So I didn’t think I was originally going to go to this one before it hit the dollar theater but on some word of mouth recommendations (and the fact it is getting as much buzz as it is) this little pagan thought he would see if this was more than the typically bad Christian film.* It wasn’t, I would go as far as to say this is the best I’ve seen from this genre. It certainly was the best performance I’ve seen from Kevin Sorbo. But that is not to say that it is not without its flaws.
The central plot revolves around a Christian student (Shane Harper) Josh Wheaton** who is forced to either say in class that there is no God or risk his grade for the class. And as there is no tradition of taqiyya in Christianity he feels he cannot lie about his faith. This, in what I have to say is the worst teaching method I have ever seen, leads the rather pompous professor (Kevin Sorbo) to try and humiliate him by making him defend the idea that God exists before the class. What follows is his defense of God and how it affects him and those in his class…and a lot of people not in his class, and some people only connected by the most tangential lines…honestly I think they tried to squeeze way to many subplots into this movie.
Now his argument in favor of God takes three main points:
- The traditional argument by cause…although Aquinas made the philosophical much better, and I’ve seen many others make the scientific argument much more clearly.
- The argument from design looking at life, specifically he looks at the rather shaky grounding for modern evolution being set on punctuated equilibrium…rather than the stronger attacks on the fact that life could not just spontaneous come into existence, nor could sentience. But I was quite happy that the writers took the much more intelligent tack that even if evolution is true it still demands a God to work the way it has rather than the ignorant creationist or simplistic intelligent design arguments.
- And finally rebutting the problem of evil and taking the Augustinian side that evil exists because of free will.
Regrettably the film didn’t actually use any of the names or terms I used above which would make it difficult for most people seeing this film to actually go and read the more fleshed out versions. So if the film wanted to convince people it may have whet their appetite for these ideas but it didn’t give them anything to work with from there. But overall the case presented by the student is one that is accurate if a bit over simplified.
Further I liked the point that behind every atheist is a very angry theist who is angry at God for some reason, which is more or less what I’ve witnessed in life…and what has at least been partially substantiated by research (it’s been shown they all fear him…and with following Yoda’s line of logic…) Although given the rather callous and shallow letter the professor’s character’s mother wrote to him before dying, I can kind of understand why he might have issues with God.
My biggest problem is this jump in logic the movie seems to make over and over again. If I show the arguments against God are wrong and show evidence that there is a God then it follows that a Protestant Christian interpretation of God exists. Over and over again this movie implicitly makes this assumption. Now to a New Ager like me this is where I have problems. If you destroy the opposition’s case and show that a God exists…that shows that a God exists. You still have a long way to go to prove that your particular interpretation of God exists. And this is the biggest problem I have both with atheists and Christians in this fight; they both seem to assume it’s either their side or the other side. It’s this one or the other. Atheists seem to feel that all Christians believe the exact same thing and can be lumped together and most Christians (or at least a very large portion of the more vocal ones) seem to feel that their interpretation of Christianity is obviously only the right one. As a non-Christian I look at this battle between these two groups with probably the same confusion that America looked at the side war between Finland and the USSR in the early 40’s: Guys you do know there is much bigger battle going on that doesn’t just involve your own petty differences? Right? Honestly as someone with many Thomist sympathies, I don’t think even Catholics would be particularly thrilled with the defense of Christianity in this film (but I could be wrong).
But I think this shows a larger problem that is not just specific to Christianity (nor do I think all Christians suffer from it). This film, which ostensibly should have been there to try and offer arguments for atheists and agnostics to give up their beliefs and accept God, does a poor job of it because it implies that if you believe in God you must be a Protestant. You would do a much better job by just proving that a God exists. Once that door has been opened philosophically then if you truly believe in your interpretation you should trust free will and faith (which was a central part of the argument in the movie) to bring people to the truth. By saying that if you have to accept everything or nothing you’re committing just as egregious a logical sin as atheists, and tactically making a very poor move. And I say this is a larger problem because you’re seeing the same problem in a larger political sense, where populists are currently demanding that all who are in the Republican party must be ideologically pure or we can not have them at all…and it is this attitude that drives voters away and keeps the party from winning time and time again…and if Christians* like the producers want to make a case for God they might do best to just try and prove the existence of a God by itself before they make the case for their interpretation of a God as making someone accept both at the same time might in many cases be a bridge too far.
One of the most jarring things of the whole film is that near the end one of the atheist characters in the film is confronted with death and makes a death bed conversion. Luckily there is a minister there to help guide this character back to the faith in their last minutes…and it’s not too subtle that God had a major hand in making sure the minister was there at that place in that time to help save that soul. Even as a pagan I didn’t have a problem with this because I do believe this is how God works…what I had a problem with was that between the writing and directing the scene comes off in a very cold and callous way. Immediately he begins preparing this character for death even though the correct thing for someone to do would have been CPR to save the character’s life. It comes off a little heartless. The fact the very next scene has the cast of Duck Dynasty insulting this character after they’ve already died is possibly one of the worst directing calls I have ever seen (honestly if you just flipped the order of the scenes it wouldn’t have been as bad) but apparently the director felt like insulting the dead.
On a final note I did appreciate the film showing that China is a repressive tyranny and the religion of peace is anything but.
If you’re a Protestant you’ll probably be able to overlook some of the glaring philosophical problems and downplay the bad writing and actually enjoy the film (again I’m not entirely sure how much the Protestant interpretation will grate for non Protestant Christians)…if you’re not a Christian that philosophical jump between God’s existence and Jesus died for you might be a bit much to overlook and ruin the enjoyment.
I give the whole thing a C-.
*That is not an insult to Christianity…that is an insult to the absolutely pathetic writing and production values faith based movies have had for the past couple of decades. Let’s be honest, Lifetime laughs at the production values of faith based films.
**I still am not sure if the fact that his name bears a great deal of resemblance to a very famous atheist is intentional or not.
***Again certainly not the entirety, but an awfully large number with access to mass media.