Religion has been a large part of movies for over a century. Many horror movies rely on it. Greats like The Exorcist or Dracula couldn’t exist without religion. Historical epics such as Noah or The Ten Commandments also rely on religion, since they’re telling religious stories. Without religion, we wouldn’t have movies like Doubt or Spotlight (we also wouldn’t have their subject matter actually happening, but that’s a whole different point). There is a spot within the movie world for religion to help shape a story.
The only problem is when the stories tell the audience that a specific religion is the right religion and that people should believe that religion. I went through the problem of watching one of those movies back during the Christmas season when Saving Christmas was in the schedule. That movie saw a man discouraged by Christmas told how it was a Christian holiday. His friend Kirk Cameron went on and on about how every aspect of Christmas related to the religion and convinced his friend to believe in Christianity. He was also trying to tell the audience that they should follow Christianity. It was pushy in a way that is off-putting.
In that same vein were the God’s Not Dead movies. The first one was released in 2014 and told the story of Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a college student who stood up to Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) after being told to write a note saying “God is dead.” Josh felt that the note infringed upon his beliefs. This led to a series of guest lectures by Josh to counter his professor’s thought that there was no God. Josh had to convince the class that there could be. Through this story, and the many subplots, the movie told the audience that there was a God and that they should become Christians.
The major problem with God’s Not Dead was how pushy it was. There was a good story about a college kid standing up for the right to believe. That message could help lead to a better sense of equality among the different religions and faiths throughout the world. If everyone would just let their fellow people believe in whatever higher power they want, the world would be a much more peaceful place. Yet the concept wasn’t presented that way. This storyline, which ended in a climactic realization about Professor Radisson, was about showing people that Christianity is the right way to go. It was supported by a multitude of other stories about people turning to Christianity for a better life. Reporter Amy (Trisha LaFache) was against Christianity until she found out she had cancer. The sickness and the way people treated her because of it turned her to the religion. Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) felt disillusioned by the religion she had grown up in and turned to Christianity for relief. Martin Yip (Paul Kwo) was in Professor Radisson’s philosophy class and took Josh’s side of the debate to heart. Then there were the relationships of the two main characters falling apart due to their beliefs, and the story of Reverend Dave (David A.R. White) and his cars not starting. Everything was pushing Christianity.
As I’ve said, the story of God’s Not Dead isn’t all bad. Having the relationships of the main characters and their battle to believe or not to believe was a good idea. That alone could have made for a great movie, if it was only about the right to believe and not only about Christianity. It was just that the movie went out of its way to show that Christianity was the one true religion, and that on-the-nose push for that religion turned the movie into a promo. It became less about entertainment and more about converting viewers.
The sequel, released in 2016, understood that and slightly retooled the argument. In God’s Not Dead 2, a teacher named Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) was persecuted for discussing the Bible in class. The schoolboard was against the merging of religion and education and took her to court over it. Helping Grace out was an attorney, Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe). He didn’t care about the religious side of the battle. He was defending her right to discuss the Bible in a purely educational sense. She hadn’t been preaching or trying to convert her students. She was discussing the Bible in a strictly educational context, as a supporting material to what was being taught. Against Grace were the parents of Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), who had hired Pete Kane (Ray Wise) to sue Grace for bringing religion into Brooke’s education.
What made the sequel work better than the first was that it felt like it was giving people the opportunity to join the Christian faith without pushing it on them. It was a story involving religion. It wasn’t a story trying to convert the audience. The Tom Endler character was a big reason for this since his whole argument wasn’t about people needing to believe in Christianity. His argument was about the importance of religion in history and historical text. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister, but the school was only allowed to see him as a civil rights leader. That kind of thing. He argued that being a minister was important to who Martin Luther King was and that it shouldn’t be ignored. It wasn’t an argument about people needing to believe in a specific religion, but rather an argument that people should allow beliefs to be discussed.
The subplots also tied into the main story better than in the previous effort, making the movie feel cohesive with every element fitting into the movie. Reverend Dave returned as a Pastor (I don’t know the difference between those two titles, but he got a title change) and ended up being a juror in the trial. His time in the jury would be cut short due to some health issues. But throughout his time in the jury, he was also talking to Martin (also returning from the first movie) about his newfound religion, and going up against a subpoena to take his past 120 sermons. He wouldn’t give up the sermons and it would lead to a problem at the end, setting up a potential story for another sequel.
These two subplots expanded on the main story being told. Brooke Thawley had asked a question about religion in class, since she was slowly beginning to believe. That led to the trial between her parents and teacher, a trial she did not want. The questions were mirrored in Martin’s curiosity at coming into Christianity. The stance that Grace took about not giving up her right to discuss religion in a historical context was complemented by Pastor Dave’s fighting for his right to be able to preach in church without government interference. The government was trying to stop Grace from teaching and stop Pastor Dave from preaching. The main story and subplots fit together much better the second time.
Religion can be a tricky thing for filmmakers to get right. Some filmmakers like to use religion as a way to accentuate their movies. It adds a new context that deepens the events. Movies such as God’s Not Dead and Saving Christmas go about it a little differently, trying to promote their religion. It can hurt how entertaining a movie is. Forcing a message onto people is like obvious product placement. People will notice it and dislike it. A little bit of subtlety is necessary. God’s Not Dead 2 managed to be a little more subtle, and stopped pushing the Christian faith as hard. It still pushed, but not as hard. It ended up being more entertaining, and actually got me interested in seeing a third movie. That’s why most people use religion in movies. It makes things more interesting.
Maybe these notes will be somewhat interesting:
- God’s Not Dead was suggested by @TheChewDefense, who has also suggested Howard the Duck, Tracers, Outcast, and Gigli.
- Twelve actors appeared in both the first and second God’s Not Dead films. They were Tommy Blaze, Jody Davis, Abigail Duhon, Jeff Frankenstein, Paul Kwo, Trisha LaFache, Benjamin A. Onyango, Duncan Phillips, August Sunseri, Michael Tait, Jesse Wang, and David A.R. White.
- God’s Not Dead 2 featured Ernie Hudson, who was also in Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 and Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3.
- Fred Dalton Thompson made his final film appearance in God’s Not Dead 2. He was in a couple more Sunday “Bad” Movies during his career. They were Baby’s Day Out and Aces: Iron Eagle III.
- Dean Cain had a role in God’s Not Dead. He also had a role in A Nanny for Christmas.
- God’s Not Dead was the second appearance of Jay Caputo in the Sunday “Bad” Movies after he was in Ed.
- Four actor from Fant4stic were in God’s Not Dead. They were Jim Gleason, Clint Michael Naquin, Shauna Rappold, and Jesse Yarborough.
- Ray Wise was in Big Ass Spider! before showing up in God’s Not Dead 2.
- Finally, Carey Scott was in God’s Not Dead 2 as well as Top Dog.
- I also mentioned Saving Christmas in this post.
- Have you seen either of the God’s Not Dead movies? Have you seen any other religious films of this sort? You can discuss this stuff in the comments section below.
- If there are any movies that you think I should watch in future installments of the Sunday “Bad” Movies, you can feel free to drop those into the comments or my Twitter timeline. I’m always looking for hidden gems that I don’t know about.
- I also have a snapchat. Add jurassicgriffin if you want to keep up with the random things that I sometimes end up sharing. It’s up to you.
- Next week’s movie is a big one. By that, I mean that it has a giant cast and the movie is much longer than it needs to be. Adam Sandler recently released a new Netflix movie called Sandy Wexler. That’s what I’m going to be taking a look at. Come back in seven days for that one. It should be an interesting post.