(Rated G [Canada] PG [MPAA] for some thematic elements; directed by Harold Cronk; stars Melissa Joan Hart, Hayley Orrantia, Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Benjamin A. Onyango, Robin Givens, Trisha LaFache, Paul Kwo, David A.R. White, Ray Wise and Pat Boone; run time: 120 min.)
Apologetics vs. melodrama
By Ted Giese
“God’s Not Dead 2” is the sequel to the 2014 film “God’s Not Dead.” In this installment, director Harold Cronk moves the apologetic arguments from the college lecture hall to the courthouse. High-school teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) becomes embroiled in a First Amendment legal case after receiving a reprimand for addressing a student’s question about the similarities between the pacifist approach to civil protest taught by Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Jesus. In answering the question, Wesley quotes the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).
The student asking the question, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), is grieving the death of her brother. Being raised in an atheist home, she is surprised to discover that her brother owned a Bible which she receives when a kindly volunteer gives it to her after the Salvation Army finished packing up her brother’s worldly possessions. The first thing she sees when opening it is that her brother has John 1:12 written in the front cover, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” Thawley’s study of the Bible prompts her classroom question. Although Wesley is a Christian, she hadn’t included Jesus in the lesson plan; it was Thawley who brought Jesus into the discussion. In the shadow of the ensuing court case involving her teacher, Thawley becomes a Christian.
Alongside this plot and the court case, Cronk weaves in characters from the previous film. Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) is selected for the jury and works through a ripped-from-the-headlines-style subplot about the state issuing subpoenas for his sermons similar to what happened in Houston in 2014. Foreign exchange student Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), who became a Christian in the previous film, is disowned by his atheist father and, with Pastor Dave’s guidance, decides to study to become a pastor. Journalist and blogger Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), who likewise became a Christian in the previous film with the help of the Christian pop band Newsboys, returns to the screen along with the Newsboys.
Like the first film, “God’s Not Dead 2” has its share of theological expressions that may be familiar to evangelicals. At one point, Thawley “lets Jesus into her heart” (even though there is plenty of evidence that it is the Holy Spirit via the Word of God who is creating faith in her). At another point, Wesley conveys her frustrations, complaining how “recently when I’ve been praying, it’s like Jesus isn’t letting me feel His presence. Usually I can almost reach out and touch Him, but … but right now it’s like … it’s like He’s a million miles away,” to which her ailing grandfather Walter Wesley (Pat Boone) replies, “Honey, you of all people should realize when you’re going through something really hard, the teacher is always quiet during the test.” In both these cases and in many other references, Cronk and his writing team produce a film that appeals primarily to emotionalism. Christians not coming from an evangelical tradition will more than likely find this approach wanting.
Early in the film, as it looks like the local school board is mounting a case against her, Wesley says, “I am not going to be afraid to say the name Jesus.” This reveals the general premise of the film: Christians should not be afraid to say the name Jesus in their vocation — they should have the right to freely exercise their religion with no abridgment to their free speech concerning it, and Christians should be ready, as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 (and as the film quotes), to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Honoring Jesus as Lord and God is not only something done quietly in the heart, but also something confessed with the lips.
Now the important question: “What do viewers do when this noble, good and right scriptural truth is wrapped up in a mediocre movie?”
While better than the first film, “God’s Not Dead 2” is still not very good. As a courtroom drama, this is not “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962), “Twelve Angry Men” (1957) or “A Few Good Men” (1992); it isn’t even on a par with TV courtroom dramas. In fact, it is less like “Law & Order” (1990-2010) and more like “Matlock” (1986-95), which is to say that “God’s Not Dead 2” is firmly seated in the realm of courtroom fantasy and melodrama. If a third “God’s Not Dead” is made — in which, yet again, the final outcome of the plot is determined by having Newsboys fans in an auditorium pray to fulfill a prayer request during a concert — the whole endeavor will be in grave danger of moving from melodrama to self-parody.
While the film deals with a serious topic — the persecution of Christians within the increasingly volatile arena of public discourse — “God’s Not Dead 2” is not a serious film. That said, the film takes itself seriously, however, and nine times out of 10 it fails in its Christian apologetic goals. To be charitable, there are a couple of moments where real apologetics are introduced in the form of cameos. In an effort to simply prove Jesus existed as a historical figure worthy of discussion in a public-school history classroom, the defense (Jesse Metcalfe) calls witnesses like Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ (1998), and J. Warner Wallace, author of Cold-Case Christianity (2013). During his cross-examination, Strobel even mentions the agnostic scholar and historian Bart Ehrman as one who believes Jesus is a historical figure. Viewers looking for a more serious drama on the topic may well be left wondering what a film would be like if it included these and additional cameos by the likes of Christian apologist and lawyer John Warwick Montgomery as well as atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Is it fair to wish that the film had been different? A more serious film might have a wider appeal, drawing in non-Christians, agnostics and atheists, inviting contemplation not rooted in emotionalism.
In true melodramatic fashion, “God’s Not Dead 2” ends with an overwhelmingly positive conclusion. At one point, Wesley makes the assertion, “I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God.” Would that the film had ended with her losing the court case, her job and her life’s savings. That would have been a more interesting movie. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about the apostles being detained for teaching in the temple about the resurrected and ascended Jesus. They were called before the Sanhedrin and, after being beaten, the council “charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:40-42). The film had this potential drama built into the plot by showing the Christian faith in the face of worldly condemnation; however, it didn’t act on that potential. If “God’s Not Dead 2” had done so, it would have been a very different film. One of the featured Newsboys songs at the end of the film has the lyric, “I want to be guilty by association.” How much more poignant that song would have been had Wesley lost the court case, leaving viewers with a bent-but-not-broken teacher determined to appeal the decision to a higher court?
One last point: Cronk and his writing team seem to have forgotten the second part of 1 Peter 3:15 where it says that the defense a Christian should always be ready to make should be done “with gentleness and respect.” The atheists in this film are not treated with gentleness or respect and neither are atheists in general. Thawley’s parents are depicted as rather callous people who after six months no longer grieve the loss of their dead son and have no sympathy toward their daughter who still grieves the loss of her brother. The prosecuting attorney, Peter Kane (Ray Wise), is a vitriolic, mustache-twirling, two-dimensional villain who literally says he “hates” people like Wesley and what he calls their “repressive [Christian] belief system.” He hopes to prove “once and for all that God is dead.” Even Wesley’s grandfather cavalierly piles on, saying, “That’s the thing about atheism — it doesn’t take away the pain, it takes away the hope.” There is nothing particularly kind about how the film portrays or approaches atheists; they are not made to be people like the rest of the characters. It is concerning that “God’s Not Dead 2” is more focused on self-pity and the desire to be vindicated in the eyes of the world than it is on kind and considerate treatment of antagonists to the Christian faith.
Returning to the question, “What do viewers do when this noble, good and right scriptural truth is wrapped up in a mediocre movie?” Pray that someone will endeavor to make a more thoughtful film dealing with Christian apologetics and civil liberties — a film with writing, directing and acting more on the level with “Spotlight” (2015), which managed to deal respectfully with both faith and a serious topic impacting Christians. Let movies like “God’s Not Dead 2” be a reminder to seek out credible resources on the topic of apologetics when preparing for a personal defense before friends, family and strangers. But don’t be guilted into saying the film is good just because the topic is important.
In the Gospel of Luke, John and Jesus have this brief conversation where John says to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50). So without demanding that directors like Harold Cronk stop making films, in Christian freedom viewers are free to say that the film is a melodrama and also in Christian freedom can ask, “Please give everyone something better.” And finally, as with other films at the multiplex, Christian filmgoers can go ahead and see “God’s Not Dead 2” or they can freely skip it altogether.
The Rev. Ted Giese (email@example.com) is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to the Canadian Lutheran and Reporter Online; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted April 7, 2016
I saw this movie with people from my congregation. We met at a restaurant afterwards to discuss the movie. I agree with this review. I would have liked more realism for what happens in a public school and in a courtroom. I taught in a public school 22 years, parochial 8 years, and in a repressive foreign country 2 years. I knew what I could say and not say, and how to set the scene for students to ask questions I was allowed to answer. The Houston case was 2014. The movie does not indicate that the subpoena request for sermons was dropped. If the script takes liberties with the classroom and the courtroom, why would I think the script had veracity for stating the historicity of Jesus? The characters were stereotypes. It was emotional rather than strong.
As George Will once observed, even a bad shot is worthy of respect when they accept a duel…
Here is my Review of “God’s Not Dead 2”
God’s Not Dead 2 is one of the best movies I have seen in years. The feeling you get as you watch it are “This is too real.” if there was too much emotionalism (there wasn’t) this would not be a bad thing. We are fast loosing religious freedoms in this country and we need to be motivated to fight against those attacks. How do we do that? By using cold, sterile, movies? I don’t think so.. The movie was very strong, very encouraging. Since the Synod can not produce anything this good as far as movies are concerned I feel the above movie reviewer was out of line. If Pastor Giese does not like emotionalism, how did he like the Martin Luther movie that came out several years ago? That was highly emotional. Go see “God’s Not Dead 2” and then give thanks to God that He is allowing movie companies like Pure Flix to make quality movies.
I haven’t seen either film and reviews like this are the reason why. I have little doubt that this review is an accurate depiction of what you will find in these movies, which weigh heavy on my heart knowing people will judge Christians and the church by this superficial tripe. Thank you for this clear thinking and honest reflection on the many problems you found in the film. We need to stop giving Christian artists an “A for effort” when the product lacks real substance.
If this were a Hollywood film like Noah, then I would emphatically agree with your comment.
I have seen this film. Go see it for yourself. You will be inspired and not ashamed of the picture it paints of real Christians. The film shows individuals quoting Scripture in several scenes relative to their personal struggles. Quoting Scripture is by no means ‘superficial tripe’ nor should it earn such a negative elitist review as above.
Nor can this be dismissed as an ‘A for effort’ artist film. I know the difference and I’m sure you do too but, like me, have been disappointed so often by Hollywood. This film is not Hollywood and it does contain real substance.
I haven’t seen the movie, but does it really have a scene where a high school class discusses the historicity of Jesus? Because that’s a pretty settled issue in scholarly discourse. Even Dawkins and Harris believe Jesus was a real person. I wish the review would be clearer about this.
In the film a history teacher is asked a question by a student related to the topic of non-violent civil rights struggles. The student asked if the teachings of Jesus and Ghandi were basically the same. The teacher answered the question honestly comparing the two cases related to non-violent struggles. The problem is she quoted Scripture in order to clarify Jesus’ view while not being preachy. Of course the school board and the ACLU wanted to make this teacher an example to all other teachers who happen to be Christian….and that is what the story is all about. Hope this helps.
So many movies do not accurately represent the Word of God. These movies are causing people to read the Bible and ask questions. Recent movies like Noah with Russell Crowe and Exodus with Christian Bale are so off it is horrifying. The LMS may need to invest in biblical movies to share correct depictions. I would rather see God Is Not Dead over the hundreds of garbage available on television and in the cinema today.
I respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree with the poor review by Pr. Giese. I just saw the movie and feel that it is probably in line with the goals set for it: to outline the problems in today’s society and what the alleged agenda of the ACLU is. This story is a compilation of multiple court cases that are enumerated at the end of the movie. Remember, this is not trying to pick out a specific case. Also, they only have 2 hours, not days and days to address a serious, emergent issue. As far as Wesley stating that she felt like God was far away, I defy anyone to deny that they have experienced the same thing when in a time of great distress. Whether you choose to agree with Pat Boone’s statement of “the teacher is silent” during a test or whether it is we, ourselves that feel God is distant when He truly isn’t is immaterial to the subject. In my humble opinion, this movie well accomplishes it’s purpose with good actors and a good story line. Worth every dime to see it and I will definitely be adding it to my library.
Karla, your review is spot on. Thank you. It is worth every dime. In fact, we are going a second time to see the film and will bring others with us.
I especially enjoyed both movies of God’s Not Dead. Why cut these types of movies down when there is so much trash out there? There are a lot of people who go to movies but not to church. At least these movies will make them question and get into God’s Word and begin a dialog with Jesus.
You said it would be more real if she lost everything….did you watch the movie Believe?, they had that situation in that movie. They are at least trying to get the Word out and encourage Christians to be bold in their faith. I congratulate them on a job well done!!
I agree about avoiding Hollywood-made religious movies but this movie is not made by Hollywood. How can I tell? It actually presents real-world scenes about faith, the Bible and Jesus. The review above was much too harsh on the film for being emotional–maybe a documentary is preferred? I was inspired by the film and recommend it–and I am an old school traditional-service Lutheran.
This was a really good read. Thanks for sharing, I think you make some excellent points!