God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (2018)
The Christian movie studio Pure Flix was around for nearly a decade before becoming a major faith-based player thanks to 2014’s God’s Not Dead. Maudlin and treacly and often violently disdainful of nonbelievers, God’s Not Dead nevertheless struck a chord—thanks partly to a viral campaign that encouraged audiences to text all their contacts completely out of the blue with the film’s title—and went on to gross $64 million against a budget of $2 million.
That kind of ROI demands a sequel, but 2016’s imaginatively titled God’s Not Dead 2 was only a moderate success compared to its predecessor. That hardly seemed to matter, however, because a third film was apparently a foregone conclusion, as God’s Not Dead 2 even had a post-credits cliffhanger wherein peripheral comic relief character Reverend Dave (played by David A.R. White, one of the founders of Pure Flix) gets arrested and shoved in the back of a cop car.
The resolution to that cliffhanger is now upon us in God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness, which notably drops the silly, predictable formula of the previous two films. Instead of bringing to life a blatant piece of pro-evangelical propaganda spread far and wide on social media, A Light in the Darkness focuses almost entirely on Rev. Dave in a story that finds him questioning his faith in the midst of personal turmoil. Additionally, this third entry also (mostly) abstains from the previous two films’ obsession with presenting atheists and agnostics as wicked agents of the unholy, whom karma eventually catches up to by way of a terminal cancer diagnosis or run-in with an SUV in a rain-slicked crosswalk. The end result is a more mature, less didactic film, but alas, one that’s much more resistant to mockery and a whole lot less fun to watch.
The movie picks up right where the final scene of God’s Not Dead 2 left off: with Rev. Dave getting arrested for not submitting his sermons to the government. His crimes made no sense in that movie, and they make no sense here, particularly when Dave is released from jail the next morning after a court finds the “mandate” he violated to be unconstitutional, as if this is the sort of thing that gets decided after one night in the slammer.
When Dave walks out of prison, he’s met by his friend Rev. Jude (Benjamin Onyango), a visiting pastor from Africa who together with Dave provided much supposed “humor” in the previous films. But here, Dave learns his arrest has attracted widespread attention to the fact that his church resides on the grounds of Hadley University, a publicly funded college, and now the student body and apparently the entire surrounding state of Arkansas is bitterly divided about taxpayer dollars being used to support a Christian organization.
Dave’s church soon becomes the site of protests, and one night someone vandalizes the building. Rev. Jude goes to investigate the damage, unaware that a gas line has been severed, and when the unlucky African minister switches on a light bulb, it triggers an explosion and Jude is sent to meet his maker. Yes, God’s Not Dead 3 kills off what was mostly a goofy sideshow character and tries to wring actual pathos out of his death.
We then get a strange story choice as the script backtracks several hours, allowing us to meet Keaton (Samantha Boscarino), a Hadley freshman who’s devoutly religious but having a hard time fitting in on a campus where most of her classmates are not, including her boyfriend Adam (Mike C. Manning). That afternoon, Keaton breaks up with Adam due to their incompatible beliefs, prompting Adam to go to a party that night and get drunk and belligerent. In response to losing his girl, he blames it all on religion and decides to throw a brick through the window of Dave’s church. The brick accidentally severs a gas line and triggers the series of events that leads to Jude becoming a crispy critter.
Following Jude’s funeral, we meet Hadley’s chancellor (Ted McGinley, sporting one amazing hair system) and its vice chancellor (a nearly unrecognizable Tatum O’Neal) who are both unhappy about the controversy generated by Dave’s church. They seize upon the fire as an excuse to tear the place down. So Dave travels to “Chicago” (really, just another building in Arkansas) to seek the help of his estranged brother Pearce (John Corbett), who’s a lawyer.
Upon learning of the situation, Pearce is somehow able to take a weeks-long break from his private practice to move in with Dave, and help him exploit every legal avenue possible to keep his church open. In between court appearances, the two brothers have lots of discussions about God and spirituality. It seems their family wasn’t keen on Pearce questioning the faith, which is why the two brothers grew apart, and they accordingly have lengthy conversations about the relevance of Christianity in these modern times.
Joining them for some of these discussions is Josh (Shane Harper), the star of the first God’s Not Dead, who you might recall was the college student who stood up to Kevin Sorbo’s angry atheist professor and proved that God was not, in fact, dead. We learn that in the years since, Josh gave up on law school, and became a youth minister at the university, which is how he’s hip enough with his fellow kids to offer up awkward bits of wisdom like “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior.”
Eventually, things take a turn when a guilt-ridden Adam sends a text message to Dave identifying himself as the culprit who caused the church to go up in flames. Dave is incensed, and tracks down Adam and starts roughing him up in front of half a dozen cellphone cameras. After this incident, public opinion turns sharply against Dave, who now finds himself in a spiritual crisis, doubting his beliefs and his place in the world.
But with the help of Josh and Pearce and Keaton and a nice, age-appropriate leading lady (Jennifer Taylor), Dave is able to make a compromise with the university: He’ll allow them to tear down his church, but he’s going to build a new one somewhere else. Also, he won’t be pressing charges against Adam. Much rejoicing follows, and the film ends with a candlelight vigil in front of the church, but surprisingly, not with another performance by Christian rock band the Newsboys, who closed out the previous movies with the title track but are only seen in a short cameo here.
And that’s really about all that happens in this movie. Whereas the other entries had eight or nine interlocking melodramatic tales, A Light in Darkness mostly sticks with Rev. Dave, and occasionally switches over to the B plot featuring Keaton, whose character only seems to exist to help the movie appeal to the same youngsters who texted the title to their contacts list back in 2014 (in fact, we learn that Keaton was one of those kids who, in-universe, was inspired by Josh’s story and sent “God’s not dead” texts to all her friends—and who brings it all full-circle in the final shot of this movie by setting her Facebook status to the same). With a singular focus on a pretty slow, uninvolving pair of plotlines, the end result is a story that may be much more believable and much less insulting to the audience’s intelligence than the first two films, but is a tedious slog nonetheless.
As the founder of the movie studio, one would expect David A.R. White to give a cringeworthy performance here, but he surprisingly does a totally acceptable job in the lead role. John Corbett and Ted McGinley aren’t exactly heavy-hitters in the cinematic acting universe, but White is able to stand toe-to-toe with both of them. Unfortunately, making yourself the dashing hero of one of your own studio’s movies is the height of vanity, and White possesses a somewhat odd-looking face to have to contemplate for two hours.
It’s also strange that, aside from Dave and Jude and Josh, none of the players from the first two movies show up here; they couldn’t be bothered to give us a repeat appearance by Amy the ex-liberal blogger, or Martin the ex-atheist exchange student, or Ayisha the ex-Muslim. Hell, they couldn’t even be bothered to bring back all the Newsboys; only two of the members briefly appear in a faux news broadcast on Keaton’s phone. It would appear they’re deliberately trying to avoid reminding us of all the silliness that’s taken place in this series so far.
Clearly, a conscious decision was made by White and his Pure Flix partners in light of these turbulent political times to jettison all those aggressively anti-nonbeliever themes of the previous God’s Not Dead films. It would seem the filmmakers had a moment of self-awareness during preproduction, and realized that in these days when the country is more divided than it’s ever been and religion has been coopted by certain parties to drive that wedge even deeper, perhaps their earlier efforts were in fact contributing to the Christians-vs. non-Christians, us vs. them mentality. Presumably, that’s why A Light in Darkness goes for a much kinder, gentler story without godless liberal cartoon villains, where Jesus is cast as a “social justice warrior”, and doubting the existence of God isn’t an automatic sentence to eternal hellfire. (Though, it does still suggest that large numbers of people would get riled up enough about taxpayer-funded religious institutions to march in the streets.)
Likewise, there’s a concerted effort here to avoid the low-rent “’90s movie of the week” look of the first two films, with handheld cameras, and more sophisticated use of light and shadow. But the third outing in a trilogy is really not the time to be finally working out all of these issues.
Of course, I’m only assuming this is the last installment in a trilogy; it was a bit of a box office bomb, and as mentioned previously, Pure Flix is now a major player in the Christian-oriented movie industry and has plenty of other religious themed releases on their slate to fill the void left by this series. It certainly seems like the best time to stick a fork in it, considering each film just gets duller and less unintentionally hilarious than the one before it. So let’s pray that this is indeed the end of days for the God’s Not Dead franchise.