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.