American Baptist evangelist Billy Graham has been associated with the production of feature films for years. Sometimes showings have worked as remote revivals. Sometimes the films have featured skilled actors (Julie Harris in “The Hiding Place,” for example).
The latest of the run is a movie called “God’s Not Dead.” Its cast includes Kevin “Hercules” Sorbo and Dean “Superman” Cain. It is technically pretty strong, and for as talk-heavy as it is, the film moves fairly effectively.
But there are a lot of whiffs of stale air coming off the movie, too. For one thing, contemporary atheists are unlikely to remember or to have ever known that anyone every caused a stir by suggesting that “God is dead.” Nietzsche originated the expression in the 1880s. Time Magazine, that harbinger of the newest concepts, used the sentence on a issue cover in 1966. That’s nearly fifty years ago.
The film’s story is about a very conscious and religious Protestant who, as a college freshman, has a moron for a philosophy professor. Josh and all his classmates are asked, on the first day of class, to sign a statement saying that they acknowledge that God is dead.
When Josh refuses, his taunting professor (Sorbo) demands that he present arguments for the existence of God to the class. If he convinces them, maybe Josh won’t fail.
We follow that story, as well as ones about the professor’s Christian girlfriend, one about a Moslem undergraduate who is tossed from her family home for studying the New Testament, a slight one about a student from Red (and apparently still militantly anti-religious) China, one about an aggressive anti-Christian reporter who discovers she has cancer, and one about two preachers who can’t get any car they sit in to start.
This last is the comic relief for the movie, but it also signals a problem. If God is magical in the sense that he stops the ministers from getting a Datsun running, then why doesn’t he magically cure the reporter’s cancer?
The stories are intertwined in other ways, too. Josh asks one of the preachers for help preparing his classroom presentation. The preachers are there when the professor’s story comes to a close. The professor’s inamorata is the sister of a big wheel (Cain) who is dating the reporter. He dumps her, apparently for getting cancer, and this seems utterly unfair of the script.
That’s not the only dumping, either. Josh’s long-time girlfriend dumps him for refusing to sign the acknowledgment. That seems weak, too.
The actual arguments used in the debate about the existence of God are too abstract and too dependent on quotation (though the sources of the quotes are scientists, not prophets). The old pejorative “Jesuitical” came to mind.
And then Josh trips the professor up by calling his personal motivation and background into question, not by finding the error in his reasoning.
Nevertheless, the debate is more fun to follow than one would expect. Perhaps in a weekend when “Noah” was released, any movie that finds any fun in references to religion was going to seem a happy surprise.
At the end of the film there is a concert by the international Christian music group The Newsboys, and a scene in which band members meet with the sick reporter in a backstage room just before they go out to entertain half the other characters from the movie and thousands more.
Like the film’s story, the band’s music seemed to me to be harmless and a little dated. I could see how folks might enjoy the concert. Meanwhile, though, there were some life and death tragedies going on, tragedies involving the characters. And while I worried about them, the credits rolled, headed with a list of current or recent civil suits between Christians and academics.
I still think those suing are missing the point, though. Teachers who misuse their positions to belittle student beliefs have personal problems so substantial that they are unlikely to teach anything very well.