We’ve All Missed the Point of ‘God’s Not Dead’ (It’s Blaxploitation)

 

He's Shirley A. Live.

He’s Shirley A. Live.

So…here’s the embarrassing post where I admit that I actually kind of liked God’s Not Dead.

Yes, it was full of terrible acting and hackneyed apologetics.

Yes, it was full of offensive stereotypes of Muslims and atheists.

Yes, for a movie supposedly about a philosophy class, it didn’t seem to have a clue what philosophy is.

And yet, taken on its own terms, it still kind of worked.

Will it convert anyone? Not with its beyond-tenuous grasp of teleology, biology and cosmology. Will it make Jesus cool again? Of course it won’t — Jesus was never cool. (Sorry, Jesus.)

But if you’re judging it on those terms, you’ve profoundly missed the point of God’s Not Dead — and of evangelical films in general.

In fact, I would contend that nearly everyone — both Christian and otherwise — has missed the point of the evangelical film movement as a whole, at least partly because too many of us have confused evangelicalism (“holding to the Gospel”) with evangelism (“preaching the Gospel”). That Christian films are usually evangelical (which denotes a certain strain of the Protestant tradition) in tone is not in itself evidence that they are evangelistic in intent (that is, meant to convert viewers), and to assume that they are is condescending at best and clueless at worst. It’s entirely possible, after all, to talk about Christianity without having the intent of converting listeners to Christianity.

That should be obvious.

A little corny, but it worked.

A little corny, but it worked.

It should be obvious, and yet every time a critic reviews an evangelical film, his or her thought process always seems to consist entirely of (1) Christian films exist only to convert people; (2) This one didn’t convert me; (3) therefore, it’s a failure; (4) (and, oh yeah, the acting sucks, too). Take, for instance, this review of Blue Like Jazz that assumes the film’s only intent is to make Christianity cool again (when in fact the film is actually a meditation on one individual’s struggle to embrace a path that he knows is not cool), or this review of The Christmas Candle, which faults the film for failing to spur skeptics “to contemplation, much less faith” (when in reality Candle is simply a supernatural melodrama about the difficulties of leading a local congregation). This review of God’s Not Dead (“The film has entertaining moments, but these are clearly secondary to its proselytizing intentions”) is pretty typical as well.

Would've been a great poet, even if white people never discovered him.

Would’ve been a great poet, even if white people never discovered him.

The problem is that critics are incapable of conceiving of an evangelical subculture that exists in and for itself, instead of existing in relation to the mainstream culture as a whole. It’s not unlike — and I know I’m courting controversy here, but — the way that white America saw the black American subculture for the first half of the 20th century, expecting jazz musicians and Harlem Renaissance poets to be “ambassadors” for their ethnic group. Their art was only deemed valuable insofar as it was diplomatic to the cultural hegemony, and their right to create art for their own subculture was marginalized.

Artist's rendition of an offended person.

You, being offended

I know I’m going to offend someone with the comparison, so let me try to diffuse the tension quickly.

Let me be clear about what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying evangelicals have suffered in the same way that African-Americans have, and I’m not implying American Christian art is on the same level as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes (though perhaps some of it is). My only point is that there’s a perennial and prevailing tendency to see subcultures as existing only to court the approval of the hegemony.

In a majority-Christian culture, even this passes as Christianity. Probably.

In a majority-Christian culture, even this passes for Christianity. Probably.

Let me anticipate another objection. Some of you are going to say that Christians don’t qualify as a minority or subculture at all, since 80% of the U.S.’s population identifies as Christian, but let me stress that I’m not talking about Christians in general but rather evangelicals. In a Christian-majority culture, “Christian” can mean almost anything; the strain of Christianity known as evangelicalism, however, only composes 26% of the population as a whole, and its adherents often do feel marginalized — rightly or wrongly. In any case, if you’re really going to argue the point, you should keep in mind that a minority doesn’t need your permission to feel oppressed.

You, being narcissistic (and possibly imperialistic).

You, being narcissistic (and possibly imperialistic)

But, in any case, all that is to say that assuming God’s Not Dead exists primarily to convert you is a rather narcissistic and imperialistic attitude.

It’s an assumption that can be forgiven, considering the film’s didactic title and obnoxious viral marketing campaign, but an assumption nonetheless. It’s worth entertaining the possibility, I think, that films like GND might not exist primarily — or even at all! — to proselytize you. Maybe instead they exist merely to express the contemporary evangelical experience (either to the subculture itself or to the mainstream culture as a whole) and are wholly unconcerned with what you think of them.

In other words, maybe we should entertain the possibility that God’s Not Dead is ethnic cinema, not propaganda.

Um, HELLO. God's not dead, and he told me to have ten babies in a McMansion in SoCal...

Um, HELLO. God’s not dead, and he told me to have ten babies in a McMansion in SoCal…

We should also consider the possibility that it’s satirical — not only of atheism or of secularism but of evangelical culture as well. Most of GND’s critics have rushed to point out that the film’s portrayals of atheists and Muslims are deeply offensive stereotypes, and they’re correct in a trivial sense: the atheists in the film are all hedonists, demagogues, and closet God-haters, while its Muslims are all intolerant, patriarchal child-beaters.  What has been lost on critics, though, is that the Christians in the film are all negative stereotypes as well: naïve, whitebread chumps out to singlehandedly save the world; True Love Waits alumni who have been planning their weddings since a middle-school youth group trip; privileged white girls who think God’s plan for their lives is a nice house in the suburbs; pastors who are nearly incapable of putting even a bit of trust in God’s providence; people so poorly catechized that their understanding of the Gospel is nothing more than a cringeworthy bumper sticker slogan; etc.

Playboy centerfolds taught us vaccines cause autism. Duck call salesmen taught us God's not dead. 'Murica.

Playboy centerfolds taught us vaccines cause autism. Duck call salesmen taught us God’s not dead. ‘Murica.

Further, literally everyone in the film seems to value celebrity over knowledge or critical thought, and while this is certainly true of its atheist antagonists (“How dare you question the great Stephen Hawking!”), it’s even more true of its evangelical protagonists (and audience!) — witness the trotting out of shallow Christian superstars, as if their fame would make a difference in a philosophy debate. GND is implicitly critical of all of contemporary America, but it sets its sights on evangelical celebrity culture as much as anything. This isn’t to say that the filmmakers disagree with the titular premise, or that they’re not Christians themselves — just that they’re being a bit more subversive than anyone is giving them credit for.

And this all makes sense when you understand that God’s Not Dead is actually a bit of bizarro-world, whitebread blaxploitation.

20060804_100_1

After ‘Princess Mononoke,’ this is one of the hardest movies to spell

“Blaxploitation” (black + exploitation), for anybody who doesn’t know, was essentially the first film movement entirely by, about, and for African-Americans. Emerging in the 1970s in the midst of the broader “exploitation” genre, the movement embraced both an exploitative ethos — incorporating as much sex and violence as theaters would allow — and the worst stereotypes of black culture, almost always making heroes out of pimps, whores, drug dealers, and other assorted criminals (who were only identified as the heroes by being slightly-less-bad than the usually white villains). Neither aspect did much to win the sympathy of white viewers, but that was, of course, precisely the point: for instance, the seminal film of the genre, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Songwas marketed under the tagline “Rated ‘X’ by an all-white jury.”

...with a special appearance by Whitey, as himself

…with a special appearance by Whitey, as himself

In other words, blaxploitation cinema was entirely uninterested in being diplomatic to the white hegemony — not only because it wasn’t for them, but also because it was actively opposed to allowing white culture to continue to define what was “respectable.” By embracing the worst stereotypes about black Americans (“Why, they’re all a bunch of sex-crazed criminals!”), blaxploitation artists sought to undermine the white cultural condescension that black culture had previously been subjected to. In other words, it was the deliberate opposite of a plea for understanding. It was a cultural manifesto, and a deliberate deconstruction of the cultural values on which the white hegemony was built.

"And if my baadasssssery is in doubt, behold: my mustache!"

“And if my baadasssssery is in doubt, behold: my mustache!”

You can tell me that evangelicals are nowhere near as oppressed as African-Americans were, and I would agree with you; still, the evangelical film movement, and particularly God’s Not Dead, are in very much the same vein, as will be clear to any viewer sharp enough to notice the parade of unflattering evangelical stereotypes marching across the screen. By allowing its characters to be as whitebread and dumbed-down as they wanna be, God’s Not Dead functions as a deliberate rejection of what mainstream culture has defined to be intellectually and morally respectable. This is, of course, why GND comes across as almost shockingly uninterested in building an intellectual case for God’s existence: it’s not about arguing for evangelicalism; it’s about rejecting mainstream, secular culture’s expectations of evangelicalism.

Of course, none of that is to say that non-evangelicals ought to like the film. In fact, they shouldn’t.

I'd probably have more readers if I stopped insulting them

I’d probably have more readers if I stopped insulting them

Just as Sweet Sweetback was calculated to offend white audiences as much as possible, mainstream viewers who reject God’s Not Dead are precisely the point. You think it’s poorly plotted, badly shot, and ridiculously acted? Nobody cares. You think its stereotypes are offensive? Who asked you? You think its case for God is intellectually dishonest? That’s exactly what you’re supposed to think. If you dislike it, you’re part of the show. You’re the button-down Archie-Bunker-type standing outside a screening of Sweetback raving, “The black man (and/or evangelical) has it better now than ever! Why does he feel the need to make such awful stuff!?”

I exist to sit on uncomfortable pews, not to please YOU

I exist to get a sore butt from uncomfortable pews, not to please YOU

And the answer to that question, implicit in the film itself, is that he doesn’t exist to impress you. Nor is any subculture in any sense obligated to impress (or convert!) the cultural hegemony. The fact that you’re asking the question at all proves that you believe the minority culture is somehow answerable to the dominant one — that it has to continually justify its own existence.  And the film playing on the screen is a direct answer to that question: No we don’t. We exist for ourselves, not to placate you.

That’s not to say that God’s Not Dead is a great film in any objective sense — just that it’s more interesting than anyone wants to give it credit for.

You’re welcome to hate it. But at least try to understand it first.

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Other stuff I wrote:

In the Spirit of Aronofsky’s Pi, Here’s a Mathematical Proof that Noah Would Have Pissed Everyone Off, Regardless

Blue Like Jazz: Too Subtle for Its Own Good

Cults of Personality: I Promise I Only Talk About Steven Furtick a Little Bit in This

9 thoughts on “We’ve All Missed the Point of ‘God’s Not Dead’ (It’s Blaxploitation)

  1. Eh… I don’t know, man. On the one hand, this was one of the most interesting articles I’ve read by you, and far more interesting than my take on GND. On the other hand, I have a really hard time completely buying your point. It’s really hard for me to accept the idea that GND was meant to be critiquing the evangelical characters, and mainly the protagonist, if he wasn’t so darn “right” at the end.

    Despite his whitebread-background and… chumpiness, our hero makes his professor look an absolute fool in front of everyone, his classmates unanimously side with him, he goes to a giant Jesus party where literally everyone fauns all over him and how great a Christian he is, and to top it all off, his professor not only becomes a Christian but dies a very painful death. I’m just saying, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan had less unanimous, unquestioned victories in ridding the world of liberalism or whatever than that. I can’t see any of the Christian parents I know and work with watching the film and thinking ‘Wow… I need to go home and actually make my kids read the Bible instead of just buying them crappy CCM.’

    Side note: The Duck Dynasty guy is apparently such a ridiculous caricature that I legitimately did not think that was him when I was watching the film. I really thought it was some actor meant to be a cheap imitation of him.

    • That said, “blaxploitation” is probably my favorite word in the world of film, and I enjoy seeing it used in as many articles as possible. In fact, in the future, I demand that you shoehorn in at least one use of it for all articles.

      • I think you may have missed my point a bit. To say the film is satirical of Christians isn’t to say it’s not ultimately on their side. As I point out in the piece, blaxploitation made a habit of parading around characters who embodied the worst stereotypes of black culture, and still making them the heroes.

        Calling the film subversive isn’t the same thing as calling it anti-Christian or anti-evangelical. Most blaxploitation heroes won pretty decisive victories as well.

      • Right. I mean, I’m not saying that you are. I read your whole post, including the part where you explicitly say that you’re not saying the film was meant to be anti-Christian. Look, your post failed to convince me of your beliefs, so therefore it sucks.

        I’m trying to find a better way to state my objection, and it’s hard because I’m only conceptually familiar with blaxploitation. I guess the short version of it is that it seems like both the people who made and the people who watched blaxploitation films had to be “in on the joke,” in a sense. They knew that it was only a small minority of the black community that fit the negative stereotypes they portrayed, which was why they chose those stereotypes. The vast majority of the audience for GND doesn’t seem to be in on its joke, and it’s hard for me to believe the filmmakers were, either. Whereas the point of blaxploitation was to portray what were obviously negative stereotypes, I know so many people who would see Josh from GND in a very positive light and watched it with the attitude that “every child should be raised this way.” And its hard to see evidence that the filmmakers would disagree with them.

        Granted, a lot of the people I talk and interact with leave me feeling like it’s not possible to be both intelligent and a Christian, but the characters you describe strike me less as negative stereotypes and more as honest portrayals of people. “People so poorly catechized that their understanding of the Gospel is nothing more than a cringeworthy bumper sticker slogan”? That’s the vast majority of Christendom right there.

  2. I wish, oh how I wish to God Almighty, that the makers of modern evangelical Christian films had the level of artistic self-awareness to have done what you attribute to them in this piece.

    Knowing many of them, I’m sure they don’t. But I would rather live in a world where they intended as you wrote…

    • I would have to agree that there is no way that Evangelical filmmakers have the self-awareness to make something that sophisticated as far as art goes.

      However, if that is the case, we have about 10-15 years left before a new Quentin Tarantino comes along and takes “Evangel-ploitation” films to make a genre-bending film called “Trib Dogs” starring a resurgent Kirk Cameron and Stephen Baldwin and a surprising performance by acting newcomer Alice Cooper.

      If only…

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