Thursday, April 7, 2016

Movie Review—God's Not Dead 2

God's Not Dead 2
God's Not Dead 2 poster.jpg

by Peter J. O'Connell

God's Not Dead 2. Released: April 2016. Runtime: 120 mins. MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements. 

In recent years the “culture wars” roiling the country have manifested themselves on the silver screen as well on other battlefields. Various moviemakers have brought forth “faith-based films” or exercises in “Christian cinema” to challenge the liberalism and secularism that have generally prevailed in Hollywood products since the 1960s.

Some of the faith-based and Christian works have addressed Biblical or “endtime” subjects. Others have advanced a generalized but positive view of spirituality. Some have directly confronted various contemporary threats to traditional beliefs. One such film was God's Not Dead (2014), which dealt with the response of a college student, a Christian, to an aggressively atheistic professor's attacks on religion. 

Now God's Not Dead 2, by the same director, Harold Cronk, presents a story of an Arkansas public high school teacher, a Christian, who ends up in much trouble because of a comment that she makes in class. The teacher is Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), a kind and gentle young woman who also cares for her wise old grandfather (played by Pat Boone). During a history discussion in her class at Martin Luther King, Jr., High, Grace answers a student's question about Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolent action by linking it to a principle enunciated by Jesus in the Gospels. 

Because religious specificity is prohibited by her school, Grace is reprimanded by the principal (Robin Givens). A secularist couple, whose daughter (Hayley Orrantia) is in Grace's class, complains to the school board, though the daughter herself likes Grace. The school board demands that Grace apologize for the remark or be fired. Grace, who feels that the remark is appropriate in a historical discussion, refuses and is fired. The issue ends up in court, with considerable media coverage and contending demonstrations outside the courthouse. (Who knew that Arkansas was such a hotbed of anti-Christian sentiment?)

In court Grace is represented by the young and handsome Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) and the school board by the smirking Peter Kane (Ray Wise, a familiar face of movie and TV villainy). The trial scenes, as with most movie and TV trial scenes over the years, bear little resemblance to what transpires in actual courtrooms. 

One quite interesting aspect of these scenes, however, is the fact that the “expert witnesses” called to testify to the historicity of Biblical accounts of Jesus and his sayings actually are experts from the real world! They include the highly respected scholar Prof. Gary Habermas and James Warner Wallace, a noted former homicide detective, now a pastor and teacher, who applies the technique of “cold case” investigations to the Bible.

While Grace is undergoing her trial and travails, various subplots swirl about, some with little relationship to the main plot—perhaps because they are left over from the first God's Not Dead movie or link to a likely third one. The most important of the subplots involves a friendly, rumpled college chaplain (David A. R. White) and some clerical colleagues (including one played by the late great Fred Dalton Thompson), who face the choice of complying with or resisting a subpoena of their sermons.

The acting in God's Not Dead 2 is serviceable, though Hart's Grace often comes across as more just bland than particularly kind and gentle. The film, of course, is pitched to enspiriting a particular demographic—Christians, particularly evangelicals—that feels under attack in today's America. The movie does not aim to present a subtle and nuanced approach to the culture wars. Nor does it aspire to scale the heights of cinematic artistry or pioneer new film techniques. It is what it is, so just appreciate it for that and enjoy the dialogue with the characters on the screen that some audience members in the evangelical “call and response” tradition sometimes engage in. 

“Footnotes” to the film: (1) God's Not Dead 2 may be the first film to feature in its cast two quondam candidates for a major party's Presidential nomination—Republicans Fred Dalton Thompson and Mike Huckabee (the former Arkansas governor playing himself as a TV news interviewer). (2) It is well worth your while to sit through the closing credits of the movie, for they include a long list, with capsule summaries, of court cases dealing with the religious rights of students and teachers, In fact, it's worth your while to stay past the closing credits, for that is when you will get to see the very last scene of God's Not Dead 2—or, perhaps, the first scene of God's Not Dead 3.    

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