Challenges to faith by a college professor are one thing. But what happens when the teacher herself is being challenged?
Grace Wesley, a high school history teacher, was an innocuous teacher, even if quirky. That is until a student asked a question about the similarities between Martin Luther King and Jesus. Then she quoted scripture. Then there was a disciplinary meeting. Then the ACLU sued. Then she had to hire a defense lawyer. And before long, this innocuous teacher was involved in a media storm of a court case, pitting Christianity against the state. In an effort to represent the numerous times Christians have been sued for standing their ground in recent years, this is one of the more potentially interesting Christian films we’ve seen.
Note that I said potentially interesting.
Explicitly Christian film can be something of a dangerous ground. This is so primarily because the majority of Christian films are low-budget amateur films that, generally speaking, are poorly acted, poorly directed, and lack the sort of quality that the films most people see have as a standard. There’s more to it than that, however – it is also that way because Christian films have not been ones that really challenge us. The best films are the ones that make you think, and far too often Christian films, including the predecessor this one (to a certain degree) employ simple worldview-affirming cliches without nuance.
That’s a statement primary on the state of Christian film culture as a whole. When it comes to God’s Not Dead 2, some of those things are improved upon. The previous film saw a mostly lackluster cast and disjointed plot that was saved barely, if at all, by the convincing acting of Kevin Sorbo in the villainous role. The sequel is similar insomuch that most of the good acting comes from defense attorney Jesse Metcalfe, but there are improvements as well. Melissa Joan Hart does fine as the teacher in question (though much of her dialogue is cringe-worthy) and Ernie Hudson makes a very intimidating judge. Ray Wise is convincing in his own right, even though his role is a very one-dimensional villain with no explanation whatsoever for his motives. As a whole, though, the acting is better than the film’s predecessor, and is at least good enough that the acting itself does not detract from, or pull you out of, the story.
However, the story itself is something of another matter. The core idea that religious liberty is being infringed upon, particularly in the realm of education, is a very relevant and compelling topic. The framing of this movie as a courtroom drama is a wise move as well, and sets up all of the film’s few shining moments. It’s unfortunate, then, that the movie spends so much time on subplots and so little time developing what should have been the main theme: what do Christians do when the government comes after them for mentioning Jesus in the classroom?
These subplots include a handful of conversion stories (that are completely unrelated to the core story), the resurrection of the first movie’s journalist (apparently just because), and of all oddball things a car salesman from the previous film who’s now a waiter. None of these things are related to the core plot; at most they’re like your friend who was technically a fourth cousin by marriage two times. They detracted from the core story, rather than adding to it. Many films make this sort of mistake, but few do it to such a great extent.
Once in the courtroom, however, there are good moments. The way the film introduces apologetics into the plot seems quite shoe-horned in, but once there, the apologetic arguments are good. Lee Strobel appears to talk about historical records, J. Warner Wallace comes in to talk about the claims of Christ, and elsewhere there’s a brief appearance by Gary Habermas, unarguably the foremost scholar in our era regarding the resurrection of Christ. These elements can hardly be effective as a solid grounding in apologetics, but are certainly effective for what the film is trying to do, which is to establish our faith as historically sound and based in fact. It’s for that reason that God’s Not Dead 2 does seem to come ahead of its peers in terms of focusing on concrete facts more than subjective religious experience, although the latter does have its screen time as well.
Ultimately, I do really appreciate the worldview that is communicated through the film, and the involvement of apologetics in the trial of a Christian history teacher. I enjoyed the performances of Jesse Metcalfe and Ernie Hudson, and found myself being drawn into the courtroom drama at times. But the poor writing and extremely cheesy dialogue made it difficult to take the story as seriously as it wants us to. The film struggled with pacing so much, especially the sustaining of conflict, that it became nigh impossible to become truly invested in the story. And so despite its merits, I cannot conclude that the film is effective as a film at all, and especially not to someone who will not already agree with its conclusions before the opening credits.
I left the theater more disappointed at the movie’s wasted potential than anything else. I think it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium of film – that film is an art form, and that is not a good medium for apologetics training or sermon material. It’s my hope that future Christian filmmakers will recognize that, and make better films as a result.
Consensus: 6/10 – The film unabashedly supports a Christian worldview, and has chance enjoyable moments, but as a whole is far too disjointed, cheeky, and cliche-ridden to be an effective medium for Christians to interact in culture.