It helps to think of the “God’s Not Dead” film series as essentially “The Vagina Monologues” for evangelical Christians. Here in the United States, Eve Ensler and other writers and activists have long worked to get women to talk openly about their bodies, using that v-word that causes so much cultural discomfort. Well, in the world of “God’s Not Dead 2,” respectable people simply don’t say the g-word in public, don’t talk openly about their God or their Jesus or their Savior — whatever you want to call it. So when high school history teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) fields an innocent question about her God from a student and dares to answer it openly, without employing any cute little euphemism, school officials are naturally scandalized and threaten to discipline her. But Grace is not ashamed of her God. Her God is beautiful. Her God is powerful. Most importantly, her God is not a dry, dusty, dead thing. Her God is vibrant and alive, and she’s going to court to show the world that her God can take all the thrusts and jabs from these hateful men and come back for more. OK, that was a little snarky. Let’s try again … .
If you are not part of the evangelical Christian crowd at whom this movie is aimed, the story will likely feel as if set in some alternate reality, a parallel dimension so different from our world, despite its surface similarities. What kicks off the plot is a question by Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), a student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, about the religious origins of MLK’s commitment to nonviolence. Grace’s answer incorporates a few lines of scripture, specifically Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies — a perfectly legitimate and historically accurate answer — but this lands her in hot water with the school board. “Do you believe that your response was in line with district policy?” they ask her, apparently believing it possible to teach history without any reference to religion, which must mean that their curriculum includes nothing on the Middle Ages. Even Richard Dawkins, in “The God Delusion,” acknowledged the role of the Bible in Western history and culture and the necessity of studying it for certain disciplines.
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The school board nevertheless demands an apology from Grace, and when none is forthcoming, they vote to suspend her and threaten the revocation of her teaching certificate. Wanting her gone but not wanting to fire her himself, the head of the school board contacts American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Pete Kane (played by Ray Wise, whose performance here is much less subtle than what he offered in “Robocop”). Kane approaches Brooke’s freethinking parents to lure them into suing the school district, apparently for allowing someone like Grace to expose their child to religion in the first place. Kane assures the parents that if Brooke participates in such a trial, “she’ll be able to get into any Ivy League school she wants,” because in this world no Ivy League university has a religious affiliation or a divinity program. (They specifically want her to go to Stanford, apparently ignorant of the fact that Stanford Memorial Church lies at the heart of campus.)
Handsome young lawyer Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) takes Grace’s case, but once he enters the picture, Grace takes a back seat in the narrative; having set this reaction in motion, she pretty much retires from the story. Melissa Joan Hart is largely reduced to looking out of her depth in the courtroom of Judge Stennis (Ernie Hudson of “Ghostbusters” fame) while the men take charge. Tom’s strategy relies upon proving the historicity of Jesus, because, after all, if Jesus was a real historical figure, then mentioning him in a history class can be no sin against “district policy.” This allows him to bring in a few real-life people, such as J. Warner Wallace, author of “Cold Case Christianity,” to testify in every sense of that word. Thus is the whole story revealed for the shallow conceit that it is. Most courtroom dramas entail the discovery of truth from within a finely crafted web of deceit, with heroic lawyers employing an array of legal and psychological maneuvers in order to secure justice for their clients. But in this movie, the courtroom simply provides the setting for letting Christians lecture about Jesus. There is no drama. There is no tension — and not just because the title of the movie rather gives away the verdict.
Though it scarcely seems possible, “God’s Not Dead 2” features characters even more two-dimensional than did the first movie. In that one, atheist philosophy professor Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) requires that all his first-year students write “God Is Dead” on a piece of paper and sign it, thus representing every arrogant and hostile stereotype of a university academic regularly peddled in Sunday sermons. But even he had at least a little back story, the death of his mother when he was 12 having contributed to his hatred of religion. In the sequel, however, Radisson’s villainous successor, the symbolically named Pete Kane, exhibits a hatred of Christianity that comes ex nihilo. The good people are inescapably good, the bad ineffably bad, and nary a cliche goes unspoken by either party.
Of course, this movie holds a local significance, having been filmed in Central Arkansas between May and September last year. Aerial shots of the capital city occur throughout the movie, typically focusing upon the State Capitol, where part of the movie was filmed. At the March 14 world premiere at Riverdale 10 Cinema, Hart recalled “going up those marble steps, in heels, for take after take.” However, her stay in Little Rock was not limited to work. “I’m not normally a runner,” she said, “but every morning, I’d run along the River Trail,” adding that she also enjoyed the town’s nightlife, museums and cuisine. Indeed, the food seemed a particular focus of those involved, with producer Brittany Lefebvre singling out Flying Saucer’s rocket tots as her favorite; Little Rock restaurant The Fold Botanas and Bar makes a brief appearance in the film. Other area film locations include the Pulaski County Courthouse, Benton High School, Hillcrest and downtown, where one can see through an office window the occasional trolley.
According to director Harold Cronk, a friend of his in Bentonville suggested he consider filming in Arkansas when he began work on the sequel. “The location fit perfectly,” he said. “Arkansas is really a cinematic, film-friendly area, and the state has a level of hospitality that I’ve never seen elsewhere.” He added that while his calls to state film commissions usually result in conversations with lower-level functionaries, Christopher Crane, head of the Arkansas Film Commission, “met us personally at the airport and even took us to meet with the governor.” Former Gov. Mike Huckabee even makes a cameo as himself in the film, leading a talk show discussion about the Wesley case.
There is an unquestionable irony in the fact that the state supported a religiously oriented movie about ostensible state hostility toward religious expression. If, as “God’s Not Dead 2” wants you to believe, government seeks to suppress any mention of Jesus, would not the experience of making this film have been far different? Instead, the state has financially encouraged a film that grossly misrepresents average Arkansans as a gaggle of bigots (the crowds trying to shout down Christians during the trial) or conniving secularists (anyone involved in the school district and the ACLU), with only a smattering of pure-hearted souls among them all. And yes, even though the setting of the plot is never specified in the movie, the Arkansas flag is quite visible in the background of the courtroom scenes — which fact renders obscenely ridiculous one of the subplots of the movie. In his last film appearance, former U.S. Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson, credited only as “senior pastor,” warns a small gathering of local ministers that the local prosecuting attorney has issued a subpoena for the written text of all their sermons from the last 120 days, apparently to review them for objectionable content. Who knew that, in our state, subpoenas could be issued outside of the discovery phase of a trial?
“The pressure we’re feeling today will mean persecution tomorrow,” says that same senior pastor. However, if there is a conspiracy to silence the free expression of Christians, or to prevent any discussion of religion from occurring in the classroom, “God’s Not Dead 2” fails to make that case. By representing a set of circumstances so far removed from reality, and in a manner so devoid of craft, it makes a laughingstock of any such claims of persecution. Instead, the fear that seems to underlie this film (and the previous one) is the loss of hegemony, the simple fact that religious claims are no longer privileged, immune from confrontation or refutation, but are subject to analysis and criticism from science, philosophy, history and law.
“God’s Not Dead 2” does not answer the challenge offered to religion by the modern world — rather, it just tries to render those challenges as irrational, devoid of substance. By presenting the world in such a villainous light, it does a complete disservice to its intended audience, whose only tool for facing this cognitive dissonance is uttering the magic g-word and then claiming victimhood. They could have called this movie “The God Monologues” as a fairly accurate description of the plot, but honestly, the title would not have been appropriate, for nothing presented on screen actually empowers those people watching it.