Saturday, May 31, 2014

God's Not Dead

There's a principle around here that if a movie has a dramatic split where critics hate it and audiences love it, we have to go see it. Nine times out of ten, this is a movie with "Christian themes" of a sort that used to be completely unremarkable but now are rather scandalous. (My favorite film of 2011 was Machine Gun Preacher which had a 25/75 split.)

God's Not Dead boasts an impressive 17/84. And WARNING: if you are allergic to Jesus, just stop reading here, 'cause this movie is chock full of The Jesus.

We're actually pretty tolerant at Casa 'strom, though, I think owing at least in part to my belief that a person should be free to follow his heart and conscience when it comes to spiritual matters, and that people doing so is a good thing.

I also think Man's struggle with God can be an epic dramatic theme, a la Machine Gun Preacher, and we miss out on a lot with our current aversion to that theme.

So, how is God's Not Dead? Well, it's not bad. It's pretty entertaining, actually. It is a movie that is praying for your soul—yes, you, in particular, and if you have a problem with that, you'll have a problem with this.

The Boy said it was pretty hokey, and this is also true, though it's not particularly hokier than, say, Inherit The Wind. I mean, much like that movie, it stacks the deck in favor of its desired outcome, even when that outcome is preposterous. (Also, Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain are no Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, maybe not even a Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.)

But you kind of have to love putting avowed Christian Sorbo in the role of militant atheist—a gag Hollywood's been running the other way for ages. (George Carlin as a Catholic cardinal in Dogma, for example, or Gore Vidal as a conservative professor in With Honors, off the top of my head.)

The story is that Josh (Shane Harper) has to take a philosophy class elective and runs smack dab into Professor Radisson (Sorbo), the dickish atheist who insists that the class start with every student writing "God's Dead" on a piece of paper and signing it.

This will allow him to skip large, boring and difficult portions of the class and go right to—well, I guess whatever vistas open to you once you dismiss the existence of God.

Naturally, everyone in the class signs, except for Josh, who can't bring himself to deny God. This leads to the ultimate sucker bet: The Professor offers to let Josh make his case for God, and Josh wrangles this into "Let me convince my classmates, because you're not trustworthy to judge."

Now. Honestly. No class full of modern college students is going to go against their professor. And no college student is naive enough to believe that, were God himself to come down to the classroom and turn Evian into Zima, it would matter when GPA is on the line.

It's just silly. But okay, there's our premise.

This is also silly because you can't prove or disprove God. That's what "faith" means in this context, yet we expend so much energy one way and the other in our media.

Anyway, dramatically, Josh runs into his first test with his ridiculously hot and controlling girlfriend (Cassidy-freakin'-Gifford, who's now 21, all you fans of Regis and Kathy Lee from the '90s) insisting that he not waste time challenging his professor, given that their whole lives are at stake. 

Much like the dickish atheist professor, the girlfriend is a character who certainly exists in reality, but she's such a hard-ass, there's a kind of interesting (and, of course, completely unexplored) subtext there about the relationship between Christian men and women.

I kept thinking "It's okay if she leaves you, she's gonna end up cheating on you anyway, if she's not already."

Anyway, if the movie was just student vs. professor, it would be a pretty weak film, because (as I've said) it's a supremely dumb argument. I mean, the entirety of the professor's arguments are by authority. "God doesn't exist because all these smart people say He doesn't."

Or, in fairness, there's a brief nod to the other Big Argument of atheism, extrapolation: "We used to think all this stuff, like lightning and famine, was caused by the Gods, but we know better now, so therefore there is no God."

But mostly it's argumentum ab auctoritate on a subject one cannot be an authority of. And at one point, Sorbo uses this quote for Stephen Hawking:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."
This stumps Josh and provides some dramatic tension, but come on: This both cites authority and begs the question. Two logical fallacies in one! It literally says nothing.

Much like Inherit the Wind, I found myself wanting arguments that I couldn't refute sitting in a theater chair eating popcorn. (I mean, Spencer Tracey disarms Fredric March with "how long is a day in Genesis?" which has to be apologism 101.)

Anyway, this struggle provides the backdrop for a bunch of other characters: A Muslim girl whose father insists she wears a face covering, but who's interesting in the Christian God; a Vegan lefty who practices ambush journalism on the Duck Commander, Willie Robertson; her jerky but successful boyfriend (Dean Cain) who's as shallow and secular as he is handsome; his faithful sister who visits their senile mother and struggles to get respect from her atheist lover; and a pastor who's trying to take a pastor from "the trenches" in Africa but can't get his car started.

That last story is resolved when God starts the car.

I'm not kidding about that; I was sort of expecting a more worldly answer to be slipped in, but it actually appears as though the car was started with faith, and just in time for the pastors to unify all the stories and message of the film.

As The Boy said, it's hokey, but it's not 17% hokey.

I don't mind: All art is contrived and our rejection of this kind of thing is more a reflection on us and our cynicism than anything.

The Flower, for example, loved it and thought it was well done. That made me happy. She has plenty of time to learn to be cynical, if such a thing is necessary.

So if, artistically, it's a little "neat", well, fine, it's virtually parable anyway. The ending was overlong, with much jubilation and Christian rock from a group that I'm assuming is known in the community. The movie clocks in at a lively sub-2 hours (about 1:45) and only the end felt dragged out.

If there's a shortcoming, I think like with Gibson's Passion, it's that the movie preaches to the choir. That, I think, makes the movie less accessible overall and probably less effective evangelically.

But really, it's an uplifting story, if you're open to it.

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