May 1, 2020
God's Not Dead 2 (2016): Electric Bible-loo
Glory be to the Bad Movie Gods! Pure Flix, the makers of films aimed squarely at evangelical Christians, earned enough money from their excruciatingly awful (and inexplicably successful) 2014 release God’s Not Dead to continue making films based on the idiotic fake news articles your one devoutly religious aunt always shares on Facebook.
Last time around, God’s Not Dead brought to life the urban legend of a Christian college student who was challenged by his atheist professor to prove that God is not dead (that student’s name? Albert Einstein). He succeeded in definitively proving the existence of God, which surprisingly caused a lot of spiritual collateral damage, as the ending of the film saw pretty much every cast member who didn’t fully buy into his arguments (including Dean Cain, Kevin Sorbo, and many more) condemned to an eternity of suffering.
Alas, the brave student from the first film is nowhere to be found in God’s Not Dead 2. Our courageous true believer in this outing is high school history teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart—yes, I’m as shocked as you are that Hart is now old enough to actually teach Sabrina the Teenage Witch) who one day in class is asked a seemingly innocuous question about nonviolence by her student Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), and responds with a couple of quotes from Jesus Christ, courtesy of the Bible.
Unfortunately, one kid in the class has one of those pesky smartphones to record the entire exchange, and the blowback is immediate: the school’s principal (Robin Givens) immediately suspends Grace without pay, and Brooke’s parents decide to file a lawsuit against Grace personally, even calling in ACLU attorney Pete Kane (Ray Wise) to represent them. And Kane is one of the most obvious slick-talkin’ big city lawyer stereotypes you’ll ever see: he’s a craven shyster who keeps up a phony genial act in public, but outside of the courtroom can barely contain his contempt for these backwater yokels and their Bible-thumping ways.
On the opposing side, Grace is represented by Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe), her court-appointed attorney. Yes, Grace somehow gets appointed a public defender in a civil case, but it’s clear nobody involved in the scripting of God’s Not Dead 2 could be bothered to do even the most basic research into how the legal system works. (And this may be the first courtroom drama I’ve ever seen that spends 20 minutes on voir dire but can’t be bothered to include the closing arguments.) Tom is of course an inexperienced and unpolished attorney who dresses in blazers and untucked dress shirts and jeans and always has three day’s worth of stubble, in marked contrast to Kane’s three-piece suits and shiny patent leather shoes.
Despite his shockingly casual attire, Tom is able to formulate a defense in which they’ll show that Grace was merely speaking in historical, not spiritual terms about Jesus, who was in fact an actual person who existed in history, meaning her Bible verses were totally permissible within the context of a history class. This allows the film to drop all pretense of being anything other than a polemic as a stream of expert witnesses (obviously, a whole lot of Biblical scholars playing themselves and likely appearing for free in exchange for being able to plug books with titles like The Case for Christ) are trotted out to inform us that Jesus Christ actually existed, and everything in the Bible is an accurate and factual historical account, no doubt about it, case closed, ‘nuff said.
As the trial drags on, a few of the characters from the first God’s Not Dead wander through the proceedings with little rhyme, reason, or purpose. Reverend Dave is back (played again by David A.R. White, the founder of Pure Flix studios), as is his African friend Reverend Jude (Benjamin Onyango); surely you remember the running gag from the first film where the two planned to go on a road trip and couldn’t find a car that started? No? Well, if that gut-busting plot cul-de-sac has slipped your mind, never fear; the sequel actually devotes precious time to reminding you of it in detail.
But this time, Rev. Dave’s unlucky streak has extended to his entire life, where in the space of just one morning he stubs his toe, spills coffee on himself, and even gets called to jury duty. However, he’s actually being called to serve on the jury of Grace’s trial. Through the kind of nonsensical legal maneuvering not seen since old episodes of Matlock, a Christian pastor is somehow allowed to serve on a jury being asked to decide the question of Jesus’s existence. And the way the film sets this up, you think Dave will be the key to the final verdict, as the lone voice in the jury room convincing the other 11 angry men (and women) to decide in favor of Grace. But nope, Dave’s streak of bad luck continues as he comes down with a case of appendicitis in the middle of the trial and has to be replaced by an alternate, making his presence in this film just as pointless and baffling as in the first.
We also get a return appearance from Martin (Paul Kwo), who you might recall from the previous movie was a Chinese exchange student who stood up to his father and proclaimed his belief in Jesus. Well, Martin is back to… essentially reenact the same plot all over again, as he once again stands up to his father, who’s flown all the way to America to shout painfully hacky subtitled lines at his son like, “You have disgraced your family!” Honestly, I kind of thought this whole plot thread was pretty much wrapped up in the first movie. Did anyone really have a whole lot of burning questions regarding Martin that needed addressing in a sequel?
Also returning is liberal blogger Amy (Trisha LaFache), who was previously so angry at God for allowing her to contract terminal cancer that she yelled at some random Christian rock group about it. But guess what? Thanks to Amy’s newfound spirituality and her friendship with that same Christian rock group (the Newsboys, who are back to once again perform the title track), she’s literally prayed the cancer away, and is now in full remission. Maybe later on, Amy can provide advice to Rev. Dave on how to pray his inflamed appendix out of his body.
Amy then decides to turn her blog into a personal chronicle of her blossoming relationship with God, as opposed to whatever it was about before (micro-aggressions, white privilege, and gender fluidity? Just a guess). Along with this change in focus, Amy begins covering the story of Grace’s trial, and she highlights how Brooke, the student who supposedly got the unwanted lecture on Jesus, is actually a believer herself, and is in fact on the courthouse steps every day protesting her parents’ lawsuit.
This culminates in a laughable moment when Brooke charges into the courtroom and demands to testify on her teacher’s behalf, and like something out of Perry Mason, she’s allowed to take the stand right then and there without any of the attorneys asking the judge for time to prepare. Alas, maybe a little prep work was warranted here, because Brooke inadvertently lets it slip that Grace was instrumental in helping her find faith, and the two even had discussions about Jesus outside of school grounds.
This seems to spell almost certain doom for Grace, and so Tom concocts a desperate Hail Mary play where, after buying a new suit and getting a close shave, he calls Grace to the stand and yells at her to throw herself on the mercy of the court. When she stands her ground and refuses to apologize, he begs the jury to find her guilty, as well as every other public servant who happens to have devout religious beliefs.
Somehow, this works, and the jury returns a verdict in Grace’s favor, and the only explanation provided is that the alternate juror (the one who replaced Rev. Dave) has a crucifix tattoo on the back of her neck. Because, you know, obviously no juror could possibly look at a case regarding the separation of church and state and dispassionately make a decision based on the law and the evidence at hand. Clearly, the only way you can come to the “right” conclusion, about anything, is if you’re a believer.
Regardless, the story wraps up in about the same way as the previous film, with the Newsboys performing uplifting songs in concert—though this time, the audience is much more sedate—while onscreen titles implore us again to text all of our friends with the words “God’s not dead, he’s surely alive!” And the film closes with another huge scrawl of text supposedly listing all the “real life” court cases that inspired the movie.
But we’re not done yet; If you stick around after the credits, you get a special surprise. All throughout the movie, Rev. Dave is mixed up in a strange side plot where the government subpoenas all of his sermons for reasons that are only vaguely explained. This leads to a post-credits scene where Rev. Dave is arrested for disobeying the order in an apparent cliffhanger. So just when you thought these movies couldn’t get any dumber, it looks like they’re trying to make them into the Christian Marvel Cinematic Universe where the end credits set up the next movie (God’s Not Dead 3 is due out at the end of this month).
It’s difficult to say if God’s Not Dead 2 is worse than the original. It’s an improvement in that they’ve dropped almost all of the hokey melodrama of the first movie, but also a step down in that losing said melodrama has drained the story of everything that made the previous entry unintentionally hilarious. The end result is a movie that’s just talking, talking, and more talking, without the slightest effort put forth to make it feel like anything other than a lecture.
This is despite an obviously higher budget that allowed them to bring on recognizable actors like Hart, Metcalfe, Wise, and Orrantia, as well as Ernie Hudson, the late actor-turned-senator-turned-actor-again Fred Thompson, and Pat Boone as Grace’s grandfather. Wait… Pat Boone is still alive? Who’d have thought he’d still be kicking it all these years after hanging out with Lois Lane?
At least Pat gets to deliver a line early on that makes it clear where this film stands on the subject of freedom of/from religion: “Yeah, that’s the thing about atheism. It doesn’t take away the pain; It just takes away the hope.” Thankfully, this line happens right up front, so if for some reason you expected an evenhanded depiction of people existing across the entire spectrum of spirituality, this line should immediately disabuse you of that notion. As usual, the true, unspoken message of the God’s Not Dead movies is that atheists are secretly all bitter ex-Christians who hate God and themselves.
Along the same lines, the catalyst for the events of this movie is the death of Brooke’s brother in some sort of “accident” six months prior, after which she discovers a Bible among his possessions with lots of notes in the margins (he even tagged pages with those Post-it bookmarks and everything!). Everyone in his family is dumbfounded to learn that he not only owned a Bible, but diligently studied it, and just as in the first film, it’s taken as a given that the country is full of closet Christians who are terrified to express their faith in public, when in reality like 75% of all Americans identify as Christian. Seriously, guys: it’s time to just relax and enjoy your success. It’s not the first century anymore and no one’s persecuting you for believing in Jesus.
The previous movie appeared to take place in Louisiana, but it seems we’re now firmly in Arkansas, with much of the filming taking place in a Little Rock courthouse, and there’s also a cameo appearance by the state’s former governor Mike Huckabee (as himself, of course). All I can say is, it’s going to be tough to pull together that God’s Not Dead Cinematic Universe when the characters’ locale changes based on whichever state’s film commission is currently offering the best tax incentives.
But in the end, the way both of these films seek real, empirical, incontrovertible “proof” of things that should be a matter of faith kind of defeat their own arguments. If you know in your heart that Jesus was real, and that God is not dead, shouldn’t that be enough? Why would a true believer need or want to see any of this proven in court? Though I’d wager that most of this movie’s target audience is currently hoping to hashtag-Make America Great Again by getting their spiritual beliefs codified into law, and supporting movies like this is but one small part of that crusade.