When a movie studio produces the third installment in any series and that longed-for beast — that monetary white stag — the franchise, promises to emerge, they face a watershed question: numerals or subtitles? Historically, the dilemma has proven a little more complex than two roads diverging in a yellow wood. While some (recently, the Pitch Perfect series) avoid all pretense by going straight to numbers on their second installment and never looking back, others (Die Hard, et al.) eschew numbers entirely. Still others avoid the choice by planning multiple installments (The Godfather, Back to the Future) or refuse to choose (e.g. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Finally, there are the wafflers — Jurassic Park falls here, and The Fast and the Furious franchise is a particular offender. They try one, then the other, sometimes reverting even a third or fourth time, and come off looking like a series with little confidence in itself. But for all that, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness seems, in the shedding of its numerical designation, to gain a little confidence and a little more (God forgive the pun) grace than its predecessors.
The title invokes more than a little “city on a hill” imagery, and the American socio-political landscape is unambiguously in the foreground again in this third installment. “Pastor Dave” runs a church located on a university campus somewhere in the Midwest, and the church has drawn the ire of student activists for making exclusive claims about the nature of truth. “The truth is a person — Jesus Christ,” Dave tells a local news interviewer. In the midst of rising tensions between the church and the university community, an act of minor vandalism inadvertently causes a fire that destroys the church and kills the assistant pastor, Dave’s closest friend. Following a confusing logic which the movie makes no attempt to present sympathetically, the university uses the tragedy as a pretext for pushing Dave’s church off of the campus for good.
Throughout the movie, Fox- or CNN-inspired television programs with heavy-handed names like “The Lion’s Den” provide exposition of plot punctuated by laments over the breakdown of public discourse in America. “This is what our country has come to,” one talking head bemoans. “Everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening.” Sympathizing with the movie’s writers over the empty noise of public dialogue in our country is easy enough; what isn’t so easy is doing so as they employ the same empty noise to voice their lament and to tell a sizable portion of their 105-minute story. Fortunately, their handling of Dave and the plot may have earned them (again, forgive me) a little redemption.
Pastor Dave is a never-married forty-something whose girlfriend is forced to make all of the romantic advances in their relationship. Nevertheless, he fancies himself something of a fighter and isn’t going to let his church go without the American version of a fight — litigation. It is telling, though, that Dave only forms his fighting determination after getting bad advice from a youth pastor — the protagonist of God’s Not Dead, now a law school dropout whose greatest achievement in life is still winning a classroom debate with his college philosophy professor. Maybe this tension is the work of the bifurcated Evangelical mind these movies are made by and made for, or, just maybe, it is an act of contrition by the filmmakers. The latter seems more likely because the decision to fight is ill-fated and Dave ultimately pursues a course of action that is a thorough departure from the model established in the two earlier films. He concedes the legal and social battle over his church property and plans to break ground on a new building on the edge of town.
In pursuing an apologetical conflict akin to the public debates and courtroom dramas of the first two God’s Not Deads, Dave actually comes to see his crusade to vindicate God in the public square as self-indulgent and misguided. After becoming suspicious of his own wishes and motives, he determines to give up what he wants most and (though the film doesn’t use the language) go to his Lord “outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” In its conclusion, G’sND3 offers up something that was sorely lacking in previous installments: a protagonist who truly suffers, who endures a tangible loss of what they have loved and desired as the cost of serving God. This movie certainly isn’t destined to win awards — technical, dramatic, or otherwise — but with the thematic shift away from the desire for approval, maybe that won’t matter. All in all, a respectable showing. They might even have risked a gutsier subtitle — God’s Not Dead: Third Time’s A Charm.