Art is agenda, products are agenda. The line between propaganda and personal expression can be a delicate balance in the modern era. I have taken it upon myself to watch films deeply rooted in supporting conventional Christian (or even Evangelical) values for the sake of my readers. All ten of them.
Pureflix is the primary film studio for such films. Responsible for the classics: Do You Believe? (2015), What If? (2010), and if you’re tired of them asking you questions, there’s the blockbuster juggernaut that was Samson (2018). They’ve made and published an incredible amount of Christian-Judeo content, and they even have their own subscription service. Back in my day (the nineties, hallowed be thy name) we had small stuff like Veggietales and the Bibleman television programs, but such production companies weren’t focused on weaponizing film as much as they were to provide slight indoctrination in the guise of entertainment. No, Pureflix is much smarter about how they build and distribute their content, and this ongoing series is an exploration of this modern niche content and the larger cultural implications.
Our first dive into the unknown is going to be what I consider to be their flagship franchise: The God’s Not Dead series. Consisting of God’s Not Dead (2014), God’s Not Dead 2 (2016), and God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in the Darkness (2018). Yep, a series so confident in telling you God is still around they had to tell you that three times.
First, We Set a Standard.
Before we get into any of the films today, we need to cover a principle concept and perspective I’m going to use throughout these essays to communicate my larger points. I’m going to review these films as films, looking at performances, direction, and especially their narratives to see how effective they are in communicating their story. There’s an extra little kick to evaluating faith-based films, however. A holy spice that needs to be acknowledged and quantified.
That my friends, is the:
The G-Factor is defined by scientists as:
The presence of evangelical propaganda and how present and/or problematic it is for the film as a whole.
Many folks still think of the G-Factor as an unknown element, impossible to understand to its fullest depths. I’m here to tell you that it can be understood, and indeed will be quantified for each film discussed today. The rating will be out of ten and mentioned beside the normal score for the film. That film rating is also probably on a curve because I haven’t seen a good movie in ages and these are all I know now. The G-Factor will also be discussed as we look at all the details of a given film.
With that out of the way, let’s explore the first film on our list:
God’s Not Dead (2014)
Film Rating: 5/10
This film starts things off with a high G-Factor and I’ll explain why: this film’s central plot (there are numerous side plots that have little to do with anything else) is about a university student named Josh who engages in a debate with his philosophy professor about the existence of God. That’s not what makes this G-Factor high, though this film is the only one to specifically deal with the existence of God and not just be about his dwindling presence in society, but more importantly this film is the most crystallized in its antipathy towards secularism and alternative nationalities and beliefs. Every aspect of the film specifically underwrites and smears non-Christian characters and ideas for the purposes of the film at large and makes its audience feel good.
The good news? It’s a competent narrative. The internal logic within the film is completely fine and never contradicts itself. I’m never sitting there asking myself if the concerns of the film are valid, because this base fear against higher education and alternative cultures are core tenets of Evangelical thinking. The G-Factor here is omnipresent, but not problematic for the film’s own storytelling.
The bad news is that beyond the film’s shallow arguments provided by the professor (whom I still agree with and largely sympathize with, especially in academic terms), the side stories throughout are scattered with the worst kind of audience jerking and agenda-pushing. You got Kevin Sorbo to bring star power to this film and the best you can muster is a cartoon character philosophy professor?!? Hercules would be ashamed.
The most egregious portrayal of the entire trilogy is a Muslim student’s conversion into Christianity. For her curiosity in listening to Christian sermons, her father beats her violently and disowns her. She seeks refuge in a church and her culture’s values are also repeatedly questioned. Her first real scene features a random student telling her she’s beautiful without her hijab and that she shouldn’t wear it. First of all, don’t listen to anybody that tells you what to wear or what not to wear. I still wear a Goofy fanny-pack I got from Disney World in 1997 and my parents say I look really cool. Second, this film is dedicated to portraying the worst possible versions of Christian alternatives and this generalized Muslim father is a huge smear on the Islam faith, especially within America. It makes you wonder if the parents of younger audiences watching the film would be more forgiving or even less forgiving of their child exploring faith than the Muslim family seen here. I’d try to do a case study on myself, but I’m pretty sure my dad doesn’t give a shit and there’s way less mosques laying around.
The archetypes are all here: rude business man that has no time for family, a left-leaning blogger who questions the authenticity of Christian celebrities (featuring Willie Robertson and his wife Korie, you know, the Duck Dynasty people), a student from China whose father forbids discussing religion at all for fear of it looking bad on an academic record. The professor even has a terrible personal life where he completely dismisses his wife’s faith and all of his cool colleagues from university laugh at her as she cries about their crumbling marriage. These beings are all caricatures of Evangelical talking points and seek only to affirm what they already believe. No challenges are present, the moment Kevin Sorbo opens his fat mouth the audience already hates him.
This film has a happy ending for the people that do not waver in their faith. The priest and Josh are rewarded for their overcoming of challenges, every major Christian goes to a Newsboys concert at the end of the film (wow what a climax!) and the bad scary professor dies after a baptism in the rain and Dean Cain pouts about his mother. The blogger is given mercy, having converted backstage with the Newsboys following her cancer diagnosis.
It deeply saddens me that the major star power of Dean Caine and Kevin Sorbo doesn’t elevate this film. Caine’s role in particular is the shallowest of them all, with little development or depth. This film features the most star power too, a full effort to reach audiences and legitimize Christian arguments. The other films waver in popularity, this film opened the floodgates for Pureflix and remains their true signature film, clocking in at 64 million dollars off of a 2 million dollar budget.
But, did the film answer the question? Is God surely alive? Ehhhh, I’d say the verdict is still out. Even with the arguments provided, Josh really just opens the possibility of faith being a valid perspective, which it always has been. The first class starts with the professor admitting the “God Is Dead” thing is a metaphor for society’s need for him disappearing with the advent of modern science and reason. This is a very important idea that should totally be discussed and presented in a philosophy classroom. The debates also end in a victory simply because Josh recognizes the professor had a hate-boner for God for past tragedy and secretly totally thought he still existed. You know, how every atheist clearly thinks. No real reasoning involved, we all just hate God. I think he stole a beer from my fridge once, asshole.
God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)
Film Rating: 4/10
So this film is the golden example of a G-Factor ruining the film. It’s just poorly conceived: a high school teacher mentions Jesus influencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights work and everybody at the school becomes super offended that she mentioned Jesus existed. She didn’t even mention Jesus offhand, someone asked about it. This is such a non-issue, I’m concerned for any audience member watching this thinking this actually happened or something.
The storylines that were presented in the first film are now continued with this one, only now the film is way less concerned with demonizing the people because they all converted. This leads to its own problems. There’s nowhere for these extraneous returning characters to go. They were thinly veiled within the original film, but at least they had arcs and larger points. Now… Now the Chinese student has to have his dad disown him so he can further devote himself to the church. They are way less present, most are seen for a sort of closure if you grew attached to them, and the one supporting character that has an improved role is the priest played by David A.R. White. He’s a juror here. That’s the best story-weaving I could possibly hope for.
But with the heavier emphasis on the main plot instead of the side stories, there’s an ugly truth that keeps batting you over the head: this trial is really dumb. The prosecutors are pushing for a secular education program and removing the historical aspect to Christ and really the only argument the defense has for the entire film is “Jesus probably existed in real life.” I don’t even know what to do with this film, I don’t learn anything, the victories are hollow. John Tucker (I refuse to acknowledge him as any other name) is a terrible lawyer that does not seek any sort of reasoning within the film. You’d think the writers of this would have seen My Cousin Vinny (1992) — the greatest courtroom film ever made — to understand how you’re supposed to make lawyers look good.
There’s less good qualities here, but Melissa Joan Hart is a better lead than Shane Harper was in the first film. Her scenes where her faith is tested are solid considering what else we have to work with, and the film’s antagonist is played by Ray Wise and that’s fantastic casting. Sorbo as the antagonist of the last film was poor casting because the general public saw him as heroic and he was top billing for the film. Ray Wise is usually remembered as portraying the devil in most things that feature a human devil. Wise’s character is unapologetic in his anger towards Christian Doctrine, and this makes for a much better villain we don’t have to sympathize with. I don’t mind it when propaganda is naked and shameless, I just want it to be good.
Is God surely alive? I’d say no here. The jury came in with a verdict in the film, but that has nothing to do with God actually being alive. Of course you can talk about Jesus in a historical context in public schools, only the most evangelical and brainwashed in our country can believe otherwise.
God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in the Darkness (2018)
Film Rating: 6/10
If there’s a GND film for a regular viewer to watch for comedy, it’s probably the first film. If there’s a GND film to watch for curiosity, it’s this one. Commercially, it made as much money in its entire run than the other films did when they opened, this film is much smaller and intimate in scale. Am I actually a fan of this thing?
The pastor character from the previous films, David Hill, is given full protagonist treatment here. The film’s central conflict is about a university not wanting a church so close to their campus so they enact eminent domain (not how that works but let’s go with it) and the pastor sues them. It’s a struggle to maintain a religious haven within a secular environment.
What’s the most fascinating aspect of the film to me is how low the G-Factor really is. This film is basically Pureflix’s Return of the King (2003), and it would’ve been so easy for this film to do exactly what the previous two had done. Maybe there would be some sort of politician telling a small business owner he can’t have Jesus on his window or some stupid shit, and we’d all get together and tell ourselves that our belief in God is still valid.
That’s not what this film is, and I respect that. Extensive time is portrayed to more realistic college students that have legitimate concerns for their faith and regret for bad things they do. The pastor’s own brother is deliberately agnostic and seen as friendly and a source of comfort. Secular people aren’t bad guys here. The arsonist who burns down the church at the start of the film and has the most hate directed towards him is eventually forgiven. The pastor’s own development is directly tied with the Church and when he realizes that his own anger is ruining everybody’s perception of God he gives up and gives the college what they want. It’s nice because the struggle is purely internal, and even though it’s a tangible defeat it’s a spiritual victory, which is the best kind of victory for a Christian film in my opinion.
Ted Mcginley is the big star power here, representing a friend of Dave and also a member the university’s committee. The core antagonist of the conflict isn’t demonized. Everybody in the committee just sees the church controversy as an issue they want to get rid of, but aren’t deliberately opposed to. Nobody’s rubbing their little hands together saying, “Ah yes! I’m going to prove God is dead! Mwahahaha!”
The bad of the film comes from performances and retreads. Josh returns for a big cameo, being absent in the second film. He’s present for the climax, which sort of ends with a weird whimper. Everybody sends the text affirming “God’s not dead” but maybe I miss the explosive rock finales of 1 and 2. Call me sentimental, or at least call me yearning for closure. The mass texting feels like an afterthought, a way to make people feel better about Dave’s decision and keep one foot in the propaganda. The G-Factor is rearing its ugly head, and it bites. Speaking of that G-Factor, Josh’s presence yields a big ugly one in presenting a Christian that uses their “Jesus is the ultimate social justice warrior” might certainly be true and I think this was the movie to say that in, but I think this is still weaponized propaganda because he never truly advocates for social change. His presence, and indeed the church conflict in general, is a yearning for Christianity to be heard in a modern indifferent world. That G-Factor and major theme of the film is that there’s still places where Christianity is welcome when it’s “”””under threat””””. There has always been places for Christian freedom in the United States. Glad we made that clear.
David White plays a mediocre pastor Dave. He’s just not that capable of an actor. He has major conflicts in the film (one being his buddy from the past two suddenly dies) and he just doesn’t have the range to pull it together. White is a consistent actor that usually has a role in Pureflix films, we will be seeing a lot of him in future segments and he’s best in comedic roles. The previous two films had him in slight comedic roles, where he dispensed warm but distant advice to the protagonists and audience. Here, he has more to do and fails to do it.
Oh wait, is God surely alive? This film doesn’t really deal with that. If relevance and freedom are the film’s primary concerns with God, then…. I guess? Existence is assumed at this point, but I’m not convinced.
God’s Not Dead is propaganda from the very title. It seeks young people, using Christian rock bands to appear hip and cool and seeking to dismantle and oppose alternative views. The first film is basically “what to say if an atheist challenges you at all” 101. It’s not specifically family content or particularly entertaining. They’re dramas with light comedy, but they’re mostly very underwhelming. This might be the best Pureflix has to offer, and if that’s the case consider me unimpressed.
Wait, the only film here you can see on their streaming service right now is God’s Not Dead 2? What? What a waste of money.