Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God's Not Dead retrospective! In today's entry, we're going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God's Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God's Still Not Dead, c'mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out...

...eh, I don't really like this poster much. I mean, it's fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God's Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film's leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film's success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God's Not Dead 2, I've been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don't want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn't as much information about what actually inspired God's Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix's association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie's website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix's audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply "Christian" films.

It's also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God's Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze "It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? [...] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true." I... what?


David... you know that people get annoyed by lies too... right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can't see anything else? Sigh... I think I'm starting to understand why the "logical" arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

The story of God's Not Dead 2 picks up a few months after the last film ended and follows a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley. One of Grace's students, Brooke, comes to Grace for advice because her brother has recently died and she doesn't know how to cope with the loss. Grace confides that she trusts in Jesus, which helps to prompt Brooke to explore Christianity after she discovers a Bible that her brother had kept hidden. Brooke then asks a question in class about the non-violent protests of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, relating them to Jesus, which Grace answers and explains. However, one of her students reports her for doing so, which prompts the school board to try to fire Grace. Grace is represented by a young, non-Christian lawyer named Tom Endler who tries to get her to stand down and concede to an apology. Grace refuses because she believes that she did nothing wrong. Brooke's parents are then approached by Pete Kane of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to represent them in suing Grace with the explicit intent of stamping out Christianity in America once and for all.

Grace is then put on trial for violation of the separation of church and state, with Pastor Dave managing to end up on the jury for the case. Tom mounts a defence by arguing for the historical authenticity of Jesus with supposed "experts" Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace showing up to explain as much. Brooke is eventually brought in by Tom and Grace to testify, but she ends up giving further evidence to the ACLU's case by revealing that Grace had spoken to her about Jesus outside of school. Everything's looking grim for Grace when Tom comes up with a baffling final gambit, putting Grace on the stand as a hostile witness and badgering her to tears about her faith, saying that they're going to silence, fine and jail all the Christians. Somehow, this causes the jury to rule in her favour, much to the embarrassment of the ACLU. After the credits, Pastor Dave is arrested for not handing over sermon transcripts earlier in the film.


As you can probably tell from the plot summary, God's Not Dead 2 ditches the previous film's interconnected storylines in favour of one main plot. There are still a couple subplots, but these are given far less prominence than in the first film and all tie directly into the main plot. This, honestly, is probably to the story's overall betterment, as I did suggest previously that God's Not Dead could have used some stronger focus overall. Honestly, in a lot of ways God's Not Dead 2 is an improved sequel - the production values are a bit better, the performances are all good across the board, the story's a bit more focused and the scope and stakes get raised enough that this doesn't just feel like a straight rehash of the first film. There were also some subplots that I thought were legitimately really good - basically everything revolving around Martin (Paul Kwo, reprising his role from the first film) is great as we witness him grow from an awkward and excited young Christian to one who is resolved to preach, even when it costs him the respect of his family. I also found elements of Amy's subplot (Trisha LaFache, also reprising her role) to be interesting, as she grapples with her faith after her cancer goes into remission. Unfortunately this intriguing aspect of her character gets dropped pretty quickly and, while Amy remains in the film for quite some time thereafter, she doesn't really add anything interesting in the rest of her screentime.

The only problem is... well, God's Not Dead 2 sets itself up in such a manner that an objective and detached review of it is basically impossible. Like I just said, technically this film has the pieces needed to be better than the first movie. Story-wise, I found its courtroom melodrama and proselytizing duller than the first movie's classroom drama, despite the overall tighter focus of the sequel. I think this simply comes down to the rivalry of Josh and Radisson, which was far more interesting than Grace and Tom's flat characterization and Pete's scenery chewing. That's not really the main issue though, as it's the actual themes of the story that lets this movie down so hard and make the two hour runtime into even more of a slog. Once again, the filmmakers ideological bent is on full display, but this time they really lean into it, to the point where it straight-up ruins their movie from conception. The plot is just plain dumb and stretches credulity to the breaking point. That said, if you're a part of the conservative evangelical bubble then you might not even notice that there is an ideological bent to this movie at all - or worse, you might even feel validated by it.


Let's just get right into the portrayal of atheists in this film. It's clear that the filmmakers were aware of the atheist backlash that the first film inspired, but it seems that it only inspired them to double-down, because God's Not Dead 2 is way more offensive to atheists than the previous film was. This is evident from the very first scene of the movie through the portrayal of Brooke's parents, Richard and Catherine. Brooke is clearly struggling and withdrawn because of the death of her brother, but her parents are totally over it and don't seem to care anymore at all. Right off the bat this is a step beyond anything that the filmmakers had portrayed in the previous film. They imply once again that atheists are incapable of love, but now they also seem to believe that they can't even care about their own children!? I was watching and wondering if this might just be a coping mechanism for Brooke's parents, but no, this movie straight-up implies that atheist parents don't give a shit about their own kids. I'll be honest, I was floored by the very start of this film, it was unbelievable that the people behind this film would think this of atheists. I mean, as I have reiterated multiple times now, they were aware that atheists were offended by how they were portrayed in the first movie, so you'd think that the right move would be to be more careful in how you represent people going forward to make sure that there are no misunderstandings, right? Well, we're getting the message loud and clear here, the filmmakers clearly think that atheists are heartless automatons. I had thought that the filmmakers just sucked at portraying non-Christians in the previous film, but here we get to see right off the bat that everyone involved in the production of this movie is totally incapable of empathy. Brooke's parents never get better throughout this movie. There is no sympathy from or for them. During the trial, Richard is more worked up about his daughter getting "preached to" than the fact that his own son died. Seriously, shouldn't atheists mourn harder when someone they know and love dies? Hell, at the end of the last movie, we were supposed to think it a good thing that Pastor Dave and Jude were celebrating the death (and last-second conversion) of Radisson. Just... how could they be so lacking in empathy for people who have different views?

Also worth pointing out is Martin's father who shows up for one brief, but important scene. After Martin converts to Christianity, his father arrives to take him back to China because he believes that Martin is disgracing his family and that Martin is throwing away his future and the sacrifices that his family has made for him. It isn't really explained why he believes this, but I think that the audience is supposed to understand that China persecutes Christians and implies that this is the end-result of state-sponsored atheism. When Martin refuses to recant, his father slaps him (which now means the God's Not Dead films are two for two when portraying non-Christians of other nationalities as violent degenerates, hooray!), disowns him and then immediately returns to China. In all honesty, this scene works far better than the domestic abuse sequence in the first film and could have maybe been an affecting scene if there had been any sort of reasoning given for Martin's father to be so vehemently anti-Christian. Instead, it just comes across as more of the same "atheists are bad and hate Christians just because" message. Give me the God's Not Dead movie about Martin going back to China to be a minister, that could actually be incredibly interesting if it was written well (although knowing this production team, I have my doubts).


The most prominent atheist character is Pete Kane of the ACLU. For what it's worth, Ray Wise puts in a deliciously hammy performance, turning every line from Pete into a sneering, sinister proclamation that guarantees that you'll at least be entertained when he's on-screen. That said, the material he's working with is just plain stupid. I'll get to the fact that the ACLU are the villains in this movie later, but Pete Kane is meant to represent how dastardly and hateful the organization (apparently) is. From his very first scene, Pete is seen as eagerly relishing the chance to make an example out of Grace and to "prove once and for all that God is dead". He's not even subtle about it when he's around Grace and Tom, telling them straight-up that "I hate what people like your client stand for and what they're doing to our society". Bloody hell, I know that there are militant atheists who talk like that, but this movie acts like they're the status quo.

Of course, the film tries to make Pete out to be a hypocrite during the trial when he claims that "Christianity is not on trial here" in his opening statement, despite it being obvious to the audience that this is not the case. To hammer that home, he also makes a big fuss about not wanting to offend any Muslims in the court, dog whistling to the audience the idea that liberals are afraid of offending Islam but hate and attack Christianity. Basically, throughout this movie Pete grins gleefully any time something happens that negatively affects Christians, while looking exasperated any time someone in the defence acknowledges that it's pretty much a settled fact that Jesus existed. Hell, he looks downright shocked when J. Warner Wallace reveals that he was an atheist and that "I'm a Christian because it's evidentially true" (in your opinion, sure).

As cartoonishly evil as Pete Kane is, his characterization is echoed in a number of smaller atheist authority figure roles in this film, all of whom are totally hostile to Christians. Whenever the news media gets shown in the film, the newscaster goes on a tirade about how Grace and Christians are zealots, fundamentalists and that the only extremists we need to worry about are the hardcore Christians. This portrayal of the media just felt so weird to me because it has the tenor of a Fox News segment, but with right-wing talking points swapped out for insults that get thrown at conservative evangelicals. Maybe I just don't know the American media and how sensational their reporting style is, but I feel like this might just be the filmmakers projecting their own media's style and assuming that that's how everyone does it.

In addition to the media, the entire school board is immediately against Grace (her union rep even says "What were you thinking?" when asked whether Grace said the "words of Jesus" in class). Principal Kinney is particularly villainous, giving Grace these over the top evil looks and during her testimony against Grace is almost as much of a mustache-twirler as Pete Kane. Kinney is also seen shutting down a student protest led by Brooke in an effort to further silence Christians (that the audience this movie was directed at would be trying to shut down student protests that disagree with their politics less than two years later gives a contemporary viewing some delicious retrospective irony). Meanwhile, when Pastor Dave refuses to hand over sermon transcripts to the prosecutor's office, the officer overseeing this goes from being fairly casual and routine to something resembling a body snatcher. I'm not kidding, he stands up, stares and ominously asks Dave if he really wants to refuse to comply, before stating that "a nail that sticks up gets hammered down".


Now before I get into the next section I need to write about the only sympathetic non-Christian character in the film, Tom. We're never really given his opinion on faith at any point in this film, other than that he's a "non-believer" at the time when he agrees to represent Grace. Surprisingly, we don't even get a big conversion scene by the end, although it's probably safe to assume that he is totally convinced by the pro-Christian arguments as the film, since the movie seems to think that they "proved the existence of Jesus Christ" as the ACLU puts it at the end. The thing about Tom is that he's just doing his job without letting personal biases get in the way, which shouldn't be that unusual but... well, this is God's Not Dead 2 and it's shocking whenever this series doesn't imply that a non-Christian eats babies for breakfast.

Anyway, one of the strangest parts about the portrayal of atheists in this film (Tom aside) is that there's this uniformity to their actions which suggests that the filmmakers seem to think that there's some kind of enormous atheist conspiracy unfolding in America looking to silence all the Christians. How else can you explain the uniformity of the atheist characters' hostility to the Christians, their unspoken agreements about what is "unacceptable", their encroachment into Christians' freedoms and their certainty that Grace is going to be destroyed from the outset? The way that this film's plot gets kicked into motion even suggests conspiracy, as the second Grace mentions Jesus in class, a student secretly gets his phone out and texts... somebody about it (it's unclear who, it could have been Obama himself for all we know), as if this was a surveillance state like North Korea. At worst, a student might mention that their teacher talked about Jesus in class, but odds are that absolutely none of the students would give a shit. Hell, I live in godless, heathen Canada and when I was in high school we had a history teacher throw on a VHS tape about how the Bible was useful for archaeologists - a couple of students in the class scoffed, but that was about it. I know that's anecdotal, but c'mon filmmakers, do they really think that students would immediately rat her out?

The whole conspiracy angle of the film gets more obvious when the ACLU become involved, as even before Pete arrives the school board discusses how the ACLU has been waiting for a case like Grace's for years, as it provides them with the opportunity they need to silence Christians for good. The choice of the ACLU as villains for this film, especially when painting them as hypocritical and evil bastards, is truly baffling and I can only think that it's a result of the filmmakers' ideological leanings and their association with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ACLU often sticks up for the rights of LGBTQ people, access to abortion and the separation of church and state, which turns them into an obvious target for conservative evangelicals, despite the fact that the ACLU defends the rights of pretty much anyone, Christians included. To put it simply, "essentially all of [the ACLU's] positions irritate social conservatives [...] the ACLU supports free speech including the free expression of religion; what they oppose is government funding or lending official (or the perception of official) support to religious activities in violation of the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the ACLU has defended the rights of religious bigots to espouse those views, although it does not condone the contents of their speech." Interestingly, the ADF are totally absent in this film, as is any sort of public support for Grace (up until Brooke organizes a protest for her). Does anyone remember Kim Davis, and how her refusal to issue wedding licenses landed her support from public and political figures, such as Mike Huckabee (who shows up in this film to fellate the evangelical audience for a vote)? The film instead makes it seem like no one supports Christians in order to make it look like they're a minority class.


Anyway, when the ACLU gets involved in the film, they sway Brooke's parents to sue Grace by promising that "there is not an Ivy League admissions board that could resist giving Brooke a spot because she was involved in a landmark separation of church and state case". This was another one of those moments that made my jaw drop at the audacity of this film. So the entire Ivy League is populated by militant atheists who only admit similarly-atheist students? Bloody hell, is it any wonder that evangelicals are accused of being anti-intellectual? Similarly, the prosecutor's office demanding sermon transcripts is treated like this grand next step on the road to making Christianity illegal, the sort of thing that evangelicals always say is definitely coming. This scene is actually based on something that happened... but it feels like the writers totally jumped the gun, because "Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices." Simply put, they take an event that happened, but change the outcome to make it seem like the atheist conspiracy is all-powerful and overreaching in America and that the audience's freedoms could be snuffed out any day.

This conspiracy theorizing is borderline-hypocritical when you consider that one of this film's defences of the historical veracity of the gospels is that there wasn't a conspiracy involved in their authorship. Their justification for this is that since there were too many witness involved, someone would slip up. It's actually not a particularly great argument, since conspiracy isn't exactly the issue. I'd definitely recommend diving into the history of the gospels and early church, but in short the text of the gospels we have today were all very likely second-hand accounts, would likely have been coloured somewhat by the burgeoning schools of thought within the young religion about who Jesus was and what he represented, and weren't even necessarily meant to be what we would now consider as "historical" accounts. Anyway, this conspiracy defence seems odd when you consider that this film is throwing in its own atheist conspiracy theory, although the filmmakers would probably say that it's self-evident when you look at all the "persecution" in America. I'll just let Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter comment on this aspect of God's Not Dead 2: "the premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories." Ouch.


All of this feeds into the fact that God's Not Dead 2 is explicitly a more political film than the first was. In his interview with The Blaze about the film, David A. R. White said that this film was "all about making an impact" and that it was an intentional move for the story to shift to the public square. It shouldn't be surprising that this film was released in the middle of the 2016 presidential leadership race, with the aforementioned Mike Huckabee clearly making a cameo just to appeal to the evangelical vote. By portraying government overreach and painting all authority figures as openly hostile to Christians, the filmmakers also incentivize their audience to mobilize against these institutions in order to "take back America". After all, Tom's opening argument in the case is that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution or bill of rights, which seems to imply the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that has morally eroded over time. Tom's opening statement is a baffling argument which is only technically true, but the First Amendment makes it crystal clear that not only is separation of church and state enshrined within the law, but it was also a principle of the nation's founders. Hell, if we're going to be nitpicking constitutional amendments, then the Second Amendment is free game as well. This is another moment that just feels like the filmmakers won't understand the people that they're writing about, because arguing technicalities about church and state separation does not feel like the sort of thing that a non-Christian lawyer would engage in - rather, it sounds like the sort of weak argument an evangelical might espouse impotently to other evangelicals.

In the first film, there were plenty of characters who were atheists or hostile to Christians, but it was always framed as a personal and individual thing. In God's Not Dead 2, this is reframed into being a political issue. The scene where Grace mentions Jesus in class does so in a manner which also correlates the message of Jesus with that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taken by itself, this is a reasonable comparison to draw. However, the film also very explicitly wants us to see Grace and her situation throughout this film as being a parallel to Jesus (even having her echo the words of Jesus during his crucifixion, asking God if he has forsaken her), and therefore implies that the struggles Christians face in America are on the same level as the Indian independence and black civil rights movements. It should go without saying that this is unthinkably deluded and borderline insulting when you consider that they're appropriating progressive icons to attempt to justify their conservatism - not to mention that only months after release this movie's audience would, by and large, be voting for a man who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, authoritarian and immoral.

I also find it quite interesting that, for a movie which so blatantly proclaims the existence of God in its title, He is completely absent in this movie. Don't get me wrong, the characters talk about God all the time, how good He is, how much of an impact He has on their lives, etc... but God doesn't actually do anything in this movie. At least in God's Not Dead, God was very clearly present in Dave and Jude's storyline, even if it did end up portraying him as some sort of Final Destination murder-force. In comparison, Grace's victory is portrayed as a surprise, but there isn't any sense that it was some sort of miracle from God. The film also makes arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, but these are far less frequent and given less prominence within the story compared to Josh's lectures. Furthermore, at least the first film seemed concerned about the fates of its non-Christian characters. In God's Not Dead 2, the only people that convert are the ones who were immediately receptive to the Christians' message, and the rest of the non-believers are nothing more than evil, unrepentant obstacles to "the truth". As a result, God's Not Dead 2 is arguably not really a "Christian" film in the sense that it's not about the virtues of the faith - rather, it's a political film about the imagined struggles of the American brand of evangelicalism.


Add it all up (the disingenuous portrayals of Christians and atheists, the conspiracy theorizing and the political rallying cries) and you have a film which puts the evangelical persecution complex on display greater than just about any other film out there. This also ties into this not really being a "Christian" film at all - after all, the conflict in the movie is entirely driven by the persecution that all of the Christian characters are subjected to by the rest of the world (Amy is the only exception, although her very minor crisis of faith is resolved the next time that we see her). Grace makes this clear in what is clearly intended to be the film's core message: "I would rather stand with God and be judged by The World, than stand with The World and be judged by God" ("The World" in evangelical nomenclature meaning the necessarily sinful and immoral culture outside of Christianity which clashes with the "true" values of the Bible). This also applies to the numerous court cases listed in the film's end credits, similarly to the first film. Naturally, the film's audience takes the presentation of these cases at the filmmakers' word, although if you look into them closer, it becomes clear that these cases revolve around Christians not understanding discrimination in business settings, Christians refusing their professional obligations as healthcare providers, or involve the filmmakers intentionally leaving out crucial details entirely to make the cases seem like persecution when they clearly aren't (if you're curious about all of the cases, The Friendly Atheist has a comprehensive rundown). You can see the persecution complex on full display on the God's Not Dead website, which for years was documenting similarly one-sided accounts of Christian persecution throughout America, and had this exceptionally nasty, sneering, combative tone that it would apply to everything, even when celebrating the film's release.

If you've checked out any of those links to the film's blog, you might also have noticed how this movie constantly markets itself. God's Not Dead 2 has more product placement than a Michael Bay or Adam Sandler movie, the only difference being that it's exclusively advertising for products in the evangelical bubble (a bubble which, might I remind you, heavily commodifies religious adherence and expression). Just look at this list of really obvious plugs throughout this film:
  • We've got Lee Strobel showing up during the trial, is placed as an expert we should look up to, literally name-drops his books in a manner that doesn't make sense within the scene, and then gives us a sales pitch about why he's an authority on the historical existence of Jesus.
  • We've got J. Warner Wallace showing up in a similar manner, name dropping his books and then being poised as a credible expert with evidence that Jesus is God (which he never really gives us, so I guess you'll have to buy his book).
  • We've got the Newsboys who show up to perform a new song and hope that it becomes another #1 hit after their success with the first film.
  • The end credits directly advertise for the Alliance Defending Freedom in the event that you feel persecuted for your faith.
  • In addition, the film advertises itself no less than 3 separate times during its ending, telling the audience to once again text "God's not dead", and even offers a handy, prebaked hashtag for everyone to send out on social media in order to generate buzz for the film. Bloody hell...
And, because this is the Christian media industry, this isn't even the extent of this film's monetization. In addition to the film itself, this movie has its own branded soundtrack, study guide (including a student version!), 40 day devotional, a novelization, t-shirts, audiobooks, church kits, a series of books based on the movies, even a goddamn silicon bracelet. Movies like this are their own mini-industries within the evangelical bubble, much like Star Wars is to the wider culture.


I've had to do a lot of thinking to give this movie a final score that I could feel secure in awarding. It's easy for this film's audience to say that people who hated this film merely disagreed with its message (in fact, it's probably playing into the filmmakers' intent doing so). On the one hand, I have to give the film some points for being fairly professionally made, and Ray Wise is always entertaining to watch. However, the film refuses to present itself in an enjoyable way to anyone outside of a very narrow political worldview - in fact, it's openly hostile to worldviews that don't match the filmmakers' own. As a result, I feel more than justified in saying that this film is straight-up trash which exists only to stoke evangelicals' persecution complex and to cynically rake in cash and political fervour in doing so. I would rather watch a freaking Bibleman video than this movie again.

2/10

Bibleman, Bibleman! Does whatever a Bible can! This isn't a joke, it's real guys! Can't afford sets? Proselytise! Look out! Here comes a Bibleman!

Be sure to tune in again soon as we come to the final entry in this series: God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness!

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