Recently, a couple of my former students took the time to send me an email urging me to see the newest Christian movie God’s Not Dead, the plot of which has a cross-wearing college frosh, played by Shane Harper, going up against his Kevin Sorbo-played atheist philosophy professor. So, right off the bat we seem to be dealing with some well established stereotypes rather than organic characters, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and watched the movie’s trailer. My fears were confirmed. Sorbo opens the first day of class with the declaration “There is no God!” and he commands his students to take out a sheet of paper and write “God is Dead.” Predictably, somehow this timid little freshman summons the gumption to refuse to do it, telling the professor that he can’t because he is a Christian. The professor then tasks Harper with an alternative assignment: If God isn’t dead, prove it.
So the rest of the movie, I’m told, is the story of this freshman standing up for God (who can’t stand up for himself, apparently) while he builds his case that God is real (to have to build the case at all is sort of self-defeating, isn’t it?), all the while facing off against this angry, angry professor, a story that is standard fare among Christians and which taps into a powerful Christian meme, the persecution complex.
As described by Craig A. James in his splendid The Religion Virus, the Persecution Meme keeps Christians on the defensive, in a continual frenzy. That is despite the fact that in America everyone is free to practice religion, and Christians are the majority religion and have astounding power and voice in our culture, yet it is never enough. They continually claim they are persecuted because they can’t erect monuments on courthouse steps. Gay people are a threat to their marriages. Schools can’t sanction prayer, which means they are persecuted. They can strike out to any group they don’t like with impunity, but if one fights back, he or she is persecuting them.
Further, this particular story, the meek freshman versus the evil atheist professor, is well-established Christian lore. This Jack Chick tract pretty much summarizes the movie, and every now and then someone on facebook will post this urban myth, debunked on Snopes.com. So, again, we are dealing with a repackaging of some well-established Christian lore in God’s Not Dead.
I have a couple of stories to tell about this, stories that are dear to me and important to how I became a freethinker and scuttled my fundamentalist Christian upbringing. If I had to put my finger on one moment in my teenage years that started me on my path to freethought, one watershed that changed everything, it was one Wednesday night prayer service back in 1993. The teenagers bible study class that I attended, full of high school juniors and seniors, was missing its regular teacher that night and so the church’s full-time minister substituted. His talk that night changed my life, but not in the way he intended. He lectured for an hour about the evils of the secular university. According to this preacher, Ole Miss, the state university right up the road, was full of atheists and gays, full of those atheist professor boogeymen who would delight in converting us to atheism, introducing us to the delights of buggery, and sending us straight to Hell. Guard yourselves, he said. If you must go to college, and if it can’t be a private Christian college, then do what you must to get your credential and have a career, but otherwise do not listen to them and their atheist propaganda. Be afraid of these people. Be very afraid. Remember, “You are in the world, but you are not of the world,” he said, a line that every single one of my Christian readers has heard before.
Something about this preacher’s talk resonated with me and left me with one question: “If Christianity is true, what is this man so afraid of?”
I hated high school. Hated it. I spent all four years of high school yearning to get out and go to college, where I believed there would be no more popular kids, no more band nerds, no more bullying and so forth. Becoming a successful college student was my central aspiration at the time, and here was this preacher telling me that college was evil. I wasn’t buying it. And, of course, all of the preacher’s dire predictions turned out to be nonsense. Never once did a professor even use the word atheist. Never once did a professor try to turn me gay, or discuss religion in any sense whatsoever. To the contrary, my college professors, the bulk of them anyway, were consummate professionals who knew a hell of a lot more than I did, and I found inspiration in knowing them, being around people who took their jobs seriously, who were committed to their disciplines and pursued truth. No question, college changed my life, taught me to value truth and truth-telling, to conduct myself in my career with professionalism and dedication, but atheism, and homosexuality, didn’t enter into it.
Anyone who has actually attended a college class or two will recognize that the Sorbo angry-atheist professor is a grotesque caricature. What really strikes me about it, though, is that this caricatured professor behaves just like a preacher. After all, professors, committed to finding truth, are just as likely to say something like, “I don’t know” as to spill out the facts. I remember I asked a sociology professor a question she couldn’t answer. Her reply, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” and at the next class meeting, she had looked up the answer. Professional. Compassionate. Dedicated. That’s what I found in college.
No, it is preachers, not professors, who stand up and make truth-claims about something they couldn’t possibly know. No, it is preachers, not professors, who are likely to shout down anyone who questions them. So, and this is interesting to me, Christians project the image of their very own preachers to create their boogeyman professors. The irony here, of course, is that it was this fearful preacher, not a professor, who set me on my path to becoming a freethinker. Talk about unintended consequences.
The second story supports my previous point, that it is preachers, not professors, who layer on the bullshit without scruple. This one happened in 2001, early in my teaching career. I was teaching a night class, a writing class to mostly non-traditional students, and after class I walked the halls on the way to my car when I passed a classroom and overheard the teacher say something like this: “I can prove God exists. It is easy.”
My ears perked up. It was a philosophy class, and if this teacher had proof that God exists, well, I had to hear that, so I lingered just outside his door and listened for his proof. What he gave the students was a version of the cosmological argument, that everything has a cause, so there has to be a first cause, and that first cause is God. I’d been exposed to those proofs in Philosophy 101 at Ole Miss, so I as well-aware that there is no airtight philosophical proof for the existence of God, that all of them have serious objections. In this case, if everything has a cause, what caused God? Infinite regress, it is called.
This unscrupulous professor never mentioned that. Instead, he dismissed class that night on the erroneous claim that somehow philosophy proved god existed. This professor, then, broke the most cherished covenant a professor has with his students: No matter what, a teacher always teaches the truth. He never, never fills his students heads with lies. Preachers, you see, have no such covenant with their congregates.
Indignant, I approached this professor after he dismissed the class and I called him on his bullshit. He was a weasel of a man who, when I offered my hand as a colleague, refused to shake it, a marker of a weasel if there ever was one. I asked him about his proof, and he became dodgy and condescending and suggested I take a philosophy course so I could understand the cosmological argument. I told him I’d taken several philosophy classes at Ole Miss, understood the cosmological argument very well, and what he just did to his students was about as unethical as it gets.
This “professor” was a part-time teacher who had another full-time job. Guess what that job was? He was preacher with some bullshit bible degree, which, in Mississippi at least, somehow qualifies one to teach college-level philosophy, badly.
I can’t stress enough that this preacher’s behavior is as bad as it gets, the highest order of unethical. I also can’t stress enough that he was a preacher by trade, not a teacher, not a professor, but a lying ends-justify-the-means charlatan. Though Christians, I think, have a biblical admonition to tell the truth, I’ve never met a preacher who was in any way acquainted with the concept of truth-telling. I’ve never once had a preacher say to me, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” or, God forbid, “I could be wrong.” They will bullshit you until your eyes turn brown.
And that brings me back to my original question: Why are Christian movies so awful? Answer: because they are built on a truckload of reality-denying bullshit. The best art, you see, says something about life, about reality, but Christians are afraid of reality and that fear is reflected in their movies. If they can’t deny it, they will just lie about it. The facade must always be maintained, no matter what. The ends always justify the means. The effect is movies with characters that are caricatures, that preach to the choir and tap into the persistent persecution meme, though it is almost always the Christians who are doing the persecuting. Christian movies, like my unscrupulous colleague, are not concerned with representing the real world, but the bubble world that keeps Christians mentally isolated from that real world. All these movies do is tell Christians what they want to hear. They preach to the choir. The rest of us are left out of the equation all together, scratching our heads.
One thing this movie made abundantly clear, though, is that I am the enemy. I am a freethinking, yes atheist, professor of truth. Christians are afraid of me. I do not lie to my students, and if I don’t know, I say so. And my mantra, from day one, is just this: I stand to be corrected. My students get nothing from me but my best attempt at professionalism and my genuine desire to help them learn and succeed, in this life, not some bogus other one. I want them to get a first-class education, a first-class course from me, and to go out into this world and burn it down with their successes. Admittedly, their souls are not my concern. I’m worried about their brains, that organ that helps them think for themselves, and a brain is something I can prove exists, which is far more than I can say about the soul, or God for that matter.
As long as Christians fear reality, like my former preacher, and as long as that reality-fear and Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means mentality permeates Christian teachings, as it did my charlatan colleague, Christian movies will remain awful insular pap unworthy of the price of a movie ticket. Judging from the pretty-good box office take of God’s Not Dead, though, pap is what Christians want, and as long as they pay for it, Hollywood will continue to milk that Christian cash cow by producing plenty more of the awful movies they love.