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"God's Not Dead": A Preview

It's good to be back.

I have been away from home for part of the summer, and during that time I came across a listing for the film “God’s Not Dead.” You’ve probably heard of this film already: released earlier this year, it doesn’t exactly portray a young man’s struggle with faith as it does his faithful struggle against (faithless) others. The film opens in a spirit of intellectual/spiritual combat, with a college professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) who assigns on the very first day an exercise in which students have to disavow the existence of God. I haven’t yet seen the movie – I expect to go later this week – but I expect the same feeling of dread and embarrassment that I felt when I visited the Creation Museum years ago. What I found during that experience was a series of tableaux in which established scientific theories were attacked with the most specious of arguments, suggestion and innuendo replaced reason, and academic culture was pilloried. From everything I’ve read, “God’s Not Dead” touches all these bases and more.

I have a theory about contemporary conservatism generally, and the religious right more specifically. They’ve studied the post-68 playbook of the center-left. They’ve appropriated the language of civil rights, the student movement and identity politics and turned it in a new direction: targeting “religious discrimination,” cultural indifference and even aggression (the “War on Christmas”), and so on. Both then and now, many of these battles took place on college campuses. Kevin Sorbo’s arrogant professor is surely a distortion, but the persona is meant to resonate with conservative viewers, especially young people who have been told repeatedly that the secular classroom is the place where faith commitments are deconstructed and stripped-away, often painfully. In God’s Not Dead this myth becomes hyperbole: no philosophy professor requires – on the first day no less! – the disavowal of God. What the distortion discloses however is the cynical belief that the role of authority in the pursuit of knowledge and even wisdom is nothing more than a sham, a mere power trip, intellectual combat for its own sake. According to these terms, the young man in question doesn’t really belong in a Philosophy class, since he already has all the wisdom he needs.

We have to strip away the image here to get at the reality. What parades as a liberating experience of “speaking truth to power” is in fact profoundly disingenuous. The position and situation of the young man in the film is merely one of nothing more than a mobilized series of stale tropes, tableaux that support a worldview in which evangelical Christians are an oppressed minority. That we know this isn’t true is beside the point. Films like God’s Not Dead are the ideological expression of this stance, of a piece with the Creation Museum and Fox News histrionics around the holiday season. What we see in films like this is the elaboration of a closed circuit, a symbolic gated community in which to live. No thanks. And it has to be said as well: the ideological edifice just isn’t a very good one. So far, every overtly evangelical work of pop culture I’ve experienced is a transparent piece of unconscious self-parody and abysmal kitsch. I expect God’s Not Dead to be more of the same, and I will enjoy it for precisely that reason: I will enjoy its failure.

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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I almost signed up to rent it because of Kevin Sorbo ... Hercules :)  ... but it did seem from the trailer to be about the demolition of a straw man.

And yet ... my son, who will start college this fall, was interested in this movie, and lame as you make it sound, it might be a conversation starter. He was taken with the premise.

FWIW, my 8th grade science teacher (ca. 1967) was required to teach a unit on evolution in our public middle school. In his opening lecture for the unit, he made us all write in our notebooks, "Evolution is a largely unsupported theory," and he came around to check that we had written it. When he saw that I had written, "Evolution is a largely unsupported theory, according to Mr. X," he was pretty ticked off and crossed off my addition with his red pen. 

I see that Roger already has a pigeonhole to place the review of this film once he's viewed it. Although raised and educated in the Athens of America (AKA the Hub of the Universe), I have resided in Oklahoma for more than 40 years. I live in peace here with the few liberals who are able to endure the political climate and the more conservative folk who are often ridiculed as "rednecks". The auditorium where I saw this film was filled to overflowing by church groups who were eager to see it. I didn't know what to expect, but someone in my parish suggested it might by worth my while. While it was obviously a low budget flick, it had high production qualities so it did not come off as a sectarian piece. The character played by Kevin Sorbo was highly unlikeable and that of his young adversary a modern day David in both appearance and zeal. The college lad manages to best the professor when after being given class time to advocate for the existence of God, his classmates side with him. The film ends with a rousing rendition of "God's Not Dead" by a well known Christian pop group. Since God is not dead, spending a little more than an hour watching an entertaining film made by people who espouse that belief was a good use of my time. I spread it's message by texting a couple of people the words: God's Not Dead. If I knew the inticracies of texting I would have sent more.

I think the thing that's misleading about the film is that it assumes college is a placee hostile to God and that those who believe are a threatened minority there.  But as this article states, there is probably a majority of students who believe in God, even if they aren't necessarily members of some disticnt church ... http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/26/college-students-go... ...  I think too there's the idea that most teacher are atheists, but that's untrue also ... http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amarnath-amarasingam/how-religious-are-ame...

I probably won't see "God's Not Dead" (too many movies, too little time...)  I tend not to like advocacy films which preach to the choir, even though I agree that "God's not dead". But hey, if you enjoy it, and it is meaningful to you, don't let me discourage you.

I do want, however, to acknowledge an unfortunate habit among a few teachers, instructors, and professors; especially at the college level, to use the classroom as a "bully pulpit".  Case in point: in the middle 1980's I took some art and design classes at one of the state universities in Colorado. One of the classes was taught by a young instructor with a tendency to overshare.  He told us that he was a former Catholic but had moved on from all that stuff; he had a troubled relationship with family, his parents didn't understand his wanting to study art, yada yada.  Mostly I just tuned this out.  Once in a while he would show a video or film during class, usually something predictably arty.  One day, which happened to be Good Friday, he showed a Lenny Bruce film. It was over-the-top disrespectful of Jesus Christ, and I found it very offensive, especially given the timing. The sad part is that he was a talented instructor.  I enjoyed the class and learned a lot from it, when he stuck to the subject he was there to teach. Things like the Good Friday episode just wasted his students time and their not-inexpensive tuition

I do want, however, to acknowledge an unfortunate habit among a few teachers, instructors, and professors; especially at the college level, to use the classroom as a "bully pulpit". 

Katherine - my experience as a preacher is that people who like what I talked about tell me about it, whereas people who didn't like it don't say anything (most of the time :-)).  Thus there is an asymmetry to the feedback, and the public speaker may be (mis)led to believe that everyone thinks his comments and opinions are wonderful.  If anything, I'd think the tendency would be even more pronounced in college, where students believe they are dependent on the teacher's good opinion of them in order to advance in life.

 

Jim P., he handed out student evaluation forms at the end of the semester.  I told him what I thought of Lenny Bruce on Good Friday. I also told him what I thought was good about the class, which was a lot. I noticed most of the other students wrote a sentence or two, or tossed them in the trash can. I was 35 at the time, which was "NTA", non-traditional age. I noticed the NTA's were a little more likely to give feedback.

While studying for my engineering degree, I was required to take a philosophy course; I chose Greek philsophy because I had read Plato's Republic and enjoyed it very much.  At some point in one of the instructor's lectures, he (the instructor) asserted that it was an established fact that the whole Garden of Eden incident in the Bible was about...sex.  I foolishly raised my hand and asked him a two-part question:  When was this scenario established as a fact, and by whom?  The instructor ramped up into a towering rage, concluding with the statement that "some people are not yet mature enough for college-level material."

Fifteen minutes later he was rhapsodizing about Socrates ambling around Greece buttonholing folks and challenging them with embarassing questions.  But I got an 'A' in the course because I did some groveling and such, getting back in the instructors good graces.  But in my mind I was cursing him.  Well, nobody's perfect.

I was a philosophy major (and an art major) in college and the teachers seemed pretty much like those of other departments ... some were jerks and some were great and many were unremakable.

Arrogance, religious or otherwise, isn't confined to the academy, and I don't think it's any more rife there than in the "regular" workplace, though maybe it's less subtle. I've spent an equal number of years in company/corporate settings and teaching in higher education, and those at the top of companies certainly tend to push employees toward certain political notions that would be "good for the company, ergo good for you" so you should vote a certain way. I've worked for companies owned by prosperity gospel adherents, evangelicals, and those hostile to religion, and there was certainly religious tension in all these places.

There are lots of fit-pitchers and control freaks in the academy (recently I've been conducting passive-aggressive warfare with an administrator about her call for papers form at our yearly conference, not my finest moment). But I've seen CEOs and CFOs in the private sector throw pens, white board markers, lunge across tables, set up kangaroo courts of discipline, and yell at employees loud enough for everyone to hear. 

One of the things that feeds my anarchist tendencies is that power, whether in the academy or the corporation, removes people from reality, from common humanity and courtesy. They're in power, it's because they're superior, ergo whatever they do or say is justified. We live in a democracy, but most of us work for tyrants.

Jean - I'm convinced that there is a Christian approach to leadership (not always fully modeled by Christian leaders).  It is the servant model.  I believe that Francis is modeling one manifestation of it at a very high level.  When I taught, I tried to model it at a very modest and local level: what can I do to help students succeed in the classroom?  My experience as a student is that some instructors embrace this, and some don't.  I am sure that there are some college-level instructors who don't really feel a passion about teaching, don't see it as a vocation; it may be that teaching is part of the package that comes with doing whatever it is that they really want to do (e.g. research or writing, or, in the case of TAs, completing their own advanced degree).  

 

Jim, commendable goal for teaching, of course. Do you think Christian leadership ideas translate to the non-academic workplace very often? Bosses serve stockholders, customers, members, and/or boards of directors. The notion of serving employees seems to be off the radar.

Research "Frederic Ozanam" to find a Catholic version of this film story.

 

Jean - I don't know if you are a Jon Stewart watcher, but earlier this week he had the president of Starbucks on, to promote their new employee benefit: free college tuition for their employees.  In the course of the interview, he at least gave lip service to the notion that he sees the well-being of their employees as being closely related to the well-being of their customers.  (And I suppose we could say that it is more than lip service, inasmuch as he has this new college benefit).

I've been very fortunate to have bosses recently in my career who tend to be sympathetic, understanding and supportive, who believe in work/life balance, and who will fight for the employees for whom they're responsible.  I can't say that this approach is motivated in every case by explicit Christian faith, but I do think that a person who wishes to be both a Christian and a business leader could thrive in an enlightened corporate environment like that one.  Naturally, not every corporate environment is like that one.

 

Frederic Ozanam, of course, founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Jim, you know I'm one of those cynical damn liberals, and Starbucks' reimbursement plan looks to me like a way to stagnate employee wages (hey, we pay your college, and you want a RAISE??) and string them along so the trained ones don't go elsewhere and drive up turnover costs. What I do think is good about the program is that it applies to anyone who works more than 20 hours per week--and the majority of service workers are part-timers. And Starbucks employees rate the company 3.7 (on a five star scale) at Glassdoor.com (compared to the 2.8 rating my employer gets; maybe I should learn to be an elderly barista. "Now what did you say you wanted in that latte, hon? I didn't hear what you said.")

I'm glad you work for enlightened people. 

I better get offa here for going off topic.

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