I came out of the movie God’s Not Dead proclaiming, “That’s it, guys, I’m becoming an atheist.”
But let me back up a bit. Context is important.
In my opinion, the best line from God’s Not Dead came when a pastor texted our hero, Josh Wheaton, with the following advice: “Don’t try to be clever. Be content to tell the truth.”
And I cheered inside. Because this, this, my friends, is what the Christian church needs to learn. That’s a solid message. When you’re talking to a non-Christian, don’t try to trap them, don’t use cute religious slogans, don’t attack the worst arguments of the other side. Just listen well, ask good questions, think about why you believe what you do, and be prepared to talk about it.
Don’t try to be clever. That’s where I cheered.
But you know where the rest of the theater cheered? The part of the movie where Josh willfully ignores the pastor’s advice and uses what my dad called a “gotcha” tactic, a rhetorical trick that relied on a personal attack to embarrass the professor in front of his students.
The theater literally burst out into applause. And I wanted to yell, “Listen to the convenient mentor character, guys! Didn’t you hear him way back in Act One? This is not the way to do things!”
For the most part, there was nothing wrong with Josh Wheaton’s defense of Christianity (though it should be noted that his proposal, “We’re going to put God on trial” worked out a lot better for him than it did for Job). It’s important for Christians not to tremble in their TOMS at secular arguments against God’s existence.
But the main thing I learned from God’s Not Dead is that the church could stand to learn a few things about empathy.
My friend Chandler once wrote a blog post defining roleplaying and storytelling in general as “an exploration into empathy.” And that’s it exactly. We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves if we’ve made no attempt to understand our neighbors.
Which is why I left the movie deciding to roleplay an atheist.*
Over the next few months, I want to research the best arguments for atheism (you know, just in case there are better ones than, “Stephen Hawking says the universe is self-existent, and he’s smarter than you, cocky freshman punk”).
I want to put myself in the place of an intellectually honest, decent atheist who wants to talk to a Christian about our differing beliefs. Come up with the best possible arguments against my faith and let those inform the way I think. Understand people better, love them more, learn to listen to them.
I’ve done this once before. For an apologetics-type class, we had to write a “dialogue paper” containing a conversation between a Christian and a non-Christian on any faith-related topic. So I did what any cocky junior punk would: I made my future self the atheist.
What started out as a stunt to make the paper more fun changed how I thought about people who disagree with me. Because I had to write the arguments coming out of my own mouth, with reasons why I believed that way. I couldn’t dumb myself down. I couldn’t make myself an uncharacteristically awful person. I couldn’t let myself get away with obvious holes in my logic, because I wouldn’t make them in real life.
It taught me that people who I disagree with aren’t that different from me. Not really.
And that’s where I think God’s Not Dead missed the mark. The atheists in the movie are very different from me. They are not the kind of people I’d want to be friends with. They verbally abuse their girlfriends, ask ridiculous questions of Christian celebrities, neglect aging mothers, threaten students, slap and shove their daughters, and show absolutely no emotion when someone close to them is diagnosed with cancer.
Do some people do these things? Sure. But not all of the (many) subplots needed to show this pattern. Storytelling and character development can be more subtle than that.
One of my favorite moments of the film was when the Muslim father wept after throwing his apostate daughter out of his home. The camera waited there with him in his genuine sorrow, and I said a quiet thank-you, because they showed a human side to a character who rejected Christ.
I wish there had been more moments like that in the movie. Because those moments tell us that people are complex, that the image of God is in all of us, and that people are worth loving.
Yes, they are worth loving. They are every bit as valuable as you are, Christian teenager. Those people out there who disagree with you—they do not exist to contrast with your righteousness or drive home a point or make you feel like a hero for defending God. They are people. They matter, even if they never agree with you, never change their minds, never admit that God’s not dead after all.
I believe the people involved with God’s Not Dead would affirm those things. I just think their movie could have done a better job at making us feel them.
If Josh Wheaton had taken the quiz I posted recently, I’m guessing he’d be in the “Mighty Exegetical Flyswatter of Truth” camp.
As a fellow flyswatter, I understand the struggle. It’s hard to get both sides of speaking the truth in love in their proper balance, to meet people away from the podium and speak about faith in a way that won’t get you any applause, to take the risk of putting yourself in someone else’s place.
Sometimes, it’s easier to be clever.
*It’s probably good to note that “roleplaying” an atheist is not the same thing as “becoming” an atheist. It’s the equivalent of when a writer tries to “get inside the head” of a particular character. What I’m doing is picking a very specific kind of atheist (because it’s not like we can generalize and say they’re all the same and have the same reasons for not believing in God): one who’s very much like me. Then I’ll think about how Atheist Amy would defend her lack of belief. The point is not to have better apologetic ammunition, but to develop compassion and understanding.
What did you think of the movie? (If you have suggestions for my study of atheism, I’ll take those too.)