It’s a pity to waste a sloppy story.
That’s what I couldn’t stop thinking after finishing up God’s Not Dead, a recent film that’s made some waves among Christians on the Internet. As with most movies that I see, I saw this one much later than the real Internet pundits, who seem to have disposable income and affordable night-time child care in place to allow for viewing new movies. Instead, I picked up a DVD copy yesterday at a local Red Box kiosk and watched it, in 20-minute segments (it really is a bad movie, and besides that, I had work to do, so I watched the movie when I got tired of real work), and returned it this morning.
I’ll pause here and say that Red Box makes me sad the same way that iTunes does: one of my own rites of passage as a teenager involved getting comfortable enough with myself to go into record stores (Karma Music in Avon, Indiana) and video stores (there were several in my hometown) and announce myself as someone who watched and listened to this rather than that. Such self-announcement used to be part of the process of being a pop-culture consumer then in ways that it’s just not any more. Seems to me that removing those minimum-wage, early-twenties gatekeepers from the process has deprived folks younger than me of one small monster to slay. But I should get back to my essay here.
Coyle Neal has already written a better review of the film than I could hope to do, one that mentions Michial Farmer’s rant about the corresponding song, but I do think I might have something to add because of sheer contingency (which suits me just fine, of course.) The good luck of watching this movie on my schedule rather than the movie theater’s is that I saw the movie just as my upper-division literature students reached the midpoint of Goethe’s Faust. A student of mine (not in this semester’s course) recently wrote a paper arguing that Goethe’s artistry in Faust is precisely to take every tenet of neoclassicism and violate it, one after the other, for the enjoyment of those reading and watching the play. I think he might be right. And even beyond that, the strange side-scenes, whether we’re talking about the Walpurgisnacht masque or the talking monkeys in the witch’s kitchen or the prologue in the theater or the over-long tavern scene in Leipzig or any of the other lovely digressions, give the play chances to explore questions that are tangential to the main Faust-plot as well as simply to give Goethe chances to try out weird scenes. All in all, Faust has me convinced that a sloppy story has its own excellence, the exploration of side-threads, just as an energetic and unified story, the sort that an eighteenth-century Classicist would praise, has its own kind of excellence. One is not a deficient version of the other; they’re different species, each with its own potential to be really good storytelling and each with the potential not to do much.
And so, when I watched God’s Not Dead, I didn’t take as deficient artistic editing the micro-narratives of the Muslim girl with the racial-stereotypically violent father, the atheist stock broker who treats women as Newt Gingrich might, the tale of Willy Robertson and the liberal blogger, and the adventures of the magical African and his White buddy with good youth minister hair. Instead, I lamented them as wasted opportunities, chances gone by to do some serious reflection on each other and on the main storyline, namely the clash of the plucky evangelical college freshman (played by Shane Harper) and the atheist college professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) who doesn’t seem to talk to fellow adults about anything but plucky evangelical college freshmen. But first, let’s get the spoiler-alert out of the way, just in case there’s anyone who hasn’t been over to the Red Box yet.
Alright. That’s out of the way, and I can comment now on some of the opportunities to explore real complexities of faith that the movie just slid by, despite being nearly two painful hours long:
- The character Ayisha is a young Muslim woman whose father in the film is the bald, bulky, violent, unforgiving caricature of an Arab Muslim that would make Sam Harris and Bill Maher nod in approval. Hers is a side story in which she apparently converts to Christianity by listening to audio Bible files and Franklin Graham sermons on her mobile digital device. Her story line culminates when her father beats her and throws her out of the house for refusing to say that God is not begotten (which one could say of the Father within the confines of Christian theology, to be fair), after which she goes to Pastor Dave (who has good youth minister hair) and then drifts out of the story entirely, to make a cameo at the Newsboys concert at the end of the film.
The missed opportunity here is to examine the structures of story and that of Josh Wheaton, the plucky evangelical college freshman. In one case, the character risks rejection on the part of her family because she rejects the religious tradition in which she grew up. That’s a compelling story. In Wheaton’s story, the protagonist risks academic disaster for holding to the religious tradition in which he grew up. Also a compelling story, but where’s the reflection on which childhood traditions are worth keeping and which one must reject if one comes upon new and compelling ideas?Not in this film, I’m afraid.Both characters make potentially (or actually) life-altering decisions with regards to long-running religious communities, but the logo on the jersey seems to be enough for the film-makers. No more time gets spent on the rather important existential question of how we relate to the communities into which we’re reared. And perhaps more importantly, the film dedicates none of its 114 minutes to saying what happens to Ayisha after the Newsboys concert.
- The character Mina, who is a visual double for Ayisha (skinny straight-haired brunette with dark eyes and a perpetual look of longing and disappointment–it took me entirely too long to realize these were different characters, since all the women in this film dress alike), cares for her mother, who has lost her mind to dementia, while her atheist-philosophy-professor boyfriend, Radisson (who’s too busy talking about plucky evangelical college freshmen to care about old people) and her atheist-stock-broker brother (who’s too busy breaking up with girlfriends diagnosed with cancer to care about old people) either refuse to visit or visit only at the end of the film. When the professor belittles her in front of his colleagues at a philosophy-department dinner party (where the conversation consists entirely of Radisson’s aspirations to become the department chair and–you guessed it–plucky evangelical college freshmen), she leaves him and also ends up at the Newsboys concert, where her story ends.
Once again, the potential for some real soul-searching scenes lay right in front of the film-makers, but they walked past. In what ways has her long emotional and sexual relationship with an atheist (I assume they’ve had sex–though the film never gets near that one, she’s supposed to have gotten together with him during her undergraduate years, and if her mother’s age is any indication, they’ve been together for at least a decade) affected her view of other Christians and herself as a woman of faith? What will she do with her life after apparently being nothing but a trophy girlfriend to a really bad professor for a decade? (I can only assume that there’s going to be some sort of new-monastic get-together after the roadies pack the band up to head to the next city, and all the characters whose lives have fallen apart, unlike Josh Wheaton’s, will find some organic farm to work together.)
- The students in Radisson’s philosophy class have their own narrative arc, and it’s not a pretty one. In a class of roughly eighty, only one student (in a college that’s walking distance from a concert venue that fills up with college-age people for a Newsboys concert) won’t write “God Is Dead” at the beginning of the movie, yet by the end, because of three student-delivered lectures with increasingly slick PowerPoint backgrounds (the last lecture gets up to megachurch-Sunday-service quality, I’m telling you), when they detect that their professor is weak enough to pounce on, they all rise and shout “God’s Not Dead!” at their atheist professor, who exits in shame just a bit before dying in the most spectacular bullet-time, dying-philosophy-professor shot you’ll see in a movie this year.
As Coyle Neal notes, the demographics of the scenario are nothing short of dizzying, and beyond that, these are apparently students who will make life-or-death switches of allegiance with very little provocation. Once again, the movie could have taken some time to follow some of these students, say, into the weekend, in which their new commitments come under the real threats to American faith, boredom and vice. After all, Christian virtue is all about constancy, right? But no, I imagine they all just got scalped tickets to the Newsboys show and drifted out of the film’s range of concern.
By the way, and I have to mention this, rain is pouring down during the beginning of the death-of-the-professor scene, but a couple cuts back and forth to the Newsboys-concert sequence later, the rain has stopped, and Pastor Dave, who has just taken Radisson’s death-bed (or death-street, if you insist on being literal) confession, once more has good youth-minister hair. This is a movie that features many miracles, people!
- Amy, the liberal blogger and one-time girlfriend of Marc Shelley, the atheist stock broker whose love life resembles Newt Gingrich’s, reveals in two separate scenes that she can only write interview questions pulled from the fantasies of evangelical apologetics-conference leaders (“Do you really think Jesus is God?” “Are you really going to sing songs about the Bible?”) but undergoes a moment of crisis in between her interviews with Willie Robertson and with Michael Tait when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although this seems like a stereotypical slasher-movie trope, namely punishing the immoral girl, this one gets the closest to a moment of reflection when Amy’s brother Marc (the atheist stock broker played by Dean Cain, which means that Hercules and Superman are the two major atheists in this movie), late in the movie, talks to his mother, the one who has lost her mind, and tells her that if there’s a God, that being doesn’t think twice about giving righteous old women dementia while their immoral atheist sons get promoted to lucrative jobs, pile up cash, and dump young girlfriends when they get cancer. I’ll admit that, as this scene rolled on, I was going to write the review of this film defending its theological depth, that they’d worked in a genuine Job-scene in the midst of all of the praise-song theology.
Then the scene kept rolling.
At the close of the scene, the mother has a sudden moment of lucidity and tells Marc that sometimes the devil lets people enjoy success so that they never feel the need to turn to God. The wicked might prosper, but it’s not God who gives good things but Satan. (By this point in the film, I was numb enough not to care that Satan was dispensing good things.) So no, there won’t be a Job moment here. Sorry, Bible-readers.
But wait, I thought, we’ve already watched a scene in which Willie Robertson admits to being wildly successful and filthy rich. Perhaps we’ll get a meditation on the difficulty for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, right? Since Robertson is also rolling in cash, and since the movie went out of its way to point that out, there’s going to be a meditation on God and Mammon at some point, right?
No, not so much.
Instead we get one last cameo of Robertson, appearing from the ribs up on a jumbotron behind Michael Tait (and yes, judge me if you must, but it reminded me of the “Cult of Personality” video from Living Colour), congratulating young Josh Wheaton on his defense of the faith in his introduction to philosophy class. In a fairly straight-forward visual sense, he’s the larger-than-life voice from the digital heavens, congratulating a faithful servant on a job well done.By this point in the movie, in case you’re wondering, the writers seem to have given up on plot, as a concept, entirely: somehow not only the Newsboys but also the cast of Duck Dynasty knew what was going on in local college classrooms, and all of the Christian characters from all of the subplots, except for Pastor Dave, who has good youth minister hair, had converged on the Newsboys concert and were within two rows of each other, in all of their Dickensian genealogy-linked goodness. At that point I was ready to accept all of this.
I won’t pretend at this point that I’m not having fun pointing out the bad plotting, bad character development, and the occasional bout of outright bigotry at the heart of this film. It really was the worst movie I watched for some time, and I genuinely fear the day that someone makes a movie with these sorts of messages but does so with the cinematic acumen of a Kubrick or a Tarantino. But I also want to maintain that the very sloppiness of the movie is what makes it especially disappointing. The raw materials for some genuinely interesting meditations on faith, culture, the consequences of human beings’ choices were there, but the film-makers were too busy trying to drive home one particular vision of the world to explore them. It’s a pity, really–they had a really sloppy story going there.