by Matt Sheedy
The Pure Flix Entertainment production God’s Not Dead has done remarkably well at the box office for a “Christian drama film,” ranking 4th in the U.S. on its opening weekend and turning an approximately $2 million budget into a gross of over $50 million to date. Heck, it even made it to theatres as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I caught its name in bright lights, nestled in between Johnny Depp’s latest sci-fi drama, Transcendence, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The same curiosity that led me to the cinema remains as I type out a first draft of this review essay upon returning home: how is a low budget, niche market film with a hackneyed narrative doing so well?
While I can only offer a few preliminary thoughts here, I suspect that the timing of its release on March 21, 2014, just prior to the release of Aronofsky’s Noah and nearly one month after the $22 million History Channel adaption Son of God, has lent it some rather fortunate by proxy publicity, especially among conservative evangelical audiences to whom the film was primarily targeted.
Pure Flix Entertainment, which defines itself in opposition to Hollywood, had the film screened for 8,000 pastors two months prior to its debut and conducted an aggressive media blitz on Internet radio sites like Pandora, which features Christian rock bands such as Newsboys, who appear at the film’s end. A cameo by Willie and Korie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame also helped to boost its profile among certain Christian communities. According Pure Flix co-founder David A.R. White, recent homophobic remarks by family patriarch Phil Robertson in an interview with GQ may have even contributed to the film’s success:
That incident greatly elevated the family’s profile among Christian conservatives and heightened interest in “God’s Not Dead,” White said.
“It couldn’t have been better for us,” he said.
The film’s premise is based on an urban legend widely circulated in some evangelical circles, where an arrogant, atheist professor is put in her (well, his) place by a brave Christian student. According to one evangelical reviewer this could be “the first film to be based off of a chain email.” Variously referred to as “Dropped Chalk,” “Malice of Absence,” and reproduced in a popular Chick Tract cartoon, this narrative appeals to certain insiders’ sensibilities, presenting a David and Goliath-like fantasy scenario as a present-day model for a test of faith.
What strikes me as most interesting about the film is how it functions to re-produce common cultural narratives within the familiar discursive framework of theism vs. atheism, conservative vs. liberal, God-fearing vs. godless, etc., while adding a few new twists. In this sense, it is both a reflection of popular narratives as well as a model for certain (evangelical) Christian communities.
At every turn, the main character, Josh, who is completing a pre-law degree at an unnamed university in Louisiana, is met with opposition. From the moment that he enrolls in Philosophy 150 he is encouraged to drop out. “Think Roman Coliseum, people cheering for your death,” he is told by a rather blunt administrator, who notices a cross around his neck. The remainder of the film plays out Josh’s test of faith, as his “atheist” philosophy professor, who is played by Kevin Sorbo (aka Hercules), and who requires all of his students’ to submit a form stating that “God is dead,” presents him with a challenge: to defend the case for God before the class. If the students vote for Josh, he passes the course. If they vote for the professor, he fails. The stakes are heightened as Josh’s long time girlfriend threatens to leave him (and eventually does), since a failed grade will prevent him from getting into law school and thus jeopardize their future together.
It will not come as a surprise that the film’s main protagonists are white, while token black, Chinese and Arab/Muslim characters take on subordinate roles, while being presented as equal members of the larger Christian family.
The sole “Muslim” character, a young women named Ayisha, is forced to veil for her father’s sake, who beats her once it is revealed that she is a secret Christian convert, listening to sermons by Franklin Graham on the sly on her MP3 player. While her father is portrayed sympathetically—as a loving man who immediately feels regret after striking his daughter and kicking her out of the family home—she is one of several examples of characters who undergo a test of faith and must risk everything to be saved. Here Islam is not so much reviled as it is revealed as a mistaken path that commands archaic behavior (e.g., veiling and submission through violence), despite the clear, three-dimensional humanity that is granted to these characters.
Another character, Amy, is a liberal reporter who relishes confronting Christians and challenging them on their hypocrisy (enter cameo with Willie and Korie Robertson), but who is made to realize her loneliness and lack of community once she is diagnosed with cancer. Here a “liberal” or “left” perspective is presented as hostile toward Christianity and is aligned with the media in general. (Amy writes for a popular blog called “The New Left”) Such tropes are not developed any further, however, and are presumably meant to stand-in as obvious markers of god-less-ness for the intended viewing audience.
Rounding out the picture is a ruthless corporate executive played by Dean Kane (aka Superman), whose hedonism and abject a-morality presents a further caricature of the dark road away from God. His participation in political, economic and cultural systems are not identified as factors conditioning his behavior, but only his personal choices, which hinge upon the acceptance or rejection of God. In the end, he remains the only character who is un-redeemed, cast under the spell of Satan, as described by his own ailing mother in her one moment of lucidity as the film comes to a close.
Professor Radisson is eventually redeemed after being defeated by his young student, who gets him to admit before the class that the origin of his dis-belief was forged in his youth after his mother died of cancer when he was only 12. His dis-belief is thus revealed to be a mask for his resentment for God (he is really an “anti-theist theist,” as one reviewer puts it), whom he finally embraces as he lays dying after being struck by a car, encouraged by a pastor who witnesses the event and “saves” him.
While this narrative is easy enough to dismiss for its “straw man” arguments, there is no shortage of fodder here for theorizing. For example, scholars of the cognitive, anthropological variety may find an interest in the dynamics of in-group psychology, especially in relation to various imagined cultural enemies, (namely, atheists, Muslims and liberals) buttressed by a keen sense of persecution. Sociologists and cultural anthropologists focusing on evangelical communities in the U.S. would also be well positioned to identify various tropes, cultural forms and variations, along with selected biblical references (e.g., Matthew 10:32-33 and Luke 12:48) that contribute to the identity formation of such communities. The film’s performative use of technology also reveals some interesting political and affective dimensions, where in the final scene the audience at a Newsboys concert are encouraged to text everyone they know with the message that “God’s not dead.” This message is then repeated to the viewing audience in the theatre, followed by a long list of alleged university debates and court challenges that the film was inspired by, leaving viewers to believe that this kind of scenario is commonplace.
God’s Not Dead also provides a useful example of how intellectualist definitions of religion—e.g., the emphasis on belief in god(s) and the existence of a supernatural realm, which serves to legitimate certain codes of conduct that gain strength through the promise of salvation—are dominant not only among many self-defined “secularists,” but also play a continuing role in shaping the narratives and self-understanding(s) of various evangelical Christian communities in the contemporary U.S. (and no doubt beyond those particular borders) This process is played out in a seemingly endless loop in the public realm, where debates over the existence of “God” (typically, a particular Christian variety) serve as a frontline defense in a battleground where more concrete social issues, such as abortion, gay rights and the teaching of evolution, are seen as some of the primary threats to these group identities.
What is perhaps most unique about this narrative is how the film re-imagines philosophy and science in relation to particular Christian theologies. Philosophy is portrayed as atheistic, a point that is reinforced by professor Radisson’s choice of thinkers to focus on for his class (e.g., Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Russell, Dawkins, Chomsky, etc.), while science is marshaled as an open field that is ultimately unable to answer the question of ultimate (dis-)proof, thus leaving room for faith to engage in this domain. While philosophy is portrayed as an enemy of sorts, it is Josh’s use of “reasoned” argument and a willingness to put his faith on trail that secures his ultimate victory—for himself, for professor Radisson, and for his classmates who unanimously agree with his defense of the claim that God’s not dead.
In an ironic and humorous twist, Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon’s Guide to the Study of Religion (2000) can be seen as one of several books to appear in two separate screen shots as Josh is boning up for his debate with professor Radisson. My guess is that Guide was used as a prop to show that this kid is doing his homework, though not, I’d imagine, the kind of (critical theoretical) homework that the filmmakers had in mind. Apparently, the phrase “the study of religion” can still be marshaled for many a disparate cause.
Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.