Brief Note: My apologies for the length (3500 words). I was debating whether or not to split it up into two posts, but in this case, I think one large post is better. Enjoy…
On April Fool’s Day this year, God’s Not Dead 2 hit the theaters. Reactions to the movie were as predictable as the movie itself. There were scores of positive comments and reviews by conservative Evangelicals who saw the movie as a light that put a spotlight on the secularization of our culture and mounting persecution of Christians. Then there was everyone else, who excoriated it as a paranoid, shallow example of Christian propaganda, a movie that “preaches ham-fistedly to its paranoid conservative choir,” and “plays into the Evangelical persecution narrative.”
So, I’m sure you are thinking, “So what’s your opinion, Joel?” Well, welcome to my post…
Well, let me first say that when it came to production value, and the quality of the acting, it was, for what it was, well done. After all, the movie actually had real actors in it—Robin Givens, Melissa Joan Hart, that guy from John Tucker Must Die, Fred Thompson, and even Ernie Hudson (yes, one of the original Ghostbusters).
To get right to the point, though, the main problem with God’s Not Dead 2 is that it is a fiction. The reality that the movie portrays about Christianity in America is, plain and simple, a false reality. That is not to say that there have been instances where people who are hostile to Christianity have tried to push it out of the public square. I just wrote 22 posts on Richard Dawkins, the militant atheist who actually argues that religious faith is a form of child abuse worse than molestation.
And while we’re at it, let’s highlight a few real instances that have caused Christians concern:
- The Christian couple in Oregon who didn’t want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, and who ended up getting fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- The Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns who take care of the sick and elderly, being threatened by the government for not wanting to have anything in their health care coverage that provided contraception or birth control (mind you, these are nuns)!
- In some public schools there has been pressure to not allow prayers being said over the loud speakers at football games.
- Back in 2014, Annise Parker, the openly gay mayor of Houston, had her administration issue subpoenas to collect the sermons of five local pastors.
Fair enough. For what it’s worth, here are my views on these four instances. First, it’s a cake—the gay couple could have simply gone to another baker in town. Not everything needs to go to court. Second, they’re nuns. A case involving contraception in the health care coverage of nuns has had to go all the way to the Supreme Court? Really? Third, I don’t see a big deal with prayers before football games. But I’d like to ask Evangelicals who think it is persecution to say you can’t do that at public schools, would you object if your school opened each football game with a Muslim prayer to Allah? I’m guessing you would. And fourth, you know what happened in Houston? Ms. Parker rescinded those subpoenas, and, when people flooded her office with Bibles, she distributed the Bibles through the police force. And for what it’s worth, if you have a problem with this (and you should), are you concerned when certain presidential candidates advocate for government surveillance of mosques? If subpoenas of sermons is wrong, then how is government surveillance of mosques right?
So yes, there will always be people in society who hate Christianity, and there will always be stupid and outrageous and offense things done. But that doesn’t mean Christians are being persecuted in America. To perpetuate that narrative, as this movie does, is to perpetuate something that is not true. I’m not going to say “perpetuate a lie,” though, because I’m convinced that those who made the movie, and the many Evangelicals who love it, really do believe Christians are being persecuted in America. They aren’t “lying.” They are just horribly wrong.
If you don’t believe me, let me put it to you this way. How do you think an Iraqi Christian who has seen ISIS systematically destroy 2,000 years of Christianity in the Middle East, slaughter thousands of Christians and rape their daughters, react to this movie? How might Orthodox Christians who were slaughtered for 70 years under Communist Russia? Or Christians in Communist China? Even if the story-line in the movie was true (which it isn’t), what would their reactions be? Let me venture a guess:
“Let’s see, a teacher might lose her job for mentioning Jesus in a public school. She has recourse through the court system where, if she can convince a jury of her peers that she was just making reference to the historical figure of Jesus, and not preaching, she could be vindicated, retain her job, and go on with her life. Mmmm…so she lives in a country where, even if some bad people try to get her fired over her faith, there’s a system in place to protect her rights.”
No, sorry, that’s not persecution. That’s living in the real world where sometimes bad things happen to you. That’s living in the United States where, when bad things happen to you, you have a shot at rectifying the situation. Persecution is beheadings, rapings, fleeing for your life, and the Gulag. So please, Christians in America, even when bad things happen to you…don’t call it persecution. That’s an insult to your brothers and sisters in Christ who have witnessed family members slaughtered.
Can Public School Teachers Get Fired for Even Mentioning Jesus?
In any case, let’s look at a few specifics points from the movie. First, is it true that in public schools that the mere mention of Jesus is “against State and Federal policy”? Is it true that teachers can lose their job and have their teaching certificates revoked for saying something like, “Gandhi and MLK’s use of non-violence was inspired by Jesus?”
The answer to that is, “No.” That’s not true.
In the movie, in the course of trial, the impression was that the very faith of Grace Wesley was offensive to the principal, the teacher union representative, virtually everyone associated with the public school. Gasps could be heard in the courtroom when it was revealed that Ms. Wesley had collected donations in her class for a faith-based charity, had invited her principal to church, and had told Brooke that she was a Christian.
Let me tell you why I found that characterization to be offensive. My father worked in public schools for 30 years, both as a teacher and as a principal; my mother worked in public schools for 20 years; I went to public schools for all but four years of my youth; I worked at my dad’s school as a janitor and befriended many public school teachers; I know a whole lot of teachers, both in private and public schools. And I can tell you beyond a shadow of doubt that this movie’s depiction of the public schools as being the hotbed of hatred against Christian teachers is utterly false. I can guarantee you that the Christian teachers I know who work in public schools are probably either wholly embarrassed or wholly outraged at how this movie depicts the schools at which they work.
My favorite teacher from the Christian high school I attended eventually left that school and has been a teacher in a public school for the past 20 years. He told me that he has experienced a tremendously more amount of freedom to talk about his views on religion and faith at his public school than he ever had at the Christian school. The sad fact is that often times suppression of honest discussion about religion and faith takes place at Christian schools.
The way this movie depicts “life for Christians in public schools” not only false, but it does indeed foster paranoia within Evangelical circles. Of course, public schools have their problems—but actively persecuting Christian teachers isn’t one of them. In the real world, if a teacher mentioned Jesus in class, the way Ms. Wesley did, nothing would happen. In fact, there are teachers all across this country today who have probably mentioned Jesus, and nothing has happened. Imagine that.
The Historicity of Jesus
Another huge problem with the movie was the defense of Ms. Wesley. She and her lawyer argued for the historicity of Jesus as a way to say that Ms. Wesley was just simply talking about a historical figure. They brought in Lee Strobel, the author of The Case for Christ, as well as another author (whose name I missed) to testify that Jesus really existed.
The problem is that it gives the impression that “secular people” don’t believe Jesus existed. The fact is, this is not an issue. Yes, there are some really radical nuts who deny Jesus’ existence, but they are fringe at best. (Ironically, this exercise in reality denial is fostered by the likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins—another reason why the New Atheist Movement is devoid of credibility). But my point is simple: virtually nobody disbelieves Jesus existed. Yes, there are plenty of people who doubt the resurrection, but his historical existence is not disputed by 98% of the public. Therefore what the defense is “trying to prove” doesn’t need to be proven, because it’s already accepted.
Incidentally, in one hostile review of the movie, the reviewer ended by criticizing the movie in the following manner: “A reading of scripture grounded in facts and figures, rather, is a deeply petty one, unworthy of the transience offered by religious belief. Historical veracity is antithetical to the very premise of faith, powerful precisely because it needn’t be true to be real.”
Let me say, that sentiment is rather stupid. The Christian faith, at its core, is testimony to things that happened in history. This reviewer simply has no idea what he/she is talking about. That is why I, for one, will openly admit that I think The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel is a good book. (I’m not a big fan of his other ones, but this one was good). The reason why it is good is because he interviews actual biblical scholars and you learn about how the New Testament writings were preserved and why they are historically reliable—and they are, pure and simple. You might not believe the claims of Jesus’ resurrection, but you can’t be intellectually honest and deny that that was precisely what Jesus’ earliest followers were claiming.
What Does “Bearing Witness to the Resurrection” Mean?
The problem I found with the movie, and sadly with many Evangelicals understanding of the faith, is that it reduces the Christian faith to this mentality of “If I can just convince a non-believer of certain facts, then he’ll repent and become a Christian.” Let me ask you, how many people do you know who have been “logically reasoned into the faith”?
That’s not to say logic and reason and history aren’t important—as a biblical scholar myself, I can talk to you all day concerning why I believe Jesus was resurrected, why the New Testament is historically reliable, and why most of the events in the Old Testament really happened. But the reality is, I’m not going to convince you to accept Christ because of my great scholarly arguments that Jesus really was resurrected. Here’s why…
The Gospels are testimony to the resurrection of Christ. They claim it really happened in history. More than that, though, the Church itself is supposed to bear witness to the resurrection as well. This doesn’t simply mean we have to go out and convince non-believers of a historical fact. It means we are to bear witness to the resurrection of Christ by living out that resurrection life every day. And that means truly living out Christ’s life, being Christ-like, caring for the poor and needy, reaching out to the hurting and helpless, bearing up under injustice when we are wronged, and identifying with the unlovely and despised.
If Christians, both individually and as the Church, do not live out those things, then those Christians are not bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ. If instead, Christians spend their time (1) aligning themselves more with political parties, (2) endorsing candidates who advocate killing of family members of terrorists, and not just terrorists, (3) routinely calling the poor “lazy parasites,” or (4) spewing forth hate-filled rants condemning anyone they deem to be “sinners,” then I’ve got news for you—non-believers are never going to be convinced by any argument regarding the historical fact of the resurrection. They will have been convinced that God is dead and Jesus never rose from the dead because they will have not seen the resurrection in the actions and speech of people claiming to follow Christ.
If you want non-believers to be convinced that Christ is alive, they need to see it in your life, not your argument. If Christ’s life cannot be seen in your life, then why would anyone think Christ rose from the dead?
The One Part of the Movie that Did Make Me Tear Up
There were a number of minor things about the movie that I could be nit-picky about, but I’m not going to mention them. Instead, I want to finish this somewhat long post by sharing three thoughts.
First of all, the scene where Ms. Wesley’s students show up at her house at night to show their support and love for her by singing “How Great Thou Art” got to me. I know, some will find it cheesy, but it choked me up a bit. Here was a teacher being attacked by the higher-ups of her own school, in danger of losing her job, and depicted as a religious zealot, all because she simply was engaging her students in a discussion that certain people didn’t want talked about. In that kind of situation, support and encouragement is like a drink of water in the desert.
I know exactly how that feels like, because it happened to me, twice. The only difference is that I wasn’t taken down by “godless secular administrators” who objected to talk about Jesus. I was taken down by supposedly Christian administrators who objected to the fact that I didn’t subscribe to young earth creationism, and that I let my students discuss the differing points of view on topics like the creation/evolution debate and Genesis 1-11. Ms. Wesley was labeled a “religious zealot.” I was called a “liberal,” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who undermined biblical authority, threatened students’ view of Scripture, and spoke with the voice of the serpent.
I’m telling you, that wounds deeply. It’s just that such instances don’t happen in public schools—they actually happen in Christian schools. I can’t help but think Paul’s condemnation of his fellow Jews in Romans 2 who, although they often condemned “those godless Gentiles,” often were guilty of doing those very same things. Something to think about…
What’s Going to Happen to Kids in Christian Schools Who Go Off to State Universities?
Here’s another thing to think about. When students who grow up going to Evangelical schools that push the kind of persecution complex God’s Not Dead 2 displays, then go off to the University of Alabama, or Auburn, or North Alabama, or any state university, what are they going to realize? I can tell you, because I’ve had a whole lot of former students tell me: they realize that what they’ve been told is not true. Non-Christians aren’t “out to get” Christians; there aren’t professors who verbally attack Christian students in class; there isn’t a nation-wide persecution of Christians going on.
And when they realize that the narrative of movies like God’s Not Dead 2 is a fiction, they often have a crisis of faith. What do they do when they realize so much of what they’ve been told growing up isn’t true? Many students can work through those things and grow in their Christian faith. But other students end up walking away entirely from the faith. Why? Because contrary to what the Evangelical persecution narrative says, the fact is it is often easier to be open and honest with non-Christians than with Christians, and that much more condemnation and judgment comes from pharisaical Christians than non-Christians. That is often the sad state of affairs.
Don’t get me wrong. There really are people out there who mock, ridicule and would love to destroy Christianity. And when issues like removing crèches from government buildings over Christmas come up, we live in a democracy, and Christians have every right to make their case. But let’s ask that question Evangelicals love to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Would he fight those battles in court? Would he and his disciples worry and fret, “Oh it’s just government pressure today, but it will be persecution tomorrow! We need to stand up for our rights!” Really?
Did Jesus call Christians to “stand up for their rights” and make movies that display their fear of non-existent persecution, or did he call them to lay down their lives for the sake of the least of these, and not worry about possible hostility and persecution? That’s another thing to think about…
The Spirit of the Age
Finally, here is one more thing. In the movie, when the pastors are told the government wants copies of their sermons, Pastor Hill says, “We’re in a war, just like what’s in Ephesians 6: ‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’”
Well, he’s right—as Paul himself said, Christians are “at war” with the cosmic powers of this present darkness. The problem with God’s Not Dead 2 is that it wrongly identifies the “cosmic powers” and “spirit forces of evil” with…public schools, the government, or the ACLU. When Evangelicals make those sorts of connections, they end up seeing all the evil as “out there in the world,” and they are blinded to the fact that such “spiritual forces of evil” are at work within as well as without.
To put it plainly, the “spiritual forces of evil” that Paul is talking about are those that get Richard Dawkins to write a paranoid rant of a book that labels “all religion as evil” and refuses to admit the evil that has been done in the name of atheism. They are the spiritual forces that get Ken Ham to base an entire organization that publishes paranoid rants that say “evolution is evil,” “the secular world is persecuting Christians,” and “Christians who aren’t young earth creationists are compromisers,” and yet refuses to admit that he himself encourages Christian schools and churches to attack Christians who don’t think like him.
Simply put, the “spiritual war” Paul is talking about is on a deeper level than the shallow depictions of “the other” that can be seen in this movie, or in propaganda of both the New Atheist Movement and Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis…or in the political demonization that both political parties regularly engage in. Such forces foster a spirit of division and paranoia—and such division and paranoia is on full display on the Left and Right, within secular circles and Evangelical circles.
And I’ve come to see that, at least in many Evangelical circles, those who foster such paranoia are more concerned with keeping their followers afraid so they continue to follow and listen to them…and not so much Jesus Christ.
I’m convinced that such “spiritual forces” work in this very way. They tilt the balance just a bit too far in one direction in order to provoke an over-reaction that rushes completely in the other direction, which in turn evokes a more violent and paranoid response in the other direction, and so on. And what was once a largely balanced society able to take on the inevitable challenges of life becomes torn apart by people letting their paranoia about the “other extreme” take them headlong to the opposite extreme.
Case in point, consider this clip by Joshua Feuerstein, who advocates that Christians should use guns to fight for their rights. He’s discussing some crazy attempt by a gay person to sue a Christian publisher over publishing the passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality–for the record, yes, that’s crazy (i.e. one extreme). But listen to Feuerstein’s response–spoiler alert, it puts the other extreme on full display.
Now I doubt very much that the makers of God’s Not Dead 2 would applaud this kind of lunacy. But the sad fact is, the movie is perpetuating a false persecution narrative that give nuts like Feuerstein a platform. This is what we are seeing in our society, in both the political and cultural spheres: people, driven by their own paranoia, rushing to opposite extremes. This is the effects of the “spiritual war” Paul talks about.
Don’t let yourself get roped into it. And specifically, to my fellow Christians, don’t buy into the false narrative in God’s Not Dead 2, as well-intentioned as it may be. It is perpetuating fear, paranoia, and a false narrative of persecution. I can’t ridicule the movie. I’m not going to deny that Christians face challenges in what has to be considered our post-Christian culture. But I can say that, no, God’s Not Dead 2 is not the direction Christians should go. It’s not true. Walk away from the edge of that abyss.