Friday, May 23, 2014

God's not at all well

The belabors of Hercules

Yes, I slipped in to see God's Not Dead the other day, looking about suspiciously at my fellow movie-goers. It soon became apparent they were there for the Kool-Aid. When Josh Wheaton asks Professor Radisson, “How can you hate someone who doesn't exist?”, the guy a few seats over from me went “Oh, yeah!” Because, you know, it was such a brilliant and devastating riposte to the professor's expressions of disbelief. Theists refuse to believe that anyone actually lacks belief in God; atheists are all sort of pretending, I guess.

The movie has already undergone many trenchant analyses and deconstructions and, yes, it really is an awful piece of tripe. Its cloying earnestness seems to me to be unselfconscious, indicating that the movie's creators are genuinely shallow and lacking in the power of self-reflection. Smug certainty has destroyed their capacity for critical thought.

Since there's no great need for me to add redundant criticisms, let me instead offer some points related to my personal perspective as a college professor, the false notes that regularly pulled me out of the motion picture and made me keenly aware that I was watching a religious tract.

Kevin Sorbo depicted Professor Radisson as a self-important authoritarian, a dispenser of “truth” who hates to be questioned. Such professors are not unknown in academia, but they are rare. Most of us like students to think about what they are told, to question dogma and to discuss these matters with classmates and instructors. Of course, the movie could have merely chosen to depict one of these curmudgeonly professors as a device for conveying a lesson—except in this case it's less of a lesson and more of an unrelenting harangue.

I nearly laughed out loud at the end of the scene involving the first day of philosophy class. The professor adds Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian to the reading list for the next session. Apparently the students had already been assigned David Hume on “The Problem of Induction” (presumably an excerpt from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) and Discourse on the Method (Discours de la méthode) by René Descartes. How often does the class meet? This is a daunting reading list even assuming the students have a week in which to plow through it. Perhaps Radisson had distributed a syllabus in which only certain pages were indicated for the week's reading, but his addition of Russell to the list carried no such limitation. I can imagine the screenwriter congratulating himself on using Russell's book as Radisson's shot across Wheaton's bow: “Heh, heh. This'll raise the audience's hackles! Even though most of them won't know who Russell is, the title will do the trick!”

No one has commented, to my knowledge, on Radisson's office. Although it's made clear that he is considered the prohibitive frontrunner for the position of department chair, he has yet to achieve that status. Nevertheless, his office is large enough to serve as a hangar for a 747 and his desk is long enough to land jet fighters. Radisson must work for one of the most prestigious and most richly endowed universities in the western world. It's like those television sitcoms where impoverished young people live in deluxe apartments while subsisting on ramen and cheap beer. I was most impressed.

Dean Cain's character could have been ripped from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Unbelieving and self-absorbed, “Mark” has no time for altruism. He is a “superman” who rapidly sheds any inconveniences that arise between him and his goals. His girlfriend develops cancer? Ex-girlfriend! His mother descends into the fog of Alzheimer's? Time to forget her just as she's involuntarily forgotten him! (Of course, when Mark is hectored by his sister into paying Mom a visit in the nursing home, Mom manages to emerge from her dementia just long enough to deliver a lucid little sermonette to shame her unbelieving son. A miracle!)

The subplot depicting the Arab girl who converted to Christianity was especially disturbing. Of course, her Muslim father beat her and ejected her from the house. We got to see him cry afterward, so I imagine the movie producers felt they had gone the extra mile in humanizing the devout believer in a false religion. (See, kids! This is how you behave when you follow Allah instead of Yahweh!) I managed not to hoot aloud when a close-up revealed that the girl had been listening to lessons recorded by Franklin Graham. Franklin! A pale imitation of the real thing, but apparently good enough to cost a young woman her family and her home.

I won't dwell on the ghoulish ending, which was embarrassing in the extreme. When the preachers were crouching over the dying Professor Radisson, I was half-expecting them to sprout vampire fangs, they were so eager to sink their teeth into him. Instead I want to point out the ridiculousness of the final scene in Radisson's philosophy class. Since it was foreordained that Wheaton had to win, humiliating his atheist professor, it was impossible that the end of the debate would offer any surprises. And it didn't. Right on cue, the Asian boy who had befriended Wheaton was the first to rise to his feet to declare “God's not dead!” and Wheaton the winner. But then every single student stood up and joined the chorus. Really? Every student? I watched closely, looking for the students who would stubbornly keep their seats, rolling their eyes at their suddenly faithful classmates—all of whom had been willing only a few weeks before to scrawl their names on God's obituary. I didn't see a one.

Fake, fake, fake. Nothing short of a fire drill or the end of class will get every student to pop up from his or her desk. My neighbors in the movie theater may have noticed I was chuckling, but so were some of them. Perhaps they thought I was participating in their joy at Wheaton's David-vs.-Goliath triumph.



Gene O'Pedia said...

All I can say is, thank god for summer vacation!!! That's two posts in two days, Zeno. It's good to have you back.

As for this post, I was a bit confused at the mention of Josh Wheaton. Oh, the kid who played in Star Trek, 2nd Generation... no, no, that was Will Wheaton. Ah, must be the creative guy behind Firefly, Buffy... no, no, that's Josh Whedon.

Other than that, thank god that you now have time to see such tripe, so that the rest of us don't have to.

Rhoadan said...

Re: Radisson's office

Do you still follow Pharyngula? Because that sounds remarkably like the kind of space some of PZ's "speshul" correspondents seem to think he'd have.

As a practical matter in filming, I have the impression that those large spaces exist because the soundstage needs be big enough to accommodate the cameras and other equipment needed to shoot scenes.

Rhoadan said...

So, of course, after I post my comment, I read PZ's review of the movie and see you actively posting there.

My comment on the Gumby correspondents still stands.

Zeno said...

Rhoadan, I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to sitcoms that film before a live studio audience and have to deal with practical space requirements. I am less charitable when it comes to movie sets where a modicum of realism would be nice. Professor Radisson lives in a mansion and has an office that would not be out of place in a major executive suite. Yeah, that's college life, all right!

Thanks for the comments!

Rhoadan said...

Okay, so I hit on the nose with the reference to PZ's "speshul" correspondents, you know, the ones he quotes in comic sans before eviscerating them. He did, after all, get the nickname "Trophy Wife" for his spouse from a fundy loon.

Kathie said...

As with this movie, sometimes the best way to combat them is just to let the fools speak as foolishly as their inclinations will lead them. To wit:

"Church pulls 'hell' sign after police probe":

"A Baptist church agreed to take down a sign about hell after police investigated the message as a "hate incident," reports the Daily Mail. / A passerby in Norfolk, England, complained about the sign, which said non-Christians would "burn in hell," and showed flames below the words, "If you think there is no God you better be right!"...

Kaleberg said...

I liked the penultimate scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark better. Go get 'em God. Couldn't they have given God a cameo in that final scene?