The ‘God’s Not Dead’ Syndrome

By Ben Hiett

I’ve always been a sucker for Christian motifs in movies. I remember my mind being absolutely blown by Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” because of the overt parallels between Clark Kent and Jesus, minus the excessive punching. More recently, a friend of mine introduced me to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” now one of my all-time favorite films because of its themes of faith lost and faith regained. All that to say, I’m a big fan of stories that speak to my beliefs and values as a Christian.

What I’m not as much a fan of is “Christian movies.” You know the ones: the “God’s not Dead” tetralogy (yes, there are four now), the Kendrick brothers’ classics like “Fireproof” or “Courageous,” the “Left Behind” series and its infamous reboot starring Nicholas Cage, and so on. Despite the diversity within the “Christian movie” genre, all these films share a well-meaning intention to promote Christian beliefs, a goal that I am certainly not opposed to. However, in my experience, the ways they promote these ideas often feels forced, preachy and disingenuous.

Throughout high school, I often wondered why these films didn’t resonate with me. Was I not Christian enough? Were my expectations for what a movie should be simply misguided? Over the years, I’ve pondered these questions, and as I prepare to leave college life behind, I’ve decided to finally resolve my inner turmoil by putting my thoughts to words.

To start, could we simply acknowledge the utter strangeness of sectioning off an entire group of movies based solely on their underlying worldview? No other group of movies is categorized in this way. The “Star Wars” series is called a “sci-fi space opera,” not “a vaguely Buddhist monomyth,” and “The Dark Knight” is labeled a “superhero drama” rather than “a utilitarian moral dilemma with streaks of Kantian ethics.” And yet Christians have fenced off an entire genre of cinema in an attempt to create a safe space of entertainment within the supposedly depraved world of Hollywood.

I have a hard time buying the story that the modern blockbuster industry is keen on corrupting the youth. A survey of any of the last decades’ highest-grossing films, such as the MCU blockbusters, demonstrates that what actually sells is stories of inspirational heroes risking their lives for the greater good, of starcrossed lovers that overcome all odds just to be together, or, at worst, of empathetic villains warped and twisted by the broken world we live in. Relatability, not depravity, is what grips audiences’ attention.

What purpose, then, do Christian movies serve, if not to be bastions of wholesome content? One answer might be cinematic evangelism, the use of movies as a means of sharing the gospel with unbelievers. “God’s Not Dead” was marketed as the Christian apologetic against the messaging of mainstream culture and, for better or worse, became a tentpole of the Christian movie industry. Unfortunately, many Christian movies, desiring to be clear presentations of orthodox beliefs, end up being heavy-handed in presenting these ideas.

Sean O’Connor, assistant professor of Broadcasting, Digital Media and Journalism at Cedarville, noted that Christian filmmakers sometimes treat their characters as nothing more than mouthpieces for their own views.

“The tendency is for Christian films to sound more like sermons than stories,” he said. “It’s very easy to make a movie where your characters are just talking out the plot and not actually conveying the message of the film through their actions and decisions.”

A common side effect of this approach is an overreliance on micdrop moments, where characters spout off crowd-pleasing one-liners meant to emotionally resonate with the audience. Such moments are a staple of cinema and have resulted in some truly iconic moments (see: “I am Iron Man”). However, such moments can also reek of a “preaching-to-the-choir” mentality to anyone not already on board with the movie’s message.

For instance, in “God’s Not Dead,” Josh Wheton’s final confrontation with Professor Radisson is framed as a triumph in apologetics, but his combative, accusatory tone and use of Radisson’s tragic past as a rhetorical device make this moment ring hollow to me. I’ll let Sam Allberry have the final word on this issue: “People are not saved by mic-drop moments; they only have their beliefs confirmed by mic-drop moments.” What if part of the issue with movies like “God’s Not Dead” is that they fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of movies in the first place? I’m not claiming that all movies must serve one purpose. Art can serve a multitude of functions depending on the artist’s intentions. But movies are unified in their desire to tell some sort of story. As screenwriter Robert McKee famously said, “Story is a metaphor for life.” In every story, there is some sort of vision of what life is like or ought to be like. Some might call this vision “a truth claim,” others “a worldview,” but regardless, stories are a universal way that we humans communicate our vision for life, be it good or bad, real or hoped-for.

What if, in our urgent race to defend our worldview, we Christians get so caught up in our own specific agenda that we forget what living life is actually like? Sure, having your Christian protagonist rhetorically decimate his atheist antagonist’s credibility has the potential to feel argumentatively satisfying, but is that how we want our conversations with unbelievers to go? To rub the very tragedies that motivated their unbelief in their faces for the sake of “winning” the argument?

Yes, a character’s conversion to Christianity should be presented as a positive development and character growth. However, if we try to convey that by showing their newfound faith magically fixes all their problems, are we selling people a realistic vision of the Christian life or merely an idealized, fictional version just to get them on board?

Dr. Joshua Kira, assistant professor of Philosophy and Theology at Cedarville, pointed out that preachy movies often fail to acknowledge the “existential reality” of our problems. Even though our problems may seem simple, actually wrestling with and living through them is anything but. Stories meant to show the truth and viability of Christianity ring hollow when they neglect the very real difficulties of living in a broken world that remains broken even after we come to faith. Having an authentic “come-to-Jesusmoment” is life-changing, but it’s not life-perfecting.

Also, in this broken world, there’s only one good guy, and He’s the one who died on a cross to save us wretched sinners from ourselves. May we please, then, dispense of the simplistic “Christians are good, atheists are bad” motif that has marked so much Christian cinematic messaging? In Christ, we are being sanctified, but Jesus also had the least patience for the sanctimonious Pharisees, the self-proclaimed “good guys” of their day.

All of that said, I have no problem with stories about Christians made for Christians, or about Christians made for non-Christians, or about Christianity in general. Shockingly enough, there are movies that do a decent job at being exactly that. “Hacksaw Ridge” is a moving account of a WWII medic’s faith inspiring him to courageously risk his life for the sake of his fellow soldiers. “The Case for Christ,” PureFlix’s adaptation of Lee Strobel’s famous book, gives a believable account of one man’s journey from atheism to faith while also shoehorning in some solid apologetics material along the way.

The strength of both these movies come from their focus on their characters; their stories are ultimately about real people coming to their own conclusions in a way that feels organic and true-to-life. Their strength comes from their specificity. They’re meant to be examples of how Christianity plays out in an actual person’s life, not the “end-all, be-all” case for why Christianity fixes everything all the time. Importantly, they leave you free to explore Christianity for yourself instead of beating you over the head about what you should or should not believe.

After all, we must remember what movies, apologetics arguments, mic-drop moments, and our own will-power all have in common: none of them save people. The Spirit’s working in the heart of those who hear the gospel is what saves people. So let’s present the gospel. Let’s tell the stories of actual peoples’ lives who have been changed by Jesus. Let’s create new stories that show how Christianity best explains the world we live in. But let’s do it with the underlying confidence that our job isn’t to force people into a corner and lecture them until they agree with us. We are meant to be witnesses to the God who does save, not the saviors ourselves.

Let’s also remember that we serve the God who created fun, laughter, adventure and the greatest story ever told. Let’s be content with some stories just being that: stories that engage us, inspire us, show us what life is really like or ought to be like, without every single one having to have an altar call moment at the end. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should do everything to the glory of God, but that doesn’t mean every meal we eat must have some elaborate gospel metaphor encoded within its ingredients or flavors. Sometimes, a good meal is reason enough for us to praise our good, good God.

Ben Hiett is an Advanced Biblical & Ministry Studies graduate student and Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.

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