From the classroom to the courtroom: God’s Not Dead 2

MPAA Rating, PG

USCCB Rating, A-II

Reel Rating,        

 

The new sequel to 2014’s God’s Not Dead raises the stakes, as it moves the question of religious liberty in an increasingly secular culture from the classroom to the courtroom. Here, the tables are turned, and it is a history teacher who faces termination and financial ruin for mentioning Jesus in public school setting. The new movie doesn’t have the knockout punch of its predecessor but still a decent left hook.

Grace (Melissa Joan Hart) is a perfect example of St. Francis’ “actions not words” approach to Christian witness. She sacrifices good pay and personal ambition to teach AP United States history at Dr. Martin Luther King High School, and seems genuinely interested in her students’ success. At home, she sacrifices a normal family life to take care of her ailing father, played by Pat Boone. One afternoon while discussing civil rights and the man for whom the school was named, a student, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), asks if MLK’s inspiration came from the teachings of Jesus. Grace affirms her suggestion and quotes the famous passage from Luke about “turning the other cheek” as an illustration of MLK’s use of nonviolent protest. When Brooke’s parents discover this exchange, they complain to the school board, who insist Grace apologize. When she refuses, Brooke’s parents see an opportunity for a cash grab and maybe some liberal street cred for her daughter’s potential college admission. Against Brooke’s wishes, they hire the ACLU to sue Grace for violating their daughter’s First Amendment rights. Since Grace is unable to afford legal counsel, the court assigns Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) as her defense attorney. He isn’t interested in her religious faith but also “doesn’t like to lose.”

To even a hardened secularist, Grace’s “classroom antics” would seem like a reasonable response to a reasonable question. Unfortunately for her, she does not live in reasonable time. Knowledge is knowledge, and religion is the dominant force in the lives of most humanity. It’s insane to attempt any kind examination of history, especially American history, without factoring in Christianity. To prove Grace only acted in the interests of expanding her students’ thinking, Tom brings in several real-life experts, playing themselves in the film—most former atheists or agnostics—who can attest to the historical reality of Jesus Christ and the validity of the Gospels.

If all that had happened was Brooke’s question in class and Grace’s answer, the prosecution would have a difficult time, but there is a deeper, more interesting layer to Grace’s case. Prior to this event, Brooke’s brother had died suddenly, and she was desperately searching for a meaning to life that her parents had refused to provide. Outside the classroom, she approached Grace about this problem in her life, and Grace spoke honestly about how her Christian faith helped her understand suffering. In the courtroom, Brooke had to admit that had it not been for Grace’s evangelism, she would not have asked the question or become a Christian.

This beautiful and haunting episode highlights a deeper problem in academia today. One does not need a teacher to provide knowledge on a specific topic; even Wikipedia can provide that. Teachers should be role models inside and outside the classroom, mentors in both word and deed.

Christians must always insists on the right to publicly express their faith. The God’s Not Dead 2 screenwriters explained this well in an interview I did with them for CWR:

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.

The biggest problem with God’s Not Dead 2 is its final act. In court, Tom descends into a theatrical tirade that doesn’t make sense in either the film’s narrative or real life. The film is also not as brash or innovative as the original.

Despite the film’s hopeful ending, there is a sense a looming dread that surrounds everything. It understands that the clouds on the horizon are darkening and that more challenging times are ahead. Perhaps it would have been better to not have finished on so positive a note, but allowed Grace to fail in the eyes of the world, to prepare Americans to deal with failure as well as victory. For even if Grace had lost and been thrown into poverty and obscurity, she still would have won. She saved a soul, and that single accomplishment is worth more than any honor the world can give.

About Nick Olszyk 108 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction 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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