God’s Not Dead is an awful movie that makes you wish you were dead while watching it. It’s vacuous, safe, basking in that bourgeois Emergent Church hipsterdom that gave us contemporvant music and youth groups. The acting is horrible (everyone has mushy mouth) and in the end is nothing but a big Newsboys/Duck Dynasty commercial. But there is something far more nefarious at work under the surface here. Since the first millennium Western Christianity has had a problem with increasing rationalism asserting itself in the Church. In Western Catholicism, this urge to make faith as reasonable as possible has always been tempered by the centrality of the Sacraments, which even Ye Olde Thomas Aquinas said were beyond human understanding. Once the Reformation came and denied the Sacramental worldview and replaced it with a book, Protestant Christianity devolved into a mess of pseudo-intellectual theologizing. Like all good philosophy accepted by the masses, the scholastic tradition out of which Protestant thought emerged has been slowly watered down over the centuries until finally arriving on the big screen in all its pitiful paltriness in 2014.
The premise of the film is innocuous enough. Josh Wheaton (relax Buffy fans, he’s not as cool as his name sounds), who suffers from WWCSS*, is a freshman in college taking Philosophy 101. His professor (played by a maniacally malignant Kevin Sorbo) is a nearly psychotic atheist who on the first day of class asks all the students to, at least for the purposes of the class, reject belief in any God or gods. To emphasize his point, he requires that the students take out a piece of paper, write on it “God is dead”, and sign their name. The saying “God is dead” comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, who by “God is dead” meant not necessarily that God does not exist, but that the very idea of God had been made irrelevant by modern society’s materialism and self-obsession, a fact of which Professor Radisson (and probably the filmmakers) is blissfully unaware. Kirk Cameron, I mean Josh Wheaton, seems to have no cognizance of this either and adamantly refuses to sign the paper (strange that in a country where Christianity is supposedly the majority religion only one kid is offended at the professor’s demand). In response Sorbo, with a suave smile that would make Sean Connery jealous, demands that Kirk, I mean Josh, defend God’s existence in front of the whole class.
Right here Eastern Christians, and any Christians who still revere the wisdom of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, will smell a rat. The notion of distilling belief in God down to a few two-hour class periods is all kinds of absurd. Belief in God is about relationship, about growing experience of God, not intellectual assent to a set of predetermined doctrines. Doctrine comes from experience, not the other way around. Unfortunately God’s Not Dead forgets this fact until the very end when it’s too late. The greater portion of the film is spent dabbling in the very worst of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, from confusing theism with creationism and repeating (in so many words) the oft refuted Kalaam Cosmological Argument, a false syllogism which has been proven to be errant so many times it’s an embarrassment that anyone even still knows what it is**.
The petty speculation of so much of the Western theological tradition is on full display here. At the beginning of his first presentation, Kirk, I mean Josh, says, “I’m going to put God on trial”. An arrogant statement like that should send shudders through the hearts of traditional Christians. Like all heresies, rationalism seeks to limit God, to put him into a box and make him subject to some immutable law of the universe. It is clear that the God we’re dealing with is not God “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same”, but rather some Creator Deity who can be reasoned into submission. The God which can be proven is no God at all. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is far, far above human reason.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (Isaiah 55:9, I Corinthians 1:25 RSV-CE)
The early Church Fathers had no illusions about their ability to “put God on trial”. St. Augustine, often construed as the father of Western rationalism, said famously, “Faith seeks understanding”. Faith comes before reason, goes where reason cannot go, and enlightens the human minds in ways syllogisms and arguments cannot. Faith requires, as Søren Kierkegård explained, an existential crisis in which man, faced with futility of existence, makes a dangerous leap of faith and lands where God puts him.*** Existence precedes essence. Reasoning your way through God is a short road to heresy.
With all of this in mind, I want it understood that I am in no way bashing the venerable tradition of the West, nor minimalizing the role intellectual discourse often plays in the persuasion of non-Christians. My own journey to the Church was primarily, if not finally, an intellectual one. The First Vatican Council infallibly declares:
“If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.” (Vatican Council I, Canon 2 ¶ 1)
In no way am I denying this, only warning against the idolatry of intellectualizing the faith, making the faith a construct of your own mind rather than the Mysteries of Divine Revelation. That is why the self-same council declares a few paragraphs later:
“If anyone says that in divine revelation there are contained no true mysteries properly so-called, but that all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles: let him be anathema.” (Vatican Council I, Canon 4 ¶ 1)
This is a smack-down to the tendency of Western scholars, both Protestant and (unfortunately) Catholic, to define something technically as a mystery and then give fifty pages of footnotes explaining it. People forget that the most respected of the scholastics were also men of great faith and simplicity. People forget that the lofty and intellectual St. Thomas Aquinas was also a great mystic and poet. He would be horrified at how dogmatically some of his acolytes treat the Summa Theologiae. Sts. Anselm and Augustine would be shocked at the monstrosity Calvinism has made out of their work.**** Though true faith in God comes only from that existential crisis, I don’t in any way want to diminish the role reason has in bringing man to that existential crisis.
God’s Not Dead does not seem to understand this. It only wants to prove that “God” exists, not who God is or how God is. At best we arrive at deism, at worst just an anthropomorphic glorification of ourselves, or rather Josh Wheaton. The God who is not dead is, in this context, a supreme being, a watchmaker, so to speak, and frankly that’s not good enough. The Church has no use for a supreme being or intelligent designer. These are human concepts projected onto some vague idolatry they call God. The God of Israel is beyond our reason, nameless but for “I AM”, in other words God is, and that is all.
Not surprisingly, the film’s spurious methodology becomes problematic theologically as well (Lex orande, lex credende . . .). The characters constantly refer to God and Jesus. This is a harmless way of speaking common in our modern times, but the film seems fixated on it. Characters frequently mention praying to “God and Jesus” or belief in “God and Jesus”, almost to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit, and sounding strangely like Arianism. Are the writers of God’s Not Dead Arians? No, I rather doubt it. But the imprecision of their language demonstrates how bad theological speculation leads to squishy doctrine. I heard a Protestant pastor say the other day that Jesus Christ left Heaven to become man for our sake. I sincerely hope this was just a loose and ill-thought-out turn of phrase, but it is just another example of how intellectualized religion waters down the faith, eventually leading to proper heresy and apostasy.
There are myriad other problems with the movie. Pointless subplots regarding girlfriends and Muslim women are raised and forgotten. The film’s tone is often so goofy and misplaced you feel like you’re watching Hee Haw!, not a wide-released motion picture. But my main problems with the movie are the ones I’ve just listed, its arrogance in thinking it can prove God somehow. That people will be converted by its inspiring message. It is not only sentimental and sappy (returning to a recurring theme on this blog), it is spiritually dangerous. David Withun, an Orthodox Christian who blogs at Pious Fabrications, recently wrote an article about the difference between rational and existential apologetics in general. It can be found here. In it he gives a much more detailed explanation of Eastern Christianity’s discomfort with intellectualism in the faith, far more eloquently than I can.
Peace to you and Glory to Jesus Christ!
P.S. – Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) is totally awesome in this movie – the only reason to see it. We officially declare him The Andalusian Peafowl’s Coolest Person in the World until further notice.