Movie Review: ‘God’s Not Dead’ is shallow, simplistic

Can I suggest that Christians who want to write movies spend several months reading Flannery O’Connor first?

A committed Catholic whose “Christ-haunted” stories achieved credibility with believers and non-believers alike, O’Connor might have laughed at the sometimes simplistic approach of faith-based films like “Fireproof” and “The Christmas Candle.”

The latest and perhaps most simplistic of these is “God’s Not Dead,” the story of a college freshman who goes up against an atheist professor; asked to prove that God exists, he wins over the entire class in three short talks.

Yeah, right.

It’s not that films like this don’t grapple with real-life problems; indeed, “God’s Not Dead” falters partly by addressing too many: cancer, culture clash, Alzheimer’s disease, broken hearts, corporate ambition and thwarted plans, among others.

Rather than key on one or two with sufficient depth, it slaps them all with a coat of “Jesus saves,” as though there’s no crisis that God – with a little help from the Newsboys – won’t solve in 113 minutes.

The most egregious of these is the college plotline, which serves as a sort of wish-fulfillment for Christians frustrated by the blatant anti-religious bias of American higher education.

Rather than solid intellectual argument, much of this debate has the professor and student quoting other scholars, as though this were in itself some kind of ironclad proof.

The other arguments, though sometimes intriguing, are terribly breezy and shallow – especially considering the fact that the opening credits include a specialist in “apologetics research.”

Even I wasn’t convinced – and I came into this on the student’s side!

In real life, this tenured, well-read professor would likely have reduced the student to quivering jelly after the first session.

And the film employs this same superficial approach in all its relationships, highlighted by three of the lamest break-up scenes in memory.

(In one, a man dumps his girlfriend after learning she has cancer – having responded to her initial announcement by growling, “Couldn’t this wait till tomorrow?”)

The movie reaches its nadir when nearly all the characters wind up at a Newsboys concert, where the well-known Christian band (for whom the film feels like one long commercial) praises the courageous student from the stage.

As with the in-class quotations, this seems like another case of “The big boys believe it so it must be true.” At the same time, the film here falls into dreary lockstep with so many others in which youthful underdogs triumph at a culminating rock show.

The best you can say about “God’s Not Dead” is that its heart is in the right place and the acting is decent; Shane Harper, in particular, brings just the right calm self-effacement to the student.

But the script needs more of the O’Connor touch, where problems don’t get solved and characters fumble toward grace through sin and weakness.

After all, one of her best-known stories is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Apparently, that’s also the case with a good Christian film.

1 1/2 stars out of 4.

Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.