What does the weekend box office have in common with a Southern Poverty Law Center hate group? More than you might think. But we'll get to that in a minute.
Religion is making a comeback on the silver screen from mostly secular sources. 'Son of God' has had a respectable showing. Darren Aronofsky is stirring up trouble with his "God"-free, environmentalist 'Noah.' And Ridley Scott rejoins Sigourney Weaver for an epic reimagining of 'Exodus.' There's even a little-known project about Mary in the works. In an increasingly secular era, Christian religious texts can be mined for compelling stories without major worries about the witch-hunt previously bound to follow.
The weekend of March 21, analysts were surprised to see a previously unheard of indie movie land itself in the top-five earning films to open in US theaters with $8.6M while showing on only 730 screens. 'God's Not Dead' is the not-so-subtly titled release by Pure Flix entertainment geared toward churchgoers across America. From an aggressive church campaign coupled with strong social media presence, the target audience showed up in droves. 'God's Not Dead' doubled 'The Muppets Most Wanted' in per-screen revenue at $10,979. The distribution company was completely unsurprised, saying the numbers matched with their expectations from the huge level of engagement prior to release.
I nearly went to see the film for myself to lend more credence to this piece. While its plot is available online, I pride myself on having first-hand knowledge of my subjects whenever possible. Then I discovered something troubling: 'God's Not Dead' is endorsed by a Southern Poverty Law Center-certified hate group. The American Family Association's presidential endorsement is proudly displayed on the film's official website. A number of other suspect, but less openly egregious, endorsements are also present. The idea of handing money to a film openly connected with a hate group made me uncomfortable, so I opted not to see it in theaters.
What is the film? In short, 'God's Not Dead' is a reductionist but relatively tame piece of Evangelical propaganda pitting conservative Christianity against the forces of plurality in contemporary culture. That is essentially you, me, and everyone else who isn't them. In the movie, a Christian student signs up for a philosophy class and finds an angry atheistic professor forcing students to sign a contract affirming the death of god. Our plucky little hero decides this will not do and agrees to defend the existence of god. If it sounds a bit heavy-handed, the film comes from a studio that releases very overt movies on abortion and the apocalypse.
In 'God's Not Dead,' we discover that Muslims abuse their children, vegan reporters hate 'Duck Dynasty' because they're country folks who love Jesus, and atheists are angry, irrational beings lashing out from past hurt. Minorities are demonized for being something other than Christian and faced with life-changing conversion experiences. Even Focus on the Family, a notoriously extreme right-wing advocacy group, described the film's troubling nature in their otherwise positive review on PluggedIn.
Pretty much everyone who's not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they're being punished for their attitudes. - Adam R. Holz with Steven Isaac
Interestingly, LGBT folks are left alone in this film, signalling a growing realization among Evangelicals that the group has garnered too much public support to make criticizing them worthwhile. But the story doesn't end there given the filmmaker's open support from an anti-LGBT hate group.
The enthusiastic reaction of Christian audiences to this film brings to mind their deafening support of anti-evolution crusader Ken Ham in his recent debate with Bill Nye. Many believe Evangelical Christians to be an innately hateful bunch of people operating from a place of intentional malice toward others. While I'll grant they aren't a nice bunch, I'd challenge this assertion using 'God's Not Dead' and the Nye/Ham debate as examples of why such a readings perhaps miss the point.
I grew up in the Evangelical tradition. From first-hand experience, I can easily confirm that this community operates in an incredibly insular fashion that operates from a place of fear. Outsiders are reduced to the sorts of caricatures seen in 'God's Not Dead.' Exploring the outside is granted with the same enthusiasm as their response to Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining basic science in 'Cosmos.' The world is condensed into a sort of dangerous cartoon. Evangelical Christians are quite literally afraid most of the time. And to quote Yoda, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
'God's Not Dead' capitalizes on Evangelical fear in a profoundly cynical way. By tossing in pop culture references to 'Duck Dynasty,' scary words from Richard Dawkins, and a performance by Christian mega-star band Newsboys, they're essentially selling old-fashioned pulpit-banging to families. One can even download a "preaching kit" from the official website.
Not only does this sort of divisive rhetoric negatively impact communities, it isn't even respectful of the Christian tradition from which it was born. This tradition predates Bible-thumpers and offers a much more nuanced, if still wildly absurd, view of the world than Evangelicalism's elementary theology.
Christianity has passed its heyday, just as other religions that have followed the same arc. All cultural movements follow this pattern. In an age of science, our notion of the sacred is waning. Evangelicals are more frightened than ever.
Religious capitalism is happy to stoke this fire of hatred by selling fear to the masses. If that means turning people against their neighbors for no good reason, no sweat off their brows. So maybe the next time you see a terrified Christian blathering on about the latest non-scandal involving a persecution that isn't happening, instead of rolling your eyes, you can give them a hug. Tell them it's not so bad out in the real world.