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"God’s Not Dead" succeeds in ways that most overtly Christian movies have not, both in cinematic quality and meaningful content

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating: (5 Reels out of 5)

Warning: Some spoilers ahead!

God’s Not Dead is my choice for best film of 2014. Yes, it’s only April and there’s still Heaven is for Real, Exodus, Interstellar, and Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Yet I think it will still be the best film, although I have to give a little wiggle room for Unbroken.

For years, independent Christian production companies have been trying to produce a mainstream theatrical film that could compete with major studios in both quality and box office receipts. Their pictures had ranged from boring and bland (Left Behind) to a little above mediocre (Fireproof). But, finally, their persistent efforts have found success in a film of real depth with actual financial bite: it landed #5 in its first weekend of release, reeling in $9 million on less than 800 theaters.

The first indicator that this is not going to be an average “low budget Christian film” is the risky decision to make an ensemble piece rather than a straight narrative. God’s Not Dead seamlessly weaves together a host of compelling stories and complex characters, all connected through divine providence and personal dilemmas involving faith and doubt. Think Crash meets Mere Christianity.

The heart of the story is the David and Goliath struggle between a college freshman and a seasoned philosophy instructor. On the first day of class, Prof. Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) instructs his students to write “God is Dead” on a piece a paper that will count for 30% of their final grade, a huge violation of academic ethics even for the most hardened of atheists. Josh (Kevin Harper) refuses, citing his Christianity. Radisson gives Josh the chance to prove himself by allowing him three twenty minutes lectures to make the argument God is not dead. His bored, disillusioned classmates—all of whom signed the paper without hesitation—will be the judges. Not only are Josh’s grade and law school prospects on the line; so too are the souls of his peers and Radisson himself.

Other stories include a humanist reporter who jumps Christian celebrities with gorilla interviews and later finds she is dying of cancer. Her interrogation with Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty only proves these “redneck duck-killing idiots” are funny, kind, polite, and surprisingly insightful. Seriously, this odd couple made more theological sense in five minutes than probably half the country’s Catholic university staff in a whole semester.

There’s also a sad but beautiful subplot involving the reporter’s boyfriend and the mother he rarely visits due to her dementia. He talks to her as if she doesn’t exist. “You’ve been faithful your whole life,” he smirks, “and God left you like this.” She stares forward and responds, “Sometimes the Devil allows people to be successful to keep them far from God.” She then turns to him and smiles, “Who are you?”

This may be the first film that credits an “Apologetics Consultant” in the opening titles (perhaps an imprimatur on a Catholic movie is in the future?). Josh’s first lecture focuses on science, the Big Bang, and the necessity of a creator; Fr. Robert Spitzer and Aquinas would be proud. Radisson is not impressed and confronts Josh with Hawking’s theory of a self-creating universe. This dialog doesn’t last too long but gets the casual viewer interested in the debate.

The second phase is far more interesting. After dealing with science and theistic proofs, Josh gets to the heart of the matter: the problem of evil. Here, the film really finds its groove by allowing the story to be the argument rather than the lecture. Prof. Radisson has a checkered past marked by much pain. He’s not just an atheist; he hates God. Josh challenges him, “How can you hate someone you don’t believe exists.” Radisson counters with one of the devastating phrases ever uttered: “That’s why former Christians make the most passionate atheists.”

God’s Not Dead isn’t perfect, but its imperfections mirror its flawed characters. In the lectures, there are certain questions that are left unanswered or not fully explained. There’s also a Muslim father who beats his daughter when he finds her listening to Christian sermons. While this is a realistic experience for some Muslim converts, it is an easy stereotype. Radisson is also so overwhelmingly arrogant and demeaning that atheists could just write him off as not representative of their beliefs. The film is best when it goes in for the punch, facing the tough questions head on. A pastor rushes over to a man dying from a hit and run. The man asks the pastor why this happening. “Sometimes God says no,” he replies. Choking in his own blood, the man grunts: “He says no a lot.” Wow. The film has the courage to say what is lacking in many Christian groups: holy lives require suffering, not just in body but also in soul.

Does cinema have the power to convert souls? No, only God converts. However, a great film can help a person fall in love with God because it reflects a little bit of His wonder and grace. A five reel film can do that. This is a tremendously entertaining film that leads to God, not in addition to its quality but through its quality. God’s Not Dead rings true because it shows He who is Truth.

And it ends with a heart wrenching twist matched only by Schindler’s List and Rabbit-Proof Fence.

On a personal note, please pray for me. I am actively discerning the priesthood for the Eparchy of Phoenix, which could require a temporary move to Austria for my whole family. I have the courage to announce this publicly to the world because of this film.

 
About the Author
Nick Olszyk 

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.
 
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