian movie. But I have heard Christians laud their horrible movies and defend them to the skies.
I really don’t think they realize what they’re showing me.
When I hear when Christians talk about loving God’s Not Dead, this is what I hear them signing off on and approving of:
1. It’s okay to be dishonest.
Josh’s debates are extremely disingenuous, featuring points refuted a thousand times (PRATT)–but presented as if this is the first time anybody has ever heard or raised these points. He doesn’t even actually use much philosophy to demonstrate his case, but rather misuses science, especially astronomy and physics, in ways that evangelicals tend to misunderstand these disciplines. We see Christians doing this constantly–and most of these talking points could be easily refuted with a little search-engine work. But this movie’s target Christians very rarely ever do that because then they might have to think about not using those talking points, which Christians mistakenly believe are effective. They’d rather win than learn they’re wrong or to grapple with just how much they don’t know.
This movie hands those arguments to Christians as slam-dunks to use against non-believers–and they do use them. Sometimes I hear an apologetics argument so often in a short time I have to ask what apologetics book or movie is popular with fundagelicals right then; that’s how often they’ll hear and internalize some fallacious argument that sounds cool and then rush out to try them out on their non-believing acquaintances. Some of their leaders, like Ray Comfort, even encourage that kind of parroting behavior in their books and videos (like in the Way of the Master series) and insist their techniques work like creepy religious Pick-Up Artists.
Reality, to the African Missionary (AM) character in the movie, is even more fluid. He wants to go on a really big roller coaster; that’s his whole plotline. He doesn’t do anything in this movie that even vaguely looks religious other than spout platitudes on cue and prey upon a dying man, but he does love him some childish entertainments and amusements. When told that a roller coaster isn’t as big as he thinks it is, he replies that as long as he believes it’s big, then it will be big. That kind of loosey-goosey relationship with reality continues through the whole movie. Whatever happens, he’s able to spin it into his god being awesome.
Unfortunately, most non-Christians have run into Christians–especially evangelicals–who think that their beliefs in some way impact reality and that how they feel about a fact changes and alters that fact’s truth. They warp and distort reality and try to find magical ways to make something untrue sound more true.
I find this sort of behavior downright repellent, but it gets even worse: this movie also encourages Christians to see every single thing that goes wrong in their lives as some kind of persecution rather than the fault of their own behavior. This movie tells Christians that nothing is ever their own fault; it’s always persecution if religion is even vaguely involved. Here is how:
When Mina complains to Pastor Dude about how Radisson behaves toward her, she characterizes him as “abusive” whenever religion comes up and paints religion as a serious barrier between them, but the problem isn’t religion so much as it is her own inability to honor the agreement they made a long time ago not to discuss religion. Was it right for Radisson to make that demand? Maybe not (even perhaps probably not), but he did, and she apparently agreed to honor it–and keeps breaking her promise. When he calls her out for her dishonesty, she tells him that she’ll stop letting it bug her, but clearly it still does or she wouldn’t be whining to Pastor Dude for sympathy for breaking her own promise to her boyfriend. She doesn’t do a single Christian thing that the audience sees and arguably does a lot of stuff TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would seriously disapprove (like having a premaritally-sexual affair with an atheist in the first place!), but suddenly religion becomes this major big deal to her whenever a conflict crops up in her relationship. She labels that conflict “religious discord” rather than what it is: basic incompatibility. (I’m sure a lot of ex-Christians married to Christians will see some unpleasant parallels here with their own relationships.)
2. It’s okay to be opportunistic.
When Josh learns that Radisson’s mom died young, he uses it against Radisson in their public debates–anything to score a point! Might makes right, I suppose. But I never could accept that level of opportunism even as a Christian. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about quite a few people I disagree with or even outright dislike–but I’ve never used what I know against those people, and I never would. Some of that stuff’s even stuff I could use to my own great benefit–but I’m just not that kind of opportunistic bastard. Not so, Josh; he learns of Radisson’s loss, and doesn’t even offer condolences in his rush to use that death to his advantage in a debate. He doesn’t “win” by offering rational facts and reasons to believe; he “wins” by emotionally pounding Radisson and manipulating him. And this movie applauds that “win” and implies that this is something Christians should totally do if it’s at all possible.
And we can’t leave a mention of opportunism without mentioning the ghoulish, grotesque behavior of Pastor Dude and the missionary when they find Radisson dying on the ground after being hit by a car. The accident itself is done in lovingly detailed slow-motion; you see Radisson clawing the air as he flies up and then down again; he coughs blood and flails around and through it all, the missionaries’ response is to try to get him to convert to Christianity before he breathes his last.
This scene, right here, encapsulates everything this movie does that is the polar opposite of anything Jesus told evangelicals to do. We’ll talk about that a little more some other time, but for now, I’ll just leave it as another example of how this movie advances and condones Christian opportunism. I find that mindset vicious and cruel as well as inhuman. I know that Christians would consider it compassionate to make sure that a dying man gets to Heaven, but all I can think of is how evil it is to prey upon someone in his final gasping breaths and deny him a dignified death. This complete disconnect between Christian platitudes and human dignity is so stark it’s glaring, and when Christians say they like this movie, I wonder what dignity they would deny me in their rush to evangelize me, and I wonder how low is too low for them to go to convert non-believers. This movie’s answer seems to be “there is no low that low.”
3. It’s okay to have really warped priorities.
When Ayisha’s father viciously physically attacks her and bodily hurls her out of the house, the college chapel’s staff apparently takes her that evening to a Christian pop concert. Because that’s just what would cheer anybody up, amirite? We never actually learn how they meant to help her or if they were going to do so. Josh never goes to church or does much Christian stuff in this movie, but he’s willing to study and prepare his butt off for his dumb debate–at the expense of alienating his parents, who technically hold power over him and are obviously paying for his education, and at the expense of his other classes, which are presumably more important to his degree than one intro class. His girlfriend insta-dumps him after six years together because she doesn’t approve of his debate; despite declaring herself to be very intelligent, she seems to be under the impression that a portion of a grade lost in one little intro class is going to ruin Josh’s entire future.
I really don’t get why the Christians in this movie are presented as ideals. Mina clearly is meant to be among the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in this movie and clearly thinks of herself as a very strong Christian, but again, she’s boffing an atheist. Pastor Dude blows Ayisha off to take the missionary to Disneyland–and when he counsels Mina, he never once brings up that maybe it’s a mistake for her to be having unapproved sex. He squints at her meaningfully and tells her that her entire problem would be solved with more fervor, when–as mentioned above–her fervor is actually what’s causing at least some of her own problems.
None of these characters really seems aware of the disconnect between their priorities and the consequences of their actions.
4. Nookie bad. Non-sexuality good.
Josh gets dumped by the only girl he’s ever loved, and his reaction is to pout a little and move on. Until then, he gets chaste little hugs and kisses from this girl he knows better than any human being on the planet and presumably loves with all his heart, and seems more befuddled by her girlieness, affection, and bombastic outbursts than anything else.
The reporter seems to like Dean Cain’s character quite a lot and it’s clearly implied that they’re physically involved, but we never see anything indicating so. I thought they were siblings for a while.
The only people in this movie seen to show real romantic affection are Mina and Radisson, who seem quite affectionate and cute till she manufactures an argument about religion to get her drama fix. When Mina tells her addled mother, “It’s complicated,” the mother channels the audience in chiding her about it too. Mina will have to be set straight: and she is, by the meaningfully-squinting Pastor Dude–over being unequally yoked.
I realize this movie was about blowing sunshine up Christians’ butts about their religion, but it is just weird that there is not one relationship presented in this movie as both positive and meaningful.
In reality, Christians’ sex lives look like anybody else’s. There is literally next to no difference. Christians have non-marital and pre-marital and extra-marital sex at roughly the same rates as non-Christians do. And girls who wear purity rings, like Josh’s girlfriend does, don’t actually keep their pledges until marriage unless they are really fervent religiously–which we know this girlfriend is not, because this movie goes out of its way to stress how lukewarm she is every chance it gets before she simply vanishes, her function in the movie (to amp up the stakes and give Josh more obstacles in his path to victory) fulfilled.
5. Christians are hypocrites.
This whole movie’s reason for existence is to preach at people and exhort Christians to fight persecution. It fits neatly within the evangelical insistence that entertainment have a Jesus-fied basis and religious function. It pretends that its heroes and heroines are TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and they are portrayed as such without flinching.
But Mina’s in a tight relationship with a guy who was her professor at one time and who is an atheist.
Josh never attends church, small groups, youth groups, campus groups, or even prayer meetings during this entire movie.
Pastor Dude is very good at striking poses and squinting meaningfully at people, but we don’t see him doing much that’s religious either.
The African Missionary is not only never seen doing anything religious, but his whole plot revolves around reaching a theme park that is the very antithesis of evangelicalism–in fact, evangelicals have a long tradition of giving Disneyland side-eye over objections to the park’s administration not being homophobic, hate-filled, and virulently anti-gay enough for evangelicals’ taste.
6. Christians really hate non-believers.
Almost every non-believer in this
piece of choleric shit movie gets torn to pieces by the end. Radisson is murdered by a hit-and-run driver; the reporter lady gets a deadly disease. I don’t remember exactly what happens to Dean Cain, but he’s largely in the movie to be part of the reporter lady’s destruction, as is the Muslim girl’s father, so I’m not sure they count. There’s no mercy at all for those who refuse to bend knee. It’s very hard not to see this stuff happening and think that it’s what Christians fantasize about seeing happen to real-world non-believers.
Don’t believe me? Talk to ex-Christians, who frequently get told that their lives will suffer disasters because they left the religion. I’m sure most non-believers have been hit with some variant of singsong threats to our bodies and “souls” from Christians who drool over the possibility of us getting bashed up so hard that we must turn to their god out of sheer desperation.
This movie is the summation of everything terrible about modern Christianity. But thankfully, its niche audience’s numbers are dwindling fast.
The problem is not just that this movie doesn’t even notice that its TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are people who, if evangelicals encountered them in real life, would be utterly condemned by the tribe. It’s also that most actual Christians don’t even act like the Christians in this movie.
When they get dumped, they react just like non-Christians do–they get upset, they try to find answers, sometimes they do terrible things to try to get back what they lost. When they get insulted they fight back. When they see someone dying, they rush to find help rather than prey upon someone who is leaving the one life we know for sure we’re getting. When they find out they’re sick, they often freak out like anybody else would, or get super-depressed. But for this movie to admit something this universal and human, it would have to step outside its mission statement–and just as we see every single day around us when Christians “lie for Jesus,” this movie’s preaching agenda matters more than telling the truth. The chirpy, over-simplistic, platitude-driven Christians in this movie don’t act like anything we recognize because they’re meant to drive plotlines, not be real people.
We can suspend disbelief for a lot of movies. We can allow ourselves to be drawn into a world where superhero robots fly through the skies. We can believe, for a little while, that a boy can be a long-lost wizard. We can become part of a story about dragons and elves. But we can only do that if the story involves those very human reactions. If the reactions don’t fit, if the characters just don’t seem relatable, then we’ll reject the story. And that’s why we reject God’s Not Dead. Christians embrace it and love it because it shows them a world they wish existed: a world where dishonesty and opportunism are fine if it’s done for a good cause, where everybody has exactly the kind of sex they’re supposed to have, where conversion matters more than human dignity, where facts get overruled by feelings, where a real live god helps his followers against persecution and smashes dissenters till they break and fall into line.
I don’t think even Christians would want to live in that world, and I know for damned sure I don’t. It sounds like a hellhole. I’m thankful that there is no reason whatsoever to think that their god is real, much less that any of their supernatural claims are true. Their fantasies are painful enough as it is to watch paraded onscreen.
Be watching for these messages in the Christian movies to come. I guarantee you’ll see them. These are the messages that Christian audiences have told the Christian movie industry they want to hear. These are the fantasies they want to see played out on screen. These are the worlds they wish they had–while living in a real world that seems to diverge more by the day from the one they really want.
When they show us who they really are, we need to be listening.