clock menu more-arrow no yes

How the Christian movie series God’s Not Dead fails to be Christian

The hugely popular trilogy isn’t really about Christianity. It’s about a persecution complex.

David A.R. White and Gregory Alan Williams in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness
David A.R. White and Gregory Alan Williams in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness.
Pure Flix

Perhaps the most surprising moment in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness the third installment in the wildly popular and commercially successful Christian movie franchise — comes when the beleaguered Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) goes to visit Pastor Roland (Gregory Alan Williams), the minister at the nearby predominantly black church, and Roland reads him the riot act.

It’s a startling moment because it’s one of several in the movie in which it seems that the God’s Not Dead series might have become self-aware.

Dave is certain that his church, St. James, is under attack from people who harbor an anti-religious political agenda against Christians. When Roland counsels him to pray and be patient, Dave is not having any of it, telling Roland that he might feel differently if it were his church being attacked. Roland looks at him in disbelief, and for just a moment, his voice gets heated. “Brother, who do you think you’re talking to?” he says to Dave. “I’m a black preacher in the Deep South. I could build a church with all the bricks that have been thrown through my windows.”

In this moment and a few others, it seems like A Light in the Darkness is about to reevaluate the God’s Not Dead series’ own narrative about Christians in America, one that’s been far more interested in bolstering a certain sort of persecution complex than in encouraging its audience toward Christlike behavior. But in the end, this God’s Not Dead installment is just like the others: putting on a pious face but failing to imagine what real sacrifice might look like.

God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness continues the series’ fixation on persecution

Samantha Boscarino, Jennifer Cipolla, and Shwayze in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness.
Samantha Boscarino, Jennifer Cipolla, and Shwayze in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness.
Pure Flix

God’s Not Dead has never been warmly welcomed by mainstream critics. The problem isn’t really the production value (which is mostly fine), or even the statement in the title, a contradiction of a willful misreading of Nietzsche that’s so generic and bland that few people would find it offensive.

But the movies are offensive, and not only to those who aren’t in their target audience. (This is where I state my bona fides: I’m a lifelong Christian who was raised in a conservative evangelical home, and I’ve been writing about these movies since I was the chief film critic at Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine started by Billy Graham.) Most people outside the series’ target bubble notice its outsize, navel-gazing persecution complex right off the bat.

The thesis of the God’s Not Dead series is that Christians and Christianity are under attack in America, and that the way to fight back is through exercising First Amendment rights, mostly in educational settings. In the first film, a college freshman named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper, who returns as a campus minister in the new film) intellectually conquers his caustically atheistic philosophy professor in three classroom rounds of debates about the existence of God. The professor gets hit by a car at the end and dies, but not before he becomes a Christian.

In the second, a high school teacher named Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) lands in court after answering a student’s question about Jesus by quoting the Bible. She wins the case, defeating the ACLU lawyer (Ray Wise) who vows to prove that God really is dead.

In this third installment, the historic building in which the St. James congregation meets was damaged in a fire caused by an act of vandalism that killed Dave’s co-pastor, Pastor Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango). Following the fire, the board of Hadleigh University, on whose campus the St. James building has been located for 150 years, has been trying to seize the property under eminent domain laws in order to build a student center.

Hadleigh argues that it’s unfair to favor one religion over another — that some student religious groups can’t even get funding, while the one hosted by St. James gets support from the university — but Pastor Dave thinks it’s because the university wants the public Christian presence off the campus. (And, privately, some of the board members think that would be best for the students and the university’s image as well.)

Despite their titles, the movies haven’t really been about arguments for the existence of God, either anecdotal or philosophical. Arguments for God’s existence are trotted out mostly in support in the movies’ main plots, which are about threats Christian characters face from people who are hostile toward Christians talking about God in the public square.

This, the films posit, is the relationship of Christian America to the rest of the country. And implicit in this idea is the notion that it hasn’t always been that way. As someone in a montage of cable news talking head programs says at the start of the third film, “This is what our country has come to.”

There’s a reason the first God’s Not Dead movies did so well at the box office. (The third installment didn’t fare as well, bringing in less than half of its predecessors’ opening weekend take at the box office — likely a result of competing with the very successful and largely apolitical I Can Only Imagine, and perhaps waning interest.)

White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. (I hardly need to point out that about the same proportion of white evangelical Protestants still form the lion’s share of President Donald Trump’s base.)

Moviegoers like to see themselves represented onscreen, and they like movies that reinforce their beliefs. God’s Not Dead knows what it’s doing. But to continue the series’ strategy of centering on tales of persecution, A Light in the Darkness had to also continue its predilection for stretching the truth.

The new God’s Not Dead movie preserves its predecessors’ sticky relationship with the truth

David A.R. White in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness
David A.R. White in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness.
Pure Flix

To keep up the thesis that made the first two films so successful, God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness had its work cut out for it.

The post-credits stinger in God’s Not Dead 2 showed Pastor Dave being handcuffed and hauled away from St. James in a cop car for refusing to hand over his sermons to the government for review. Like many other legal matters in the series, this scene was based loosely on a real event, a kerfuffle that occurred when Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed five sermons from churches in her city in 2014. After widespread outcry and strong arguments that this was an unconstitutional action, Parker dropped the subpoena.

But the God’s Not Dead series has a history of name-dropping real legal battles and then grossly overblowing the details to make them more exciting. So God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness opens with Dave in jail, waiting to be bailed out, and a flurry of media activity and protests around the sermon subpoena. Eventually he gets to leave, and he’s retrieved by Pastor Jude, the Ghanaian minister who works with Dave at St. James and is like a brother to him.

That this whole storyline has the ring of falsehood — no pastors were jailed in Houston, and nobody seems to have tried the same thing again — isn’t all that important in the God’s Not Dead universe, because the implication is that it could happen. Certainly clergy have been jailed throughout history and in other countries for refusing to comply with the demands of governmental officials, and so, the movie says, it could happen here.

And for all the audience knows, it did happen, because as a series, God’s Not Dead has often capitalized on what its audience feels could be true, rather than what actually is true.

The first God’s Not Dead movie is based on what’s essentially an internet meme, with a deus ex machina tacked on at the end. The second plays very fast and loose with the details of its story in order to make it seem like it’s based in reality, going so far as to list court cases in its credits that, when you look them up, are only sort of related to the movie’s plot.

And the third is perfectly content to frame the trouble at St. James in the context of Dave’s arrest and release, which is mentioned at one point to bolster the argument that Dave, his church, and the Christians of America are under fire.

If your audience wants to believe in the truth of that statement, then vaguely waving your hands and mushing in the facts with the falsehoods isn’t a bad way to do that. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past couple of years, it’s that Americans are all too happy to swallow things that seem like they could be true, as long as it supports what we already think.

And God’s Not Dead has never tried to pretend it was “just fiction.” Since the start, the series has purposely threaded itself into the real world, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Celebrities from both the Christian world (like apologist Lee Strobel and the rock band the Newsboys) and the Fox News world (like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and, believe it or not, Mike Huckabee) made appearances as themselves in the first two films, giving audiences not just a Ready Player One-style thrill of recognition but also the sense that this story was happening right here, right now.

The third installment does the same. Pearce, calling his legal assistants in full-on lawyer mode, keeps name-checking court cases that are, once again, only kind of related to the matter at hand. That gives the sense that the trouble St. James is encountering is happening all over the country. Churches are under attack everywhere! Their land is being seized by the government! It seems like it’s probably true!

There are celebrities in this film too, reinforcing the this-is-happening-now feel. But the series has almost entirely abandoned figures from the Christian world (the Newsboys make a very brief appearance in a Christian talk show) in favor of the Fox News set. And the two most recognizable are two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable: National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch and Fox News’s Judge Jeanine Pirro.

The latest God’s Not Dead installment plays at calling for unity. But it contradicts its message.

John Corbett and Gregory Alan Williams in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness
John Corbett and Gregory Alan Williams in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness.
Pure Flix

The reason these two faces are so jarring within the context of this film is that God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness seems, several times, to have become self-aware about the exaggerated persecution fantasy it’s trading on.

Dave’s brother Pearce, a “social justice attorney” (played by John Corbett) who walked away from his faith during law school, has come at Dave’s request to help him fight the university. (The two men grew up at St. James, because their father had been the pastor there.)

But Pearce, exasperated with Dave’s insistence that St. James is being targeted for being Christian, tells Dave that “you guys love to play the victim card,” and that he’ll help him with his legal battles around eminent domain but won’t play into the “false narrative” that Dave believes. “It undermines true religious liberty,” he says.

That statement could be read as the movie’s startling admission of guilt, except that it’s the liberal, blithely apostate character who’s saying it, so it can’t be trusted.

However, there are a handful of other moments in which God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness verges on realizing that the persecution complex that undergirds its predecessors’ stories might not be all that airtight. Perhaps the most convincing is Pastor Dave’s story arc.

After the vandalism results in a fire that kills Pastor Jude, Dave becomes convinced that God “called him to fight” for St. James to stay on the campus. He even fights back through the media, going on TV to call for a grassroots campaign by people who support the right of the church to remain. He fights with the university president, who is an old friend of his. He literally fights, engaging in several physical altercations.

It’s actually sort of shocking to see an arc like that for a figure like Pastor Dave in a Christian movie, especially since the things he says sound a lot like things that you might expect the movie to agree with, given the past two films’ stories. At one point, Dave even says that he thinks it’s time for Christians to start “fighting back” and stop “rolling over.”

Christians, of course, are supposed to be people who follow the teachings of Jesus, who instructed his followers to practice a fairly extreme form of not fighting back, instead turning the other cheek to someone who slaps you and giving your shirt to the person who sues you for your cloak.

That seems to be the lesson that Dave learns by the end of the film: He rescinds the lawsuit and says the church will move off campus. He calls for unity. He doesn’t just hand over the land, but he calls for everyone to come together and stop fighting.

“Let’s stop shouting at each other and start listening,” Dave says. “That’s the only way things will get better.”

Which is all great. It sounds like God’s Not Dead finally has gotten a conscience about its culture-wars attitude. What if we started listening to one another instead of fighting? Would we heal Trump’s divided America?

Maybe — at least if you think the problem is more about how we talk to one another than what we do. But even setting that aside, it’s important to remember that when a movie explicitly serves up a message, you have to look at the plate it’s served on. And God’s Not Dead is dishing out unity on the same old persecution platter.

The most clear tell is that Dave’s message of unity is actually an echo of something said earlier in the film by none other than Judge Jeanine Pirro. Talking with guests on a show about the case, she suggests that the problem in America is that we don’t listen to one another. “Let’s stop shouting and start listening!” she says.

This is somewhat rich coming from Pirro, who isn’t known for her even-handed, thoughtful discourse. Couple that with Dana Loesch’s brief appearance as a voice of reason, and the series’ continuing fudging of the line between truth and fiction — starting with Pastor Dave’s imprisonment — is an indication of what’s really going on in the God’s Not Dead franchise.

Pandering to their base makes the God’s Not Dead movies successful. But it’s not doing any favors to their faith.

These movies are successful largely because they know their base. That base is large, and it pays to support movies that make it feel represented. Vitally, that base also believes it’s being persecuted.

So a call to “stop shouting and start listening” — especially one that takes place on a college campus, the locus of debates over free speech and its limits — plays differently to its audience than it might to those outside its bubble. The movie doesn’t take seriously arguments that contradict its own, so it doesn’t ask its audience to, either. What people really need to do is to start listening to us, is the implication.

There are a few things that help make that clear. First, significantly, the film makes no serious engagement with the good-faith arguments against a church being on the college’s campus and receiving favor from a school that, we’re told repeatedly, is a public university.

Does that argument have merit? Who cares? The movie isn’t interested in that argument — or, maybe more importantly, it doesn’t think its audience is interested in that argument. Instead of being debated and dismissed, the argument simply disappears and Pastor Dave’s decision to move off campus is presented as a “sacrifice.”

The other religious groups on campus that have difficulty getting support — which presumably, if Hadleigh is like most colleges in America, includes organizations for Muslims and Jews, two groups that really do face increased rates of persecution in America — are never mentioned again. Pastor Dave’s released hold on the church building is left to stand as a heroic act, without further interrogation. And the university has concerns about St. James’s presence on a public university campus that do need to be legitimately addressed; “we’ve always been here” isn’t a de facto argument.

But what if Pastor Dave’s act of sacrifice wasn’t just about self-preservation? What if it was about serving these other groups of people? People of different faiths join together to serve their communities and even host other groups when they’re in need.

Would it have been too much of a stretch to imagine St. James sharing its resources and space with the other religious groups on campus? Would it be a bridge too far for the church to have acknowledged that they’d caused harm to others by hanging on to their privilege without paying attention to the needs of the other groups?

Gregory Alan Williams as Pastor Roland in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness
Gregory Alan Williams as Pastor Roland in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness.
Pure Flix

And then there’s Roland’s rebuke of Dave’s blindness to how easy he really has it, compared to what black Christians in his own town have faced — something Dave is oblivious to. Really, there’s no comparison between the two situations.

The brick thrown through the window at St. James, it turns out, was from a young drunk student who is angry at his girlfriend for breaking up with him to explore her own crisis of faith, and who harbors latent anger at his childhood church, which ostracized his mother after she divorced his abusive father. His action resulted in Jude’s death, but the movie takes pains to emphasize that it was an accident and the student is contrite.

Roland’s church, on the other hand, has been targeted by racists, who challenge his very right to exist. So someone is persecuted here, and it’s not Dave. But after a moment of Dave being taken aback, then apologizing quickly to Roland, this story fades into the background.

That’s not surprising. The heroes in the God’s Not Dead trilogy (shot and set somewhere in the American South) are white middle-class suburbanites, with two exceptions. One is a student from China who shows up in Josh Wheaton’s classroom in the first film and converts to Christianity after hearing his arguments. The other is Pastor Jude, from Ghana. Both, significantly for these films, are from somewhere other than the United States.

It’s telling that the one African American who challenges Dave’s worldview is given very little airtime in God’s Not Dead, because it encapsulates the insularity that keeps the white evangelical persecution complex humming. One wonders what would have happened if God’s Not Dead had chosen to engage with Roland’s story more. What if Dave actually had to acknowledge Roland’s experience and learn from it — and thereby, the audience?

Or, even more daringly: What if God’s Not Dead were telling Roland’s story? There’s no need to invent legal, social, and moral challenges for Roland. There’s no need to fudge the truth there. There is history, and evidence, and reality, and it runs bone-deep.

But God’s Not Dead, which leans on a very particular fantasy of persecution for its own popularity, is too weak to take up that challenge. After all, if your target audience responds to the call to “make America great again” by seeking out a champion who’s demonstrated little regard for America’s history of injustice and a great deal of callousness, at best, for the experiences of people who aren’t “real Americans,” then there’s no value in depicting those stories. Who needs to worry about loving your literal neighbor as yourself when you can feel like the hero at the center of your own story?

In his novel The Power and the Glory, the conflicted Catholic writer Graham Greene wrote that “hatred is just a failure of the imagination.” It wouldn’t be fair to say that the God’s Not Dead movies are filled with hate. But they certainly don’t push their audience toward sacrificial love, either.

The goal, in the end of each of the films, is to win — whether it’s vanquishing a foe in a classroom, winning a court case, or gaining the higher ground and being the de facto winner in the court of public opinion.

The greatest offense of the God’s Not Dead series may be its failure to imagine for its audience what a truly radical belief in a living God would look like. The movies, crippled by their own narcissistic inward turn, prove their imagination is far, far too small.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.