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April 4, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: 'God’s Not Dead’ surprisingly effective

The emerging “faith-based” cinematic industry is slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with.  Not only are the movies they are churning out now generating modest profits, but the quality of the work is improving.  In 2006, we saw “The Ultimate Gift” and “One Night with the King,” in 2008, “Fireproof,” in 2010, “The Grace Card,” in 2011, “Seven Days in Utopia” and “Courageous.”

This year we see “God’s Not Dead” (AKA “God Isn’t Dead”).

At fictional Hadleigh University, faithful freshman Josh Wheaton is confronted with a challenge from his atheistic philosophy professor:  just affirm that God is dead, and it will improve his workload and probably his grade.  But Josh can’t do it.  

Irritated by what he sees as Josh’s rejection of his superior intellect, Professor Radisson tells Josh he will have to defend God in class; if he fails to do so adequately (a 100 percent certainty according to Radisson), he will likely fail the class.  Using logic and reason (Radisson’s own tools), Josh strives to refute Radisson’s position.  On its face, the story appears to be just a battle of the wills between diametrically opposing viewpoints.  Radisson is adamant that God doesn’t exist, and Josh cannot deny his faith; this alone would make a compelling film.

But “God’s Not Dead” offers a nuanced approach with numerous subplots: one involving an investigative reporter seeking to discredit Duck Dynasty and Newsboys, another involving a dementia- riddled woman and her two grown children, another the impact of faith on romantic relationships, still another on a Muslim student hiding her Christian faith from her father.  Underscoring all of these are the circumstances (grace?) that prevent a local pastor from going on a well-earned vacation.

Not entirely seamless, the story bounces around a bit, but the audience can see the connections, how all things are somehow related.

The ending is quite powerful and somewhat surprising: not the gushy conversion that the audience would expect, but a gritty response to the challenges of life.

As a presentation of Christian apologetics, the film tends to allow Josh to wax eloquent on the subject, and tends to reveal Radisson’s position as entirely one dimensional.  In fact, Radisson, played with blustery effect by Kevin Sorbo (TV’s “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”) seems an absolute tyrant in his classroom as well as his personal life, and is very quick to cite his intellectual superiority.  

At first blush, this imbalance appears to challenge the plausibility requirement of any good film, but on reflection, isn’t that what most of us in reality do?  Don’t we tend to grasp at one reason/cause/position and cling tenaciously to it?  And when that one position is challenged, don’t we tend to lash out at the challenger?  Further, don’t we all like to think of ourselves as having above average intelligence (at least on subjects on which we have unshakeable opinions)? In fact, Professor Radisson is a more plausible antagonist than we see in many mainstream films today (“Winter’s Tale,” “Pompeii,” “Jack Ryan,” and “I, Frankenstein” come to mind).

On occasion, the acting is amateurish, but generally works. Contrivances in the script can beggar belief (like what is a faithful Christian doing hooking up with her atheist college professor? And why did an astute investigative reporter fail to notice that her boyfriend was a self-obsessed jerk?), yet the film is generally well written.  

While the dramatic contest between professor and student takes center stage, this film is really about how faith is truly present everywhere — in everyone’s life, whether they are Christian or not.  “God’s Not Dead” is saying that it takes a leap of faith for a person to profess ANY belief with certainty, even if that person claims not to rely on faith and denigrates those who do.  

So why do some people advocate Christianity, others atheism?  Watch “God’s Not Dead” for one possible answer.

3.0 Stars

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1 star — Avoid this boring mess of a movie at all costs.  Reading the dictionary is more entertaining.

2 stars — If you're in the right mood or if the subject matter appeals to you, you may like this film; or it is uneven, at times entertaining and believable and at other times sophomoric.  If you've got nothing else to do, it may be worth the price of admission (at least a matinee).

3 stars — This is a generally good movie that most people will enjoy.  If you're looking for an entertaining couple of hours, spend it here and you won't be disappointed.

4 stars — Don't miss this film!  I don't care if you have time or not, make the time, because this movie is terrific.

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