Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Misfit Atheist Movie Review: "God's Not Dead" Part 1

This past Saturday, the much-hyped Christian melodrama "God's Not Dead" was released to select theatres, starring Kevin Sorbo(TV's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), Dean Cain(Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Willie Robertson(Duck Dynasty), Shane Harper and Christian music group Newsboys.

That day, after reading "Camels With Hammers" author Dan Fincke's short yet scathing first thoughts of the movie on Facebook, I decided to plunk down $14.50(highway robbery!) and check it out for myself. It turns out Dan was right, and I can easily say this was the most despicable Christian movie I've ever seen.

Worse than "The Genesis Code"

Quite a while back I did a somewhat sloppy review of "The Genesis Code", which is another Christian film that caricatures academia as persecuting Christians. There was quite a lot of dishonesty and insulting portrayals, mostly by the protagonists' "scientist" brother who concocts a poor hypothesis to reconcile the Genesis creation story with science, and Catherine Hicks' laughably unrealistic portrayal as a college guidance counselor. God's Not Dead(GND from here on out) goes way further, by demonizing anybody in the movie who is not a Christian as one-dimensionally evil and barely even human.

The Main Plot

The main plot goes like this: The main character Josh Wheaton(Shane Harper) enrolls in a philosophy class taught by dictatorial atheist Professor Radisson(Kevin Sorbo). On the first day, Radisson instructs the class to "skip all the meaningless and time-consuming discussions" by writing down on paper "God is dead" to count as a passing grade. Wheaton sheepishly refuses, and Radisson challenges him to argue the antithesis in three debate sessions to be ultimately judged by the rest of the class. Wheaton winds up winning the debate with a trap so obvious and easy to avoid, anyone who wasn't eating up the propaganda was rolling their eyes. After winning the debate, all the characters go to a Newsboys concert, Radisson gets fatally hit by a car and given a pretty ghoulish deathbed conversion, the credits roll and the makers of the film claim the movie was inspired by several court cases(listed in the credits).

The Subplots

There are several subplots, which seem very random at first but, as I've seen in "The Genesis Code", are either connected with other characters or used to further the main propagandic theme of the movie. There's the female blogger who ambush-interviews Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson just before getting diagnosed with cancer. Then we're introduced to her hotshot businessman husband(Dean Cain). Next we see a woman taking care of her dementia-ridden mother. She calls up her brother, who just so happens to be the same hotshot businessman, and implores him to visit her mother. And as we later find out, she also happens to be dating Professor Radisson. There's the Chinese student Martin who becomes interested in Christianity, but his paranoid father doesn't want to hear because "someone might be listening". Yeah, I don't get it either. Next there is the female Muslim student who secretly converts to Christianity and is thrown out by her overbearing father after finding out. And finally there is the pastor(played by the bland David A.R. White) and his missionary friend, who provide the only humor in the movie in the form of a running joke that they just can't get a working rental car so they can take a vacation.

Oh, and there's also Josh's girlfriend who dumps him after he takes up Radisson's challenge, because apparently it will ruin her already mapped-out 60 year life plan with Josh. We thankfully never see her again after that.

The Writers Apparently Don't Know Real Atheists

The biggest, and most visible problem with this film is that the writers willfully portray atheists and academia as one-dimensional, evil, and/or sociopathic. The blogger is comically annoying(but set up as the easy "redeemable" person at the end), Radisson belittles his girlfriend(who is a Christian, of course) in front of his colleagues(who are apparently also atheist because none of them stand up to help her), and Cain's character coldly dumps his wife on the spot when she reveals her cancer diagnosis.

But the audience didn't see this glaring problem and ate it up like red meat.

Also, the movie propagates the myth that atheists are really anti-theists who had some kind of bad religious experience. "I asked God for something and I didn't get it, so now I'm an atheist and I hate God". The only thing the writers got right was Radisson's claim that "atheists tend to come from religious backgrounds". Every other aspect of the portrayals of atheists seems to stem from the writers looking at atheist vs. theist Internet flame wars and picking the worst of the atheist comments.

Had they consulted with actual atheists, then they would discover that atheists and theists get along nicely 99% of the time in real life. They have friendly conversations, can become friends, get romantically involved and even marry and still happily maintain their beliefs(yes, this does happen!).

Think... Roman Colosseum

At the beginning of the film, when Wheaton signs up for the philosophy class, the student counselor tries to dissuade him after noticing his cross necklace.
Wheaton: "Come on, it can't be that bad."
Counselor: "Think... Roman Colosseum. People cheering for your death."
What the writers of the film apparently do well is how to make a specific audience(white evangelical fundamentalist Christians with a persecution complex) feel validated at the expense of everyone else. The theatre I went to was actually full(church groups most likely), and well over half the audience reacted exactly as the counselor character warned, but predictably cheering for the deaths of those "evil atheists". How did I feel? Slandered. Disappointed. Angry, even. In fact, even angrier than when I watched "The Genesis Code". Pure Flix managed to create a film that gives white evangelicals a hearty pat on the back while gleefully flipping off everybody else. A reverse Roman Colosseum, if you will.

In Part 2, I will explore the racism on display in GND. So stay tuned, folks!