Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Cinema File #332: "God's Not Dead" Review

Front street time: I am an atheist, or at the very least a very militant agnostic, which is to say that while I acknowledge that no one can really definitively know if there is or isn't a God, anyone who says they do either way is either lying or has been lied to. That being said, apparently I used to be a Christian, until some point where something bad in my life caused me to deny God and all his wares. Of course, I don't actually remember what this crystallizing moment was or when it happened, but a movie I just saw assures me that it must have happened, because, well, all non-believers used to be Christians, right? In fact, we still are, just walking around all day cursing God and pretending he doesn't exist to mask our bitterness, and trying to force others to believe like us under pain of...something. This is but one of the many things I learned about myself from the heavy handed, hyper religious straw man-palooza that is God's Not Dead.

The film follows Josh Wheton, the only courageous Christian student at a college that, like all academic institutions, is dedicated solely to stifling all debate, discouraging the questioning of authority, and indoctrinating young people into the evils of liberalism and vegetarianism. When his philosophy professor, clearly representing all educators everywhere, threatens to fail him if he does not publicly declare that "God Is Dead," Josh stands up for himself and the entire persecuted minority of white American Christians and insists that the issue be debated in front of the whole class, so that they can decide whose right and whose wrong. You know, with all the facts and everything. Yes, God is officially on trial, but unlike that Scopes Monkey hullabaloo, this time the stakes are real, because this movie exists in a world where apparently its a real struggle to be a committed Christian, certainly more so than it is to live around them if you're gay, Muslim, want a legal abortion, or in any way run afoul of their beliefs and those on the Supreme Court sympathetic to their position.

I won't waste too much time debating the facts surrounding the faux debate that takes place in this movie, except to say that as you might expect, the pro-God side is obviously manipulative when not completely nonsensical, and the opposition is woefully inadequate and wholly unrepresentative of any actual atheist you might meet in the real world. I don't want to dwell on the specifics because despite the fact that this debate is central to most critics' dismissal of the film, it is by far the least offensive thing about the movie, which is insulting and intolerant even before the invective starts flying in the classroom. To have faith is to completely reject the main conceit of scientific inquiry, which is that we simply do not know the answers to fundamental questions about the universe, and to accept science as a metric for understanding reality is to reject the concept of faith, which seeks to fill the gaps in our knowledge with untestable propositions. The notion that science and faith are two sides of the same coin is an insidious diversion from the film's main point, which is that Christianity is not simply a good way to live, but the only way to achieve happiness.

The debate in the classroom is the heat shield, that highly visible thing that's supposed to attract attention so you won't notice the real message the movie is trying to get across. To find that, you have to look to the other characters in the movie, like the young atheist power couple who are incapable of love because of their lack of faith, or the young Muslim girl desperately wishing to embrace Christianity against her family's wishes, or the professor's wife, made to feel ashamed for having faith by her boorish husband. The merits of the arguments don't matter in the end, because the atheist professor isn't even an atheist, because he can't be. You see, atheists don't exist. Anyone who claims not to believe in God is merely angry at him for some slight in their lives, and if given the choice, will surely convert upon their death. The student at the center of all this insists that all he wants to do is give people a choice to believe, which the professor crudely took away, but the entire movie is premised on the idea that if you want a happy fulfilling life, you have no choice but to accept Jesus as your personal savior.

In one of these many side stories, one of the Duck Dynasty clan is assaulted in an "ambush interview" by a reporter blogging for a website called "The New Left," whereupon she tries to sandbag him with accusations of savagery for profiting off of the murder of ducks (she being *gasp!* a vegetarian). You'll note that this is the one person in the country, let alone the one liberal blogger, whose first question for a Duck Dynasty family member doesn't involve that family's patriarch and his virulent hatred of gay people. This, you'll recall, is a hatred completely born out of religious faith and validated by huge swaths of American Christians who have now made the family a cause celeb, which is probably the only reason he's in the movie to begin with. Funny that they don't mention any of that when extolling the virtue of Christian faith over the godless alternative. Kinda takes the wind out of the whole notion that only Christians can truly be moral. When the hip, kindly minister councils the young Muslim girl after she's disowned, or when he helps the professor's wife learn about self worth, one wonders if his calm, approachable demeanor might have shriveled if they'd come to him declaring they were a lesbian or had just come back from having an abortion.

Its these sorts of complexities that never pierce the bubble of infallible rightness upon which God's Not Dead rests. It is not enough to craft a movie designed to make Christians feel good about being Christian, which would be perfectly fine even if it weren't my cup of tea. This movie is designed to make Christians feel superior for being Christian, and making non-believers feel ashamed, in short doing exactly what it so vehemently accuses atheists of loving to do to Christians. That it is forced to create such obviously fake atheist villains who live only to persecute the faithful belies the monumental insecurity this film caters to. When one is content and assured in their conviction, they have no need to imagine grand enemies to do battle with. This is not a movie for any Christian who is confident in their faith, but rather for those whose faith is so week that they fear a better argument is out there just waiting to rob it from them. To people of faith considering seeing this movie: If you are so weak willed and afraid that you need your beliefs constantly validated for you by others, God's Not Dead is the movie for you. Otherwise, please don't reward this garbage with your time or your money.
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