by Dr. David Baggett
The latest Christian film God’s Not Dead—inspired by the famous Nietzschean line “God is dead”—has its zealous and enthusiastic defenders along with its ardent critics. With the supporters, as a Christian I’m heartened by the central idea in the film that there are good reasons for our faith, that we need not check our brains at the door of the church. As a Christian philosopher, I’m convinced that the evidence for a generally theistic and specifically Christian worldview is strong, and, although the apologetics in the movie is cursory and quick, it gestures in promising directions. I have little doubt that the hearts of the film-makers here were in the eminently right place.
With the detractors of the film, though, I have my grave reservations. Perhaps the most serious problem the film manifests is a lack of honesty, as manifested in the various ways in which, as a movie, it is rather shoddy art. The characters tend to be one-dimensional; the movie indulges stereotypes of various sorts; much of the dialogue is laughably unrealistic. The premise of a secular college campus where there’s a conflict of ideological convictions and warring worldviews provided great fodder for a very good movie, a most engaging storyline, and believable characters. But the movie’s penchant for caricature, superficial analysis, pop psychological reduction of atheist convictions, and one spiritual sledge hammer to the head after the next resulted in an embarrassingly cheesy movie that quite failed to reach even a fraction of its potential.
Again, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the film-makers, but as someone who studied philosophy in a state university for both my undergraduate degree and doctorate, and did so as a Christian, I found the execution of the central premise to be sadly deficient. There are all sorts of Christians in academic programs—in philosophy and otherwise—in various and sundry state universities, not to mention immersed in secular contexts of other sorts, and attempting to conduct themselves with integrity and thoughtfulness. Each day brings new challenges to their faith, their reputation, their success in their chosen field, to their intelligence and ingenuity and creativity and faithfulness—and many look for and find new and innovative ways to think Christianly and be salt and light in a thousand ways on a regular basis, sometimes in big and dramatic fashion, but usually in quiet, understated ways. They do their work, share their testimony, value excellence, model the love of Christ, and in the process build bridges, encourage dialogue, rely on God’s direction and empowerment, and in the process showcase reasons for the hope they have within. Most of us in this country, however much we may be challenged for our faith, don’t experience anything like real persecution; to think otherwise trivializes the real persecution endured by many Christians in other parts of the world—not usually at the hands of secular humanists, incidentally.
God’s Not Dead is no doubt meant as an encouragement to Christians, and especially Christian young people whose faith gets assailed at public universities and elsewhere all too often. I am a strong believer in the importance of offering such encouragement and doing the hard work of equipping young people to know not just what they believe, but why they believe it.
But I don’t think a movie that depicts atheists as universally smug, arrogant, irrational, unreasonable, and obnoxious—all in patent contrast with brilliant, squeaky clean-cut, hand-raising Newsboys concert-goers—is the way to do it. The atheistic philosophy professor in the movie is so unbelievably harsh and dogmatic that it’s unlikely that what he was doing in his class is even legal; it’s certainly not in the spirit of philosophy rightly understood. However much some Christians might like to cast themselves as victims of such intellectual snobbery and atheistic animus, real-life philosophy professors anywhere near the vicinity of this fictional portrayal are, in my experience in this field anyway, exceedingly rare, if not nonexistent. Sure there are dogmatic atheists, and even fundamentalist-type obnoxious atheists, just as there are obnoxious Christian fundamentalists. Painting either group as a whole with such a broad and uncharitable brush is intellectually dishonest. If we don’t like to be stereotyped, pigeon-holed, and summarily dismissed in this fashion, we should refrain doing it with our interlocutors, whom we’ve been called to love and for whom Jesus died.
Rather than congratulating ourselves for not being counted among the unbelievers, and laud bad films just because we like their conclusions or resolutions, we need to learn how to listen to our secular friends, build relationships with them, reach out to them, and meet them where they are. As the opportunity arises, we need to share with them the good news of the Gospel and the reasons for the hope within us, and, yes, the reasons to believe that Christianity is true. But such preparation takes serious work; loving God with all of our minds isn’t something we’re able to do by reading a few books and immediately dazzling crowds and winning them over. It takes due diligence, study, work, preparation, and it’s a process that, for those called to do it, will involve gradual growth and development, occasional missteps and stumbles, but a steadily growing repertoire of apologetic resources at one’s disposal to use for God’s glory.
The idea that a college freshman, after reading a few books, can reduce a trained secular philosophy professor nearly to tears and systematically dismantle his worldview is an insult to thoughtful atheists and a trivialization of Christian apologetics. It’s not that easy, but it’s vitally important work. We need to pat ourselves less on the back and get busy doing the real work of preparation, and to do so with the intention of winning people, not just arguments.
Dr. David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is the co-editor of the book “Hitchcock and Philosophy.”