Sunday, 23 February 2014

'God Is Dead'? Contemplating the Death of God and Bad Christian Cinema

The other day, a friend on Facebook posted the trailer for a new Christian film ‘God’s Not Dead’, due to be released 21 March of this year. 

The film tells the story of college student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) who, on the first day of his Philosophy 150 class, is informed by the course instructor Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) that he and his fellow students will be required, in writing, to disavow the existence of God. If they don’t, they face failing the class. Wheaton refuses, which sets the stage for an epic showdown between him and Radisson. You can watch the trailer here:

As the film hasn’t been released yet- and, if I’m honest, I doubt I’ll be seeing it when it is- my thoughts and comments here will deal exclusively with the trailer and the social and religious milieu that I believe it inhabits.

After seeing the trailer, my first thought was that while it certainly doesn’t give away the ending, neither does it set us up for any great cliffhanger. I really don’t think it’s possible to view the trailer and think, ‘Gosh I’ve got to see this and find out how this plays out!’ I also doubt anyone will walk out at the end saying, ‘Wow, I sure didn’t see that ending coming!’

Secondly, from the look of it, the character of Radisson is an unbelievably ridiculous character and a comically atrocious educator. A university-level philosophy professor- on the first day of class- announcing to his introductory philosophy students that their final grade is dependent on a written declaration that God does not exist? And then singling out a devoutly religious person for public castigation and ridicule, threatening and bullying that student inside and outside of class? I wouldn’t debate this person; I’d lodge a formal complaint with the Dean of Faculty and hire an attorney…

But then, I’ve seen this type of film countless times over the years and I don’t think the makers are going for gritty realism or well thought-out character development. I think the film- like most Christian art of this type- is designed primarily to encourage and instruct, not to tell a story; it is a polemic before it is art. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, but the message is what is crucial here, rather than the medium or the method.

This is the world as the filmmakers and their demographic perceive it to be. It is a social reality where certain Evangelical Christians feel more and more isolated and marginalized. They see their public influence and privileges that were simply taken for granted being diligently chipped away by hostile enemies. Their world is full of ‘Radissons’- didactic, unreasonable and vindictive voices who loathe God and believers and who want nothing less than to destroy them and their faith; a world where all critique or critical reflection is an unsubtle test and a threat to a pure, solid faith; a world where higher learning is a dangerous, anti-theistic battleground and all rules are stacked against them. Most crucially, it is a world where every threat is a dire one; all of Christendom hangs in the balance; there is victory or there is oblivion.

What they don’t see- or don’t recognize- is a world where the House of Representatives and the Senate is 83% professing Christians (if you factor in Mormons, it rises to 87%), the Supreme Court is 67% professing Christian (6 out of 9; the three remaining are Jewish, so the ‘Judeo-Christian’ corner is fairly well-defended), every single US President since the foundation of the nation has been a professing Christian, and 73% of the country overall are professing Christians. Those kinds of numbers don’t point to Christianity in America being- or becoming any time soon- a marginalized minority…

Nevertheless, the film’s demographic see their faith as endangered and in decline, in need of constant care to keep from disappearing altogether. Many of them would reject the notion that most professing Christians in America are ‘real’ Christians and would reject out of hand the faith of perhaps half of the elected officials and judges.

At bottom, I’d argue that most of the discontent that these types of Christians are feeling comes from confusing a diminishing of social influence and cultural privilege with oppression or persecution. For much of the nation’s history, American Christians- and more specifically, certain denominations of predominantly white, Evangelical Protestant Christians- enjoyed an abundance of the former; other voices-  Christian or otherwise- were easily overlooked or ignored, too few or too marginalized to make a dent.

That reality, for the last five decades or so, through shifts in cultural norms, the rise in profile and influence of not only other forms of Christianity, and also of the specifically non-religious viewpoint, has seen a slow but significant rebalancing of the public discourse. This rebalancing is often seen as a gradual erosion of ‘rights’ by some of the formally privileged, even if their understanding of that ‘privilege’ is largely unconscious.

But the film intrigues me for the simple reason of its title and its central premise: Can you empirically prove that God is ‘alive’? Again, not having seen this particular film, I don’t want to judge it but, from seeing the trailer, it doesn’t seem like reasoned argument is at the heart of the film’s narrative- even if it perhaps wants to think it is. Radisson’s rejection of God comes as a result of the death of a loved one. My guess is that the ultimate resolution to this in the film is emotional rather than philosophical or empirical.

In a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise. But the weakness of this from the point of view of Christian apologetics is that the existence of God is here made dependent on human feeling: ‘I know God exists because I feel his existence; I see God’s effect on my life’. Here, God’s existence is determined by finite human acknowledgement. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever for accepting God’s existence based on that premise, but it doesn’t prove anything. But more troubling, God is no longer transcendent but utterly dependent; God is no longer ‘God’.

Likewise, if God’s existence or otherwise depends on personal positive outcomes (as it does for Radisson), God is quickly reduced to a magical talisman, a good luck charm, or an idol. Likewise, if God exists to serve as a prime cause, a creator, or an explanation for truth, beauty, or existence itself (as God does for many), God is again relegated to the place of a necessity, a ‘thing’, albeit the most important ‘thing’. God is made an idol once again.

Each of these examples is, at the very least, the idolatry of reduction of God. But ultimately, if one accepts the premise of God as eternal and immutable, then that God, for all practical purposes, is dead. In the trailer, Radisson quotes Macbeth’s nihilistic despair, but his subtext is obviously Nietzche’s madman crying in the street:

‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren't we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren't we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn't it become colder? Isn't more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s putrefaction? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ 
Nietzche, in the voice of the madman, does not celebrate the death of God; he laments the thoughtless murder of God by humanity’s neglect and abuse. Nietzche laments the institutionalization of the words and actions of Jesus into ‘Christianity’ and the focus given to remembering the words of Jesus instead of doing what Jesus did. Moreover, there is the critique of those who needed God for no other purpose than to explain material mysteries now conclusively explained by science and technology. Again, it is the death of a 'small' god, a 'god' made by humanity for its own needs.

Then, as now, the truth of the madman is too close to the bone and the crowd ignores him. He realizes this and deduces:

‘I come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time hasn't come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still traveling — it has not yet reached human ears. Lightning and thunder need time, deeds need time after they have been done before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars — and yet we have done it ourselves.’
The madman observes that, in Nietzche’s lifetime, humanity still hypocritically went through the religious motions, embracing a practical atheism in the midst of life while preserving the pageantry of church life to no apparent purpose. It would be 60 years after his death that the alienation of modern life would bring the stark realization of the divine murder- the lack of any necessity for God, brought about by humanity’s idolatrous carelessness- to a critical juncture.

Into that existential and philosophical breach stepped a new theological grappling with this crisis. In regards to the film, I believe it might continue to offer a more constructive way forward regarding the feelings of anxiety felt by both its makers and its supporters- a changing reality and an inadequate understanding of God.

They see a world that is hostile to them and to God, and this in turn leads them to declare ‘God’s Not Dead’; I suggest that they simply agree that God is indeed dead… and then focus on the life and death of Jesus.

This line of thinking was suggested in the 1960s by radical Christian theologians such as Gabriel Vahanian, William Hamilton, Paul Van Buren, and especially Thomas J. J. Altizer, but also existed in the work of the Jewish Holocaust Theologians like rabbi Richard Rubenstein. I’m being a bit facetious, of course; I’m absolutely sure that the makers of ‘God’s Not Dead’ wouldn’t touch this kind of theology with a barge pole.  But please bear with my flight of fancy…

This theology- particularly Altizer’s- suggested that the full meaning and significance of the coming of Christ in the person of Jesus cannot be understood or indeed accepted without understanding that it spelled the end- the death- of God. The incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus, culminating in the death of Jesus, is the ultimate expression of divine love and grace, the fulfillment of all divine action. Creation itself is made new, not from anything that preceded it but completely in the ‘new Adam’.

In the birth of Jesus, God dies. ‘Old things are passed away; all things become new’. A new commandment has been given to us: ‘Love one another.’ This is not an addition to the law; it is the death of the law, its annihilation, fulfillment and new life.

It is in this understanding that all struggles and rationalizations with God come to an end; a God who declares the death penalty for working on the Sabbath; a God who demands the death of Isaac; a God who takes land from one people and gives it to another, then demands the genocide of the original inhabitants; a God who hates shellfish, hates gays, loves war, loves ‘us’ and not ‘them’…

We can confidently say, ‘Don’t worry; God is dead.’

God dies so that Christ may live, and Christ in the person of Jesus gives us life in the form of the law of love.

This theology liberates us from the endless New Testament squaring of an Old Testament circle. However, it also robs the legalist of the comfortable divine endorsements of personal and cultural prejudices. In God, we legislate; In Jesus, we love.

The question is: do we have the courage, the strength of faith to declare our atheism and love as Jesus loved? This is our narrow road, our small gate, our new creation.

I don’t know what the film ‘God’s Not Dead’ would look like if Josh had just calmly written that God was dead and simply continued to live the life of a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this kind of theological musing will never find a place in bad Christian cinema. No matter. 

God is dead. Jesus lives. Pass the Popcorn. 

1 comment:

  1. very good piece you say very well some things i have tried to convey with images, which you can see at
    I have never ready anything of Altizer,, is there anything you would recommend to start with?