God's Not Dead: A Critique

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I realize "A Critique" may come off as rather combative, but I wanted to avoid calling it a review.  As far as movie-making quality, I have relatively little to say.  What does interest me, however, is some of the content and messages found in the movie.  I wanted to see what sort of apologetic elements were in it, as well as its portrayal of the intellectual challenges to the Christian faith found on campuses today.  I tried to watch it with fresh eyes and ears.  While it crowded my Facebook feed for a while, I didn't read any reviews or delve into any of the discussions about the movie.  But enough intro.  On to the critique.

The apologetic content in the movie actually wasn't too bad. While it was somewhat popular-level (I don't mean that in any disparaging way, only that it didn't dive into some of the arguments to the extent that a philosophy course would), but the arguments themselves were fairly well presented. I may discuss them in detail in a future post.

I have to say that I was fairly disappointed in the movie's portrayal of atheists and also of the secular campus of today. They were painted in a very negative light, and as the movie progressed the interaction between the main student protagonist and the professor antagonist became more and more "us vs. them."  The atheists in the movie were attractive, successful jerks.  I fear the movie is only perpetuating a combative approach to defending the faith and responding to the culture's shift while dismissing the patient and deferential approach - the one we should be adopting!

The central conflict in the movie - between the freshman and the professor - was implausible. The professor was a philosopher and an atheist (plausible enough), teaching Philosophy 150. The way he starts the very first class is odd, to say the least. He begins by showing a list of great thinkers throughout the ages, and asks the students what they all have in common.  I muttered under my breath, "They're all atheists," while the students stared blankly at the professor. And of course he gives them the answer. He then goes on a long diatribe about the unreasonableness/ridiculousness of theism, and that the students should dispense with theism before the class continues into the semester.  In fact, he goes as far as forcing all the students to hand write "God is dead" on a sheet of paper before continuing the class.

Here's why this situation bothers me, to the point of being offended.  It is nothing like what you actually find on college campuses. To be sure, there are professors who are very antagonistic to theism, and to Christianity in particular.  But this is more a caricature than anything.  No professor could ever hope to get away with something like this, even on a secular campus.  Organizations ranging from the Christian Legal Society to the ACLU would have a field day with a professor cornering students like this.

The situation also bears no resemblance to any real philosophy course.  I have never heard of a professor starting a philosophy course by rattling off the names of great atheists.  Why on earth would you start there?  A better place to start is with the Greek philosophers, or with differentiating the various realms of philosophy (ontology, epistemology, ethics, logic, etc.).

By this caricature, I think the movie is both denigrating atheist professors and giving the viewer a false impression what it is like to butt up against them.  This misrepresentation is dangerous.  There are some Christian students who do lose their faith during college.  But it is not because overweening professors and their diatribes.  It is more often because of a professor who is kind, who listens well, and who has really thought through why they do not believe theism is true.  They, like much of the Christian community, face-palmed when books like Dawkin's The God Delusion came out.  They know many of the arguments found in the new atheist movement are terrible.  What they have found, however, are powerful arguments in the works of J.L. Mackie, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, and others.  They are knowledgeable about both the Bible and the theories surround its authorship (e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis).  These are professors who have been around the block.  They've heard the arguments for the existence of God many times.  No freshman has a new argument for them.  And they are often willing to sit down with such students and slowly deconstruct those arguments.  And that is something the viewer of God's Not Dead is not ready for.  Seeing a reasonable and immensely intelligent person who strongly disbelieves in theism and has many reasons for disbelieving will shake the faith of an impressionable freshman much more than a professor who slams you over the head with Hawking's The Grand Design (granted, there are professors who are more prejudiced against theism rather than have good reasons for disbelieving it, but they do not challenge a person's faith to the same extent).

I would like to suggest that rather than movies like God's Not Dead, the Christian church needs to invest in solid Christian philosophy and how to defend one's faith in a winsome manner.  There is a fair amount of what I'd call half-baked apologetics floating around.  We need instead good teaching and serious study in philosophy, historiography, and theology, and we need to learn how to take a stand for one's faith.

For example - I have to say, as implausible as the original situation that kicked off the whole debate was (the professor forcing students to write "God is dead"), the student's stand against that was amazing, and is a great example.  He simply refused.  He was not belligerent, he did not attempt to make a scene.  He simply did not sign the paper because he knew he could not do it in good conscience.  It was the professor who made a scene.  Contrast this, though, with the same student towards the end of the movie, accusingly asking, "What happened to you? [to make you such a jerk that hates God]" and berates the professor in front of the entire class.  There is no place for that.  We must answer to objectors with "gentleness and respect."

That brings up the final issue I have to comment on.  I think it is unwise for a student to take on a professor.  This movie may encourage students to do so.  Almost any student, even if secure in their faith, will likely fail badly in trying to go toe-to-toe with a professor.  I don't mean to suggest they will necessarily lose their faith, only that by the end of the ordeal they will realize they were not as prepared as they thought going in.

William Lane Craig made a great suggestion in a recent podcast.  He recommended to a student that he not take on the professor, but simply bring up questions or issues for the professor to respond to.  Rather than, "No, professor, you're wrong!  And here's why," something like "Isn't it the case that the free will defense has been accepted by the philosophy community as an answer to the logical problem of evil?"  Neither I nor Craig believe that it is the student's place to directly challenge a professor.  I believe that those who are best equipped to challenge the beliefs of unbelieving professors should be shouldering that burden - namely, Christian professors.
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1 comment :

  1. This was one of the best, must thoughtful reviews of the movie I've seen.

    My atheist friends are horrified/morbidly fascinated by this movie and love to mock if at every opportunity and the caricatures might be why.