One of the main indicators of bad writing is that the reader has to do a lot of the envisioning but very little of the moralizing. Dickens perhaps didn’t give much effort in his novels to ocular descriptions of Victorian London, but when the reader is introduced to the “gloomy, close, and stale” streets for which “the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency,” a point is nonetheless being put forward without necessarily having to be said. Likewise with more contemporary authors. As far as I know, Don DeLillo has never written the sentence, “A perfunctory ironic detachment toward your fellow creatures is a bad thing.” He doesn’t have to—he just writes Players.
God’s Not Dead 2 is, as one might have guessed, badly written. Of course, that’s not its only problem. The establishing shots at the beginning of the film have all the cinematic quality of footage taken from a commercial drone—in fact, with the way the camera orbits around the in-frame objects I’m fairly certain that’s how it was done. The product placement is either humiliatingly clumsy or aggressively brazen. If it’s the latter, then, like most propagandistic films, the creators at Pure Flix Entertainment thought a wink and a nudge at the brazenness might excuse it—a sort of postmodern pardon through self-awareness. Well, it doesn’t. The acting is as good as one could expect, given that the characters and their motivations in the film are about as subtle as a brick through your window, not to mention about as Manichean as deciding whether to side with the Berenstain Bears or the raptors from Jurassic Park.
Still, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon—who coauthored this script as well as the first God’s Not Dead (2014)—must know that an easy way to hide technical and directorial blunders is with a plot that’s half hilarious, half nauseating. In their latest, Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) is a kind and optimistic high school history teacher. She’s also a Christian, which the film suggests is a real no-no nowadays. The morning’s lesson is on the nonviolent civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. One of her students, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), who’s recently lost her brother but found her religion through the brother’s hidden Bible, asks a seemingly innocuous question about the parallels between Christ’s turn-the-other-cheek injunction and MLK’s pacifistic methods of protesting. A seemingly innocuous answer is then given by Grace, quoting the appropriate chapter and verse for which MLK took his scriptural warrant, while neither yearning nor smoldering for classroom converts. A social awkwardness settles in as class is dismissed. How to register this as a screenwriter? Try having one of the students mumble, “[hashtag]whatever.” You know how apathetic kids are nowadays, and how they’re always talking in that bastardized social-media jargon.
Despite a seemingly innocuous answer being given to a seemingly innocuous question, the ACLU is eventually called in, demanding not that various administrative heads be rolled but only that Grace’s head be served up to them on a silver platter. “They aren’t interested in punishing the school,” a lugubrious-looking attorney tells the superintendent, “They want her.” And what do they want with Grace? To “destroy” her…”and not just financially.”
For her defense, Grace is provided a ”union-appointed attorney” (Jesse Metcalfe), with all the ideological baggage that phrase implies with this audience. (Upon hearing that Grace dared utter that Galilean’s name inside the classroom, her union representative tiredly sighs and asks, “What were you thinking?”). I know what you’re thinking: How old is this attorney? What about his looks? Is he an atheist with a heart of gold that perhaps is just hidden behind a thin-layer of tenacity and careerism? Indeed, all the clichéd plot indicators are in play for this to have a romantic settlement outside the courtroom. The two at one point even go on a date according to Grace’s ill and aging grandfather. Alas, the two of them never quite realize what the rest of us can’t quite miss. The subplot undauntedly turns into a storyboard cul-de-sac. He never has a come-to moment and she’s never quite sure what’s permissible for a PG-rated movie.
The case eventually goes to trial after Grace refuses to renounce what she said and issue an apology to the school board. The head prosecuting attorney for the ACLU, Peter Kane (Ray Wise), for whom the trial signifies far more than a mere clarification of the difference between the freedom to teach about religion and the freedom to propagandize on its behalf, bears the burdens of evil atheist oh-so charmlessly. Right before entering the courtroom to select jury members, he proclaims to his second and third chairs, “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead.” And lest this character be misconstrued as a mere opportunist, grasping for the judicial straw while intellectually drowning, the script goes further still, having Kane confess to Grace’s lawyer, “I hate what people like your client stand for,” and minutes later assure the jury: “Christianity is not on trial. Faith is not on trial.”
The defense decides that the best way for Grace to win both the case and her livelihood back is for them to prove that Jesus was an actual flesh-and-blood person. Then it could be said that she was only highlighting the programmatic affinities of two real-life historical figures—Jesus and MLK—a very appropriate thing for her to do given the circumstances. Fortunately, the defense is able to say that “every credible historian” already agrees that Jesus did exist, and calls two expert witnesses to back that up. The first is popular Christian apologist Lee Strobel (playing himself); the second is Christian apologist/homicide detective J. Warner Wallace, also providing a cameo. Despite my suspicion that an entire movie edifice has been constructed in order to get these two men and their arguments in front of as many eyes and ears as possible, the arguments themselves are strikingly dull. Strobel, for example, evidently did not see the first God’s Not Dead, otherwise he would know better than to argue from authority the way he does. Or could it be that this method isn’t always so fallacious as those who would prefer a level playing field at everyone else’s expense make it seem?
There’s a bit more to the movie. Brooke gets called to the stand. Then Grace. Christian rock stars The Newboys are once again phoned up to lead a collective prayer for the protagonist in her time of greatest need. I won’t spoil the terrible and disjointed ending for you though, because you really ought to see the film for yourself. Maybe not while it’s playing in the movie theaters, but at some point.
This much is true: God’s Not Dead 2 is more theater of the absurd than theater of the oppressed. But it’s also a two-hour peek into a paranoid and delusional worldview that afflicts millions. Into a place where the president is selling out the country to Islamic extremists. Where the nightly news is hosted by the female equivalent of Dan Savage. Where “tolerance” and “diversity” are code words used for anti-Christian bullying. Where Code Pink and MoveOn.org are the centers of American power. And where a selfish and hedonistic society is destroying itself from within. “Pressure today equals persecution tomorrow,” a character called Pastor Dave tells a group of Christian leaders, concluding, “whether we admit it or not, we’re at war.” God’s Not Dead 2 is dumb, but it’s also significant—whether we want to admit it or not.