(Rated PG [Canada] and PG [MPAA] for thematic elements, including some violence and suggestive material; directed by Michael Mason; stars David A.R. White, John Corbett, Shane Harper, Ted McGinley, Jennifer Taylor, Benjamin A. Onyango, Samantha Boscarino, Mike C. Manning and Gregory Alan Williams; run time: 105 min.)
Warning: Review contains plot spoilers.
A better, but still not good, film
By Ted Giese
In this installment of the “God’s Not Dead” franchise, first-time director Michael Mason takes over from Harold Cronk, who directed the first two films. Unsurprisingly, this new outing is different.
“God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” picks up where “God’s Not Dead 2” left off, with Rev. Dave Hill (David A.R. White) arrested and jailed for not providing copies of his sermons to local authorities.
However, this is not what the new film is about. The old storyline is quickly dispatched and replaced with the story of Rev. Hill trying to stop a university from annexing St. James Church, situated on its state-run campus.
This opportunistic play by the administration of Hadleigh University, originally founded by the congregation it is trying to remove, follows an arson fire suffered by the church during the controversy swirling around Rev. Hill and his sermons.
Hill’s friend, Rev. Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango), who in the previous films was a visiting African missionary and is now the new co-pastor at St. James, dies in the fire, sending Rev. Hill’s faith in God into a tailspin.
Not drama, but melodrama
The film’s secondary plot revolves around a young student, Keaton (Samantha Boscarino), who is questioning her faith and struggling in her relationship with her lapsed-Christian boyfriend, Adam (Mike C. Manning), the accidental church arsonist with a guilty conscience.
Add to this Rev. Hill’s estranged brother and lawyer, Pearce Hill (John Corbett), coming to help with the lawsuit; a reluctant university president who is also Hill’s close friend, Thomas Ellsworth (Ted McGinley); a possible romance for Hill with soup kitchen operator Meg Harvey (Jennifer Taylor); and finally, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), the lead from the first film, who is now a student-turned-youth-pastor.
The viewer who goes into “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” expecting a deep, thoughtful storyline will be disappointed.
These films are not drama, but melodrama. There are exceptions, as when Hill complains to a fellow pastor, Rev. Roland Dial (Gregory Alan Williams), and Dial replies, “You can’t fight hate with more hate.”
Hill responds that if Dial knew what he was going through, he’d see it differently, to which Dial points out, “I’m a black pastor in the Deep South! I could build a church with all the bricks that have been thrown through my windows.”
Apologetics set aside
Where “God’s Not Dead 2” (2016) focused on apologetics, this film has set apologetics aside. Viewers faulted earlier “God’s Not Dead” films for “preaching to the choir” and pretending to engage atheists in the public square while creating straw men to easily knock down.
This time the intended audience is unapologetically Christian and, for the most part, the easy atheist targets are removed. So, it is worth asking: If ‘’God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness’’ isn’t about preaching Christian apologetics to its Christian audience, what is it about?
The student Keaton, whose faith is on shaky ground, provides the film’s thesis: “The whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.”
Keaton is upset that, in her prayer life, she “can’t hear God speaking to her.” All she hears is the noise from the fighting between secular ideas and the church.
By the end of the film, Rev. Hill, who starts out with the solid Christian conviction that “Truth is a person, and that person is Jesus,” winds up preaching a generic, Jesus-less kind of peace-hope-and-love-will-conquer-all “gospel” with a call to “stop fighting and yelling at each other and just listen to each other.”
While listening and talking to people is good, and displaying peace, hope and love to all is also good, it needs to be done in Christ Jesus, not with Jesus as an afterthought. Where the film could do this, it ultimately fails.
An individualistic representation of the Christian faith
One odd element of the film is the depiction of St. James church. The pews are full on Sunday, and the people have a pastor, a youth pastor and a university ministry, but there is no core group of members to roll up their sleeves and help amid tragedy or provide support for their pastor in his struggle.
Granted, this would further complicate the film’s plot, but it’s peculiar to have a pastor trying to save a church for an invisible congregation.
There are also no shut-in calls or hospital visits, the kinds of things that go on even if the church building has suffered fire damage. There’s one church council meeting, but that is over as fast as it’s introduced.
The result is an individualistic representation of the Christian faith. “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” presents the Christian life as a collection of individuals rather than a community.
Rev. Hill’s character arc moves from pride to humility, but in the end, rather than confronting his theology of glory and replacing it with the theology of the cross of Christ’s suffering, he leapfrogs over Jesus right back to a theology of glory.
There are some positive aspects to the film. Scripture is quoted and sometimes even applied in good ways. When Hill is spiraling into despair, and Keaton expresses her disappointment in him for his lack of faith, the youth pastor Wheaton comforts him by comparing Hill’s doubt with John the Baptizer’s doubt in Matt. 11:2–6.
The film is commendable in including talk of Jesus, Scriptural quotes and moments of genuine repentance and forgiveness. It is also respectful of nominal, doubting and lapsed Christians — not the case in previous “God’s Not Dead” films.
Mason’s “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” is a vast improvement over Harold Cronk’s “God’s Not Dead” (2014) and “God’s Not Dead 2” (2016), but this doesn’t mean it’s a good film, only that it’s a better film.
If the producers are going to embrace the idea of “preaching to the choir,” they need to preach Christ and Him crucified. They will not be well served if they continue to characterize Jesus as a social-justice warrior or tell stories that avoid hard questions and real life spiritual pain and suffering.
Listen to “Issues, Etc.” host Rev. Todd Wilken interview the Rev. Ted Giese about a Christian viewer’s perspective on “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” and other contemporary motion pictures.
Watch the trailer:
The Rev. Ted Giese (email@example.com) is lead 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 20, 2018