In Hollywood, God’s still not dead

The two Catholic screenwriters behind God’s Not Dead discuss the sequel, which opens in theaters April 1.

The 2014 movie God’s Not Dead is one of the most successful faith-based productions of all time, grossing more than $60 million worldwide. The movie, produced by Pure Flix Entertainment, tells the story of a Christian college student’s confrontation with an atheist philosophy professor.

A sequel, God’s Not Dead 2, opens in theaters this week. The movie stars TV actress Melissa Joan Hart as a public high school teacher who faces a legal battle after a classroom discussion about Jesus.

Though geared toward largely Evangelical audiences, both films were written by two Catholics, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman. The screenwriters recently corresponded with CWR over email about God’s Not Dead 2, which opens April 1.

CWR: God’s Not Dead was an enormous success, bringing in $64 million at the box office, against a budget of only $2 million, earning a 32-fold return. By comparison, the highest grossing film of the year, Transformers 4, had an eight-fold return. Why was this film so successful?

Chuck Konzelman/Cary Solomon: Well, we’re not knocking the success of the Transformers franchise. We’re sure Paramount is very happy with their eight-fold return…especially on a big tent-pole release. Part of what allowed for God’s Not Dead’s success was that it was filmed on almost a micro-budget, in film financing terms. So when it resonated with its target audience, that translated into an unusually high multiplier in terms of the return on investment. Dollar-for-dollar, the industry site The Numbers ranks it as the seventh-most profitable film of all time.

CWR: In the first film, a college student is challenged by an atheist professor. In God’s Not Dead 2, the tables are flipped, and a teacher is brought to court for mentioning Jesus in a public school classroom. It’s an interesting inversion, and I’m curious if you see this as a changing trend in education.

Konzelman/Solomon: Ironically, teachers live in such fear of mentioning faith issues in a classroom that this sort of thing almost never originates with the teacher…unless, of course, they’re denigrating Christianity. But the situation in the film stems from a female student in an AP history class recognizing a parallel between the nonviolence teachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and those of Jesus. So she asks her teacher a direct question about it. Recognition of that parallel shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since Dr. King was an ordained Baptist minister. But that tends to get glossed over in the public school environment these days.

CWR: A significant portion of the defense’s case rests on proving the existence of Jesus as a historical fact; former skeptics like Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace even make appearances in the film. Why was this important?

Konzelman/Solomon: For two reasons: the first being that this particular issue hasn’t been litigated yet. So we wanted to “lean into the future” a little bit, even if it’s only 15 or 20 minutes into the future. The second is that we’re looking to make believers aware of the fact that the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights aren’t drafted to suggest “you can talk about any person who ever existed with the exception of Jesus.” So we’re separating the Jesus of history—whose existence is universally accepted by all credible scholars and historians, including atheists—from the “Christ” of theology. The former is a history issue; the latter is a faith issue. Exclusion of the faith aspect shouldn’t preclude discussion of the historical side. After all, we’re talking about the most influential person in the history of the human race.

CWR: In the movie, the prosecuting attorney frequently insists that this is not about “attacking beliefs” but rather “preaching in the public square.” How has our society relegated religious faith to only a personal spiritual experience? It seems unreasonable to assume religion, a dominant force in the lives of the vast majority of humanity, cannot have a public expression.

Konzelman/Solomon: The secular-humanist progressives insist that people are free to worship as they choose, but they need to leave their personal beliefs at the door when they enter the public sphere. And unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into that. But it’s a trap: it means the other side gets to bring its belief system into the public square, but we don’t. We’ve got to stop making that concession, or we’re going to end up losing the right to exercise our religious faith as well.

CWR: Both of you are Catholics, but I notice neither film makes any mention of Catholic ideas like the saints or the sacraments. Neither is any Protestant denomination explicitly mentioned. In the first film, you faced a little heat for labeling the great physicist Georges Lemaître a “theist” instead of a “priest.” Were these films deliberately made to appeal to a wide range of Christians across denominational lines?

Konzelman/Solomon: You’re asking a delicate question. In the script for the first film, we actually referred to Lemaître as a Catholic priest, since that’s what he was. But that reference got buffed out during shooting. In order to make the film accessible to the widest possible Christian audience, the producers elected to keep the flavor very nondenominational. So the tone and vocabulary of the film are very much contemporary and Evangelical. We’ve had some Catholics challenge us about this, to which we politely respond that not a single dollar of the film’s budget—or even the advertising fund—came from Catholic sources. So we consider ourselves blessed to have been invited along for the journey. And if Catholics want to see some films with a distinctly more Catholic flavor, then they’re going to have to help fund them. That might sound blunt…or even rude. But that’s reality.

CWR: One of the strengths of both films is the willingness to face hard questions against Christianity. As St. Paul states, “always be ready to give a reason for your belief.” What challenges have you faced in your own faith journey, and how have these experiences influenced your writing?

Konzelman/Solomon: When we left the mainstream film industry—feeling like we’d been called by the Lord to do so—we entered a pretty rough period. Without going into details, let’s just call it a “desert experience” that lasted about seven years. The advantage of that is, now we consider any successes—even small ones—as a blessing, and hopefully we’re better prepared to withstand whatever trials are still ahead.

CWR: I might be butchering it, but I loved the line in the movie spoken by the high school teacher: “I would rather be judged by the world and loved by God than be loved by the world and judged by God.” How does a “heavenly viewpoint” change our perception of earthly struggles?

Konzelman/Solomon: St. Augustine wrote about the City of God…and the City of Man. And those two cities are forever in opposition to one another. It’s easy to see Hollywood as sort of the ultimate “City of Man.” Or perhaps, “Vanity Fair” [from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress], the pleasant town full of diversions on the road to destruction, where faith is an anathema. A “heavenly viewpoint” means we try to evaluate each project in terms of what it can accomplish for the glory of God. And while solid returns at the box office are nice—allowing faith-driven filmmakers to go back and produce more product—even a film which underperforms by industry standards can do a lot of good. Every film with a truly redemptive message is going to touch someone deeply. It’s going to strike a nerve at just the right moment, and move him or her to repentance. And helping to save even one lost soul is a pretty big deal, according to heaven’s way of accounting. Part of the beauty of film is that it can do that for someone in a movie theater, over a bucket of popcorn. And it can just as easily do it again for someone else, years later, because they happen to view the same picture on television or an old DVD. Film’s ability to move human emotions isn’t diminished either by time or consumption by others.

CWR: There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the lack of diversity—especially of race and gender—in Hollywood generally and at the Academy Awards specifically. Yet there is little mention of diversity of ideas. Does Hollywood have a “diversity problem” when it comes to representing Christianity or Judeo-Christian morality?

Konzelman/Solomon: Certainly. There’s no solid representation of Judeo-Christian morality anywhere in the industry. That’s because the executive ranks of the studios are nearly devoid of practicing believers. Nearly a third of America finds itself in church on any given Sunday, but we’re willing to wager there’s not a single studio head who attends religious services—of whatever denomination—on a regular basis. What’s worse is that studio culture doesn’t just ignore Christian thought, it’s downright hostile toward it. So the very few believers we know of who are working inside the system have to keep their personal beliefs very quiet. And that’s not going to change any time soon. The good news is that believers are quietly moving forward, outside of the traditional studio system, to get things done. To flip Karl Marx on his head—in a way that would’ve horrified Marx himself—we’re seizing the means of production. And that’s a very exciting idea for those of us with a faith-driven worldview.

About Nick Olszyk 88 Articles
Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, CA. He has directed several short films and is the new father of the aptly named Nick Jr. He was raised on bad science movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.