God’s Not Dead is a well-intentioned film that responds to secular bias in academia and Hollywood. Unfortunately, like the secular conservative film American Carol (2008), God’s Not Dead got carried away with itself and drowned its own message.
Freshman pre-law Student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) ends up in Philosophy 150 taught by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) a rabid atheist who promises to skip discussion of the existence of God if every student in the class agrees that for the purposes of the class that God is dead. Wheaton refuses and so Radisson says that Wheaton must prepare three twenty minute lectures on why he believes God exists and that Radisson would get to judge whether Wheaton was right. Wheaton has the good sense to insist that this at least be judged by the class of students who had all been convinced by Radisson’s five minute, “Atheism is the only logical option” speech.
Wheaton has to choose whether to go through with this debate or to drop the class. It’s not a bad conflict but unfortunately the movie really loses focus.
Wheaton states that his parents oppose his participating in this process, but we don’t see them. We do see his girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford) end their six year relationship which based on her abusive behavior, was really a blessing in disguise.
The reason we didn’t see this is because the writer decided why have the two main characters developing as people and giving a multi-layered look at the main conflict, when we can splinter the audience’s attention by taking shallow looks at seven or eight characters?
Here are the characters, who in addition to Radisson and Wheaton, are the focal point of two or more scenes in this 113 minute film:
1) Radisson’s live in girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver) whose mother is dying of dementia.
2) Mina’s brother Mark (Dean Cain) who is emotionally dense to both his mother’s needs and that of his girlfriend who has gotten cancer.
3) Amy (Trisha LaFache), Mark’s girlfriend, an up and coming blogger, who conducted an ambush interview with Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson and then found herself facing cancer alone.
4) Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), a student from China who is intrigued by the debate on God and confides this to his father, who doesn’t want to tick off the People’s Republic of China.
5)Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), a Christian from a Muslim family who is hiding her faith from her parents.
6) Pastor Dave (Christian film veteran David A.R. White) who wants to do nothing more than take a visiting missionary (Benjamin Ochieng) to Disney World and is frustrated by rental car problems and ends up interacting with Wheaton, Mina, Ayisha, and eventually Radisson.
It is difficult to tell the story of eight different characters and do it well, and the creators of God’s Not Dead fail to develop most of these characters. And worst of all, they fail to develop Wheaton.
The Ayisha plot, while really unrelated to the main point of the story, was the only one of these plots that was well done. The scene where her father throws her out of the house is fantastic filmmaking, filled with emotion both from Ayisha and her father (Marco Khan) that with saying few words portrays the agony both characters are feeling on this truly painful separation.
This stands out because there were few scenes that felt emotionally real. The scenes with Amy were decent if a bit melodramatic, but as for the rest of the film, the filmmakers seemed totally oblivious to human emotion and feeling as they’re telling all these stories and that undermines the whole movie.
Ideally, the film should’ve portrayed Wheaton as someone who struggled seriously with fear, doubt, and insecurity as he faced this task and had to find the strength to lean on God. We should feel his pain at the loss of his girlfriend rather than feeling like cheering when he is separated from her. We lose the hero’s struggle in the midst of trying to juggle seven other plots, and so his triumph really doesn’t have the same impact.
And that’s not the only place human feelings are lacking. As part of the lack of struggle, Wheaton goes to Pastor Dave who gives him two scriptures and doesn’t even bother to pray with him or for him as he’s facing this difficult decision.
When, in the films most unrealistic moment, Radisson discloses privately to Wheaton that he blamed God for his mother’s death when Radisson was twelve. Wheaton offers no commiseration with Radisson’s pain but instead gives him a pat answer and then uses his knowledge of Radisson’s deepest personal pain to go for the jugular in the name of Jesus in the next classroom debate scene.
People come to Christ in the film but its less because the love of God compels them than it is that they are either scared and dying and not wanting to be alone/go to Hell or convinced by clever arguments. The moral of Wheaton’s story is that if you read a lot of apologetic arguments and learn PowerPoint, you can lead your world to Christ.
The story’s not without its good points. The Ayisha story line is good, and Kevin Sorbo turns a solid performance as the arrogant, over-bearing, and abusive professor/boyfriend when the script doesn’t betray him. Willie and Korie Robertson come off as warm people, far warmer than most of the characters in the movie. The apologetic arguments are solid but if that’s what you’re looking for, you’d be better off watching William Lane Craig debating someone.
While I’d agree with much of the review at Crosswalk, I can’t agree with the implication of the review’s headline (which was probably not written by the reviewer), “God’s not Dead…but Christians Films are on Life Support.” Indicting an entire group of films based on one film’s failure would be like saying the Science Fiction genre was in trouble based on the problems with Battlefield Earth.
There have been a lot of good Christian films over the last few years. The Christmas Candle, Soul Surfer, Courageous, and even a couple of Pureflix’s direct to DVD releases The Christmas Angel and Sarah’s Choice are better made and have more warmth than this movie. Christians have shown they can make better films which makes this movie a fair target for criticism.
In the end, this was a disappointing effort that just didn’t live up to the hype.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5.0 stars.