I’ve written previously regarding the trailer for the new movie God’s Not Dead 2, which was filmed here in Arkansas (hooray….). Well, I took the plunge and checked out the previous movie from my local library. Granted that I spend much of my time studying racism and racial violence, this was still a pretty dispiriting two hours of my life, and I didn’t even get off the DVD menu page before making a quick run to the liquor store for some vodka.
Here’s the plot: young, innocent, Christian student Josh Wheaton is taking a philosophy class with Professor Jeffrey Radisson, who makes all of his first-year students write down on a sheet of paper “God Is Dead” and sign their names in order to move past the tired debate over the existence of God and move on to weightier matters. Well, young Wheaton, being a Christian, can’t do this, and so the professor assigns him the task of proving the existence of God in a series of lectures. Young scholar does this (at least, the creators of the movie think so), and God is proven to be alive, I guess. There are a number of subplots, but this is the one that holds the movie together.
Unfortunately, the movie gets so much wrong about the way the world works—Harold Cronk doing a film about the workings of the university is rather like Roger Ebert writing about drug culture of the 1970s (c.f. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Anyone even tangentially affiliated with the various cultures that come under the scrutiny of Cronk will find that a great deal has been lost in translation, if not outright distorted for the sake of propaganda. For my money, here are the most egregious and aggravating sins of the film:
- What philosophers are. Professor Radisson presents to his class a marker board filled with names of various “philosophers” whom he reveals as atheists to the class. However, among the names on his list are Bertold Brecht, Richard Dawkins, and Sigmund Freud—a playwright, biologist, and psychiatrist, respectively. These are not philosophers. Not everyone who ranks as an academic is automatically credited as being a philosopher.
- How philosophy works. The apparent aim of Professor Radisson’s demand that all the students write “God Is Dead” is to solve this problem by popular acclamation and move on. However, philosophers do not decide upon the nature of truth by universal consensus. Moreover, real philosophers would love to dwell on the differences that inhere to the supposes popular consensus. Not believing in God is not the end of the debate—it’s the beginning. Perhaps some philosophers don’t believe in God due to the lack of logic in St. Anselm’s ontological “proof,” while others are more impressed by the lack of more scientific evidence. You and your friend may both hate Indian food for different reasons (you heretics), you for the price and your friend for the flavor. Those differing reasons are pure gravy to the real philosopher.
- Academic affairs. So to punish young Wheaton for his failure to fall in line, Professor Radisson adds to his assignments presenting on the nature of God in front of the class for the next three meetings. No matter the the class, no professor can assign mandatory extra work to a student for such a reason. Perhaps to allow a student to make up a grade, sure. But not due to a difference of opinion. Academic affairs would have this asshole before a tribunal in his first week. Oh, and to top it off, we find out later that the young woman living with our professor was a former student whom he began dating mid-semester. None of his colleagues seem the least troubled by this, for they do come over to his place for a dinner party.
- Wine. Speaking of the dinner party…. The movie opens with a sequence of images, one of which is said girlfriend buying wine at a grocery store. Well, when the professor serves it to his dinner party guests, recommending to them “a wonderful Merlot,” said guests take a sip and wrinkle their faces in disgust. It is revealed that Mina, the girlfriend, accidentally left the bottle in the car for a day or two. “This wine is cooked,” complains a guest. But how? How is that wine cooked from a stay in the car? I don’t know where this takes place, but it’s late August or early September, given that it’s the first semester, and while people are walking around in short sleeves, they aren’t panting from exhaustion or sweating profusely, so this isn’t the campus of LSU. In fact, young Wheaton is even found studying on an outdoor bench, from which fact I conclude that it’s probably no hotter than eighty degrees outside, meaning that this wine would not be negatively impacted by a stay in the car in the slightest. Besides, no distinguished professor of philosophy would serve Merlot. My wine comes from a box, and even I know this.
- The nature of philosophical argument. Okay, this movie was made by, and marketed to, evangelicals. And the nature of argument in the evangelical world relies heavily upon scripture citation. It’s a strange game of cards rather than an actual debate in the normal sense of the word, with the participants playing bible verses back and forth. And it was bizarre to see this same mentality replicated in how Wheaton and Radisson debated. They basically threw quotations at each other. The climax of the movie (such as it was) consisted of our professor laying down some anti-theist quotation from Stephen Hawking, “the most brilliant man alive.” But the next session, Wheaton comes back with a quotation from someone else. It’s no wonder evangelicals delight in point out those things that Charles Darwin got wrong. A scientist would respond to that with: “Yes, there were some things that Darwin misunderstood, but such was the state of the field at that time. For one, Darwin had no insight into the mechanism of inheritance, or genetics as we know it today, and he did make some assumptions that turned out to be false. However, his insights advanced the process of biology significantly.” For the evangelical, truth is not a process. It’s an absolute that you are presented with in the form of scripture, and so they don’t understand why non-believers are so blithe about Darwin’s fallibility. And thus they also apparently assume that atheists treat their own cultural figures with the same reverence they do scripture, that Dawkins’s The God Delusion is the bible of atheism. They simply don’t understand that atheism has no bibles.
- The media. One of the side figures is an independent journalist named Amy Ryan who, at the beginning, is heading out to do an expose of a “duck commander” figure—played, you guessed it, by one of the guys from Duck Dynasty. Passionate vegan she is, she intercepts him on his way into church and grills him out “killing helpless creatures” as well as his religious beliefs, as if his admitting to both of those is somehow scandalous. Hello? He is apparently in the movie the same media figure he is in real life. Therefore, he does kill ducks and pray to Jesus. Getting him to admit that is not real journalism and does not in any way amount to an expose. Amy, where did you study journalism?
- Islam. Because it’s not a true Christian movie unless you have an exemplar of modern heathenry, the Muslim. Ayisha works at this university’s cafeteria. Every morning, when her father drops her off, she has on her headscarf, but as soon as he is out of sight, she takes it off, only putting it back on when to be picked up by her father. And yes, she has secretly converted to Christianity and listens to Franklin Graham podcasts, the revelation of which gets her kicked out of her home. But I don’t believe that her family is actually a conservative Muslim family because when we first see her, she is wearing her headscarf—and a goddamned white short-sleeved shirt! Debate conservative Muslim practices of female modesty all you want, but nowhere will you find that they combine bare arms with a covered head.
I may have missed some of the subtleties of the plot, for I was yelling at the screen a good portion of the time, as well as imbibing my share of vodka, but this about sums it up. I will say this about the film: my own academic pursuits deal with some rather weighty problems that are a true challenge to solve, and sometimes it’s just good to have a bit of cultural detritus that one can tear apart with ease. Sometimes, you just want to set the video game at the easiest level and engage in a merciless bloodbath, and this movie let me do that. Its over-the-top simplicity and wrong-headedness was refreshing and delightful, and I await the sequel with baited breath.
[UPDATE: More keeps coming to mind as I ponder this horrendous movie, but here is another obvious flaw:
Gender parity. Radisson is shown as behaving in a rather domineering fashion to his young girlfriend, who is essentially made to serve him and his friends at his get-together. In actuality, highly educated and politically liberal couples tend to have much more egalitarian relationships. This seems rather a case of evangelicals projecting upon others their own view of gender, for it’s conservative Christians who hold that women exist to serve men, not atheist philosophy professors.]