Like its predecessor parables of professorial pugilism (shared via many an electronic chain letter), God’s Not Dead has spread like wildfire within the evangelical Christian community, with its now-common narrative of the conservative Christian’s triumph over an antitheistic Philosophy professor. Indeed, the success met by God’s Not Dead is enough to show that, were Nietzsche to utter his famous phrase (“God is Dead”) today, he would be mistaken–after all, he did not mean that ‘God never existed’ (as antagonist Professor Radisson suggests), but rather that the concept of “God” is simply insignificant for the modern individual (which apparently is not the case, at least for many moviegoers). So, while the story in God’s Not Dead portrays an attempted refutation of Radisson’s Nietzsche, who was concerned with God’s existence or non-existence in reality, its box office success brings doubts to the actual Nietzsche’s contention that God is no longer a significant object of interest for the modern thinker. However, Nietzsche’s writings do not merely express facts about modern attitudes toward the divine; they express an evaluation that God ought to be dead, that is, a negative evaluation of religion in general and Christianity in particular, regardless of factual accuracy (or lack thereof!). Josh Wheaton, the protagonist of God’s Not Dead, seems to focus his apologetic argumentation entirely on whether we should believe that God exists as a matter of fact; the most interesting aspect of this film, however, is the way in which it shows that the Christian God is worth believing in, as a guide to moral practice.
Nietzsche, for example, saw Christians as simply believing what is popular among ‘the herd’, rather than seeking out truth for themselves. The character of Josh Wheaton, on the other hand, reminds the audience that authentic Christianity can and should enable the freedom of thought required for philosophical inquiry. Josh’s friends and family want him to simply comply with Professor Radisson’s petty commands by publicly renouncing his belief in God; it is in spite of the people around him, rather than because of their social pressure, that Josh stands up for his beliefs. Josh Wheaton does not back down, displaying the righteous indifference to worldly power so crucial to a full appreciation of Jesus of Nazareth. Nominal Christianity can be comfortable, but we must never forget the status of the Cross as a transformed symbol of state torture.
But isn’t the Cross an example of Christianity as denial of life? This was another critique from atheistic existentialists like Nietzsche: Christianity appears to be entirely focused on the other-worldly, resulting in ignorance and under-appreciation of the here and now. This idea is also flipped on its head in the character of Josh Wheaton: when warned about Radisson’s hostility towards Christians, Mr. Wheaton does not try to flee Philosophy 150, but takes it and Radisson’s challenge head-on, in front of his classmates and in Radisson’s own area of expertise. Rather than seek an escape from reality, Josh affirms it as the only context in which he can act meaningfully, even given the opportunity to withdraw into the safety of his comfort zone.
In the movie, Josh presents faith as a fork: “Believe, or don’t believe”. However, I think that the more important choice is, as a popular Christian saying suggests, to “live in the world, but not of it”. In the story, Josh’s true opposite is not Professor Radisson, but rather Mark, the ruthlessly greedy brother of Radisson’s significant other. Whereas Josh engages himself with the world in defense of the truth as he sees it, Mark detaches himself from the experience of those he ‘loves’ as soon as that truth becomes inconvenient in his insatiable hunger for power and status. It is Mark who tries to please the herd, and Mark who is ultimately denying life and reality in wilful ignorance of the suffering he causes. In other words, the character of Mark lives of the world, but not in it–the reversal and alternative to Josh’s way of life.
There is a whole dimension of God’s Not Dead which suggests that it might better be called God’s Not Death; the Christian way of life is not the death of the individual in an obsession with the yet-to-come (life of the world, but not in it), but rather an engagement in reality with characteristic indifference to worldly power (life in the world, but not of it). Unsurprisingly, the movie itself neglects the real diversity of Atheists, Muslims, progressives, and even vegetarians in its flat and stereotyped characters, and this denial appears to be little more than a cheap attempt at gaining popularity among a specific audience. Regardless, given the character of Josh Wheaton, the popularity of God’s Not Dead may actually signal a surge of Christian curiosity and courage.
Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.