T&A (Titles and Answers)
Here at the Total Depravity of Mannings, I am all about being a month behind the internet. So, in case you missed it, on April 1, NPR pulled a nifty little prank on the internet. Absolutely no one was surprised at the result because… well, that’s just what people do on the internet. No one has time for silly things like reading any more, we form opinions and go.
The thing is, as much as we might criticize and complain about this trend, for the most part everything we do online encourages it. News stories, blogs, and other works of writing are specifically titled to give you an idea of the main point without reading them. I realize the goal is to incite a reaction, thereby inflating their traffic, but that doesn’t change the fact that encouraging people to react and then read is counter-productive if you want to help them be informed, which is, in theory, the goal of these sites.
Fortunately I don’t need to worry about people reading my stuff. It’s obviously my goal, but not something my career depends on (or would even necessarily benefit from). So suffice it to say, when I come up with titles for my posts, my aim will be to give away as little as possible. You might need to do some reading to learn my whiny opinions and political biases. And I’ll probably lose some traffic.
And speaking of being a month behind the internet (and the importance of titles) I finally saw God’s Not Dead this week. I know the internet has already ripped itself to shreds over this, multiple times, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the parts of the film I normally would. Besides, you know all of that stuff already (the dialogue is on par with a high school freshman’s fan fic of the Bible, only one actor [Sorbo] makes it through with any sense of dignity intact, the prof is closer to a professional wrestling heel than a character, and so forth). If my comments on these aspects ever mattered, I missed that window by a few weeks.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I hadn’t seen the film a few weeks ago, but the reason I stayed away is, I feel, still worth discussing. So gather ’round, y’all, it’s time to whine about: how darn trivial American Evangelicalism’s become.
It wasn’t always this way, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. When the movement started, it had a clear purpose, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe. I’m certainly far from the first disillusioned 20-something to critique the Evangelical movement, but for my money you’d be hard-pressed to find a
better representation of how wrong this movement can go than GND. And it’s not even that I disliked the film. It’s that the whole thing was just so trite, starting with that title.
The phrase “God’s not dead” is obviously meant to invoke two things. More directly, the Newsboys song of the same name, which makes an appearance in the film and pervaded the advertising. More significantly, both are derived from Nietzsche’s quote “God is dead,” and right away that’s where the trouble starts.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Nietzsche, having read regrettably little philosophy in my life, and almost none of his. I do, however, claim to have had a professor who was an expert on philosophy. As he explained it, Nietzsche’s quote wasn’t primarily a statement on religion as it was a statement on knowledge. The idea of God as the foundation of knowledge, as the shared root of all that we know to be true, is what he was saying was dead. And, for what it’s worth, Nietzsche was right. Religion and dogma are no longer the starting points of knowledge. What our culture holds to be true does not end with the church. For better or for worse, the “core” of our knowledge has shifted.
As an atheist, Nietzsche would obviously say that God didn’t exist, but that was not the focus of this particular assertion. For the film (and the song) to invoke that quote while merely asserting a belief in the existence of God indicates how little the film’s creators seem to have engaged their sources. Which raises a few questions on how well they researched the debate their film attempts to portray.
More importantly, though, is the fact that “God is dead” is a profound quote. Like it or hate it, agree or disagree, it’s a bold statement on knowledge and society. There’s a context to it. It’s connected to an argument that is both well-reasoned and invites discussion. And I don’t see how any of that can be said of “God’s Not Dead.” That’s not an argument, it’s a text message, a Facebook status, at best. It’s just disconcerting to think that, 130 years after Nietzsche’s statement, the most well-known response from the church amounts to little more than “Nuh-uh!”
Taking a deeper look at the film, though, there is one significant scene that demonstrates with troublesome accuracy how trite we Christians tend to be. Just after the second of their three debates, the evil, smirking Professor Radisson blows our hero Josh’s mind by revealing that, despite his atheism, he has, in fact, cracked open a Bible (side note: Shane Harper’s face when he hears this news is by far the worst and most amazing part of the film). At this point, we learn that Radisson only became a sad, evil atheist after he prayed his mother would be healed of her cancer, only to have her die anyway (truly a troubling backstory worthy of Heinz Doofenshmirtz, himself). I don’t mean to make light of cancer, or the difficulty of losing a family member to it, but the whole plot is so contrived.
But not nearly as contrived as Josh’s response. Because you already know Josh’s response. Because it’s the response we all go to, by default, when confronted with this situation.
“Sometimes the answer’s ‘no.'”
And that response sucks. I know it’s true. I know most any Christian has experienced it at some point. It still sucks, and it’s a response that we need to stop leaning on.
It’s a terrible response because it’s canned. It works for every situation, and every individual person. Consequently…
It’s a terrible response because it makes it so very easy for us to free ourselves from the burden of listening to or empathizing with the other person. What? You’re hurting? Well, y’know, sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no.” Now excuse me, I’m on to the next person’s problems. But most importantly…
It’s a terrible response because it’s an easy answer for a situation that has no use for such things. Death is a hard and complicated subject to deal with. Unanswered prayer is, too. Providing an “easy,” pat answer is not helpful.
It’s just trite. Especially when you compare it with a more genuine response.
In my first year teaching at my current school, we attended, as we do every year, a local convention for Christian schools. That first year, the keynote speaker was Dr. Joe Martin, a very passionate Christian who came out of a terrible childhood in the Florida Projects.
Joe was once asked by a young girl why God wouldn’t answer her prayers. Because every night she prayed that her parents would stop beating her.
He told her, “I don’t know. I don’t know, but I’ll tell you, when I was your age, I used to pray to God every night that He would get me out of the Projects. And for years, my prayer went unanswered. And I would get angry, and I didn’t understand why God wouldn’t answer my prayer, but I think I do now.
“If God had answered my prayer when I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to relate to you the way I can now.”
You may notice some subtle differences between what Josh said and what Joe said. A sense of empathy, of support, even of solidarity. Everything a response like “Sometimes the answer’s ‘no’” needs to have and utterly lacks. I don’t want to deify Joe, or his response, but it’s a notable improvement.
In the final scheme of things, God’s Not Dead is not an awful film; I can’t even really call it a bad film. It’s entertaining and it delivers what it promises. It’s a well-structured approach to postmodern film making. But it is a film that is uncomfortably too comfortable with the simple; simple ideas and simple messages.
It’s the type of film that we need to expect more of. Delivering on the promises it’s made isn’t enough. We need to demand that films like this make better promises, aim for higher goals, that they don’t settle for the low-hanging fruit. And then we need to demand that they deliver on those goals.
We can’t keep accepting the trite.