God's Not Dead affirms the hunger for quality Christian movies – but can it be satisfied?
On Friday night, an old Victorian cinema in London's trendy Notting Hill was packed to the rafters with Christians eager to sample the latest church-originated cinema offering.
The film in question was God's Not Dead, made by Pure Flix and starring Christian favourite Kevin Sorbo as an angry, atheist philosophy professor who challenges Bible-believing student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to prove the existence of God. The stakes are high for Wheaton, who would lose a third of his academic score for the year and jeopardise his future in law if he failed the challenge.
God's Not Dead is, for obvious reasons, a film non-believers will love to hate and one that Christians will love to love.
The trailer alone (scroll down to watch) would probably have most atheists scoffing at the plotline; "Oh sure, which college professor would get away with such blatant classroom discrimination?"
It also plays on certain stereotypes – the successful businessman who is greedy and heartless – and an atheist; the girlfriend who ends a perfectly happy relationship because she feels like she's not being put first; the rage-filled, intolerant atheist academic; the one who thinks they have it all until they find out they're dying of cancer. There are more, but we'll leave it there.
It's not that these things don't exist in the real world, but that's an awful lot of stereotypes packed into one film. Christian filmmakers shouldn't feel the need to answer everything in one movie and in this case, there were a lot of sub-plots attempting to speak into complex issues that would have been better dealt with in separate movies.
That said, the spontaneous moments of applause and enthusiastic cheering during the Notting Hill screening were all the proof anyone needed to know that this is one film Christians are really enjoying.
And enjoyable it was. There were plenty of laugh-out loud moments – Willie Robertson's cameo appearance went down particularly well - the story line was engaging and even gripping in places, the acting was great, it gave the audience lots to chew over, and altogether it was a really well produced film in the same league as Fireproof and Facing the Giants.
No crazy visual effects, no 3D, just good old storytelling - if you're a blubberer, bring your hanky too because there are some real lump-in-the-throat moments.
And of course, what's not satisfying about seeing the nervous Christian get one over the confident, angry atheist?
Little wonder that in the US, churches have been filling up the cinemas and kept the movie in the top 5 for three weeks in a row – right up there with Noah, which had a budget of $125 million against God's Not Dead's peanut sized budget of $4 million.
Breitbart.com says Noah is on course to lose money, while God's Not Dead has already pulled in 10 times what it cost to produce, up to $40.7 million in its fourth week at the box office. That's almost as much as the Muppets, which has pulled in a miserable $46 million. For such a huge franchise with a cultish following and household name stars, Muppets really should have performed better.
"Secular critics we expected but I think Christians are happy to have something like this in the cinema," said director Harold Kronk.
And it's not as if the topic at the heart of God's Not Dead is pure fantasy. Christians are being sued, disciplined, and hushed up from public expressions of faith with alarming regularity in the US and here in the UK. While the producers have chosen a more extreme scenario for the purposes of creating an engaging film, Sorbo's intimidation and aggressiveness, and the very public, unrelenting attack he launches on Wheaton's faith will resonate with many Christians who feel increasingly vilified because of what they believe.
Dr Rice Broocks, author of the God's Not Dead book that the film is based on, said the mockery was resonating with audiences he had encountered in the US.
"There are a lot of things like this and people surfacing, saying this happened to me," he said.
The Reverend George Hargreaves, founder of Kingdom Cinemas Distribution, which is overseeing the film's UK release, reminded the audience of recent court cases involving Christians, saying: "It is happening here. This is real, I've heard so many testimonies."
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He enthuses that the film can help Christians answer their critics: "There are many in our neighbourhoods, our schools, our government, who have come to the conclusion that God is dead and we as Christians don't always know how to respond to that situation [and] articulate what we really know. This movie teaches us how to do that."
The film is releasing in UK cinemas on April 18, initially in all Showcase cinemas. Depending on its performance on opening weekend, it may or may not release in more cinemas around the UK.
Rev Hargreaves is on a mission to get the UK church excited about the film and more importantly, into the cinemas to see it. He is encouraging church groups to go and see the film together or even show the film in their own churches.
With two Bible-related movies out in the cinemas at the same time, the opportunity is not lost on him but it is about making sure the support from the wider church is there.
"Unless we as Christians in the UK support the movies made for Christians, they won't be released to cinemas and they lose the chance to speak into the marketplace of ideas," he said.
Producer Michael Scott agreed, saying: "It's not easy to get Christian films into the cinemas, they [cinema chains] don't think there's support.
"If you want to see more Christian films come to the UK, we need to get more of you to the theatres. We need your vote in the cinema."
He added: "It all comes down to April 18."
Film critics appear to be more intrigued by the film than impressed and at least one reviewer described it as simply "preaching to the converted". But why shouldn't Christians make films that Christians are going to enjoy? The church has long been starved of decent Christian movies, with production standards traditionally constrained by miniscule budgets. In a day and age when billions are spent each year on making and watching movies, overtly Christian pickings have been slim.
According to God's Not Dead co-producer Russell Wolfe, making a Christian film for Christians was actually the point.
"It was geared towards Christians primarily, to encourage them to stand up [for their faith]," he said.
"A lot of people don't know why they believe what they believe and are not confident to share their faith."
And if Darren Aronofsky's interesting take on Noah has revealed anything, it is that when we leave Hollywood to tell the stories of our faith, there will always be compromise. The movies may be entertaining or tolerable, but there will always be that "something" missing and in some cases, the compromises will stretch the boundaries of artistic licence or creativity too far. At worst, Christians will be walking out the cinema scratching their heads, wondering whether what they saw was a Bible story at all.
As Benjamin Onyango, who plays Reverend Jude, said at Friday's screening: "This movie is not just one of those Hollywood movies that twist the Word, this is different."
With that in mind, for all its clichés, God's Not Dead is one of the best Christian films to hit theatres in years and if you only had the money for one cinema ticket this month, it would not be wasted in going to see this movie.
Find out where God's Not Dead is showing in the UK here