A Call to Fear
"I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world, than stand with the world and be judged by God." — Grace Wesley, "God's Not Dead 2"
God's not dead, but rational arguments and discourse might be. At least that's how I felt watching the latest sermonic Christian film, "God's Not Dead 2." This is a direct sequel to the 2014 original which made hay at the Box Office and "ignited a movement." To me, it was a frustrating mix of beauty and fear-mongering.
I saw the original film, and though there were elements of beauty and honesty, I thought the basic premise played to the worst fears of many Christians — that we're being persecuted in our own country. I think that's a stretch. I think if a university professor threatened to fail a student unless he renounced his faith in God, the teacher would be out of a job. Sure, it made for a catchy exploration of what it means to stand for faith, but it didn't feel grounded in reality.
"God's Not Dead 2" takes a similar track. It's main story is about a teacher who is asked a question in history class about the teachings of Jesus and how they influenced the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr. She answers the question by quoting Jesus' words and how that was the basis for MLK's faith and policy. Of course she's then railroaded by the school board and sued by the ACLU — which doesn't have anything better to do in the world of this film.
A minor subplot also revolves around Pastor's being forced to turn over all their sermons for inspection by the local government, to which one of our main characters responds, "If we sit by and do nothing, the pressure that we're feeling today will mean persecution tomorrow. We're at war."
Of course the subplot revolving sermons isn't dealt with much, and our teacher wins in court, proving people are still into Jesus and the liberals haven't won... yet! But that war is ongoing and we have to be willing to fight every day.
It's a call to fear; fear that Christians are being persecuted, that people are out to get us, that our government has turned against us. And I think it's too much. Sure, the "inspiration" for both those fear-mongering plots came from litigation, most of which isn't as cut and dried or simplistic as the film would have you believe. But I think we're hardly living in a police state where uttering the name of Jesus leads to ruination.
When I was a journalist working in California, one of the most liberal states in our country, our small town City Council voted to add the words "In God We Trust" to the banner at their podium — over the objections of some citizens.
And even now, the fact we can release a movie like "God's Not Dead 2," the fourth such Christian film released in 2016, is proof we're not living under quite as oppressive a regime as the film would have you believe. In fact, framing things like we're in a war with our country is how conflict escalates in the first place. And it doesn't make for a compelling argument.
What's more frustrating to me is that the film didn't need that to convey the truth and beauty of the Gospel. It does a great job of making the case for Jesus — though sadly because of the plot an rhetoric used in the story, those that need to hear that argument aren't likely to see the movie.
It also includes plenty of powerful stories that could stand on their own. There's a narrative thread about a girl from a non-religious household coming to faith after struggling with the death of her brother. There's the story of a man from an anti-Christian country that comes to faith despite being rejected by his family. That same man decides God is calling him to be a minister in that oppressive country, despite all the challenges and personal costs. There's the story of an atheistic journalist who opens herself to faith during a health crisis and discovers the power, beauty, and comfort of Jesus. Those are all powerful, life-affirming stories that inspire us to faith, inspire us to dream bigger. And they aren't based on fear, and they don't take an adversarial stance to the world.
I wish "God's Not Dead 2" was more sure of the message of the Gospel, and less compelled to pick a fight with the world. We live in a rich time for Christian films. Already in 2016 we've seen "Risen," "Young Messiah," and "Miracles of Heaven" roll into theaters, connecting with audiences through rich, emotional storytelling. "God's Not Dead 2" has some of those elements, but it insists on painting those that don't believe as two-dimensional villains, which does everyone a disservice.
We are called to love. We are called to be set apart. We are called to be in the world, making a difference and letting our light shine. I don't see how any of that is accomplished by fighting a "war." That's what movies like "God's Not Dead 2" preach, and that's why, to me, they fall short of conveying the true heart of the Gospel.