Watch out Christians, the big bad boogie man atheists are out to get you! Yes, the far from subtle “God’s Not Dead 2,” the sequel to 2014’s successful “God’s Not Dead” has arrived. Like its predecessor, this sequel is surprisingly well made and decently acted; unlike the original, it’s not very entertaining.
The plot is decent enough, but the film quickly sinks under the weight of its one-sided, overtly religious message. Melissa Joan Hart plays high school teacher Grace (get it?) who (gasp!) mentions Jesus and the Bible in response to a student’s (Hayley Orrantia) question during history class. (For the record, the teacher’s response in a public classroom setting was not out of line at all and would never be something that would land her in court in the first place). Soon all hell breaks loose and Grace soon finds herself defending her beliefs in a court battle over the separation of church and state. Grace’s appointed lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) laughably figures the only way to win this thing is to — wait for it — prove in court that Christ was real.
The courtroom scenes are absurd but at least they are entertaining. Before the trial begins we see a juror contested by the civil rights lawyer because his favorite t.v. show is “Duck Dynasty” and another because he “looks like a U.S. Marine.” One (David A.R. White) is chosen only because he’s a pastor. Another is shown to side with Grace simply because she has a tattoo of a cross (never mind that the film portrays as Christians as lacking the ability to remain impartial and follow the law rather than their personal beliefs — if you are religious, this alone should insult you). Things pick up a bit during the trial, mostly due to Ernie Hudson and his unintentionally funny, over-the-top portrayal of a judge.
The most outrageous scenes involve the endless parade of real life religious “experts” that are brought in to prove that Jesus was a real man (which, despite what the film wants you to believe, does not prove that “God’s not dead”). Authors Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ) and James Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity) play themselves and present some ridiculous arguments (all masquerading as “proof”) in an attempt to trick the audience into accepting that okay, maybe Jesus was a real man, so therefore God is real too! Note to Christians: do not cite these less-than-credible examples to attempt to prove that “God” is real while debating an atheist unless you want to embarrass yourself.
The movie grandstands by name-dropping several other actual researchers who’ve offered their own “proof” of Jesus’ existence (again wrongly implying that Jesus is real therefore God is real), making a huge point in playing up the fact that many of them are former atheists who now are proud one-way ticket holders on the crazy train for Jesus — as if their reversal of faith gives them more credibility.
Fans of the first “God’s Not Dead” will delight as characters from the original are pointlessly paraded out one by one in what amounts to nothing more than some good ol’ fashioned stunt casting. Their presence is dutifully written into the plot in a mostly meaningless way. Amy (Trisha LaFache), Martin (Paul Kwo) and Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango) are back, as is the popular Christian rock group The Newsboys (who finish out the film with a rousing closing theme song).
Now let’s get down to the truly offensive elements of the movie: most distasteful is the way atheists and nonbelievers are portrayed. When a wealthy, smart, successful atheist shows up, you can bet their presence is accompanied by sinister music with plenty of smirking and sneers. Seriously, all that’s missing is a mustache twirl! As in most faith-based films, atheists are always portrayed as complete and utter assholes. It’s a clear, simple formula: Christian = shiny, happy, energetic balls of bright light; Non-believers = miserable, vicious, religion-hating villain.
There are several references to a “war” between atheists and Christians, a notion that should terrify all of us regardless of our faith (or lack thereof). Jabs are also made towards Muslims, the ACLU, Ivy league colleges and political correctness in general. I know I’m not in the target audience for this film, but when will Christians stop claiming that they are an oppressed minority and rid themselves of the notion that it’s always “us against them?” It’s not helping bridge the gap between the freethinkers and the faithful.
“God’s Not Dead 2” does more of a disservice to the Christian cause, doing nothing to promote any sort of understanding nor exhibiting any real intention to start a useful, pragmatic dialogue between freethinkers and the faithful. The film instead comes across as nothing more than a whiny, crybaby “poor me” pity party that showcases the fallacy of “Christian persecution.” Of course there’s an agenda here (I would expect nothing less from Pure Flix faith-based entertainment), and the filmmakers don’t even remotely attempt to hide it. This film does much more harm than good, but it’s not a bad movie.
“God’s Not Dead: The Strawman Strikes Back!”
“God’s Not Dead 2” focuses on a public high school history teacher, the subtlely-named Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), who finds herself in hot water after mentioning Jesus in the classroom. This in response to a student’s question about Jesus and his teachings as compared to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In her answer, Grace doesn’t cite her personal belief, pray, or urge the students to join in prayer with her; instead, she quotes words attributed to Jesus that respond to the student’s question, citing the Bible as the source for the quote.
Grace’s mere mention of Jesus and scripture in the classroom leads to a massive legal battle, with the charge led by the ACLU. The ACLU, you see, hates Christianity, sees it as a disease, and wants to eradicate it. Not just remove it from the classroom — completely eradicate it. This is not subtext: the fancy-shmancy ACLU lawyer (Ray Wise, channeling Leland Palmer) in his expensive suit actually says that while sneering with eyebrows upturned. Why the filmmakers didn’t give him a black hat and a mustache to twirl is beyond me: if you’re gonna create a caricature for your bad guy, why not go all in?
Of course, the central conceit of GND2 relies not only on a tortured reading of the law, but also a misrepresentation of the argument for separation of church and state. Grace was talking about words attributed to a historical figure in a history class in answer to a direct question. She wasn’t leading prayer in school or preaching to her class. But from the movie’s viewpoint, the ACLU (and therefore, the secular opposition) doesn’t see or understand the distinction. Having carefully constructed this fallacious strawman-version of the argument against religion in school, GND2 proceeds to knock it down. This intellectual sleight-of-hand may fool some of the audience, but it’s not going to bring the two sides any closer to understanding one another. That said, this movie isn’t interested in promoting understanding; it’s peddling a culture war.
Selling the culture war is the business of the “God’s Not Dead” movies. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.
In the world of “God’s Not Dead,” Christians are a silent minority who are unable to express their views in any public place without fear of persecution. Teenagers rebel against their godless parents by reading the Bible and learning about Christianity. Secularists are hate-filled and angry protestors, while Christians are quiet, respectful, and practice passive resistance. Major television news networks openly promote secularism and criticize the faithful. Public institutions seek to stamp out religious expression of any type, and the judicial system quietly supports those efforts. This is a false world masquerading as our own, recasting the vocal majority in the role of the oppressed.
In this world, Christians are convicted and face prison sentences for simply expressing their beliefs (again, this isn’t subtext, this movie actually says that). Although the film never has the guts to say it outright, one can only imagine that they are alluding to Kim Davis, discriminatory bake shops, and the conviction that believing in what you want means being able to freely discriminate against others.
While the movie’s intellectual dishonesty about the opposing viewpoint is frustrating, its portrayal of atheists is downright disrespectful. You see, the student who sparked the firestorm by asking Grace about Jesus in class — Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) — has atheist parents. Six months ago, Brooke’s brother died in an accident. Understandably, Brooke hasn’t gotten over the tragedy and still misses her brother. Her parents, however, are completely over the death of their son and callously tell Brooke to “forget about” her brother and move on. Apparently, not only do atheists not believe in any gods, but they are also incapable of feeling and human emotion. The only sympathetic atheists are those who are quick to abandon their worldview and turn to religion for comfort when tragedy strikes (spoiler alert: they always choose Christianity).
It’s this lack of respect that is most troubling about these movies and the community they represent. It’s hard to see the conversation about faith and its place in society moving forward if we can’t honor the basic humanity of people who see the world differently than we do.
So yeah, it’s safe to say that I had some problems with the message of “God’s Not Dead 2” and what it is selling. But as a piece of entertainment, it isn’t terrible. It stretches on a little too long and spends a little too much time revisiting characters from the first movie, but overall it isn’t too draggy. The acting is mostly passable, save for Melissa Joan Hart, whose range (if you can call it that) is limited to either nervous/fearful or happy. As a piece of propaganda, it’s fairly effective at doing what it set out to do.