God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (2018) Michael Mason - Movie Review
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Improved but could be better
In this instalment of the God's Not Dead franchise, first-time director Michael Mason takes over from Harold Cronk who directed the first two films and inevitably the new outing is different. God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness picks up where God’s Not Dead 2 left off with Rev. Dave Hill (David A.R. White) arrested and jailed for not providing copies of his sermons to local authorities. However, this is not what the film is about. The old storyline is quickly dispatched and replaced with the story of Rev. Hill trying to stop a university from annexing St. James Church which is situated on its state-run campus. This opportunistic play by the administration of Hadleigh University, originally founded by the congregation it is trying to remove, follows an arson fire suffered by the church during the controversy swirling around Rev. Hill and his sermons.
Hill’s friend, Rev. Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango), who in the previous films was a visiting African missionary and in this film is the new co-pastor at St. James, dies in the fire. The tragic fire with its fatality and the university’s betrayal sends Rev. Hill’s faith and trust in the Lord into a tailspin.
The film’s B-plot revolves around a young student, Keaton (Samantha Boscarino), who is questioning her faith and struggling in her relationship with her lapsed-Christian boyfriend Adam (Mike C. Manning) the accidental church arsonist with a guilty conscience. Add to this Rev. Hill’s estranged brother and lawyer Pearce Hill (John Corbett) coming to help with the lawsuit; a reluctant university president, Thomas Ellsworth (Ted McGinley), drawn into Hill’s feelings of betrayal by the university administration while also being a Hill’s close friend; plus a possible romance for Hill with soup kitchen operator Meg Harvey (Jennifer Taylor) who “likes bad boys” and for good measure Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), the lead from the first film, is now a student-turned-youth-pastor and what do you have? A soap opera!
The key to understanding these films is that they are melodrama not drama. Lots of people like melodramas but not everyone. If a viewer goes into God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness expecting a deep thoughtful storyline they will be very disappointed although not as disappointed as they would have been with the previous two films since this one is a little less over the top. More importantly, stories of Christian persecution and the melodrama genre don’t go well together. Thankfully, there is at least one moment when director Michael Mason realizes this. As Hill is complains to a fellow pastor, Reverend Roland Dial (Gregory Alan Williams), that Christians need to get up and fight and not be pushovers Dial says to him “You can’t fight hate with more hate,” to which Hill responds that the persecution he’s feeling is somehow special and that if Dial knew what Hill was going through he’d see it different. Dial points out “I’m a black pastor in the Deep South! I could build a church with all the bricks that have been thrown through my windows”– basically: you don’t know from suffering and persecution, so be quiet.
Where God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) focused on apologetics by including Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ (1998), and J. Warner Wallace, author of Cold-Case Christianity (2013), this film has set apologetics aside. The focus is on Christian doubt in the face of tragic circumstances and lapsed faith due to the bad behaviour of fellow Christians. While these are noble and good topics to investigate, is melodrama the right tool for the job?
Viewers faulted earlier God's Not Dead films for “preaching to the choir” and pretending to engage atheism in the public square with apologetics while creating strawmen and phoney two-dimensional atheistic villains to knock down. This time the audience is unapologetically Christians and, for the most part, the cheesy fake atheists are removed. A good question to ask then is, “If God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness isn’t about preaching Christian apologetics to its Christian audience what is it preaching?”
The young student Keaton, whose faith is on shaky ground, provides the film’s thesis statement: “The whole world knows what the church is against but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.” In her personal struggle she is upset because in her prayer life she “can’t hear God speaking to her.” All she hears is the noise from the fighting between secular ideas and the Church. By the end of the film, in an attempt to mediate the warring parties, Rev. Hill, who starts out with solid Christian conviction that, “Truth is a person and that person is Jesus,” winds up preaching a generic Jesus-less kind of peace-hope-and- love-will-conquer-all ‘gospel’ with a call to “stop fighting and yelling at each other and just listen to each other; so everyone put down your signs.”
While listening to people and having a real conversation is good and hopefully productive and, while displaying peace, hope and love to the people set against the Christian faith is also good, it needs be done in Christ Jesus and in such a way that Jesus is not an afterthought. So, where the film could have great strength and conviction in the end it fails.
One other odd thing is that St. James largely appears to be a church without a congregation. The pews are full on Sunday. They have a pastor, a youth pastor, and a kind of university ministry but there is no core group of members to roll up their sleeves and help amid tragedy or to provide support for their pastor in his struggle. Granted, this would further complicate the film’s plot and add to its length, but it’s peculiar to have a pastor trying to save a church for a largely imaginary or theoretical congregation. Also, there are no shut-in calls or hospital visits, the kind of things that still go on even if the church building has suffered fire damage. Yes, there’s one church council meeting, but that floats by and is gone as fast as it’s introduced. What all this speaks to is a sort of individualistic representation of the Christian faith. God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness presents the Christian life as a collection of individuals not as a community. Part of Rev. Hill’s character arch is moving from pride to humility and pride is very self-centred. However, in the end Hill is only a little bit humbler. He confronts his theology of glory but doesn’t replace it with the theology of the cross of Christ’s suffering; he leapfrogs over Jesus right back to a theology of glory. There is even an oddball moment when Meg, his love interest, takes him out to a wooded lake to show him where she lights a candle and prays for people … because getting into nature alone to pray is much more important than praying in a church with other Christians right? Again, this points to the film’s emphasis on the individual.
There are some positive things to note. Scripture is quoted and even sometimes applied in good ways. For instance, when Rev. Hill is spiraling into the deepest pit of his despair and Keaton expresses her disappointment in him for his lack of faith, the youth pastor Wheaton comforts him by comparing Hill’s doubt with John the Baptizer’s doubt quoting Matthew 11:2–6, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.’” There is more than doubt to John’s imprisonment and sending his followers to Jesus, but it is a good example of applying a Scripture text to a character’s legitimate concerns in a meaningful way. Also, in one of his sermons Rev. Dial paraphrases Psalm 30:5 “For His anger is but for a moment, and His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Overall, the film is by no means devoid of talk of Jesus, Scripture quotes, or moments of genuine repentance and forgiveness.
Another positive element is the respectful treatment of nominal Christians, doubting Christians, and lapsed Christians which was not the case in previous God’s Not Dead films. Their concerns and troubles are more true-to-life and this is a positive change. For example, Rev. Hill’s lawyer brother Pearce, whose faith lapsed while he was in University studying law, confronts his brother saying that when his faith was on the rocks their family shunned him for his lack of faith and didn’t help him in his time of need. When Hill asks Pearce why he’s helping him try to win the case against the university and save St. James Church, Pearce replies, “I’m fighting for you because you’re my little brother and I don’t want to see you get pushed around.” It’s these kinds of natural human moments given to people struggling with their faith that makes this film better that earlier films.
Mason’s God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness is a vast improvement over Harold Cronk’s God’s Not Dead (2014) and God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) but that doesn’t mean it’s a good film; it only means it’s a better film. If the producers choose to continue the franchise they should continue down this new path and move further away from melodrama to drama. Trite, “It only takes a spark to keep a fire going,” and “God is good – all the time” and “all the time – God is good” sentimentality needs to be further unpacked and investigated in a Christ-centred and cross-focused way. If they are going to embrace the idea of “preaching to the choir” they need to preach Christ and Him crucified. If they want to reach out to a world filled with doubt, pain, and even anger and hatred towards Christianity, they need to preach Christ and Him crucified and do it in a way that is winsome and engaging. They will not be well served if they continue to characterize Jesus as a social justice warrior or tell stories that avoid hard questions and real life spiritual pain and suffering.
One final thought; The Gospel of Mark records this conversation between Jesus and St. John, “John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in My name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”” Making a movie is not casting out demons nor is it likely to be the kind of mighty work that Jesus is speaking of here. However Christian viewers uncomfortable with God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness may be comforted in the fact that this film is evidence that the folks behind the God’s Not Dead franchise are in fact listening to the criticisms and encouragements provided by their fellow Christians across the landscape of the Church. Pray that they continue to listen and stand firm on Christ resisting the temptations of the World while striving to be true to Him and that they would make their films in His name and not in the name of profit or for any other reason but Him.