Confession time: I did not like God’s Not Dead, a movie released in 2014 by PureFlix Entertainment. This is a statement that would not be unusual if I wasn’t a Christian. But I am a Christian, and hence that makes it perplexing to say the least; why would a Christian not like what is so clearly a Christian movie? It might also be important to note that while I haven’t seen God’s Not Dead 2 (or 3), I’ve seen clips of the second one, and it doesn’t seem to have improved in any way. I realize that I may be stepping on the toes of friends, but I want to detail in this article why God’s Not Dead, and honestly the PureFlix agenda, fails ultimately to achieve its goal of trying to impress upon the culture Christian-based movies and content.
First let me say, as an aspiring author, and a Christian, I love the vision the people at PureFlix has. I would agree with them that right now more than ever, Christians have an amazing opportunity to reach this culture, starved for salvation, and I think there is no better way to do it than in the storytelling industry. People are hooked on Netflix shows and Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus. It’s clear that the battle for hearts and souls must involve storytelling. The problem we face however can be summed up in a question. Is the desire to tell stories all that is needed to do it? Unfortunately, it is not. Wanting to tell stories doesn’t make your stories good and impactful; storytelling is truly an art that needs to be respected, and it is this that I think God’s Not Dead fails to do.
Puppets, Not People: Plastic Character Development
One of the things the PureFlix producers seem notorious for doing is creating what I like to call “the hand puppets”. By this I mean, the creators seem to be treating every character as though they were nothing but hand puppets that the creators stick their hand in, and simply make the character say whatever they want them to say. But you may reply, “Isn’t that kind of what being the creator means? The characters are essentially a product of the creators’ imagination”. That is true, but what I’m striking at is a deeper issue, and that is very plastic and one-dimensional characters; the kind that you and I both know don’t really exist in real life.
I’m not talking about the acting, which I think in all due respect, was lacking in the movies. What I’m talking about can be more properly illustrated in the dialogue of the characters to one another. Dialogue is a powerful tool of character development. Why tell people long, boring monologues about a character’s personality when you can show it in their behavior, and in their dialogue? Because dialogue is powerful, it is also a key element of character and story. In other words, you don’t want to screw this part up.
The characters need to come to life in the story. You and I are not puppets, we are humans with real personalities, real quirks, real loves and passions, virtues and vices that affect our decisions. The same should be for characters in a story. There should not be a point where characters suddenly begin to behave in such a way that they are inconsistent with how they were before, and do things that are so obviously meant to make the plot go in a particular direction. But we’ll get to the specifics of plot issues later; right now, let’s talk about how shallow dialogue is a recipe for shallow story. The entirety of these movies is plastic characters who are so obviously being moved by the creators to get to a certain point of the movie. Once again, you might ask, “Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?” Yes, but not in the shallow way you see it happen in God’s Not Dead.
Again, set aside the poor acting, and just pay attention to the dialogue. When the main protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend, the whole dynamic of that situation is simply shallow. There seems to be very little development of her character that would lead us to think she would take the position she takes, which is opposing the main characters’ desire to prove God’s existence to his atheist professor. When the main character squares off with the professor, it is so blatantly obvious this movie has become a Christian apologetic, rather than an authentic experience where real characters come to life and make real decisions.
In the second movie, when the female teacher, Mrs. Grace Wesley is asked a question (right out of the blue, by the way) about Jesus, she starts quoting, practically verbatim, Scripture, citing chapter and verse in response to a student question (whose name is Brook). Now granted, many Christians can do that, but look at the way in which she does it. Let me quote the dialogue in the scene to illustrate this. First, Mrs. Wesley is talking about non-violent approaches to conflict:
Mrs. Wesley: “But what makes non-violence so radical is its unwavering commitment to a non-violent approach–not just initially, but in the face of escalating persecution by the opposing force.”
Brook Thawley raises her hand, and after being called on replies: “Isn’t that sort of like what Jesus meant when he said that we should love our enemies?”
Mrs. Wesley is startled, surprised by the question, but proceeds to reply by quoting Matthew 5:43-45 right from the NIV, word for word. Personally, I’m real bad at quoting Scripture directly, save for a few passages, like Romans 5:1, John 6:44 (because I’m a dirty, rotten Calvinist) and John 1:1. But the vast majority of the time, I’m paraphrasing what I know is there, especially when I’ve been caught off-guard with a question that almost comes out of left field (such as Brook asked).
But let’s dive into the nature of the statement, particularly the one that opens the scene by Mrs. Wesley. Think real hard and ask yourself if that’s something you would say while you were teaching a class. Honestly, I don’t think I would talk like that. Let me try and reword her statement to make it seem more authentic to a teacher simply giving the lecture:
“But what makes non-violence so radical is its commitment to a non-violent approach, even in the face of growing persecution.”
Notice how the statement is shorter? Why? I haven’t fundamentally changed it, but I took out the word “unwavering”, the phrase “not just initially”, “escalating” and the phrase “by the opposing force”. Why? Well, in the first place, people tend to talk differently than they write, and when we talk, we are more likely to try and take the shorter routes, the “detour” if you will. Certain words simply aren’t necessary to say as they are when we write. This is indeed a phenomenon in literature, but it is a reality nonetheless. Doesn’t the original statement by Mrs. Wesley seem as though it really was a written script, rather than something a person would actually say? Even a well-educated teacher such as herself?
I know a lot of big words, but I also have a bit of a speech impediment, and it really gets annoying. Additionally, I know I like to get through my statements as quickly and economically as I can. That only applies in regular conversations, not in writing, however. Take even the word “however”. How often do you actually use that word in regular conversation? Wouldn’t you more likely just say “But”? Or when I said “additionally”. Who actually says “additionally” in regular conversation? Not many people.
When Mrs. Wesley says the non-violent remains committed to its nonviolence in the midst of persecution, why mention “the opposition”? The very mention of being persecuted already presupposes an opposition to do it. Why the additional adverb “unwavering”? And again, let me ask you, how often do you use that adverb in regular conversation? Likely not much, but you might in written form, and that’s the problem here. The dialogue writing is indeed writing, but writing authentic dialogue means to write talking, not a written script.
But baring all of that, the point here, even in the conversation Mrs. Wesley has with another student who says he wouldn’t fight for his ideals, doesn’t that seem a little silly for a kid to say? Whether someone would, when the rubber meets the road, fight for what they believe in, no one really knows until the rubber does meet the road. But how many people would just flat out admit they wouldn’t fight for something? Especially kids–no one is more proud in their self-glorifying belief (often delusion) than prideful youth are. Every kid wants to be thought of as a hero. It just seems to me this entire scene was set up to do one thing, and that is to tell the audience watching that Jesus and Dr. King were great men worthy of our gratitude. They were persecuted and never got violent, and this will foreshadow how Mrs. Wesley will behave the rest of the film. True as that may be, the message of the scene comes through so plastic and in such a way that I just don’t see it actually happening.
It is a paradoxical statement to say “have good bad guys”. But it is a true paradox–good bad guys are important for a story with depth and authentic conflict. By “good bad guys” we do not mean a contradiction in terms, but we mean authentic bad guys who believe in something and fight for something. In other words, just like you need to do with the protagonists, you need to remember your bad guys are humans.
But we don’t see that in God’s Not Dead. What we get are arrogant punks who act and behave in such ways that simply no one, especially unlikable people, would behave as. In fact, people who are simply jerks in real life can be real good at not appearing like jerks. One of the reasons is that these are people like you and me, who don’t like to think they’re jerks. Obviously there are exceptions, but typically, when you meet a jerk, he or she doesn’t view themselves in that way, and would therefore not engage in behavior that is so blatantly, and obviously inexcusable.
Let’s use the example of Dean Cain’s character in the movie, reacting to his girlfriend’s announcement of cancer. First he interrupts her to talk about the great news for him. Then when she drops the news, his response is to give her an irritated look and reply, “This couldn’t wait till tomorrow?” Honestly, who does that? Even the cruelest person you can think of wouldn’t do that. I would be willing to bet even Hitler wouldn’t respond like that! It’s so clearly obvious that the story development wants Dean’s character to be an unlikable guy, but wants it too much that his character simply is not even believable. He comes off as plastic and one-dimensional.
Probably the most interesting antagonist of the whole entire series is Kevin Sorbo’s atheist professor character. He’s most interesting because at least this guy has a legitimate backstory that makes him who he is. Hence, we can see why he acts and behaves in certain ways, and it actually intrigues us; it’s a little sad when the most interesting character is the bad guy, but that’s what we got. Still, this doesn’t get the creators off the hook. Let me just say for the record, as someone who has interacted with atheists, it really does not go down at all the way the movie makes it go down. Very often, even when you demonstrate the fallacy of believing in morality while denying the very foundation for that morality, atheists simply don’t accept the conclusion. It just doesn’t register.
The antagonists in these movies are clearly made simply to be the punching bag of the protagonists. They’re predictable, they’re not in any way charismatic, they’re essentially less than human. If you are an atheist watching these movies, chances are, you’re not being moved by any of this. You would be more likely to feel insulted. These movies don’t care about you, they always portray you as jerks who are miserable, and at the end of the day, see you as someone who simply throws fits at God. How does that actually impact unbelievers in any meaningful way? What’s the difference between this movie’s portrayal of “antagonists” and an anti-Christian movie’s portrayal of “antagonists”? I know when I watch movies that portray religious people as old-world-thinking, out of fashion, delusional and self-righteous nuts, I roll my eyes and easily discover the creators of this have clearly spent little to no time in my shoes, trying to understand what drives religious people. Why do we Christians do the same in the other direction?
Plastic antagonists are just as bad as plastic protagonists. The days where bad guys were just super evil for evil’s sake are gone. The reality is that the majority of the most evil men in our history really believed what they were doing was right; they had a worldview, and they believed in it. People want to see real bad guys who are more than one-dimensional.
One of the problems here is illustrated in the fact that the only enemies to the Christians here are just non-believers. The sad reality is that the world is not that simple. You know the majority of people who go to murder their babies at the abortion mills are professing Christians? How many workers in those places are “Christians”? Being an atheist does not automatically make you a bad person (in the human sense). Being a “Christian” doesn’t automatically make you a good person. Instead of this simplistic paradigm, I would be interested to see PureFlix create antagonistic characters that personify a worldview, and act in consistency to that worldview, or antagonists who are not supposed to be antagonists, but end up being that way because of a particular imbalance in their philosophy.
Plastic Characters That Lead to Plastic Plot Turns
The plastic, puppet characters leads me to my next point, which is plastic plot turns. This problem is juxtaposed with the former point; just like with very one-dimensional characters, these characters make decisions that appear so obvious to force the plot in a particular direction that the audience, if they are honest, sees right through. Organic characters–characters that come to life–will make decisions that the audience can both be surprised by, and yet also predict, as well as be wrapped in. In the same way, organic characters making important decisions provides an organic story that is also developing in such a way that it ties up plot points beautifully, gets right to where the author wants, and yet it truly feels like the story just flowed in a Darwinian way.
The antithesis of this is in God’s Not Dead. For example, at the end of the first movie, when Kevin Sorbo’s character is hit by a car, he’s sent flying in the air that quite honestly defies physics. He’s high enough that he strikes the pavement at such a force that his ribs are crushed. How this is known by Reverend Hill’s friend with no external sign of such a thing (as far as I can tell), I don’t know, but somehow the man knows and deliberately says he’s sure of it. Sorbo’s character therefore only has minutes left, and as he’s dying on the street, he says he’s not ready to die. Reverend Hill then asks him if he knows Jesus, and the rest is history.
Let’s rewind and go over that again and see how this works. First remember, he’s struck by a speeding car, and he’s rolling over the top of it until somewhere, for some reason, he is launched upward (looks like at least twenty feet straight up) to crash down at such a force that his ribs are crushed. Next, Reverend Hill’s friend (forgot his name), is able to diagnose the crushed ribs–with no explanation at all. In conclusion, Reverend Hill finds himself in a situation where there is nothing he can do to save Sorbo’s life. This allows Hill to not focus on actually saving the man’s life, but giving him the gospel (as if you couldn’t do both).
In other words, the story needs Sorbo’s character to suffer a wound so devastating, he can’t be saved; he’s going to die right there on the street. What’s the story telling us? A life lived in absolute hatred of God can be forgiven in one moment, at the very end of their life. It shows how great and forgiving God is. That’s all well, good, and most of all true, but consider the lengths the story goes to to make this work. It makes Sorbo’s character defy physics when he’s struck by a car; he sustains a wound that will kill him in seconds; Hill’s friend is apparently trained in the medical field very well, so that the audience knows that Sorbo is going to die, setting up the end where he gives his life to Jesus.
Does this not seem incredibly scripted? I know that it is, and it’s supposed to be, but it shouldn’t feel that way. We can often find in better stories that the story needs characters to do things, to go places, etc., to make the story go in a certain direction. Character X needs to suffer affliction Y so that they will be able to do action Z, and so on. But while we can analyze a plot and discover this, it should be something that happens organically nevertheless. I’m sorry, but the writing of God’s Not Dead is simply lazy. Essentially what they’ve done is began with wanting to demonstrate anyone can be forgiven, even at the end of their life. Therefore this last scene with Sorbo dying by crushed ribs, assured by a diagnosis after just touching Sorbo’s belly for a few seconds gets them that end. It’s a forced ending, not one that, in a certain sense, brings itself to fruition.
Trying to Reach the Culture, Singing to the Choir
The end of at least God’s Not Dead really illustrates who this movie was ultimately made for, and that was Christians. But not just any Christians, Christians who live in the proverbial gated communities, have very shallow understandings of the faith, and who, living in gated communities, know very little about the outside world. But I thought movies like this were supposed to be PureFlix’s attempt to reach the outside world. The reality is that it falls short. Way short. Because while it’s acclaimed goal is to provide an apologetic for Christianity, and perhaps to show atheists that Christianity is not just a “faith in faith” religion, what it actually and only does, is preach to an echo chamber of people who already believe, and want to believe.
When it actually comes to engaging the outside world, it seems to make almost no attempt to do. There is little, if any evidence, that the creators of these movies have really interacted with atheism. Men like John Lennox are quoted (a popular Christian apologist), and I believe Richard Dawkins and Steven Hawkings were quoted (popular atheists), but I’m almost willing to bet the quotations of such men come from Lennox himself. In other words, if that’s the case, the creators’ best interaction with the Darwinian perspective is second-hand, not first-hand. When you are trying to accurately depict a particular perspective (again, for authenticity’s sake), you need to read and understand that perspective as it understands itself, not as your people understand it.
God’s Not Dead’s biggest shortcoming is how it exists in the echo chamber of “No Creed but Christ” Christianity, the part of the Christian world that takes the “Not of This World” motto too far, where they’re not only not of this world, they may as well not really be in the world anymore, because they have so distanced themselves from the world in which they dwell, that they know almost nothing about it. That sounds like a good thing, and certainly Christians must seek to be further and further separated from the love of this world, and the countless idols it presents to our wandering eyes, but that doesn’t mean we are to be ignorant of that world.
As I said when I began this, I applaud PureFlix’s vision to create Christian content that counters the nihilism of our world today. And just as I said before, there is no better time than now for Christians to jump on the opportunity to show the world we have the greatest story ever told. But why is PureFlix ultimately unsuccessful? You might say, “They are! We’re Christians and we love PureFlix!” But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Only Christians are enjoying it. I thought you were trying to counter this culture. How are you countering a culture when you will not directly engage it as it really is?
You might say, “Well, the problem is the world simply hates the Christian faith”. I think you are right, they do. But consider persecution: Are you being persecuted because you are truly preaching a message that convicts the pagan world around us of its sin? Or is it rather because you’re just a jerk? In this case, are you being persecuted for truly engaging the pagan world around us? Or are you being persecuted for being, quite frankly, just a joke?
To finish here, I just want to say, why do Christians think that the only way to tell Christian-based stories is by blatantly obvious stories of poor Christians being persecuted because some kid in class doesn’t like the things they say? The Bible teaches that we are “dead in our sins and trespasses” (Ephesians 2). In Ezekiel 37, we see a vision called “The Valley of Dry Bones” where the preaching of the gospel brings dry bones to life. There is so much incredible, beautiful imagery of the spiritual world in the Bible. Why not a fantasy/fiction story depicting this reality? Where by the preaching of life, actual dead are raised to life. How about a fantasy story where the characters need to battle an evil necromancer, who represents Satan and sin, and to beat him requires preaching the word. “The word” doesn’t need to be the Bible per say, but something representing preaching the gospel.
So many things we could do, such as the nature of prophecy. Honestly, how many stories do you see out there that explore prophecy and predestination, especially Christian movies? And yet, prophecy is a huge part of the biblical narrative. I don’t know if some Christians helping to create this content are actually aware of this, but are afraid to go there because it wouldn’t be “appealing” to the unbeliever world, or if they really don’t think these elements of the Bible can translate to good storytelling at all. After all, who wants to hear about predestination, right? Even though a story, by definition, is predestined by the author to go a certain way. I don’t know what it is, but we need to get out of our little worlds, because as long as we simply remain only interested in our gated communities, we will continue to make content reflecting the delusions of such communities, and ultimately do the exact opposite of what we claim we are trying to do.
To make these stories require us to think deeper, and to stop making stories that are nothing but confirmation bias for our people. Because my friends, we may think God’s Not Dead is a great encouragement for Christians, but the fact is, it does not depict the reality of things. It just reinforces the group think. What happens when some of these Christians enamored by the things these movies depict, try to take the arguments made into the real world and actually get smacked upside the head? What then? Suddenly Christianity doesn’t look so good. If we want to make an impact in this culture through storytelling, Christians need to stop living in echo chambers, they need to study their history (church history), actually know the world they live in, and actually learn what it means to make real characters living in a real world. Because the ultimate Storyteller, our God in heaven, didn’t make a plastic world, but a real one–one where He is sovereign over all things, but yet His creation truly moves, all to the ultimate praise of His glory.