God’s Not Dead but Christian Screen Writing Is

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God’s Not Dead but Christian Screen Writing Is

The Good

I went to go see God’s Not Dead this weekend. I’ve read some of the early reviews and have to admit to being skeptical when I went to go see it. It’s not the best way to go see a movie with the intent of writing a review, but for the sake of full disclosure, I went with a bias. I suppose it’s no worse than the bias that many evangelicals view any Christian movie which becomes popular because of popular Christian media product placement . Any movie which features the Newsboys and the Robertsons from Duck Dynasty is going to be a hit even if the movie ended up denying every tenet of the Christian faith, which it did not.

In spite of my skepticism, I am pleasantly surprised about a couple of things with this movie. First, the theater was filled pretty close to capacity. As of this writing, the movie has grossed somewhere between 8-9 million and has appeared to jump into the top four or five on its opening weekend. This in spite of the fact it was screened in only about 700 theaters! Every Christian can be encouraged by the fact that faith based films are making this kind of headway. Everyone can thank Kirk Cameron for this. His movie projects, Fireproof, Monumental and Unstoppable have all paved the way for this kind of thing. Unstoppable grossed something like 2-3 million on a Tuesday night in even less theaters.

They can also thank the church marketing that went out to youth groups. Our theater was a good example of this: apparently a good number of churches in our area responded to the print ads that went out to the churches in the area and did what they advised: they brought their youth groups. The theater knew it was coming: the ads that ran before the previews as people piled in were all geared to the very young: I counted two ads for Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, two ads for Build-A-Bear, an ad for Nickelodeon, a couple of ads for Disney, and for the old folks who brought the youth groups, an ad from Focus on the Family for their upcoming Irreplaceable project and AARP. Hollywood is learning how this works if you want to pack out a theatre: evangelical teens have money and they will shell it out to see their favorite band and TV stars in a flick.

Second, I appreciated the fact that the gospel was proclaimed in this movie. Perhaps the best presentation in the movie involved the subplot with the Muslim family. The secular world does not want to hear this, but if they think that this was a botched Christian portrayal of Islam, they might be right in the sense that a Muslim girl that takes the time to wear a full face covering in public would probably not be wearing jeans with it. They are wrong in the sense that the way she is treated in this movie goes pretty lightweight in comparison to what has happened in reality. The film makers treated this part of the movie compassionately by portraying a father who was not a total monster: he shows compassion as he kicks her out of his house for converting to Christianity. Just before she is shown the door you see him touch her face tenderly and after he closes it he collapses in a heap in tears. For a moment I thought they would go the whole way and depict an honor killing but they did not, and I am glad they chose not to even if it might be a bit more accurate. The gospel presentation in this part of the movie was good with a sermon clip from Franklin Graham. The actors who portrayed this family did an excellent job. It might be one of the few parts of the movie that was believable.

Therefore, I can rejoice that Jesus was preached and that many people got to hear the gospel. Many people that I know enjoyed the movie thoroughly. I rejoice with them for the success. No one in the 1980’s could imagine a movie doing this well in the theaters.

Third, the filming quality of the movie was pretty good. It was visually pleasing. Christian film, following the lead of Kirk Cameron, is improving. It can be thrown onto a wide screen in HD and look really, really good. Now that Hollywood is discovering that there is money here, you can get actors and actresses that have some skill.

The Bad

This is a critique. And this was not a movie about the gospel in Islamic families. It was billed as a movie that would answer atheism. In this it failed and it failed epically. The failure of this movie represents a failure in typically bad Christian writing. Christian writing has not kept pace with the technology. Good camera work, quality acting and wise product placement cannot overcome bad writing. This film was badly written on two fronts: 1) many of its characterizations and 2) its apologetictheological content in the trial of God in the classroom.

As a brief side note, Christian film writing has been notoriously bad since its beginning. Almost every Christian film you’ve ever seen has followed a template: an emotional story line which is a bit unrealistic using gratuitous tear-jerkers to illicit some gratuitous tears with the obligatory tip of the hat gospel presentation worked in not so subtly to make it clear that this is a Christian film because its aim is to evangelize. The plots somehow always lead to the conversion of someone and everyone always lives happily ever after. Unless of course, someone converts on their deathbed, but they still get the happily ever after because, after all, this is what happens when you convert to Christianity. The word is sentimentality.

It’s sad that after something like sixty years of Christian film we cannot get beyond this to create something that looks like art while at the same time remaining true to Scriptural principles without shoving it in someone’s face. We need a little more Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings and a little less Left Behind.

Its Characterizations

A fair bit has already been written in reviews about the characterizations of the atheists in particular in this movie. I was ready for this having read some of these reviews before I went, but I was not ready for just how bad they really came off when projected on screen. When you have good actors and good technical presentation, this is where bad writing just jumps off the screen and spits in your face.

Kevin Sorbo does a good job acting in this flick. However the script makes his character unbelievable. Does anyone really think that atheistic professors are so evil that one would insult his longtime girlfriend before his academic colleagues simply because she spoiled the guests’ wine? Or that he would threaten the entire academic career of a sophomore student simply because he took him up on his challenge to prove the existence of God in class? The most ridiculous scene in the movie is when Shane Harper’s character (the aforementioned student) meets Sorbo in the elevator. The music goes kind of creepy, the doors slowly close and I couldn’t help but thinking, Ack! He’s going to bludgeon him to death and when the doors open we’ll see a pool of blood! Actually, I said it out loud much to the amusement of a couple of my neighbors. That whole scene was a cheap writing trick and because Sorbo is a good actor, any unknowing Christian will probably believe that atheists eat their young.

Combine that with the characterization of Dean Cain’s part, and any Christian will KNOW they eat their young. This guy is so narcissistic that when his girlfriend (who I know I’ve seen somewhere else but I can’t find her bio on the website) tells him that she has cancer, he unbelievably ends the relationship on the spot because she’s not keeping up her end of the bargain. He claims he won’t go see his mother who has senile dementia until she can add three plus three and get six. Unexplainably he shows up later in the movie to visit her (even though there’s been no math quiz) when in a moment of clarity she spouts some nonsense (portrayed as truth) about satan imprisoning Cain in his material wealth as if satan is the one who determines who is and is not saved and God is not Sovereign.

Cain’s girlfriend is a liberal atheistic blogger who famously asks the Robertson’s why Korie isn’t home barefoot and pregnant. Do we really have to go for the jugular with the stereotypes or is it possible that someone could write well enough to reflect the fact that in most cases, people who are liberal and atheistic are actually nice? Did these writers not know of the relationship between Christopher Hitchens and Christians like Doug Wilson?

If this movie purports to be evangelistic, and must at least hope that some of their fruit would come from the ranks of atheists, perhaps the writers might want to portray atheists realistically rather than as a stereotype. I know some atheists, having met a few doing evangelistic ministry on some college campuses over the last ten years, and I don’t think I’ve met one yet that would be as cold and calculating as these characters.

Furthermore, when Sorbo’s character begins to crack in his atheism, he does so because he realizes his anger against God is rooted in the premature death of his mother when he was twelve. While I do believe that some atheists are atheists because of personal tragedy and many of them are former Christians, atheists are atheists because they love their sin (Romans 1:18). They suppress the truth they already know in unrighteousness.

I can’t leave this without commenting on this crazy idea that in order for someone who is really, really lost to require personal tragedy for their salvation. This is a mainstay of Christian film. Tragedy can be a good plot device in writing, but when it becomes a requirement for conversion, it tends to trivialize the subject. If it’s true that tragedy and illness are good evangelistic tools, then perhaps the best thing Christians could do is to find a way to seed our gospel tracts with carcinogens.

In this film, Cain’s movie girlfriend essentially converts because she gets diagnosed with cancer. Sorbo’s character cracks because of the death of his mother. And he converts when he gets hit by a car and dies. I know it is fiction, but keep in mind that the audience this is marketed to’teenagers’will begin praying for tragedy to strike all of their friends so they can convert. Having done youth ministry, I can attest to the fact that this already happens.

Atheists who hear this kind of thing are offended when they hear it and for good reason. If you’re insinuating that their beliefs are so thin that it would take nothing more than personal tragedy to get them to abandon their lack of faith then you don’t understand how passionately they hold to their unbelief. Christopher Hitchens died in 2011 from cancer. Voltaire had a false alarm death bed experience and is said to have called for a priest at that time. However when he died years later, he was buried half in and half out of a church’hardly a victory for theism and certainly not anything that resembles a true conversion.

If you want a taste of do unto others as you would have them to do unto you imagine a Hollywood movie which portrays all Christians as monsters who abandon their faith when tragedy strikes. Come to think of it, that’s been done. It goes as far back as the film version of Elmer Gantry and Robert Duvall’s more recent The Apostle. However someone in Christianity said something about turning the other cheek so we’re held to a higher standard in film as to how we portray our enemies. The same Person said something about loving them.

You also do not understand total depravity if you fall for this. While atheists deny the God they already know exists, they do so because they hate Him and love sin. For a primer on the condition of man, read Romans 3:10-18. Many people are in Hell today who died from long term illness. Illness does not justify unbelievers.

There’s more I could say about the characterizations of Harper’s movie girlfriend and the Chinese student but I think I’ve made my point. In summary of this point, let it be said that good writing glorifies God. Cheap tricks do not. This kind of writing promotes a Pollyanna-ish mentality that does not square with reality. If you don’t believe that, then go meet some atheists.

The Ugly – The ApologeticsTheology

In spite of the good advice that the fictional pastor gave our hero in the movie, Don’t try to be clever. Be content to tell the truth, I count three times this movie blasphemed God in an attempt to be clever and essentially shellac the truth.

The idea that putting God on trial is somehow a good thing ought to be repulsive to us as Christians. In the Bible, God was once put on trial. You can read about it in Mark 14-15. Go ahead and read that right now and ask yourself as a Christian how it makes you feel to see the perfect, spotless, Son of God put on trial by sinful men? What do you think when you come to Mark 14:65 and you read that after the guilty verdict, the Sanhedrin acted this way: And some began to spit on Him and to cover His face, and to buffet Him, and to say unto Him, Prophesy’: and the servants did strike Him with the palms of their hands?
Here’s an example of what you should think. James Stalker wrote the classic, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ back in the 1890’s. Here are his thoughts on Mark 14:65:

There are terrible things in man. There are some depths in human nature into which it is scarcely safe to look. It was by the very perfection of Christ that the uttermost evil of His enemies was brought out (page 29 of the 1929 Doubleday, Doran & Co. reprint).

We shrink back from any depiction of this moment in the trial of Jesus Christ because of the terrible things in man. There’s something in us–when we imagine it–that cries out, Blasphemy!

What we know to be blasphemy, in the case of this movie, is celebrated as relevant evangelism.

The unbeliever is not in the position of prosecuting attorney or the jury when it comes to Jesus. Just like the Sanhedrin, their position is as the judged and not the Judge: Ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62).

Harper’s character, when challenged to present evidence for the existence of God, would have been right to say, God is not judged by men; He judges men. See ya later and then walk out of the classroom. I think that could have been part of a pretty good movie. A plot could develop along those lines.

The reason why Christians aren’t as offended with this apologetic approach is because they’ve been taught for too long that the foolish atheist (Psalm 14:1)–who suppresses the truth he already knows in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18)’ought to be engaged with evidence that demands a verdict. They believe that a spiritually dead person (Ephesians 2:1-4) is able to reason himself into spiritual life without the incorruptible seed of the Word of God (1 Peter 1:22-25) or the agency of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). In short, such misguided though well-intentioned Christians believe what the atheist says about himself rather than what God says about the atheist.

There is another apologetic. Anyone who is interested in the study should look up Sye TenBruggencate’s How to Answer the Fool. You can watch it right now on Vimeo on Demand or buy the DVD here.

How To Answer The Fool – Trailer from Crown Rights on Vimeo.

God does not need us to defend him, as the hero of this movie states. The atheist needs us to declare the truth to him so that he can be rescued from the wrath of God. To state the former and miss the latter is blasphemous. When we’even with the best of intentions’place God on trial in our personal evangelism or in big screen movies we give the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme. And they are doing exactly that.

Someone asked me today if I would have been as upset with this movie even if it did not approach it from an evidential basis rather than a presuppositional. Good question. Yes, I would have because of the next two points.

Second, when Harper’s character implies that the Big Bang somehow comports with the account in Genesis, the writers blaspheme. There is no way that the Genesis account of creation in chapters 1-2 can mix with the billions of years that the Big Bang theory advocates. This is a subtle attack on the sufficiency of Scripture. It may be motivated with the intention to appeal to scientific minds, but when you start doing that the whole gospel message comes under scrutiny. Care to prove the Resurrection of Jesus scientifically? How about the Virgin Birth? The Deity of Christ?

Third, when our hero implies in one of his lectures that God could have used molecules to man evolution, the writers blaspheme. The Bible teaches that death came into the world because our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned. Evolution teaches that millions of years of death and struggle somewhere along the way resulted with our first parents. Romans 5 teaches that sin and death passed upon all of us because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Evolution obviously denies it. To suggest that God used Darwinian evolution to create is to say that God denies what He says about this foundational element of the gospel.

Perhaps it is time for us as Christians to stop thinking that we can use movies to evangelize the lost. Jesus did not command us to go into all the world and show movies. He did command us to evangelize. Perhaps it is time for us to start making movies that have the goal of pure entertainment that presuppose a Biblical worldview simply for the sake of making art that glorifies God. Leave the evangelism to average everyday Christians and leave the art to real artists. After all, God is the consummate artist and His tapestry does not include sermon clips from someone surnamed Graham. At least I didn’t see that sermon clip in the sunset last night. God uses both general revelation through nature (His masterpiece) and special revelation through the Word of God. They are not diametrically opposed. Trying to mix them up may be doing more harm than good.

Jon Speed
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