It flew below the radar. It didn’t screen at Sundance. It doesn’t boast any marquee names or flashy special effects. It wasn’t produced by a major studio, or distributed by an art-house darling. It received bad reviews.
But the 2014 film God’s Not Dead was still one of the more successful independent films of the decade. It more than quadrupled its $2 million budget in its opening weekend, and when it closed 40 weeks later, it had made more than $60 million in the US. (Worldwide, the film grossed almost $4 million.) Indie filmmakers dream of that rate of return.
God’s Not Dead tells a relatively simple story, based loosely on a popular meme that’s morphed and evolved throughout the lifespan of the internet. In the film’s version, a young college freshman named Josh Wheaton (named for the most prominent evangelical university, played by Shane Harper) enrolls in a Philosophy 101 course at his local college, only to discover that bitter and hostile Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) is also a fire-breathing atheist.
On day one, Radisson tells the class in no uncertain terms that God does not exist, and that any student who signs a piece of paper agreeing to the statement “God is dead” will pass. Josh refuses to sign, and the rest of the film revolves around him debating Radisson over the existence of God.
The film has the essential structure of a boxing film, all the way down to Josh’s girlfriend breaking up with him because he won’t give up the fight. And our scrappy underdog eventually prevails, not that the title of the film allows for any other outcome. In three class sessions, he and Radisson spar at length in front of Josh’s fellow students. Josh lodges some points in the first two rounds, but it’s in the third that he manages to “win.” He asks Radisson twice why Radisson “hates God”; the third time, Radisson explodes, saying it’s because God let his mother die. How, Josh asks Radisson, can he hate someone who doesn’t exist?
There’s a whole mess of B-plots going on in the background of this drama. There’s a Muslim student named Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) whose father kicks her out of the house when she secretly converts to Christianity. There’s a Chinese exchange student named Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), who becomes interested in Christianity as a result of debates, against his father’s wishes. Outside the college, there’s a God-hating liberal blogger named Amy (Trisha LaFache), who has one of those “Coexist” bumper stickers on her car and writes critical articles about Duck Dynasty. (Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson make cameos in the film.)
Amy is dating Mark (Dean Cain), a truly horrible guy who dumps her when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Mark’s sister, Mina (Cory Oliver), is an evangelical Christian who is also, inexplicably, dating Radisson, though they have a falling-out. And there’s a minister, Reverend Dave (David A.R. White), who later becomes a more central character in God’s Not Dead’s two sequels.
After Josh vanquishes Radisson, Martin stands up in the classroom and declares, “God’s not dead.” In Spartacus-like fashion, the rest of the class follows suit, and Radisson leaves in defeat. Then Radisson reads a letter from his dead mother, decides to reconcile with Mina and goes to find her, but gets hit by a car en route. Rev. Dave is nearby, and helps Radisson convert to Christianity as he dies.
Also, the Christian band the Newsboys, playing themselves, are woven into the plot; they lead Amy to faith backstage at a concert attended by Martin and Josh while Dave lays dying outside. Everyone inside sings along as the Newsboys cover the Passion youth conference worship song “God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion),” and we see Duck Dynasty’s Willie congratulating Josh.
It’s a weird movie, but boy, did people love it. It was promoted by conservative and Christian organizations ranging from Alliance Defending Freedom to the Dove Foundation to Faith Driven Consumer. Christian celebrities endorsed it, from football players and Olympic athletes to pastors and well-known teachers of apologetics. Churches purchased curriculum for an outreach campaign that involved showing the film, and fans posted pictures of their tributes to it.
Still, God’s Not Dead had plenty of detractors. It’s always been easy to poke holes in the movie’s fast-and-loose relationship with reality and its essential fantasy of persecution, something I’ve written about rather extensively this decade, not least because it was followed by two less lucrative sequels. (One stars Melissa Joan Hart as a public school teacher who ends up on trial because she answered a student’s question about Jesus, posed during a discussion about Gandhi, by quoting the Bible; the other returns to Rev. Dave, in a story about a public university wanting to evict a church on campus, with a cameo by Josh.)
The film’s portrayal of Radisson, at least, is not terribly concerned with veracity. He is the sort of philosophy professor who refers to “the philosopher, Plato” when speaking to his departmental colleagues. He writes “Ayn Rand” on the whiteboard on the first day of class, as an example of a great philosopher. His you-must-disown-God-to-pass tactics would almost certainly not pass muster at a public college, or any college, in the US. Not to mention that anyone with a PhD in philosophy would have a more nuanced understanding of what Nietzsche meant when he famously proclaimed the death of God.
All of these flights of fancy are a problem, and I’ve also written on my frustrations with the series’s failure to be, well, Christian. But it’s the cultural shift that God’s Not Dead represents that makes it interesting at the end of this decade.
God’s Not Dead launched a movie studio — and a troubling future
The film’s success gave Christian movie studio Pure Flix (co-founded by Rev. Dave himself, David A.R. White) the boost it needed to become a relative powerhouse. Pure Flix launched a theatrical distribution arm in late 2015, and has since released a string of solid box office performers, including Do You Believe? (2015), Woodlawn (2015), The Case for Christ (2017), and Unplanned (2019), the last of which kicked up intense controversy for the way it depicted abortion. Pure Flix also distributed the 2017 film adaptation of Same Kind of Different as Me, starring Greg Kinnear, Renée Zellweger, Djimon Hounsou, and Jon Voight, and through a subsidiary called Quality Flix, it has distributed films like Dinesh D’Souza’s Death of a Nation: Can We Save America a Second Time?
The company also launched its own streaming service, also called Pure Flix, a kind of Netflix alternative for wholesome, uplifting, and Christian (or at least inspirational) content, partnering with the filtering service ClearPlay to allow users to remove words like “damn” and (interestingly enough) “hell.” Hollywood is notorious for creating films full of troubling themes and racy content,” the Pure Flix website reads. With thousands of titles and original content, you will always feel safe pressing play.”
Part of God’s Not Dead’s success may have been due to some clever marketing. The movie’s official social media accounts, and a call to action at the end of the film itself, asked audiences, “Are YOU up for the challenge? Text ‘God’s Not Dead’ to 10 friends RIGHT NOW!” And it worked — people wondered what was going on, or joked about why they didn’t receive a message.
Pure Flix didn’t invent faith-based movies — that genre has been around for a long time, and became a bona fide cash cow after the success of The Passion of the Christ in 2004. But the studio has managed to parlay the success of God’s Not Dead into an alternative entertainment empire. Before Pure Flix, it was possible to grow up in a conservative Christian home without sharing the pop cultural references of your peers, because you could watch Veggie Tales, listen to Christian radio, and read Left Behind novels. But now, Pure Flix is offering faith-based content on a whole new level.
It doesn’t just continue the historical efforts of organizations like Focus on the Family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in creating wholesome content with Christian messages. It explicitly couples faith with conservative-leaning politics. The appearance of Duck Dynasty personalities in God’s Not Dead was just the start; by the third movie in the series, the cameos were from right-wing media figures like Dana Loesch and Jeanine Pirro. The movies available on the streaming service include a documentary about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and another called A Nation Adrift. Most of the films are more inspirational than political — but there’s a clear target market, and the service had about 125,000 subscribers as of late 2018.
That’s what’s so significant about the success of Pure Flix and God’s Not Dead. The film heralded a future, one that has since arrived, where culture is fully bifurcated — where the streaming services you subscribe to can double as markers of identity, and where selecting the inspirational Christian option means making a proclamation about your politics. As pop culture continues to splinter into niches and microaudiences (thanks in part to technological advances), it frequently caters to our individual and identity-group preferences, siloing art rather than creating art that might be watched by a range of audience members. And if talking and arguing about art is a way of extending its life, of giving it importance, that’s a problem, because siloed art is nearly impossible to talk and argue about from a variety of perspectives; instead, it’s all seen from one perspective. That means there’s no incentive to make any art that doesn’t reinforce biases. The corner Pure Flix has carved out for itself reflects popular culture’s increasing fragmentation among ideological lines, and the implications are bleak.