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Dane Skelton is the Pastor of Faith Community Church and the author of Jungle Flight: Spiritual Adventures at the Ends of the Earth, a book of true stories from the ministry of JAARS (formerly Jungle Aviation and Radio Service). His second book, Papua Pilot: Flying the Bible to the Last Lost Peoples, co-authored with the late Paul Westlund, is now available on Amazon.com and Christianbook.com.
3 THUMBS UP FOR GOD’S NOT DEAD
Thirty-plus years ago (oh how painful it is to write that) as a freshman and brand new Christian at Georgia State University I listened in shock as our Historical Literature professor began the semester by systematically undermining the credibility of Moses as the author of Genesis. Looking back on it now I don’t blame the lady for presenting one of the popular academic views of the origin of the book. What did bother me – enough to make me go home and start digging through all three of our Bible reference books for answers – was that she failed to offer any other point of view, scholarly or otherwise, for the origin of Moses’ first book. As I looked around at my classmates I could almost see their faith crumbling. They weren’t prepared, and neither was I, for this intellectual challenge. I felt determined; I might even say called, to offer them another point of view.
Fast-forward to last week when my wife and I took an afternoon trip to Danville for some car parts. GOD’S NOT DEAD was playing at the theater. She’d wanted to see it for a while but I was hesitant. It’ll be one of those over-blown, poorly scripted and horrendously acted, cringe-worthy Christian films, I thought.
“Don’t you want to see Captain America?” I said.
We saw GOD’S NOT DEAD. It was not what I expected. It was surprisingly good in fact, so good that it powerfully recalled my freshman experience, but more on that later.
GOD’S NOT DEAD is the story of Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a Christian freshman at a secular university who signs up, against the advice of friends and strangers alike, for the toughest philosophy class on campus led by a virulently atheist professor. Wheaton, along with many other characters in the story must choose how they will respond to the challenge of Jesus, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” The movie’s many sub-plots on this theme come together like spokes on a wheel around the contest between Wheaton and the professor to prove or disprove the existence of God.
The film earns a three on my five thumb scale because some of the characters, including the professor, feel overdrawn and some of the situations, like Wheaton agreeing to take the class in the first place, stretch credibility. The movie also weaves many stories into one and moves along at a good pace but suffers from a couple of awkward transitions.
On the plus side Kevin Sorbo, as atheist Professor Radisson, is the best actor in the flick and makes us identify with his antagonist as much as we do with Wheaton. It’s unlikely that a college prof would relinquish his lectern for a freshman to debate his central thesis for three whole classes, but it works as a dramatic device to make the film’s central argument much more effectively than, say, watching the student compose a term paper. And considering the many threads that come together in the end those awkward transitions are forgivable.
Further, a little research requires me to say that the main characters are only slightly overdrawn and the situations only slightly incredible. Former William and Mary students tell me a philosophy professor is known to begin one of his classes by throwing a Bible on the floor while declaring, “This is *^&(#@**!” A graduate student in counseling at a Georgia University was informed that she would be dismissed from the program unless she altered her "central religious beliefs on human nature and conduct." The list of such attacks on Christian belief in colleges across the country is very long and is included in the end credits of the movie.
Like many films, GOD’S NOT DEAD condenses multiple stories happening in our culture right now into one easily understandable drama. As a media major at James Madison University explained, “Professor Radisson is a representation of all of the things that could and have happened to Christians on college campuses. He is discrimination, a mocker, a challenge, a threat to ruin your career, and a control freak all wrapped up into one. Yes, this may seem a little extreme, but ... all sorts of things are blown up in movies to make a point and he represents the ultimate bad guy.” In that sense GOD’S NOT DEAD is oversimplified story-telling, but no more so than some other cultural narratives that make it to the screen.
I will not tell you how the movie ends, but I can tell you what happened in my freshman class all those years ago. I too was mocked and abandoned by a high school friend for firmly declaring my faith in Christ. But I was able, very respectfully, to ask enough questions of the prof to get her to confess that there were other ways to view the origins of the material in Genesis. The upshot of it was twofold: she decided not to teach the next section on Noah, and two of my classmates thanked me for the boldness to challenge her point of view.
Two practical applications come to mind. First, all Christians need to take Jesus’ challenge seriously. If we deny him before men he will deny us before his father in heaven. It is that simple and that difficult. And second, churches and parents need to be preparing their young adults with intellectually sound arguments to defend their faith in the public square. Taking them to see GOD’S NOT DEAD would be a good place to start.