Scripted Christian Storytelling, or, a Meditation on God’s Not Dead

WARNING: Post contains spoilers. Continue reading at your own risk!

When I was 13, I was assigned a simplistic and annoying little book by D. James Kennedy (What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?) for a homeschool religion class. I finished it, but it still made me totally hopping mad. You see, classically trained obsessive music nerd that I was (and still am), I knew an abnormally large amount of music history for my age, and thus could see right through all the outright lies about music in Kennedy’s book. At the time, however, I thought Kennedy was alone when he spouted ridiculous claims like there being no surviving record of ancient Greek music (reality: you can buy a whole album of it here, played on reconstructed instruments), and certainly he had to be the only person shortsighted and arrogant enough to actually believe that just because he hated Bela Bartok’s music, God did too.

Alas, I didn’t have to get much older before I discovered that conservative American Christendom in general has a hate-hate relationship with post-Romantic Western concert music, founded mostly on ignorance, misinformation and the confusion of personal taste with divine decree. Unfortunately this ignorance about, and general discomfort with, the arts is not limited to music. From homeschool moms who Sharpie out the genitals on the nudes in their teenage son’s art history book (true story), IFB preachers who rant against dancing, and people who think illusionists are actually practicing sorcery (also a true story), it leaks out of the community at the pores, and it would take a book (or two) to explore all the depressing details. So today, I’ll focus only on one aspect of the problem, by using this as the backdrop for and preamble to my review of the latest evangelical in-house film sensation, God’s Not Dead (hereafter referred to as GND).

In general, GND reminded me very much of Simon Morden’s excellent essay Sex, Death and Christian Fiction. (Read it in full here. Seriously, go read it. Now.) This is because it closely matches his description of “Christian fiction”:

But for most [Christian publishers] there are a set of criteria involving content, plot and characters that include:

• A protagonist who is either Christian, or comes to faith as a result of their experiences in the book.

• A strand of spiritual development that has greater or equal weight to the other plot developments.

• The primary conflict in the book is resolved by spiritual, not earthly power.

• There is a bar on bad language, out-of-marriage sexual situations, the consumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs.

• Violence must be treated very carefully – they would rather it happens off-page than on.

GND is actually slightly more “liberal” than this standard, as it shows a collision between a car and a pedestrian, as well a dinner party where wine is being consumed. Other than that, however, it fits Morden’s description to a tee (especially the first three points).

To be honest, due to my previous knowledge of Morden’s list and bad experiences in the past with explicitly “Christian” art, I was able to hazard a pretty good guess that GND was a piece of “Christian fiction” just from the brief descriptions I read online and heard from others. In the interest of fairness, however, I decided to see it for myself – though I must confess that when I went to theater, I was expecting little more than a propaganda film. Fortunately, what I got turned out to be slightly better than that…though not much.

But instead of simply dismissing GND as cheesy, predictable and overdone, I think it would be helpful to slow down and ask why so many have reacted this way to the film. Certainly it’s not because GND is explicitly religious. There are plenty of explicitly religious films that are masterpieces of filmmaking (think The Ten Commandments), and plenty of explicitly religious books that are classics of literature (think The Pilgrim’s Progress or The Screwtape Letters). So what went wrong?

To answer that question, we will turn again to Morden’s essay:

I want to spend a little time talking about messages. Art being used to explore a particular set of ideas or put forward a particular view is commonplace. It’s not peculiar to the Christian faith, or to any faith at all. Whether the idea is courtly love, or killing God, or the need to maintain a strong military against bug-eyed aliens who want to steal our air and/or women, writers can, if they are skilful enough, weave a story of such power and imagination that their point slides through our ribs and pierces our hearts.

When it’s done badly, it hits us over the head. Over and over again. It’s not far from the truth that message-driven fiction makes for bad fiction. As I hope to show, there are very great pressures on us as Christians to, at the very least, include a message, and better still, make the message the reason for writing…

It’s obivous that GND is “message-driven,” because the message is displayed proudly and unambiguously right in the film’s title. It was, essentially, designed to set forth theism as a valid intellectual alternative to atheism. As Morden points out, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when well executed. Unfortunately, it was not well executed in GND, and more closely resembles Morden’s second paragraph above in which the message is about as easy to miss as a kick in the pants. And because all other elements of the story are secondary to that message, the results are underdeveloped and/or extreme characters; a predictable “check-box” plot; and flat, undifferentiated dialogue.

Let’s start with the character development. After the quote above, Morden continues with a description of his character creation process, which ends with the following:

Because my characters live independently in my imagination, it becomes foolish, if not futile, to deliberately cram in a message. I would find myself frustrated at every turn.

In other words, a story must be first and foremost about the characters and their development. If we surbordinate our characters to our personal agenda, we will either weaken otherwise strong characters, or be unable to create strong characters in the first place because their development is strangled by the 800-pound message gorilla.

GND has the second problem (message stifling character development). To support the film’s message, the characters are either crammed into pre-existing roles, developed so little that it’s sometimes difficult to even care about their existence, or made so extreme that they become comical. Professor Radisson, the atheist who challenges the protagonist Josh to prove the existence of God, is not only obviously designed to resemble the favorite “New Atheist” opponents of conservative Christians, but also plays into many common Christian beliefs about atheists (all or most atheists became atheists because of emotional pain related to religion, all atheists are angry at God, atheists really do believe in God deep down, etc.). A visiting African missionary is added for seemingly no reason except comic relief. One of the worst offenders was Josh’s girlfriend, who, even though she and Josh have dated for six years, suddenly decides to dump him over his opposition to Professor Radisson.

Other characters, who deserved more development, were badly shortchanged. For instance, Mina, Professor Radisson’s Christian wife and/or live-in girlfriend (which was left unclear), is connected to most of the characters in some way and thus serves as a sort of nexus linking the various subplots. She also leaves Professor Radisson after he verbally abuses her at a dinner party. (And yes, thumbs up to the writers for showing a woman leaving her abuser, despite the movie’s many other flaws!) However, despite all this fertile soil for character development, Mina gets little screen time – and in what might be one of the film’s biggest missed opportunities, we do not get to see her reaction after Professor Radisson is hit and killed by a car only a day or so after she leaves him. Instead, we are treated to an extended Newsboys concert, and a cheap gimmick in which the audience is asked to text “God’s not dead” to everyone in their contacts list.

The only thing I can think of that was truly positive in GND’s characterization, was Josh’s attitude toward Professor Radisson. I was raised in Christian homeschool circles, so I’ve seen more than my fair share of debate children ready to go out and pick a fight with their professors, whether they needed to or not. Some of these same people later seemed disappointed when their professor did not have a problem with Christians and they did not “get to” defend Jesus in the classroom. Thus, I was afraid that Josh would be characterized as belligerent and obnoxious. Thankfully the filmmakers largely avoided this (with the possible exception of one of the debate sessions), and even more importantly, avoided showing Josh behaving smugly after every other student in the class came out on the side of theism.

The next problem, a predictable plot, Morden hints at first in his list but also in the quote below:

Fantasy Christianity exists within the pages of Christian fiction and describes a Christian faith that doesn’t exist. Demons are slain, sinners saved, prayers instantly answered, the righteous though tempted never fall, the unrighteous either come to faith or are smited by God’s power. It is a faith that we will only have in heaven.

Fantasy reality is the other side of the coin. If the Christian faith that is being written about doesn’t exist, neither does the reality where, the wicked never prosper, bad things happen to good people only for a reason, no one swears or drinks or takes drugs, or has sex, the Gospel is met with acceptance or rejection, never indifference.

Anyone familiar with “Christian fiction” can tell you that there are certain things that simply must occur in one of these books. The biggest rule is probably that the selected “evangelism target” of the story, must not be allowed to leave the story unconverted, or failing that, must at least have moved in the direction of conversion in some kind of visible manner. It was this rule that led me to predict, upon first hearing the scenario of GND, that Professor Radisson would become a Christian by the end of the film. I was right, though it didn’t happen quite the way I expected – and the way it did happen, bears examination in its own right.

In brief, after his series of debates with Josh ends, Professor Radisson is walking down the street and steps out into a crosswalk, where he is hit full force by a car running a red light. Conveniently, the visiting African missionary and his pastor friend are in the next car over, and they run to Professor Radisson as he lies dying in the street. As they present the Gospel to him one last time, he finally decides to “take a chance on Jesus” (due in part to a years-old letter from his dying devout mother he read in the previous scene) and accepts Christ moments before death.

Now that might make for a dramatic death scene, but in the end it really amounts to little more than a deus ex machina to fulfill one of the main “check boxes” of Christian fiction (convert the evangelism target). Real-life conversions are rarely this dramatic or sudden, especially not when the would-be convert has been a committed atheist for decades. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the convenient conversion from being a mainstay of Christian fiction for centuries. It appears in The Coral Island (1857), a favorite of Vision Forum, in which three boys adventure with missionaries in the south Pacific and are conveniently saved when the tribe of cannibals that is preparing to eat them, suddenly converts en masse and sets them free to return to England. So GND has done nothing new here – though that doesn’t make it any less artificial and uncreative.

GND also featured many of the popular “check box” topics that American Christian audiences like. Underground churches in China? Check. A Muslim girl who converts to Christianity? Check. Elitist liberal academics who hate Christians? Check. Christian music industry marketing tie-in? Check. It did manage to steer clear of the really hot-button issues (gay marriage, abortion, creationism, etc.), which I thought was a positive as it would not only have made the plot even more predictable than it already was, but also would have distracted from the main point of the intellectual validity of theism.

And now at last I come to the topic of the film’s dialogue. Probably the most succinct way to state my complaint, is that I’d never been to a film with Scripture references before. What I mean by this, is that aside from the dialogue being flat (more on that later), the writers seemed to be addicted to quotes, both from the Bible and from other books. The Bible was quoted both in whole verse chunks and book-and-chapter references, and as we should expect from an apologetics movie, C. S. Lewis and Richard Dawkins both made their obligatory appearances (one of them in the lunch line). In fact some parts of the film (mostly the debates) seemed to be little more than unremarkable dialogue stuck in the gaps between quotes.

The problem above is, of course, self-evident: if all you can do is string together a bunch of quotes, you need to improve your writing skills, a lot. The problem with the dialogue itself is more subtle, and might not be noticed by someone who has never taken a writing class or tried writing fictional characters themselves. I earlier described the dialogue as “undifferentiated,” by which I mean it had, with the possible exception of Josh and Professor Radisson, no unique character voice. In other words, much of it could be put in the mouth of just about any character in the film, and still sound right. Aside from the reflecting the general sorry state of GND’s character development, we all know from our real world lives that we don’t talk the same way as our friends, and they don’t talk like us or even each other. Thus, each character’s dialogue having a unique voice, is extremely important to establish the believability and interest of the story we are trying to tell.

A wonderful illustration of what unique character voice should look like comes from the second chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (and yes, you may now all stone me with stones for reading a book about sorcery!):

At once, Hermione Granger’s voice seemed to fill his head, shrill and panicky.

“Your scar hurt? Harry, that’s really serious… Write to Professor Dumbledore! And I’ll go check Common Magical Ailments and Afflictions… Maybe there’s something in there about curse scars…” …

And so he tried to imagine his other best friend, Ron Weasley’s, reaction, and in a moment, Ron’s red hair and long-nosed, freckled face seemed to swim before Harry, wearing a bemused expression.

“Your scar hurt? But…but You-Know-Who can’t be near you now, can he? I mean…you’d know, wouldn’t you? He’d be trying to do you in again, wouldn’t he? I dunno, Harry, maybe curse scars always twinge a bit…I’ll ask Dad…”[1]

Personal experience tells me that readers would know, likely without being told, which of the quoted statements above came from Hermione Granger, and which came from Ron Weasley. That’s because Ron and Hermione are different people with different personalities, differents habits of speech and different mannerisms, all of which is reflected in the dialogue Rowling writes for them. Personal experience also tells me that voice in dialogue only comes from familiarity and comfort with the characters in question. In other words, it becomes easier to write a character’s dialogue, the better you know them – and the moment you discover that you can tell who is speaking in your own writing, based only on a sentence or two of dialogue, is a very exciting one. Thus why I stated above that the poor state of GND’s dialogue, is really just a reflection of the poor state of its characters.

But perhaps all that doesn’t matter to you. After all, as long as the Gospel is preached, none of that is important, right? And if GND helps even one person come to faith, then it’s all good!

I’ll first say that I’m a bit gunshy of this argument from a doctrinal perspective. Aside from smacking of the ends justifying the means, it’s also been used to permit all sorts of false and dangerous ideas to run rampant within the church (see my Big Box series on Vision Forum-style patriarchy), by convincing Christians not to “sweat the small stuff” and overlook error. More to the point of this post, however, I simply do not believe that artistic integrity is not important. God can, of course, use pablum and twaddle to bring someone to Christ, but that doesn’t mean that pablum and twaddle should be promoted or held up as good. Surely Christian artists, standing on the shoulders of giants like Lewis and Tolkien, can and should do better. Why should we expect the world to take us seriously when we consistently turn out substandard product that’s easily outstripped by secular fiction and makes us the laughingstock of multiple disciplines? – especially when that the church was one of the main patrons of Western art for thousands of years, and in large part made much of its development possible.

So in light of the above, God’s Not Dead gets a D+ from this reviewer. Compared only to other “Christian fiction” media, I would have given it a C+. But it’s time we held ourselves to higher standards than that. If we don’t, we shouldn’t complain when no one listens to us.

[1]Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 21-22.

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3 comments on “Scripted Christian Storytelling, or, a Meditation on God’s Not Dead

  1. Kathi says:

    Your reasoning is identical to my reasons for why I have no desire whatsoever to see this movie. I give you full credit, an A+ if you’d like, for actually seeing it. You went above and beyond!

    I would never stone you for reading Harry Potter. I’ve gone through the series four times myself, and I love it more each time I read it!

  2. I’ve learned more about redemption, love, sacrifice, strength, resistance to evil, hope and the complex fallen-ness of human nature from Harry Potter than from any overtly “Christian” art I’ve experienced in my 53 years. Which is sad.

  3. Joseph says:

    Bartók is brilliant. Not always easy listening, but it’s music for the intelligentsia – I guess that leaves out Mr. Kennedy! So much I can relate to here, including the moms-with-sharpies going berserk on art and design history books, dancing-is-of-the-devil (not to mention anything with a back beat), et cetera.

    Interesting write-up; a friend told me I should see GND but I was skeptical—it will take a lot more than a big budget and the Newsboys backing it to redeem the awfulness that is Christian film-making from the depths of film history’s rubbish bin.

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