Novelist and career film reviewer, Graham Greene, insisted that any decent critic requires two things to get along in their work: “material for his analysis—for comparison and instruction—and a mind which, however sympathetic, is not prone to quick enthusiasms.“ Many a film, though, has resisted Greene’s ideal critic and opted instead for courting the already converted with their quick, loyal enthusiasms. Decidedly Evangelical filmmakers all now labor under the shadow of that tendency, for good or ill. God’s Not Dead seems torn between two kinds of audience, with its national release and nationally recognized b-listers (Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain, Willie Robertson) contrasting with the narrower appeal of its apologetic content. In fact, at every juncture the film appears to show forth a divided self. It is manifestly concerned with presenting “material for analysis”: several of the longest scenes are devoted entirely to a character using PowerPoint presentations to argue for the existence of God. And yet, as early as the opening sequence—credits and pleasant movie music roll, for several minutes, over meandering footage of nondescript lakes, parks, and college campus locales—the film also intimates ambivalence to any analysis whatsoever.
The lengthy credits sequence gives way to a series of visual introductions to the film’s main players. This précis proves problematic and overlong, though, because God’s Not Dead is comprised of over half a dozen plot strands and follows twice that many principal characters. A dialogue-less introduction to each one of these characters, then, means we are left watching a bewildering number of strangers perform mundane actions—wake up, shop for groceries, etc.—that carry no meaning for us because we don’t yet know who they are or what roles they are meant to play in the movement of the film.
An obvious drawback to this multi-plot approach is that few story arcs are afforded more than fifteen or twenty minutes of total screen time in which to develop. In his first spoken exchange, a young Chinese student is asked, “You’re from China? Are you serious?” To which he stoically replies, “Yes, always serious.” He is only on screen a few more times, but by the end of the film has rocketed forward to the throwing off of his atheist father’s influence and is bobbing up and down at a Christian pop concert. The plotlines that best avoid this artistic failure end up suffering an idealistic failure instead. An affluent and mockingly godless attorney (Cain) is not hurried to an unnatural point of development, but as a result he remains uncompelled and unconverted by the actions of Christian characters in the film. In fact, the film’s only religious converts are dying atheists who, each, in their own way, have had the natural timetables of their lives truncated to create a heightened sense of spiritual urgency. This belies the filmmakers’ imperfect confidence in their movie’s “message,” which is ostensibly capable of converting the unbeliever, but only unbelievers who aren’t terribly healthy or happy. There is a defensible dose of Solomonic wisdom in this, but it comes across as a little too facile on screen.
The trailer for the film, possibly in an attempt to make it appear more unified than it is, only makes reference to one of its plots: the titular storyline featuring an Evangelical college freshman, Josh, who has enrolled in a philosophy course taught by an antagonistic atheist professor (Sorbo, in a less then Herculean portrayal). “Think Roman Colosseum, lions, people cheering for your death,” one school staffer warns Josh after noticing his cross necklace. The warning is legitimated when, at the first class, the professor instructs every student to agree, in writing, “God is dead,” so that he may bypass the tedium of lecturing on bygone superstitions and move on the more compelling modern thought. All fall in line but Josh, who is then forced to prove God’s existence in order to receive a passing grade. He delivers a series of remarkably lucid and professorial lectures outlining various arguments for theism. This all culminates in a shouted debate with the Sorbo, who loses face in an inevitable “gotcha” moment, heedlessly declaring that he disbelieves in God because he hates God. It is a defensible theological prospect that hatred of God brings one closer to love of God than simple indifference might, and Sorbo’s passionate confession leaves him shaken. His new insecurities are not allowed to run their course, however. A few short hours after his rattling debate, Sorbo’s character is struck by a car and killed, walking across a dark intersection. Before the atheist expires at a crossroads, a pastor who has witnessed the accident brings him to a deathbed conversion. Was God forced to kill him before he regained his philosophical resolve?
The various and sundry plotlines are in loose orbit around a church that further showcases the divided mind of God’s Not Dead and its creators. Physically, the church is an attractive, turn of the century, wood-paneled affair with pews and a high altar; sufficient to make Christianity seem a serious, respectable affair. The altar is bare, however, and the church is in the care of one “Pastor Dave” who has a secretary and is known to wear Hawaiian shirts on occasion. There is an all-things-to-all-men method at work here that ultimately precludes real commitment to anything in particular. Even the movie poster raises questions of identity. The words “God’s Dead” are painted on a stone wall with a kind of monolithic permanence, and a satchel-wearing figure pastes a makeshift “Not”—red marker on copy paper—over top of it, making the new message seem derivative and impotent in the face of the old. Which claim, in the mind of the filmmakers, is the older, more enduring? And is the Church historic and timeless, or modern and adaptive?
The film’s climax and conclusion come closest to a unified vision, approaching the very cusp of imaginative realization. All of the plotlines terminate at an immense Newsboys concert. Just as Josh’s professor is exhaling his last sanctified breath, the show kicks off, and thousands sing along to the amped-up praise and worship tunes. The camera does little to encourage the suggestion, but the scene, in the face of the unbeliever’s conversion, takes on the quality of the hosts of heaven rejoicing over the salvation of a single lost soul. For a moment, the film is confident in its purpose, unified in its identity: artistry and mechanics aside, something good has been depicted here and is worth celebrating.
The celestial quality persists until the credits roll, at which point the audience is informed that God’s Not Dead is inspired by dozens of real-life court battles over intolerant treatment of Christians on various college campuses. As the particulars of these court cases scrolled across the screen, that seemingly benign revelation took on an apocalyptic significance. Whether or not the filmmakers intended to stage a glimpse into the heavenly economy, the moment seemed to obtain. But, when a dead antagonist is linked to a number of non-fictional professors and college administrators, the film’s entire last act also takes on the sense of Christian filmmakers converting and killing their enemies in effigy, then throwing a massive party in the Staple’s Center to celebrate. “Think Roman Colosseum…people cheering for your death.” Still confused about its own identity, God’s Not Dead lapses from sincere reverence into a kind of allegorical vindictiveness not present in its earlier scenes. In the end, God may not be dead, but the intellectuals who were mean to His people definitely are.