by Jeremy Griffith
The American Millennium
I saw the movie “God’s Not Dead” featuring Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty, Kevin Sorbo from Hercules and the Christian Pop music group Newsboys; and I have comments on it. But first: a story.
I was in Egypt one time, making a climb to the top of the traditional site of Mount Sinai. (There are reasons why I don’t believe Moses received the Ten Commandments on this particular mountain in the Sinai Peninsula, but I’ll save that for another column.) The tour guide told us it would be enjoyable for us to ride 75% of the mountain climb via camel back and then climb on foot the rest of the way. “There are steps,” she said, about 250 of them. “Too steep for the camel! You just have to make it the rest of the way yourself,” she said. The ride down via camel back was not recommended, as the steep downward incline would be uncomfortable for most westerners. That’s because the saddles they put on the camel are made wide enough only for the ass of a teenaged girl and not for a full-grown man. The guide neglected to tell us that, but that is exactly what we found out.
I was traveling with three other people, two young women and an older heavy-set man. We had been together for our trip through Israel where we were with a larger group touring the Holy Land. The main body of the group departed after that trip and a smaller group stayed on to go into Egypt. I remember the girl because I had a huge crush on her. Her name was Yasmina and she was Mexican. Her younger sister was with us and sadly I don’t remember her name. Yasmina spoke great English, but her sister spoke not a word, so we didn’t talk much. The other gentleman’s name, sadly escapes me.
We started climbing the mountain at around midnight and we could not see the path, it was pitch black. For a dollar the camel drivers, Muslims all, would put us on the camels. (For a dollar more they would get us off again at the end of the ride. If you’ve ever ridden a camel you know why. In the rocky terrain of Egypt, it’s dangerous to jump off a tall camel because you risk spraining an ankle or breaking a leg. It’s too far to drop on rocky terrain.)
We mounted our camels in the dark and proceeded up the mountain. I’ve only been more scared one other time and that was when I was deployed to Iraq. Visibility was limited and that’s a good thing. Those mountain paths were dangerously narrow and there are shear drop offs. I hate to think what the climb would have been like if I had done it during the day. I lost the girls and the old man in the dark and I feared that I would not see them ever again. As it grew light towards the top of the mountain, five hours later, I dismounted the camel and started to look for them. I debated on whether or not to stay where I was or to proceed to the top where there would be more people. I decided that we all had the same goal in mind and that would be to get to the top before dawn and so I proceeded on. The so-called steps going up the last quarter of the mountain were not as advertised. They are not ‘steps’, they are rocky crags whose sole purpose is to leap out at one and snag the unwary traveler in an attempt to break a leg. I climbed carefully and eventually, I made it! It was surprisingly cold in the desert at night and I could see my breath, when I could see at all. It was very bitter. I called for Yasmina and realized that, since I did not remember the name of the younger girl, I couldn’t call for her. What would happen if I found the younger girl, but not the older sister? I was in panic mode. I hoped for the best and kept calling for Yasmina, hoping the women were together. I figured the old man was on his own. Suddenly I heard my name being called and when I turned around, Yasmina appeared out of the morning mountain mist. He sister was with her. I gave them a hug, happy to see them, and we proceeded up the top of the mountain. The old man was nowhere to be found. We hoped he just stopped along the way and we would catch up to him on our way down. We agreed to keep an eye out for him.
We hung out at the top of the mountain and waited for the sun to rise, as was the tradition and when the light touched the mountain, we drank in the view for a few moments, said a prayer and then proceeded down the mountain. It was a very moving event for all of us. We huddled there together and paid another Muslim a dollar US for the blanket he had conveniently brought for us.
On the way down, we commented to our Muslim guide if he had seen our older companion. He laughed and told us he turned around early. It turns out he was too fat for the saddle, (some saddle, it had wooden prongs front and back that dug into your flesh on both sides, keeping you in your seat better than a seatbelt. No wonder the old man turned around and demanded to be taken home! It was painful enough for me, let alone a man of his size. Ouch!) As we lamented amongst ourselves on the failure of our friend to reach the top, the Muslim guide laughed again. We inquired as to the reason to his laughter and were shocked at his response. He said, “Your spirit might be willing, but your body has to climb the mountain!” I wondered if the Muslim man who had been our guide was aware of the proximity of his comment to the comments of our Lord Jesus to the disciples as they lay sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!”
And now, my review of the movie. I was hoping that it would be a good, but frankly I feared a weak script and a laughable plot. Religious movies don’t always do well in the box office and I feared I would be wasting my money on a flop. The previews were good, so I was hopeful. Happily, the movie was much better than I expected it to be. The script was surprisingly solid, the story was satisfactorily dramatic to be entertaining, and the biggest surprise of all, the scriptural background of the story was solid and not overdone. I was happy to see in the credits that the movie had an apologetics research team that assisted in the script; and from what I saw, they earned their money!
The story unfolds like this: a Christian student, Joshua Wheaton, finds himself in a college philosophy class with an avowed atheist instructor, Professor Radisson played by Kevin Sorbo. The professor begins his class by declaring that God is dead, or more to the point did not ever exist in the first place, quoting the famous quote from philosopher Frederic Nietzsche who said, “God is dead”. He offers to skip an entire section of the class, which he finds tedious if all of the students will stipulate their agreement on paper that God is indeed dead. All of the students, not wanting a bad grade in a class meant to be an elective, agree: all except one, Joshua. He declares that he is not willing to sign his name to a document and that is when the gauntlet is thrown. The professor allows the student to make appearances before the class on three separate occasions to argue his case on why God in the student’s view is not dead.
This is the main thread of the story but there are about three other threads loosely tied to the main thread that ties all of the characters together. The student Joshua risks a bad grade from a hostile professor who threatens to ruin Josh’s chances of getting into law school later. Josh’s girlfriend gives him an ultimatum to stop with the challenge or she will leave him, fearing Josh will ruin both their futures. There is a Muslim girl who runs amok of her father because she is secretly a Christian. Another student from China is caught up in the story and intrigued by Josh’s refusal to back down from the professor’s challenge. All of the different threads of the movie are interesting and the writing is tight and never boring. I actually found myself enjoying it, laughing at some parts, crying at others and wanting to cheer once or twice.
Duck Dynasty reality star Willie Robertson and his wife make a cameo in the beginning of the movie and start one of the more dynamic threads of the show. A female reporter from a liberal blog confronts the couple outside their church and asks a bunch of ambush questions aimed at making the reality stars look stupid. Robertson is gracious and agrees to answer the reporter’s questions about fame, hunting and faith. In the course of the contentious interview, Robertson makes a bold claim of faith, which is one of the moments that made me feel like cheering. He says that money and fame is fleeting, but Jesus is eternal! He says, quoting the Bible, he that declares me (Jesus) before men, I will declare before my Father (God the Father), and he who denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father. That passage is important later in the film and is part of the core messages of the film.
We’ll get back to that in a minute, but let’s continue with the rest of the reporters’ thread. She finds out later that she is diagnosed with late stage cancer and will likely die because of it. She tells her boyfriend, a successful businessman of her tragic news and he breaks up with her because of it, leaving her devastated. Oh it was good for a while, he says, but her personal issues can’t bother him, he says.
Later, as her life is falling apart, the girl buries herself in work. She plans another ambush interview, this time with Christian pop artists, the Newsboys. She pops in on them unannounced at their dressing room right before a concert. In one of the more moving moments in the film, the Newsboys find out that the contentious ambush reporter is dealing with a serious, perhaps life threatening disease. Far from casting her off as an offensive non-believer, the group offers to pray for her healing.
I won’t talk about all the different threads of the movie and how they turn out, but I will say this: it was entertaining as anything I’ve seen in film and worth viewing. I also recommend that you bring a non-believing friend. It might be a good way of putting the seed of faith in the mind of that non-believer.
I’m happy to report that the movie has breached the top five best grossing films of the weekend despite being shown only in limited a limited number of theaters. Christians who see this film will be entertained and won’t go away offended that the scriptures have been misquoted or maligned.
There is an important subtext to this movie that should not be lost on the viewer. At the end the producers reveal a number of lawsuits students and student groups have filed against their universities because of religious persecution on the behalf of faculty. Our institutions of higher learning are plagued with liberals and atheists who want to crush religious faith from their students, who will find the college atmosphere increasingly caustic as a result. College students should be encouraged by this film to stick to their faith despite the animosity they will find from fellow students and faculty.
Another review I read snarkily analyzed the reasons why this film is so successful. I feel that review, which you can read here, misses the point entirely. It’s good that the movie is in the top five, but it wasn’t made just to get revenue from a sympathetic choir. The goal of this film is not to make money, but to win souls for Christ and I feel that it has a good chance for reaching out to unbelievers who are on the fence when it comes to faith.
Life is like that mountain I climbed in Egypt. God does not dwell on the mountain, any more or less than he dwells on any mountain or valley or anywhere at all. God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, dwells everywhere in the universe in equal measures. That’s what it means to be omnipresent. All of us on this Earth are on the mountain, making the climb. All of us are climbing for different reasons and different goals. Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Jews, Pagans, we are all there. As Christians, we like to stick with our own group. That’s ok, but we shouldn’t shy away from interacting with others on our way to the top of the mountain. Jesus gave us the great commission, which was to be prepared at any time to share the good news of our faith to anyone we interact with. We shouldn’t shut our selves away in our own little group, eyes closed and keep everyone else away. We are to interact and give a satisfactory answer to the person who questions our faith. This movie is one of many good vehicles for sharing that faith with an unbelieving world.
It’s ironic that in the Holy Places of the world, Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Holy Mountain of Moses, where ever, thousands of pilgrims gather. But in equal or greater numbers there are non-believers there too, like the Muslims I encountered in Egypt. They don’t see those places as Holy. In fact, one of my guides said he absolutely hated the mountain. Why does he stay in a place he hates? Money! The economy in that place is supported by religious tourists who spend their money on camel rides to the top of a desolate rock with a small chapel at the summit. These guides are the same people who tried to sell me a splinter of the True Cross for a dollar and to my female companions a single square of toilet paper for the same price so they could relieve themselves behind a rock. I missed an opportunity to witness to them, it occurs to me. I should have said something like this to them, “A Christian would offer the whole role for $5 and build an outhouse for the women and make a heck of a lot more money than you are making now. Let me share this secret and others and talk a little bit about why I have faith that Jesus Christ is the son of God!” Classy huh? In the end it’s not about winning over that hardhearted Muslim. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But perhaps you’ll plant a seed in that heart that another further down the road will later reap. You never know, but you should try regardless.
Remember that scripture that Robertson quoted, it has a role in a later scene of the movie. Josh is in a church on or near his campus praying. He has no idea what to do, he just knows he wants to make a solid case for his class on his faith and he doesn’t want to screw it up. A young pastor give him some encouragement, and gives the young student some Bible passages to read as a start. One of them is Matthew 10: 32-33 read here. Quote:
32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.
33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. KJV
The other advice the pastor gives is this, which I think is so important. He said, “don’t try too be clever.” Just deliver your argument in a thoughtful and respectful manner. You might win, you might lose, but in the end, you are just trying to plant seeds. You won’t necessarily be the one to reap what you’ve planted.
This movie is not about winning revenue; it’s about winning hearts, which is why the Hollywood box office doesn’t get it. The mindset of the big studios is like this: Oh, why do those wacky Christian Occultists love movies about their imaginary skygod friend? Maybe we should make one of those so we get them in the theaters and take their money? Why don’t they like sex and violence like the rest of us? So they’ll make disaster films like that freakshow based loosely on the Biblical Noah, staring Russell Crowe, because they want to get your money. Don’t waste your time on a $100 Million flop that insults your intelligence as well as your faith. Go see “God’s Not Dead” and bring that non-believing friend or co-worker. You might be surprised and glad that you did.
Learn more about the move “God’s Not Dead” on their website here.
Jeremy and friends in Cairo