What follows are notes on one element, the narrative confidence, of God’s Not Dead; for a more complete treatment, see my review at FilmFisher.
Nearly seventy-five years after his death, Sigmund Freud is still taught and studied continuously on the average university campus, but where might surprise you. It isn’t in the Psychology departments, where they have largely dismissed him as liberal and antiquated, but in the Literature departments, where his theories of the subconscious will (the id) are brought to bear on literary texts. The real meaning of a work of literature, say the Freudian readers, is not the meaning intended by the author, but the meaning unintentionally communicated by the author; i.e. read between the lines, and don’t bother yourself about the lines at all. As anyone but the most committed Freudian will readily admit, this is a flawed, unbalanced approach to art, but it does get at a kernel of truth—it is simply an over-application of a timeless observation. Men didn’t need Freud to tell them that a whole lot of human communication is nonverbal and, yes, unintentional; even the casual observer of body language or vocal pitch and intonation will conclude that on their own. And art, as intentional as artists might think themselves, is not excepted from this reality.
God’s Not Dead is a film that communicates more than it wants to. Ostensibly, it presents a stridently confident—if sometimes self-congratulatory—view of the gospel. The chief protagonist, Josh, an Evangelical freshman at a secular university, is faced with a task for which he is unsuited and unprepared: convince his philosophy class and his belligerent atheist professor of the existence of God. After a handful of all-nighters and the library and a few expertly prepared slide shows (PowerPoint presentations too good to have been believably put together by him, especially with his schedule), he pulls it off. The implication is that his mission is too good and too high to fail—a premise we can all commend, even if a more artful incarnation of it would be preferred.
The film, however, undermines this confidence at several turns. The atheist professor, visibly shaken by some of Josh’s arguments, seems to approach a point of conversion, recalling the faith of his dead mother and wavering in his commitment to disbelief. This is not enough for the filmmakers, though. In a surprising turn of events, the professor is hit by a car and, after a deathbed conversion event, dies at the scene of the accident. It is as if the filmmakers aren’t confident enough in the converting power of the gospel message even to trust it in the heart of their own fictional creation; he needs to be struck down and set upon by a bystanding pastor while he is most susceptible…before he has an opportunity to regain his strength and disbelieving resolve. Men, it is anxiously suggested, do not ascend toward knowledge of or belief in God in some progressive or lasting way (as, say, Dante does), but merely experience moments of vulnerability which must be exploited before they pass. This anxiety is confirmed in the fate of the God’s Not Dead’s other leading atheist character, a wealthy professional who is too happy and too successful to be affected by the Christians he encounters in the film.
Even the promotional materials for God’s Not Dead belie the confidences of the film. One of the movie posters depicts a crowd of people gazing at a stone wall upon which the words “God’s Dead” are indelibly painted. The image conveys the strength and permanence of the message. Climbing out of the crowd is a young man (presumably the character, Josh) pasting a small improvised “Not” over the original phrase. The entire act, though, conveys the inferiority and insecurity of his new message. The “Not” is much smaller than the other words, utterly failing to obscure the original sentiment—like a stop sign that has had the word “don’t” sarcastically and pointlessly spray-painted onto it. The poster’s concept presents the message of God’s nonexistence as a far more established and enduring one, and the attempted contradiction of it as diminutive and incapable of really competing as a truth claim. Anyone still not convinced can attempt the following thought experiment. Imagine a reversal of the image—“God is Alive” on the wall, and a twenty-something disciple of Dawkins or Hitchens pasting an insignificant “Not” over the middle of it—then compare the ethos and pathos of the two images.
The final sequence of God’s Not Dead is a massive Christian pop music concert (the Newsboys are playing). In the middle of the show, Willie Robertson appears on the jumbotron and encourages everyone in attendance to text “God’s Not Dead” to their entire list of mobile contacts. As the credits roll, the audience of moviegoers is encouraged to do the same. Large groups of Christian viewers are now sent forth into the world with the superficial charge of sending 100 text messages, as if it is some new kind of great commission. Perhaps the fear of the filmmakers was that the average Christian moviegoer couldn’t be relied upon to do any more, or that their film had not been successful enough to make greater claims upon their audience? Either way, the charge betrays imperfect assurance.
“God’s Dead” may seem like an age-old and enduring truth, scrawled across that wall, but the message of Easter is older than the stones from which the wall is made, older than the hills, older than time itself. I don’t doubt that the makers of God’s Not Dead share that same belief, but that makes it all the more pitiable that their art wasn’t able to show forth that confidence more successfully.<>