Saturday, October 26, 2013

God's Not Dead film to bring urban legends to life on the big screen

Social media recently brought my attention to a trailer for an upcoming film called God's Not Dead. The film stars Kevin Sorbo, known for his portrayal of a fictional hero from Ancient Greek mythology. Sorbo is instead cast in the role of a fictional villain from Contemporary Christian mythology, the evil atheist professor. A relative unknown plays the heroic Christian student. Both characters appear to be adaptations of those found in famous urban legends.

The film is based on a book, based on a popular CCM song and has accompanying workbooks, lectures, t-shirts, necklaces, seminars, evangelism kits, a complete sermon series with Power Point slides and numerous other consumer products. It's just further evidence that the foolishness of preaching has been replaced by the foolishness of the savvy copycat marketing of repackaged weak arguments for Christianity along with a heavy dose of the straw man fallacy. Throw in a dash of Christian pop culture icons from Duck Dynasty and you've got a formula for some financial success. All of this is sure to keep young people in the church and convince skeptics, right?

I thought about reviewing the book rather than just dissecting the film trailer, but it's $14 on Amazon and not available at my public library (oddly enough, a copy of the Newsboys concert CD of the same name is). I'm not plunking money into the coffers of these people. If I find it at a used bookstore, Goodwill or a yard sale I might be inclined to purchase it, but otherwise, no. In the mean time, I'm going to do a breakdown of the trailer and may later offer a critique of some of the online excerpts available for the book, even though I consider much of what I've seen in the book to be low-hanging fruit. There are far better apologetic efforts from other authors out there that vastly exceed this one.

The reason I'm bothering with this at all is that some of the contents form a good springboard for some other topics. Also, I took several philosophy classes at a secular university, and while I realize creative license is often invoked by filmmakers, that is not what is going on here. Judging by the trailer, this movie is so far from depicting reality that I'm led to conclude that it's nothing more than an on-screen urban legend that seeks to reinforce unfounded stereotypes and play up the modern Christian persecution myth so prevalent among Evangelicals in this country.

So here's the trailer:

Believe it or not [subtle joke], the first person we're introduced to is Dean Cain's character mocking an elderly lady for praying. It's not clear from the trailer what exactly his role is, but judging by the tagline that follows ("some question his existence") and the fact that he's taking out his frustrations on a defenseless old lady, I'd say he's a bit of a douchebag doubter. He's clearly berating this woman who is now suffering from some kind of dementia or other health problem. Do Christians really think atheists visit people who are sick, suffering and on death's door in a weakened and vulnerable state emotionally so they can mock them with lines like, "where is your god now?" Of course not. You know who does visit people who are sick, suffering and on death's door in a weakened and vulnerable state emotionally so they can get them to embrace their worldview? Christians.

Don't believe me? I'll give you an example. Not long before I left Christianity, I can recall someone discussing a "lost" close relative of a member of the church who was having serious health problems. The pastor had made plans to visit this critically ill individual along with their relative because, "they think he might finally be receptive the gospel." Now, I'm sure this sounds like a great opportunity to most Christians. After all, the pastor and this relative are trying to save this unbeliever from hell. However, from a non-Christian perspective it's downright nefarious. It's preying on people in a weakened mental and emotional state in an effort to score one for the winning side. If you have to look for emotionally-charged opportunities when people are at their weakest rather than when they are in complete possession of their rational mental faculties in order to convince them to adopt your religion, you need to seriously question the validity of your religion.  

At the :10 mark of the teaser, which is only slightly different from the trailer, we are introduced to some reporter lady with her nose turned up condescendingly telling the Newsboys, "you guys are gonna go out there and sing about God and Jesus as if they're as real as you and me" to which Michael Tait resiliently smiles and replies, "To us they are as real." Oh, snap! We'll be treated to a performance of the title track from their album which bears the same name later. It's a lyrically anemic little ditty that throws around a few Christian cliches, so there's not much to chew on there. Hey, remember when Steve Taylor used to write for the Newsboys and the lyrics contained poetic imagery that subverted mainstream Evangelical culture? I do.

Anyway, we're not even twenty seconds into this thing and so far the skeptics are about as ridiculously caricatured as Snidely Whiplash and Dick Dastardly. People just don't behave like this in real life and any idiot should be able to see that, but let's continue.

About the same mark on the full trailer we're shown Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame appearing in the film as themselves. They're asked by the same bitchy reporter lady what they say to the people that are offended by their show because they pray to Jesus in every episode. It's a really ridiculous and loaded question because it implies that there are people who are offended by the fact that the Robertson's are open about their faith.

Who are these supposed offended people? I'm sincerely asking, because whoever they are, I seriously doubt there are very many of them. The fact that the Robertsons would be trotted out as people who take flak for their beliefs is utterly and completely ridiculous. They're not exactly being asked to deny Christ in the face of torture or death. They're highly successful. Willie could have just as easily replied to the reporter, "I don't really give a crap if people are offended because I'm laughing all the way to the bank. Have you seen my new line of menswear at Wal-Mart?" Seriously, filmmakers? The Robertson's are modern day martyrs?

The whole scene plays off rumors that were going around Facebook and other social media earlier this year that alleged the Robertsons were under fire because "liberals and atheists" were objecting to the public way they portray their faith. The whole thing was an urban legend and the real reason production was being held up is because the Robertsons wanted more money. Yet here they are perpetuating the myth in this scene. The theme of playing into urban legends is going to be a recurring one, as we will see.

Are there Christians who are "persecuted" for their beliefs in this country? Sure. I'm willing to concede that, as long as Christians are willing to concede that nearly everyone who has a belief or opinion contrary to someone else's is subject to the same kind of negative treatment. While we're on the subject, I'd just like to point out that it's kind of telling who is really being persecuted for their views on religion when someone like Barney Frank can spend virtually his entire political career as an openly gay man, but has to wait until he's out of politics before he can "come out" as an atheist. This is not "a world where no one believes in God" as the Facebook page for this film suggests. This is a world where nearly everyone believes in a god of some kind and those who don't are treated with suspicion and hostility. This film isn't going to help that.

At :20 we get some backstory on Kevin Sorbo's character, Professor Radisson. He says a god who would let a twelve-year-old watch his mother die of cancer is not worth believing in. That sets up his motivation for being an atheist. Something bad must have happened to him and now he's upset with God because he doesn't think it's fair. We can't have an atheist who reasoned his way out of faith or was simply never indoctrinated into it. Nope. It's got to be one who had something tragic happen to him. This also sets up the idea that the problem of pain is the only hurdle Christian theism has to overcome. Guess what? It's not.

At the :26 mark the screenwriter apparently has the Professor Radisson character pull the Shakespeare "sound and fury" quote from Macbeth out of context. If you're not familiar with the play, Macbeth is not exactly put forward by Shakespeare as a guy whose life you want to emulate and whose perspective should be adopted. He's a fearful, paranoid, conniving murderer who is universally reviled. This is like when people quote Polonius from Hamlet saying, "To thine own self be true." Polonius is wrong in his judgment throughout the entire play. People who quote his character in a positive way are betraying that they haven't read the play or don't understand the context. Similarly the screenwriter is betraying that he hasn't bothered to read Macbeth, or possibly that his atheist professor character has no business teaching in the humanities department at a major university.

The sentiment expressed in the Macbeth quote is not representative of atheism, anyway, as atheism only deals with a single existential question. It's more along the lines of shallow nihilism, but atheism doesn't necessitate nihilism, much less a shallow version of it. Even if Radisson is a nihilist, the Macbeth quote is only the way a self-loathing nihilist in total despair would express that philosophical position as it comes from the mouth of a homicidal tyrant. This would be like Christians going around repeating quotes like, "This human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief." That statement might accurately represent their position and they may agree with it, but they're not going to go around quoting Hitler (Mein Kampf, p. 152) because they don't want to be associated with him.

It's the same with Macbeth. If the professor knew the context of the quote he wouldn't go around using it as a persuasive way to express the idea that life has no objective purpose. Typically nihilists use the fact that life has no objective meaning as a starting point to the conclusion that this actually frees an individual to create their own meaning and purpose. But that would just sound too positive, right? Atheists are supposed to be mean, crotchety, self-hating killjoys.

At the :38 second mark we're introduced to our hero played by Disney dancer, Shane Harper. Remember when Disney used to be reviled by Christians because of how they liked the gays and were putting subliminal messages about premarital sex in their movies and stuff? Anyway, I digress. The character's name, Josh Wheaton, strangely sounds a lot like Joss Whedon, who just happens to be an outspoken atheist. Hmmm. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Anyway, Josh wears his Christianity proudly around his neck along with his Newsboys shirt. Speaking of product placement, this was filmed in Baton Rouge, so I'm guessing there was a Chick-fil-A nearby. I'd almost be willing to bet we see someone eating some delicious chicken sandwiches with a bag or cup with the logo prominently displayed somewhere in the film. It was unmistakable in Fireproof. Kirk Cameron had a bag of Chick-fil-A with him in nearly every scene in that film. More digression. I apologize.

The guy at registration notices our hero's outwardly represented Christianity and warns him about the dreaded Professor Radisson [dun, dun, dun]. It's at this point another persecution myth is invoked when registration guy alludes to Christians being slaughtered in the Roman Colosseum. The thing is, "despite numerous accounts of saints’ lives written in the Renaissance and later, there is no reliable evidence that Christians were killed in the Colosseum for their faith." Could it have happened? Sure. But "no reliable evidence" is not exactly warrant to go around perpetuating the idea that it did. So stop.

At :48 we're introduced to the evil Professor Radisson. After listing a bunch of notable atheists on the board, he promptly tells his undergrads he wants to "bypass senseless debate." This professor should be fired. Right then. Right there. Not just because this is an incredible abuse of power, but because it's just a really, really bad way to teach philosophy. I minored in philosophy. I can assure you "senseless debate" is one thing philosophy professors do not shy away from. These are people who will seriously discuss whether or not the transporters on Star Trek are actually killing people every time someone beams down to a planet. Even the most ridiculous question is up for grabs, and especially the question of God.

This professor is not real. He's a figment of the anti-intellectual Christian imagination. He is a straw man. He exists in urban legends about Einstein and Marines. Occasionally he'll be seen dropping his chalk or be found in the infamous "Big Daddy?" Chick Tract. He's the product of people who've probably never set foot in a philosophy class at the college level. He's as real as Darth Vader and Voldermort. He's one of the nameless creatures in the woods surrounding M. Night Shyamalan's Village that keeps fearful young Christians from venturing into secular higher education institutions because it might challenge some of their unfounded assumptions and [gasp!] make them think for themselves.

I'm sure there are some philosophy professors out there who are overbearing and lecture their students rather than giving them an opportunity to question their assertions, but I seriously doubt there are many. I can only speak certainly of my own experience. However, never in any philosophy class did a teacher ever dogmatically declare the "correct" position on any subject. Do you know where you can go and find people dogmatically declaring the "correct" position on any number of philosophical questions on a regular basis with little to no opportunity for debate or rebuttal? C'mon. You know the place I'm talking about. I'll give you a hint. It's not the local liberal arts college. Pssst. I'm talking about church.

Around the 1:00 mark we come to the single most ridiculous point in the trailer. The professor tells the students to write on a piece of paper three words, "God is dead." This is absurd for quite a few reasons, but we'll just deal with the two really big ones. First, the phrase, "God is dead" comes from the works The Joyful Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzche. Yes, Nietzche was an atheist, but here's the thing, the phrase "God is dead" was not an expression of atheism or disbelief in God. It was spoken by a literary character Nietzche had created who was searching for God in modern society. Eventually the character offers this lament:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
Nietzche's concept of the death of God is describing what he perceived as a philosophical event that was the ramification of industrialization and an ever increasing move away from the concept of a personal god. It's not a declaration of atheism and he's not happy about it.

Think about it. Why would an atheist declare, "God is dead"? It implies that God was somehow alive before. The Christian god is not dead. He's imaginary. He has never existed, so he can't have died either. The phrase, however, is convenient for Christians to seize upon because they believe in a dying and rising god. The point is, no professor of philosophy familiar with Nietzche would ever use this phrase as a stand-in for an assertion of the non-existence of the Christian god.

Second, no professor is ever going to so brazenly disregard a student's religious beliefs by assigning them something like this without seeing some serious backlash. Don't believe me? There was a professor at FAU earlier this year who had students perform an exercise in a communications class to help illustrate the importance of symbols in culture. The exercise, prescribed by the textbook, involved having the students take out a piece of paper and write the word "JESUS" on it. The instructor then told them to place the paper on the floor, look down at the word, consider it and then step on it. The idea is that many will hesitate or refuse. This is precisely the point of the exercise. It's to help the students see that humans view symbols in a powerful way that other animals do not.

There was a Mormon student in the class who apparently did not get the point and instead flipped out on the professor, to the point that he approached the professor after class in a threatening manner. The professor felt so physically threatened that he notified campus security and filed a report. The student promptly ran to the local news media and cried persecution. Naturally, Christians around the country had a very measured, calm and rational response after waiting for all the facts to surface. Nah, I'm kidding. They went completely bonkers.

The professor, who was just doing his job, was placed on administrative leave, basically condemned by the governor of Florida and had to endure racially charged death threats (he's black). So much for turning the other cheek and bearing your cross. The professor was eventually reinstated, but because of the ongoing concerns for his safety he will only teach online classes. And the kicker? He's a Christian. He loves Jesus. He teaches Sunday School at a local church. Now, in light of this, do you really think a college professor like Professor Radisson would survive for ten seconds in our culture if he made his students do what is depicted in this clip from the film?

At 1:10 our Daniel-like hero refuses to write the words down and has to face the lion's den of a pitched debate over the existence of the Christian god with the professor, setting the stage for presumably more straw man arguments to be put forward by the professor and then burned down by the heroic student who must "fight for what he believes in." Looking for comfort from a classmate, he's instead met with little help when his confidant incredulously asks, "you believe Jesus is God?" But fear not, moviegoer, our hero does not want to disappoint Jesus.

Reverend Dave, played by the production company's co-founder and internet meme sensation David A.R. "Jesus Man" White, reminds him that this might be the only time his classmates have any "meaningful exposure" to God and Jesus if he accepts the challenge to debate his professor.

Does nearly 3 million views count as "meaningful exposure?"

At 1:40 we get some clue to the approach that Wheaton is going to use. He's going to "put God on trial." This not-so-novel approach immediately makes the professor feel threatened because in addition to being mean and angry he's also incredibly insecure. More sympathy is conjured up for our hero when his girlfriend is seen abandoning him to his quest. He's all alone with only Jesus to help him. This kind of glurge is precisely what film critics hate the most about Christian films. It's not so much the overt preachy-ness. It's the complete lack of complexity and the use of these silly tropes that are common to the most childish sort of story-telling.

At 2:04 Wheaton says he wants his fellow students to make their own choice and that's what God wants too. I have to ask, is "believe in Jesus or burn in hell forever" really a choice? I suppose it is, but it's kind of like Don Corleone making an offer you can't refuse. Also, since when do Christians want people to have a choice? They certainly don't allow their children to have a choice. No, instead they "raise them in the nurture and instruction of Christ" (read: indoctrinate them from birth). The other side is not given any say and if it is it's like how the other side is depicted in this film, a straw man.

At 2:30 we're treated to the assertion that "Science supports [God's] existence. You know the truth!" To conclude this, one has to misunderstand science. Science deals with empirical evidence. There is no empirical evidence for God. It's just that simple. God is allegedly a spirit. How does science test a spirit? How does science detect the presence of God? Now, does science disprove the existence of God? Of course not. The statement "God exists" is not even wrong, so science can't disprove his existence because it's an unfalsifiable existential claim. What science can do is disprove the falsifiable claims that are supposedly made by the Christian god in the Bible, and that is usually the point that atheists make when they invoke science.

As if invoking science to support God weren't enough, though, the last line of dialogue we're treated to in this trailer is when Wheaton berates his professor by repeatedly asking him the loaded question so many unbelievers are familiar with, "Why do you hate God?"

Let me clear this up. By and large, atheists do not hate God. It should be obvious that to hate something you have to believe it exists, but I understand why there might be some confusion on this issue. There are atheists who do seem angry and some of them even admit it, but their anger is not directed at a being they don't believe exists. They have some very good reasons for being angry, by the way. However, they're not angry at God. If they're angry at anyone it's people that believe in God and claim to speak on his behalf. Or they are frustrated with a society that takes for granted as true something that they see absolutely no evidence for. It can be difficult when you think of yourself as the only sober person in the car when no one will let you drive.

The other thing that leads Christians to the conclusion that atheists hate God is that the Bible can be interpreted to mean that atheists really do believe the Christian god exists. This is something I used to go around proclaiming. There are even books about this wherein the authors claim, based mostly on their interpretation of this verse, that God has authoritatively revealed that there are no atheists. Everyone believes in God and those that claim they don't are just lying or angry with God. What this really amounts to, however, is an ad hominem fallacy. It's a way to call atheists liars and rests solely on speculative assumption. There's an entire apologetic method that makes extensive use of this very tactic.

Perhaps you can see what this is like if it's reversed. Imagine if atheists went around telling believers that they don't really believe. Picture them telling Christians that if they really believed in hell they'd never have children for fear of them dying and going there or that they should walk around constantly terrified that they may have misunderstood the Bible and are in danger of eternal torture. Atheists could tell people who profess to believe that they are just lying and are angry with reality. Instead of acknowledging reality they persist in denying the fact of their own mortality, desiring rather to persuade others around them that there is an afterlife of bliss waiting for them so they have the illusion of false consensus.

Christians are so adamant in their denial of reality that they will often go to great lengths to try to prove to themselves and others around them that they really do believe. Many are put off at the mere suggestion that other people don't acknowledge the existence of their god. What if every time Christians put out a film or a book that is such an obvious, desperate attempt to confirm their beliefs, atheists just responded with another misunderstood and misapplied Shakespeare quote: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Why do you have to constantly reinforce your beliefs every time you start to doubt them, Christians? Why do you have to do things like listen to songs and read books that seek to reaffirm and reassure you that "God's Not Dead'? If that's true, shouldn't it be blatantly obvious? Why is so much vitriol directed at those who refuse to acknowledge your imaginary friend? Shouldn't it just be pity and concern?

Why do you hate reality? It's a very simple question, Christians. you hate...reality?


  1. Oh man I wish I could +1 this from my WordPress account. That last question rings like a bell through the blogosphere.

  2. You put more time into this response than the movie probably deserved, so kudos to you for that. Can we expect a full review once the movie's out too? :)

  3. Fantastic post. Keeping it handy to reply when someone suggests via social media that I view the movie.

  4. Okay, I'd just like to be clear on a few things: first, the topic of the Robertsons. "The fact that the Robertsons would be trotted out as people who take flak for their beliefs is utterly and completely ridiculous." I seem to remember a comment made by Phil earlier this year that, while crude in its delivery, was grounded solidly in his faith. There was no diluting of the Scripture, but Phil held to a certain belief that didn't agree with the mainstream social media, and he got slammed for it. I'd also recommend you see the movie, since the trailer doesn't accurately depict the character of Radisson. Prof. Radisson was formerly Christian but intentionally pushed himself from God because He "didn't answer his prayers" when his mom was dying. So, he isn't so much of an atheist as he is anti-Christian. And I've seen enough of that in college. I agree, it's not like the professors shove a form in your face and insist you "sign or fail" as in this movie, but most of the Philo or Psych profs I've encountered teach entirely about their secular worldview and aligning perspectives, conveniently allowing theistic philosophies to fall by the wayside because "we know about all that already" and obviously need to learn the "right" way to go. While I don't agree with everything this movie says, as a college student I can relate to Wheaton's predicament. Additionally, your assumption about some atheists is correct, that they believe fully that there is no God. However, about 80% of those people live in countries where Christianity has not been spread (parts of Africa) or is even illegal (China). Again, see the movie for a more complete understanding of this. And finally, you ask why Christians have to "read a book" to reinforce their beliefs? The book you speak of is called the Bible -- it's basically the map and compass for any Christian, since it's God's spoken Word. And it directs Christians to defend their faith, but not to "spew vitriol," as you so accurately put it. If nothing else, I love you guys, and want you to come to know Him. I can't completely prove that He exists (that's why it's called "faith"), but neither can you disprove His existence. So . . . it seems that we have each reached an impass. I won't denigrate your solid belief that there is no "big man in the sky," but I expect that you treat Christians with the same respect and refrain from "spewing vitriol" at Christians for their faith.

    1. The post was from October, prior to Phil’s flap. A cynic might call getting “slammed” an exploitation of the media to the tune of millions of dollars in merchandise. As I said, “They're not exactly being asked to deny Christ in the face of torture or death. They're highly successful.”

      Radisson was formerly Christian but intentionally pushed himself from God because He "didn't answer his prayers" when his mom was dying.

      My post was clear on this. He’s a theist who’s mad at his god. The filmmakers describe him as atheist.

      most of the Philo or Psych profs I've encountered teach entirely about their secular worldview and aligning perspectives, conveniently allowing theistic philosophies to fall by the wayside...

      It’s puzzling that Philosophy profs allow theistic philosophies to “fall by the wayside” since so much of metaphysics has concerned itself with this question. I’ll take your word for it. As for Psych profs, I’m glad they’re not injecting religious views into cognitive science.

      they believe fully that there is no God.

      Many do not fall into this camp. Myself included. There is a distinction between believing that there is no god and lacking belief in a deity. The distinction is meaningful when it comes to evidential burden.

      about 80% of those people live in countries where Christianity has not been spread (parts of Africa) or is even illegal (China).

      Africa is overwhelmingly theistic. Christianity is legal in China. Your unsourced statistic is meaningless as quantifying atheists is rather difficult because respondents define it differently.

      The book…is called the Bible -- it's basically the map and compass for any Christian…

      Actually what I said was, “books”. I was referring to the vast swath of them available at my local Christian bookstore. Seems not everyone can agree on where that compass is pointing and how to find the buried treasure. I’m no scholar, but if you peruse some of my other posts you’ll find that I’m familiar with that book and the myriad ways it has been interpreted.

      And it directs Christians to defend their faith, but not to "spew vitriol,”…

      But don’t you think that by portraying atheists and Muslims as these ridiculous stereotypes as the filmmakers have done in this film, they’ve achieved the equivalent of spouting cruel, bitter and unfair criticism?

      I love you guys, and want you to come to know Him.

      I love you too. It’s why I’d like to see you come out of your delusion, especially if it’s anything like the one I was in.

      I can't completely prove that He exists…

      I’m glad you acknowledge that your god-concept is unfalsifiable. Is that a good thing? I cannot disprove your god’s existence, but that is not my evidential burden. I’m not making an existential claim, nor do I see how your god has even been defined in such a way that we can meaningfully discuss its existence.

      it seems that we have each reached an impass.

      Agreed. We’re working from two completely different epistemologies. Yours recognizes “faith” as a reliable way to obtain knowledge. Mine doesn’t. Until you can define the parameters of your existential claim and present evidence for it, I will remain unconvinced. Likewise, as long as you continue to think that “faith” is a reliable path to knowledge, you will continue in your god-belief.

      I won't denigrate your solid belief that there is no "big man in the sky," but I expect that you treat Christians with the same respect and refrain from "spewing vitriol" at Christians for their faith.

      I don’t have a “solid belief” that there is no god. The probability for such a thing does seem to be ever-receding, however. I’m open to hearing how I’m “spewing vitriol” at Christians for their faith. Perhaps you misunderstood the last bit of my post as being something other than a thought experiment? If I do “spew vitriol” it is not intended to be directed at Christians. You know what they say: love the believer; hate the belief. ;-)

  5. My favorite quotes: ''It can be difficult when you think of yourself as the only sober person in the car when no one will let you drive.'' and ''Atheists could tell people who profess to believe that they are just lying and are angry with reality.'' I'll save them for later. :) Great post again! Thanks for sharing.

  6. 'Everyone believes in God and those that claim they don't are just lying or angry with God. What this really amounts to, however, is an ad hominem fallacy.'

    Actually, it's a lot worse than that; it's gaslighting.

    Gaslighting, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, is the attempt to deny another person's reactions or lived experience as valid. Insisting that you cannot possibly be right about your own beliefs is therefore a form of gaslighting. This is now recognised as hideously damaging to relationships and a form of emotional abuse and manipulation.