If courage is a mark of greatness in film making, God’s Not Dead 2 is deserving of more than a few laurels. It takes real guts to give a movie called God’s Not Dead 2 a theatrical release date of April 1st. If the release date is analogous to riding a motorcycle without a helmet, though, they stopped short of jumping the bike over eight school buses. If folks had bought tickets on opening day, toted in their popcorns, and shuffled to the middle of an under-full theater just to watch the credits roll on the words “April Fools” in bold Comic Sans lettering, it may have gone down as the prank of the century; instead they got a ninety-minute feature film. Of course, no one can blame director Harold Cronk and crew for that, but it does offer a framework for understanding the movie: never quite enough courage to follow through on a decent setup.
This time around, the Christian on trial—not just a metaphor anymore—is Grace (Melissa Joan Hart, her teenage-witching days far behind her), a high school History teacher with a strong faith and strong convictions, though she seems blithely unaware of the tensions inherent in her employment by the public school system. But those tensions are aggravated to a breaking when Grace introduces the Bible into a class discussion. During a lesson on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., a curious student asks a question about Jesus and non-violence; Grace’s response is a quotation from the New Testament, which begins matter-of-factly but ends with a noticeably pious tone. Before the scene closes, the camera shows us a student in the back of the class surreptitiously sending a text message—to his mother, his attorney, Huffington Post?—and by the time the bell rings the school is already buzzing about Grace’s “sermon.” The school’s principal quickly battens down the hatches, suspending Grace, convening a disciplinary hearing, and ordering the baseball coach to stop all prayers on the field (apparently even the Establishment Clause hawks in the Department of Education won’t impinge upon their coaches until they have to).
Hours later, Grace is in the hot seat and even her union representative is seated across from her, grim-faced and adversarial. An attorney for the school district gleefully remarks that the ACLU “has been dreaming of a case like this,” though I find it difficult to believe that anyone knows what the ACLU—an organization as comfortable prosecuting affirmative action cases as it is filing lawsuits on behalf of the KKK—dreams of. Nevertheless, the name of Jesus is meant to be blood in the water and powerful, well-dressed enemies materialize from all quarters in order to be in at the kill. Grace is pushed to issue an apology for mentioning Jesus or lose her job and teaching credentials, and pleadingly insists that she ”would rather stand with God and be judged by the world, then stand with the world and be judged by God.” With that, the question goes to civil court where a defeat for Grace would not only be career ending, but also saddle her with an insurmountable financial penalty.
Enter Peter Kane (Ray Wise), the slick, Draconian, Italian-leathered attorney for the prosecution. Wise was a natural choice for the role—he has portrayed the Devil himself on more than one occasion—but may not have been strategically cast, given that he proves to be the most natural and charismatic actor in the movie. A charitable viewing could defend the imbalance of talent as a fitting embodiment of the contrast between the “wisdom of the world” and the “wisdom of God”. Even so, God’s Not Dead 2 makes a habit of exaggerating the enemies it depicts—their animosities, their motives, their power, their general wickedness and their commitment to it—while diminishing the strength and footing of its Christian characters. Indeed, the shrewdest of Christian characters is a no-nonsense reporter and recent convert, who seems to have imported her savvy into the Church rather than discovering it there. And the unfortunate culmination of this trend is that the strength Grace requires to cope with her trial also has to be borrowed from the arsenal of the worldly wise.
Before the climax of her trial, when defeat seems all but certain, Grace begins to reenact scenes from the Passion, even praying that God “take this cup” from her. Her spirits are revived, however, when she makes a breakthrough in her legal strategy. She determines to defend her discussion of Jesus in the classroom on the grounds that he is just another in the pantheon of historical figures and that quoting from the Bible is no different, qualitatively, than quoting from the sayings of Gandhi or King. Lee Strobel and several other Christian apologists cameo in the witness stand to summarize their books and establish the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, but the strategy hangs upon insisting that an invocation of the historical Jesus need not be an invocation of anything transcendent or fundamentally “spiritual.” A far cry from the “You say that I am” of that other trial continuously looming in the background. The prosecutors play their part faithfully—their excited rhetoric stopping just short of “crucify her!”—but Grace’s tactic saves her from sharing in the fate of her master. Cue the Newsboys concert!
In an early trailer for the movie, a supporting character named Pastor Dave is shown in handcuffs as two policemen push him into a squad car. He is presumably being arrested for refusing to comply with a citywide subpoena of pastors’ sermons, but the arrest was cut from the final theatrical version of the movie. The omission creates a problematic loose end in the sub-plot, but also points to the movie’s deeper crisis of courage. It is exhibit B of Cronk’s refusal to let his Christians undergo any semblance of ultimate suffering. For Grace—exhibit A—the stakes were always low, in the eternal sense. Even losing her civil trial and facing professional and financial ruin would have made her no less fitting a recipient of that indictment of the Hebrews: “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons…” But God’s Not Dead 2 stakes so much on the outcome of a court case, that the movie couldn’t survive a negative verdict. Cronk and his characters can imagine a bloodthirsty enemy, but not a Christian with the fortitude to shed their own blood.
One of the fundamental weaknesses of the first God’s Not Dead was its self-defeating self-image, and the disease seems to be genetic. The promotional poster for God’s Not Dead 2 depicts Grace between two picketing multitudes—one group brandishing signs with “Preach Don’t Teach” and the like, the other sporting such proverbial saws as “Stand with God” and “God is Love.” Looming augustly in the background is a court building, appearing to divide and preside over both crowds. The movie bears out this relationship when, after Grace’s narrow victory in the courtroom, a spectator rushes out to the steps of the courthouse to proclaim to both crowds that “God’s not dead!” As if the question hung on the outcome of a trial presided over by Ernie Hudson. If we are really going to speak historically, it was a trial that condemned the Lord and a resurrection that vindicated him. Trial and vindication make up the core of God’s Not Dead 2; it is the intervening period—the hope deferred that aches in the bones and sickens the greatest hearts, the longest three days in history—that can’t be borne. To die and wait an eternal three days for God’s vindication requires more courage than is natural to man. Unfortunately, that which is natural to man is precisely the limit by which God’s Not Dead 2 has chosen to define itself. It may simply become a movie about the all too human fear of waiting in line all weekend only to discover that you are holding a ticket to the greatest April Fools joke in history. Pity.