The April 1 release date of God’s Not Dead 2 must be a reference to Psalm 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The verse is never mentioned in the film (or if it is, I didn’t catch it), so if somehow it isn’t a faith-based dog whistle, then someone up there sure did smile on Pure Flix.
The latest installment in what appears to be the God’s Not Dead franchise,once again directed by Harold Cronk and written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the masterminds behind both Point Blank and the first God’s Not Dead), is wildly successful in this respect: it’s a cover album of its predecessor’s greatest hits, and weeds out some of that movie’s filmmaking deficiencies. True, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) does not appear, having been offed in the previous film. Hero Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is gone, as are Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty, though a potential juror gets kicked out of the box by the prosecution — more on that in a moment — for claiming their show as his favorite (as does a Marine, for being a Marine; one cannot accuse these films of subtlety).
But Reverend Dave (David A.R. White), Reverend Jude (Benjamin Oyango), and Martin Yip (Paul Kwo) are back, as well as Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), the cancer-stricken “gotcha” journalist with the “I Love Evolution” bumper sticker. The movie makes a couple of other nods to fans, including a bit of conversation with a waiter about a car rental that will make absolutely no sense unless you saw God’s Not Dead.
The Christian pop-rock band The Newsboys has returned, with a much shorter concert, and Mike Huckabee also shows up along with several authors of famous books of Christian apologetics. Product placement isn’t dead, either; Priuses make repeated, strangely emphatic and name-droppy appearances for reasons I cannot divine but that may have something to do with film-production tax breaks. (The movie is also weirdly preoccupied with men’s black leather dress shoes.)
So God’s Not Dead 2 takes place not just in the same cinematic universe as its predecessor, but in the same county, which seems to have some real issues with basic issues around free speech and religious liberty as well as logic. The first film netted over $60 million at the domestic box office on a paltry $2 million budget, but the stakes are a little higher this time, partly because of that record and partly because there are more familiar faces in this one.
Our heroine is Melissa Joan Hart, best known to ‘80s babies as Clarissa Darling (who explained it all) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. You can amuse yourself by imagining that her character here, the also-unsubtly named Grace Wesley, is on a continuum with her earlier TV personas: she experienced a conversion to Christianity in college, after seeing a sign on a church that read, “Who do you say that I am?” — a question recorded in three of the gospels as having been posed by Jesus to his disciples.
Grace teaches history at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, and is beloved by her students, especially Brooke (Hayley Orrantia of The Goldbergs), who recently lost a brother in an unspecified way. Her parents are so self-absorbed that they’ve not only gotten “over it,” as she says several times, but they don’t even remember to bring her to school. After Grace notices Brooke’s detachment, she (like most good teachers would) asks her if she’s OK, and in the ensuing conversation, Brooke asks Grace how she stays so unruffled. “Jesus,” Grace replies.
Shortly afterward, Brooke sits forlornly in her brother’s room as the Salvation Army carts away her brother’s things, but a woman spots his Bible in the box and brings it back to Brooke, who begins reading it. That’s why — according to her own testimony — when Grace is teaching on the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi and King, Brooke asks if this isn’t similar to what Jesus preached. Grace agrees that it is, then quotes from Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The next time we see Grace, she’s being marched to the principal’s office (yes) and reamed out for… well, this is where it all gets a little muddy. For mentioning Jesus’ name. Or maybe for quoting the Bible in class, which was maybe taken as preaching or promoting a particular religion. The district is going to revoke her teaching license and throw her out of the classroom, and she’s going to lose everything.
The union-appointed attorney (Jesse Metcalfe) doesn’t agree with Grace’s beliefs but doesn’t like losing, as he tells her, and elects to go toe-to-toe with Pete Kane, an arrogant, hotshot ACLU attorney who hates everything Grace stands for (by his own admission) and is also played, in a brilliant stroke of casting, by Ray Wise, who is impossible to look at without thinking of Twin Peaks’ Bob-possessed creepazoid Leland Palmer.
That’s when the movie totally runs off the rails. It’s a shame. As a list of cases in the film’s credits show, it’s not entirely nuts to think that some school districts have interpreted statutes around the relationship between public education and religion in ways that may or may not be in line with students’ or faculty members’ constitutional rights. Yeah. It happens.
But the text enumerating those cases are very small and scrolls very quickly. If you read really fast, you’ll note that the cases are mostly (though not all) around districts that didn’t want students passing out invitations to various religious events or holding prayer groups on school grounds. Most of them were settled after the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, stepped in.
Instead of actually gaining any insight into stories like that — which might have been educational for teachers, school administrators, and students — the film neglects to do anything useful, opting for a bait-and-switch that grows more and more frustrating as the story unfolds. First there’s some ominous-seeming stuff about jury selection that will be familiar to anyone who’s done jury duty. And more importantly, we never find out what the specific regulations are in that school district, county, or state. Instead, we get Kane saying he’s going to prove once and for all that God is dead (I don’t think I need to explain the illogicality of a supposedly hotshot legal mind saying that). We get a bunch of statements about whether faith is or is not on trial.
The defense, for some reason, having realized very late in the game that they just have to separate the faith stuff from the history stuff to make the (reasonable) case that a history teacher can talk about a historical figure in history class without getting fired, brings in a few expert witnesses familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in Christian apologetics over the last two decades to testify that a person named Jesus existed in history. This upsets Kane, who seems convinced that testimony wrecks his case. (If only we knew what he thinks that case is.) In this regard, God’s Not Dead actually succeeded more than the sequel, because at least there, the showdown between Radisson and Wheaton was clearly delineated, by them, with topics, goals, and structures.
I’ll leave it to more knowledgeable folks to point out the gaps in the film’s Christian apologetics. It’s merely worth noting a gap in story logic: a shot from from the trailer that explained that a student from Grace’s class — not Brooke — was upset by Grace’s actions is completely gone. Now it’s Brooke’s parents suing Grace, presumably because they’re selfish, except that before they didn’t seem to even know whether she was in the house or not.
Lots of things happen after that, and there are angry protestors on the courtroom steps, and Amy-the-journalist starts following the case, but probably you can guess the outcome. There are some other subplots, too — most strikingly, one that seems inserted after the fact, in which genial Reverend David finds out that his sermons have been subpoenaed by the city so they can examine them. He refuses to turn them in. This seems to have been inspired by a series of events in late 2014 (referenced in the film), in which Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.
It’s unclear whether that turn of events exists in the God’s Not Dead universe, but [spoiler alert, I guess] after the credits, Pastor Dave is seen in handcuffs, being put into a police car, apparently for failing to comply. I half expected Nick Fury to be in the cop car.
But that little detail at the end acts as a pretty decent example of the problems with God’s Not Dead 2 — and I write as a practicing evangelical Christian who is sympathetic toward measures that ensure freedom of speech and religion for everyone. These films have a catastrophically low regard for the intellectual abilities of the people in their target market. Let’s imagine for a moment that your average faith-based movie ticket buyer isn’t familiar enough with academic philosophers to recognize how boneheaded Prof. Radisson is, he who lists “Ayn Rand” on his chalkboard in a list of great atheistic philosophers.
But step into the courtroom, and you’re in a whole different ballpark. Even if TV legal dramas have been serving up Legal Lite for decades, everybody kind of gets how a courtroom works. Emotional appeals are part of it, but you have to actually know what the case is about and what the court is trying to decide. Most jurors — in real life, but especially in a presumably conscientious faith-based audience — make a stab of integrity and try to keep an open mind, sorting through the evidence to the best of their abilities, without regard to their personal prejudices.
God’s Not Dead 2 does have a box full of jurors (including one with multicolored hair whom everyone is convinced is going to rule on the side of the ACLU, I guess because Christians don’t look like that, though thankfully the film proves them wrong). But in this universe, it’s a miracle if jurors rule in favor of someone whose religious beliefs they may not share. God’s Not Dead 2 appears to think that everyone who is a Christian will necessarily be on Team Grace — whether or not her actions were in violation of the law, which we never hear about — and everyone who is not will be on Team ACLU, with the other God-haters and historical-Jesus-doubters. Despite everyone’s declarations to the contrary, it’s completely obvious that the film actually thinks faith is what’s on trial.
The actual jurors, though, are the self-selected audience out in the theater. I’d guess that many viewers who don’t share Grace’s faith have never seriously doubted that a historical person named Jesus existed and started a religion called Christianity. The more salient question is how free speech and religious freedom ought to manifest in a pluralist public square — both from a legal perspective and from a Christian perspective. Yet by failing entirely to stay focused on what the court’s even trying to decide, the movie effectively swirls around us, distracts us with shiny things like evidence that Jesus existed! And rants about standing up for faith! And singing! And ominous but oddly vague threats of persecution! And Mike Huckabee! And then tells us to text our friends and tell them God’s not dead.
This is a true shame. Obviously the filmmakers have learned something since the first movie, turning out a technically competent film that mostly moves along at a good clip, and many performances are solid. Faith is an important and even foundational part of many people’s lives, and that merits representation on film. Maybe the next movie in this series will give them the respect they deserve.
Alissa Wilkinson is critic at large at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.