'God's Not Dead': What low-budget hit says about Christians and Hollywood

'God's Not Dead' plays to Christians who feel their faith is caricatured or mocked by Hollywood. It finished fifth at the box office this weekend amid sharply mixed reviews.

It may be “The Year of the Bible” in Hollywood, but American moviegoers are still startling the industry with their robust enthusiasm for faith-filled films targeting the tastes of the faithful.

This weekend, the little-known and small-budget “God’s Not Dead,” a narrative about a Christian college student who must defend his faith in front of an aggressive philosophy professor who makes each of his students sign a pledge affirming that God does not exist, took in more than $8.5 million Friday through Sunday – a surprising fifth-place in this weekend’s box office numbers.

Even more startling, say observers, is the fact that the movie, aimed toward Evangelical Christians, was shown in only 780 theaters – far fewer than those ahead of it, each of which were showing on more than 3,000 screens. Featuring cameos by “Duck Dynasty” stars Willie and Korie Robertson, “God’s Not Dead” beat nearly every other movie this weekend on an earnings-per-screen basis.

“While this huge opening may be a surprise to the industry, it is not so much to us,” said Mark Borde, co-president of Freestyle Releasing, the film’s distributor, said over the weekend. “The in-house tracking, the legitimate one million Facebook fans, the very high trending on Twitter and Fandango, among many other platforms, and the huge positive reaction from the hundreds of screenings over the many past months, gave us hope for a significant opening.”

While not a blockbuster of biblical proportions, the small film’s significant success this weekend comes at a time when Hollywood has been trying to capitalize yet again on the faith-based market, which also made a hit out of “Son of God” earlier this month. The film was condensed from the History Channel’s smash TV hit, “The Bible,” and has taken in nearly $56 million since its release Feb. 28.

It also comes a week before next week’s much-anticipated release of “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, as well as the forthcoming “Exodus,” directed by action movie legend Ridley Scott. Both big-budget biblical epics have blockbuster expectations along the lines of “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s controversial and graphic depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, released 10 years ago.

But “God’s Not Dead” is a very different kind of film, many observers say. It has a deep resonance in the Evangelical subculture, which often feels mocked and demeaned by the nation’s media and entertainment elites. And even “Noah” has already generated controversy among the faithful, who object to the liberties taken with the movie’s extra-biblical story lines.

“There's a negativity towards Christians in Hollywood,” said Kevin Sorbo, the actor who plays the atheistic philosophy professor and who also played Hercules in the hit TV fantasy drama in the 1990s. “And a negativity towards people who believe in God.”

“The silent majority is starting to get annoyed with what’s going on,” the Christian actor continued. “I think more people need to start speaking about it instead of just sitting there and taking it.... It’s happening; you’re getting attacked; you need to stand up for yourself and your beliefs.”

Indeed, the film leaps headlong into the culture wars, striking back against famous atheists, referencing the views of Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, and others.

The film follows the ordeal of Josh Wheaton (played by Disney alum Shane Harper), a pre-law student who refuses to sign a “God is Dead” statement at the outset of his philosophy class. His philosophy professor (Sorbo) then tells him he must either drop the class or defend his belief in God in front of the rest of the students, if he is to pass.

But the movie also has a number of subplots that reference real-life issues that chafe many Evangelicals. A journalist, described as a radical vegan, conducts ambush interviews with “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson and his wife, who play themselves, referencing culture-war issues that have plagued the show since the family patriarch, Phil Robertson, compared homosexuality to bestiality in a magazine interview.

It also follows the story of a young Muslim woman, who converts to Christianity and secretly listens to podcasts of the evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham. Her enraged father violently kicks her out of the house. There is also a subplot about a local pastor struggling with his faith, the vegan journalist who later discovers she has cancer, and the philosophy professor’s mistress, who becomes a Christian.

“I’m so glad a film like ‘God’s Not Dead' is bringing to the public the very real culture clash going on in American public life, especially in education,” e-mails Mitch Land, professor and dean at the School of Communication & the Arts at Regent University, an Evangelical school in Virginia Beach, Va. “We have a right and obligation to express our faith without fear of discrimination or reprisal.”

But responses to the film are as stark as red and blue.

Scott Foundas, chief film critic at Variety, called it a “ham-fisted Christian campus melodrama,” saying its depiction of the college professor was “rather like the Jews in the wartime Nazi propaganda films.”

And so far, some 2,000 ratings on the site imbd.com reveal a divide as wide as it could possibly be. On Monday morning, about half of the arm-chair critics on the site rate the film a "Citizen Kane"-level 10 out of 10 stars (46.3 percent). A full third, however, give it a rock-bottom, "Ishtar"-level 1 star out of 10 (32.8 percent). There's no shades of gray for those who see this film.

Still, others see it in a far less conflict-laden context.

“The success of 'God’s Not Dead' shows at least three things,” says Paul Levinson, media critic and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York: “Big budgets are not necessary to make popular movies, there is a significant part of the population that cherishes faith-based movies, and students like narratives about arrogant professors who get their due.”

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