Monday, April 07, 2014

God's Not Dead

Yesterday, I saw the movie, "God's Not Dead".  As an entertainment vehicle concerned with contentious philosophical issues, the movie entertains and enlightens in a way that it likely did not intend.  The story is set in a small, "third tier" college and follows the travails of Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper),  a freshman who signs up for a philosophy class to fulfill his humanties requirment despite a warning that he might want to find another class after the upperclassmen helping him sign up for classes sees the cross around Josh's neck.  The warning was well founded, as Professor Radisson (played by Kevin Sorbo aka "Hercules") begins class by informing students that they will need to disavow, in writing, the existence of God on that first day, or face a failing grade for fully 1/3 of their final grade.  This was the first of several heavy-handed tropes in the movie that bothered me.  I cannot imagine a professor at any university getting away with demanding that his students sign a statement that "God is Dead" or face a dramatic reduction in grade.  At a state university, it would violate the first amendment by demanding a statement of faith (or lack thereof) in the face of punishment.  At a private school, I cannot imagine it would survive either.  I'm a fairly liberal Christian, and I would take great offense at such a requirement by a person holding authority over me.  Even at 18, I believe I would have dropped the class AND filed a complaint.  But framing the story in this manner is important to the worldview expressed in the movie.   More on that later.

As other students in the class begin scribbling the words “God Is Dead”  and signing their names on pieces of paper as instructed, Josh is clearly uncomfortable, and finally offers a nervous refusal, provoking an a smug, sarcastic response from Radission.  The professor (clearly standing in for evil, godless academia) assigns him a daunting task that is set up to humilate Josh: if Josh will not admit that “God Is Dead,” he must prove God’s existence by presenting well-researched, intellectual arguments and evidence over the course of the semester, and engage Radisson in a head-to-head debate in front of the class.  Josh is smart enough to ask who decides if he has succeeded, and when Radisson tries to say it's his class, so he (Radisson) would be the judge, Josh counters by saying the class should vote since they all had just agreed with Radisson's proposition that God is dead.  It helps that Josh dreams of being a lawyer, so he'll treat the exercise as if the class is a jury.    Radisson accepts the premise, still quite smug that Josh will be humiliated and fail.  Of course, if Josh fails, his acadmic career is "destroyed" and he'll never be accepted to law school. 

That's a lot to put on a first semester freshman!  Defend your faith or face complete life failure!   It's also not true.  Even if he had failed the class, over the course of 4 years, Josh could make up for the hit on his GPA.  The movie, however, wants you to feel the high stakes for Josh.  His perfect blonde girlfriend (oddly left off the cast page of the movie) is also depicted as a pseudo-Christian shrew who literally orders him to not challenge Radisson because it will "ruin" their future.  After all, she lowered herself to go to this "third tier" school so they could be together, giving a hint that Josh may not be the stellar student that she is.  The movie reveals that they have been "together" since they were 12 years old when their two youth groups came together for some kind of event.  This girl has their whole life planned out, and Josh better not deviate from the "plan" if he loves her.  When he actually stands up for himself, she dumps him and says that her mother was right about him all along.  Ooooo.....BURN.... lol. 

Josh, of course, is stressed out and goes to church to pray for help.  An obviously burnt out pastor with frosted highlights (played by David A.R. White) asks if he can help, and ends up quoting two pieces of scripture that basically says if Josh doesn't stand up for God, then Jesus won't stand up for him when it's Judgement Day.  So now, Josh is not only facing "academic suicide", he is also facing eternal hellfire and damnation.  Poor, persecuted Josh!  Whatever will he do?   The dramatic tension here is a bit juvenile, but effective.  It is only because of the heavy dose of persecution that I present a slightly mocking tone.  Again, more on that later.

By this point in the movie, we have been introduced to three characters who provide subplots that present a very interesting view into the conservative, evangelical psyche.  The first is an oppressed Muslim girl (played by Hadeel Sittu) who is forced to wear a modified hijab that covers her head except for her eyes.  Her Muslim father is seen adjusting the hijab before she is allowed to leave the car.  I wondered why she was able to wear western clothes if her dad was conservative enough to demand an "eyes only" hijab.  Seems to me if her head covering needs to be that extensive, he'd insist she not wear form fitting blue jeans and a button up blouse, but a full length burqa.  If we're going for stereotypes, why not go full bore?

The girl rips off the head scarf as soon as her dad drives away, so she can fit in with the other students.  At one point, another girl tells her "You're so pretty.  It's a shame you have to hide it."  Of course, this girl is sporting a cross, and says this as the girl's father drives up.  He immediately demands to know who she was talking to, and she says no one.  The father seems to sense his daughter's discomfort, and says he knows it's hard for her to be a part of this world but not OF this world.  But that all he asks is this one thing (wearing the head scarf), and he only does that because he loves her.  Does she understand that?   That was a fairly honest portrayal of the tension of how a conservative Muslim family living in America might feel.  Yet, they ignore the disrespect shown the girl's faith by pressuring her to not wear the hijab.  Perhaps if she were ugly, it would be OK?  The portrayl was sympathetic but ultimately from a place of "how backward these Muslim people are!".

There's a twist, though!  This Muslim girl is not only wanting to fit in with her American peers, she is also interested in the Christian message.  Later, we see her listening to Franklin Graham preaching via a podcast.  This was an important "tell" by the makers of this movie, and the perspective they bring.  That Franklin Graham would be the preacher she listens to, rather than his father, shows what the movie believes is the "real" form of Christianity.   All I could think of when I saw Franklin Graham's name on her ipod was all the hateful things he's said about gay people. 

Of course, the girl's little brother comes in while she's resting and rips the ipod out of her hand to see what she's listening to.  The little boy then tells on her, and the girl's father comes raging in, demanding that she recite "There is no God but God, and Muhammed is his profit."  I was kind of surprised that he didn't demand she scream "Alluh Akbar!"  The girl then admits she has become a Christian in her beliefs, which provokes violence from the father.  He strikes her, and drags her by the hair out of the house and throws her in the street, slamming the door to their home and locking it.  The movie is not unsympathetic with the "nasty" and "unreasonable" demands of Islam, as it shows the father wishing he didn't have to throw his daughter out, and showing him collapsing in sobs after he does. 

We also have a subplot around a Chinese student (played by Paul Kwo) studying at the university.  Of course, being a "godless communist", he knows nothing of God until the fight breaks out in the Philosophy class, and Josh has to defend the existence of God.  But the quiet Chinese student is intrigued, and we see him talking to his father about it.  The father says that whatever the professor says goes, and he doesn't want to hear any  more about it.  Of course, being an obedient chinese boy, he doesn't want to go against his father or the professor...but the God stuff calls to him.

Finally, we have a blogger (played by fiery redhead Tricia LaFache) and her douchebag boyfriend, a power executive played by Dean Cain.  She is the chief scribe of a blog called "The New Left" whose sole purpose is apparently to "ambush" Christians to challenge their faith.  She is seen  pouncing on one of the Duck Dynasty boys and his wife as they go into church, basically calling him a murderer for hunting ducks.  She also makes a snide remark about his wife not being barefoot and pregnant.  The character is portrayed as a shrill feminist leftist who hates Christians for being moral and looks to attack them however she can.  Her blog is supposed to be popular, getting 1 million clicks a month for her posts.  The Duck Dynasty guy is shown to be humble, and tells the blogger that if someone doesn't like the fact he's a christian who prays on camera, they can change the channel.  It's all part of the theme of standing up for Jesus (the movie is dropping the more general "God" for an explicit message about Christ at this point). 

As luck would have it, the blogger has cancer, and it has spread widely throughout her body.  It appears there's little that can be done to save her.  When she tells the douchebag boyfriend, his first response is "This couldn't have waited until tomorrow?"  See, he closed a deal today, and the dinner was supposed to be a celebration, and she had to ruin it with her news of cancer.  Then he informs her that she violated their deal, and the relationship is over.   She had thought he loved her, but she was mistaken, and since she's a feminist liberal shrew, she is now utterly alone, facing cancer and death without anyone who loves her. 

Turns out, the douchebag boyfriend's sister is living with Professor Radisson (played by a VERY toothy Cory Oliver) and has a mother in the final stages of dementia.  The sister is very pretty, kind, and patient.  She is also a Christian dating the aggressively atheist Radisson who tells her that he won't share her with a fictious God.   It's revealed that the sister was once Radisson's student, and that they dated after she finished his class.  He remarks how glad he was that she had a brain in her head since she was so pretty.  Radisson is having colleagues over for a wine and cheese gathering, most of whom are from the Philsophy department where Radisson is under consideration for Chair.  The topic of Josh's challenge comes up, and Radisson fully mocks  Josh while giving grudging respect to his willingness to commit "academic suicide".  The sister remarks that it doesn't seem fair to expect a freshman to fight him in a discipline that is Radisson's life's work.  Radisson basically tells her to be quiet, and when she continues, he icily says, "I asked you nicely to be quiet."  Radisson's colleagues are portrayed as being in complete agreement with him, slightly embarassed for the obviously intellectually inferior sister. 

The douchebaggery continues as dinner is served.  Radisson had sent the sister out to get a very specific bottle of wine, which she had then locked in the trunk of her car.  Apparently, she left it there because when they pour the wine, it is rancid.  As the horror of what happened sinks in, Radisson makes a few cutting remarks about his girlfriend to the point she is almost in tears and says it's time for "the help" to leave. 

There is also a subplot with the burnt out preacher who is hosting an African missionary who is amazed at the wonders of America and laughs at the preacher when he gets frustrated over minor things like a car not starting.   The African wants to see Disney World, but every time they get a car, it doesn't start.  The African thinks this is funny and message from God, while the preacher is just exasperated.  It is revealed that the preacher thinks his work has become routine and boring, while the African gets to do the "real" work of saving souls in Africa.  The simple faith (whenever something happens the African says "God is good" to which the answer is "All the time" followed by "And all the time" finished with "God is good") of the African is portrayed as an ideal that has been lost by the preacher as he is consumed with worries of this world.

Meanwhile, Josh has been studying hard to present the arugments that God exists from a philosophical standpoint.   Radisson had already presented a list of prominent philosophers, all of whom were atheists with the implication being that the world's greatest "thinkers" all believed God did not exist.   The movie here does not shy away from science, focusing first on the Big Bang theory of the universe.  Josh makes an argument that having the universe be created out of nothing spontaneously is illogical.  He then makes reference to Genesis, ignoring the whole timeline of Genesis where creationists argue that the Earth is about 6700 years old, and any evidence to the contrary is manufactured by godless scientists.  Josh's argument embraces the notion that Genesis is not to be read literally, especially the part about creation being finished in 6 days.  He does make an argument that it is possible that the Big Bang and Genesis's story of God saying "Let there be light" describe the same event of creation.   It is an argument that falls within my personal belief system.

Radissons answers this argument by quoting Stephen Hawking ("the greatest mind the world has ever known!") expressing his belief that the laws of physics make a spontaneous Big Bang inevitable.  Josh doesn't have an answer to that quotation until his next argument session (he has three) where he quotes an unknown academic's criticism of Hawkings circular reasoning.  The rebuttal makes sense, and presenting Hawking as infallible was an amateur mistake on Radisson's part anyway. 

Josh moves on during his second argument to the fossil record.  I was glad to see the character of Josh embrace what science tells us while making his God argument.  I have always found the argument that you can't believe in God and in the scientific method as ridiculous.  There are things science doesn't explain, and it may never explain.  Or maybe it will, who knows?  Either way, there's nothing in my years of scientific training that has precluded a belief in God.   After all, God gave us brains with which to think critically, to explore and discover the universe.   As long as belief in God doesn't preclude the search for answers (and in my belief, it does not...and in fact, encourages exploration and study), God and science have no need to be in conflict.   Yes, you can get into ethics and the use of science where faith plays a role, but the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself is God-neutral. 

Anyway, Josh brings up the Cambrian explosion, was the relatively rapid appearance, around 542 million years ago, of most major animal phyla, as demonstrated in the fossil record. This was accompanied by major diversification of other organisms. Before the Cambrian explosion, about  most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70-80 million years, the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude and the diversity of life began to resemble that of today.  The Cambrian explosion has generated extensive scientific debate. Charles Darwin discussed it as one of the main objections that could be made against his theory of evolution by natural selection.  The long-running puzzlement about the appearance of the Cambrian fauna, seemingly abruptly and from nowhere, centers on three key points: 1) whether there really was a mass diversification of complex organisms over a relatively short period of time during the early Cambrian; 2) what might have caused such rapid change; 3) and what it would imply about the origin and evolution of animals. Interpretation is difficult due to a limited supply of evidence, based mainly on an incomplete fossil record and chemical signatures remaining in Cambrian rocks.   Josh's argument is that the Cambrian explosion proves Genesis was correct in saying God created all the creatures, and the "sudden" appearance is proof that it wasn't happenstance, but driven by an intelligent being, aka God. 

Josh could have made his argument without the benefit of Genesis, and his argument loses steam whenever he whips out scripture as proof.  Otherwise, his arguments are sound.  There is nothing that proves God created the Cambrian explosion or the Big Bang, but there is also nothing proving otherwise.  In other words, it is POSSIBLE that a higher being known as God caused these things to happen.  That's all Josh really needs to prove.

Radisson, of course, is pissed.  He announces that the last session will be different.  Instead of letting Josh lecture the class, it will be a real debate between him and Josh.  The movie plays this as Radisson's desperate move to counter Josh's sound arguments on behalf of God.  Radisson by this point has told Josh that he won't stand for Josh's attempt to "humilate" him in front of the class, and that he will make it his mission to make sure Josh never makes it into any graduate school program if he continues.  It was an unnecessary addition to the persecution theme, and reveals that Radission is driven by something more than intellectual snobbery. 

Josh finally asks Radisson what happened to him to make him so aggressively anti-God.   Radisson reveals that his mother died of cancer at age 12, basically leaving him an orphan.  When his mother got sick, she was a godly woman.  The young Radisson prayed that his mother would live, but she died.  Josh replies that sometimes God's answer is no, and Radisson responds that any God would orphan a little boy who prayed so hard for her to live was not a God worth believing in. 

In the climatic scene of Josh and Radisson's back-and-forth, Josh finally calls out Radisson's hatred of God as going beyond just mere non-belief.   He pushes Radisson to admit that he hates God and demands to know WHY.  Radisson finally explodes that YES, he does hate God for killing his mother when he was a child, and Josh sums up by saying, "How, then, Professor, can you hate something so much that you claim does not exist?"  It's a very good question, and one that Radisson does not have an answer for.   His hatred of God is a concession of God's very existance, for you can't hate something that doesn't exist.  There must be an object for hate, and that object must by definition exist.  At this point, the Chinese student stands up and declares, "God. Is. Not. Dead."  And slowly, the entire class stands up declaring the same.  Josh has won the argument and slain the atheist dragon!

There's a Christian rock band in town, and all the characters have tickets to it.  Josh takes the newly believing Chinese student since his second ticket is available after the Bitchy Girlfriend has dumped him for standing up for God.  The formerly muslim girl is there, and even the nasty feminist blogger shows up.  Of course, she shows up to confront the rock band about their beliefs.  They are calm, and ask her where she finds her hope.  At this point, the blogger admits that she's dying and scared and has nothing to give her hope.  The band prays with her in a very sweet scene, and we are left to hope she will convert.  The band is rocking the arena and giving a shout out to Josh for standing up for Jesus (the movie wisely doesn't get into the intricacies of the holy trinity), and asks everyone in the arena to text everyone in their phone the message: "God is not dead!"  Of course, they all do.

Meanwhile, Radisson is in  his office looking over the signed declarations of his students that God is dead.  He then pulls out an old envelope and reads a letter from his mother, written on her deathbed.  She expresses her sorrow that she won't see him grow up and become the man God intends him to be.  So Radisson, apparently having a change of heart, sees a newspaper article about the concert, calls his girlfriend to leave a message for her to call him, and heads toward the arena.  It starts to rain, and he's rushing ahead.  As he enters the crosswalk, a car runs a red light and hits him.  The car drives off, leaving Radisson broken on the pavement.  Luckily, the preacher and the African see this happen, and get out to give aid.  The African immediately says that Radisson's ribs are ALL broken and his lungs are filling with blood.  The preacher tells him that God has given him a last chance to believe, and that God could have let him die on impact.  Radisson has a conversion moments before he dies.  The movie ends with Radisson's phone lighting up with his girlfriend's text telling him that "God is not dead!". 

Cue credits, which contain something suprising after the list of cast and crew.  There is an extensive listing of court cases against universities across the nation that have been charged with persecuting Christians and stopped by the courts on the basis of the 1st Amendment.  The cases scroll by very quickly, but end with an exhortation that if anyone believes their school is persecuting them based on their Christian beliefs to contact a group of lawyers who can help.

What I could gleam from the cases they presented, they mostly dealt with funding of Christian organizations on campus from student activity funds on a neutral basis, OR with recognition of a Christian organization without requiring them to admit non-christians as members.  What had happened was state universities had begun denying faith groups funding from student activity funds on the theory that a state institution could be sued for promoting a certain faith if they funded explicitly Christian groups.  There weren't many explictly Muslim or other faith groups around asking for funding, so the prohibition mostly focused on Chrsitian groups.   The Supreme Court has held that universities may not actively discriminate against faith groups in funding.  As long as the faith-based group meets the neutral criteria for being a student organization, it must be allowed to seek funding on an equal basis with non-faith groups.  Further, the university could not force a faith group to change its membership criteria under the guise of non-discrimination policies.  So a Christian student group that required members to be Christians, and perhaps subscribe to a certain set of beliefs had to not only be recognized by the university but funded on equal basis of other student groups.  None of which I have an objection to.  Our courts are there to decide these questions, and it is wrong for a public university to make life harder for Christian groups than other groups.

This theme of persecution is where I have some issues with this movie.  I have a bachelors and a masters degree from a public university, and my law degree was from a private school once associated with Baptists.  As a result, I have a fair amount of experience in an academic setting, especially as it existed in the mid-to-late 1990s.  Academia is not full of frothing-at-the-mouth atheists looking to undermine Christian beliefs at every turn.  A professor like Radisson would not last long, and he certainly would not be allowed to conduct his classes in a way that demands signed statements of (non) belief from students in order to get a good grade.  I'm sure there are plenty of academics as smug as Radisson who look down upon any students who are devoutly religious.  The caricature of academia in this movie is simply false from my experience.  I could see a philosophy professor assigning a debate about the existance of God argued from a philosophical standpoint, but such an exercise would be carefully laid out and neutral.  It would have to be in order to not cause an uproar.  The criteria would be carefully laid out, and it would be on that basis the arguments would be judged.  A devoutly religious student would just as capable of receving an A as a devoutly atheist student. 

Yet, I think this movie gives us a keen insight into the evangelical, conservative Christian mindset.  The attempt to legislate "religious freedom" laws are based in this idea that Christians are under fire in America and that without action, persecution is inevitable.  It seems that losing the fight on gay marriage has created a seige mentality where faith is in danger unless that faith can be imposed upon others.   Somehow, providing service to gays is the equivalent of forcing a believer to sign a statement of faith that goes against his/her religion. 

Academia is not some monolithic entity of non-believers out to crush Christian belief wherever it may be found.  Liberals are not godless, angry, and anti-God.  There are plenty of us who have a faith system that includes a loving God, and our lives are not empty or meaningless.  Atheists are capable of holding moral absolutes like murder is wrong.  While they may  not believe in an entity creating or enforcing moral order, it is pretty evident that an "anything goes" philosophy is not only unworkable but would create utter chaos. 

The movie did touch on the very real pain that can be behind some anti-religious beliefs.  Yet, it's not true of all atheists.  Most of the atheists I know don't care, and just want to be left alone.  They also don't want to have the government force a certain set of beliefs on them that have little basis in public order or good.   To be sure, there are people who are aggressively anti-Christian, anti-God, etc.  Many of those people have good reason to hold those beliefs.   Christianity, in all its diversity, has done some real harm to people over time.  In the gay world alone, there are countless stories of little boys and girls who have been shamed and punished for being different.  They have been told that God HATES who they are, how they love, and who they love.  Too many have grown up being told their Creator created them to be something to be despised, ridiculed, and punished just for being who they are.  These largely conservative "Christians" have driven away these believers just as surely as the apostles tried to turn away children from Jesus in the famous biblical story. 

It is my belief that God exists, and that He weeps at the things done in His name.  His heart surely breaks over the souls who have been driven to hate his name in order to survive spiritual abuse.  Yet, you have a whole subset of people who are convinced that by losing a political argument, they are persecuted.  They look out at a world that isn't how they would have it, and they see nothing but hostility and secret plans to destroy them.    It's really quite sad, and more than a little pathetic.  It is, however, a reality with which we must deal as a society.