MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 2.5 out of 5
God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness is the third installment in the most successful independent Christian franchise of all time, and it begins immediately where the previous film left off. After Grace is victorious in her free-speech court case, Pastor Dave Hill (actor and PureFlix founder David A.R. White) faces imminent disaster as he refuses to comply with a court order to submit copies of his sermons for legal review. If this sounds too Orwellian for a democratic society, it’s actually based on a real case. What follows is more of a character study than an apologetic treatise, unlike the first two films. As a result the movie is in some ways more courageous in tackling the practical difficulties of living in a country that is becoming aggressively anti-Christian. Yet the solutions offered here seem more in line with Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence than with C.S. Lewis or Billy Graham. It’s not an overly defeatist picture but, frankly, it’s a poor choice for the Easter season.
Pastor Dave finds himself in prison for his act of civil disobedience, but soon Christian social media and Fox News shed light on his plight, which pressures a higher court to release him. Only five minutes into the narrative, this is the high point of the film.
Embarrassed by the whole debacle, the university adjoining his church looks for a way to kick Dave off campus. His parish, St. James Church (denomination not mentioned), was the main place of worship before the university converted from a private to a public institution many decades earlier. His claim of its historic as well as spiritual importance is weakened as students begin to protest the church, claiming Dave is a bigot for insisting that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
The university’s president, Thomas Ellsworth (Ted McGinley), uses an eminent domain claim to force Dave to sell the parish to the university’s board so they can raze it and build a student union. Dave engages his estranged brother and civil-rights attorney Pierce (John Corbett) to sue the university and save the church. Things quickly escalate and the community is divided by protests. Soon Ellsworth and his family are receiving death threats, and the church is attacked by an arsonist, who kills the visiting associate pastor from Uganda.
David A.R. White finally finds a role worthy of his decades of work in the independent film industry. His acting work, even in the previous films of this franchise, has been spotty, but here his performance is strong and compelling. While Pastor Dave is firm in his conviction to save St. James, he also has a desire to make peace. Ellsworth is an old friend, and he hates that they have been put in this situation. He is often conflicted and admits he isn’t sure what to do. Corbett also gives a convincing performance as an agnostic, sarcastic, worldly foil to his righteous brother. There’s a lot of pain in their mutual past that set them off in different directions, with strong echoes of the parable of the prodigal son. Their conversations are deep and meaningful without the hokeyness that plagues many Christian-themed productions.
God’s Not Dead 3 jumps on the “young people speaking out” bandwagon, highlighting the frustration and social-media activism of several college students, none of whom has the gumption or piety of Josh in the first God’s Not Dead film. “You spend so much time telling us what the Church is against,” laments one young person, “but what is the Church for?” As a high school teacher myself, of course I want my students to get involved in causes that matter and inquire about their place in the world around them. But their intellects and characters are still being formed, and they need the guiding hand of just authority, not a worldly sense of entitlement.
Many movie critics, Christian and non-Christian alike, have criticized this series for being too triumphant, and unfortunately the filmmakers listened. When faced with opposition, Pastor Dave—like the Israelites in the desert—seems to forget his previous successes and takes a new route. He agrees to drop the lawsuit and sell the church to the university, which promises to allow Christian students to continue to meet and worship in a center at the future Student Union. In a dramatic ending, he and Ellsworth stand together, passing out candles to protesters and supporters alike. Instead of preaching Jesus Christ, he tells them the lighted candles represent their shared values of “peace, hope, and love.”
This action “works” in the sense that it brings protests to an end and even gets the college students to praise Pastor Dave on their Periscope accounts. Yet, what good is Ellsworth’s promise? Even if the students can meet, their generic grey cubicle will be squished between an LGBT dating service and the Rastafarian relief fund, just one of many equally bland organizations. Pastor Dave defends himself, saying, “The people are the church, not the building.” It is true that this world is not the Kingdom, but of Pastor Dave’s three options—legal success, legal failure, or compromise—this was the worst.
The whole of the Christian world is celebrating the Easter season, in which Christ has risen from the dead. In light of this, why is Pastor Dave so afraid? We don’t have to win; the battle has already been won. It is understandable to desire peace and praiseworthy to limit persecution, but not by watering down the Gospel. God’s Not Dead is an exceptional movie; God’s Not Dead 2 is decent and enjoyable; God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness had potential but went out with a whimper. What a sad way to end a franchise.
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