The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


God's Not Dead 2

Two years ago, God's Not Dead shattered the glass ceiling on faith-based films, turning into something of a religious phenomenon and grossing a then-unheard of $60 million at the box office. The movie presented a theme of Christian persecution that rang a bell for Evangelicals, while leaving many other Christians (myself included) befuddled. The sequel, God's Not Dead 2, ups the ante. Whereas the original suggested that the academic world was actively suppressing Christianity, this one claims the entire legal system is doing the exact same thing. This is a movie custom made for people who became outraged when Starbucks made their Christmas coffee cups red.

Melissa Joan Hart plays high school history teacher Grace Wesley (as in Grace Wesleyan Church, because subtlety has no place here). One afternoon, a student named Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) points out that something Martin Luther King, Jr. said bears more than a passing similarity to something Jesus said. Grace confirms this idea, briefly quoting scripture. One of her heathen students then texts the heathen principal (Robin Givens), who takes the matter to the heathen school board. They suspend Grace without pay. This leads to a full-on legal trial where Grace's attorney, Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe), attempts to prove that she did not violate the separation of church and state. Ray Wise plays Pete Kane, the attorney representing Grace's heathen parents, who never passes up the opportunity to talk about how much he detests Christians. Wise plays the role with an even more sinister edge than he did portraying Laura Palmer's deranged father in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

That's the main story. God's Not Dead 2 additionally includes a bunch of subplots that go nowhere and add nothing. Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) is back for more unfunny comic relief. Atheist blogger Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache) also returns; she's now a Christian, but is experiencing a crisis of faith following a miraculous cancer remission. (If that doesn't make sense to you, join the club.) Christian rock band Newsboys make an encore appearance to sing and briefly figure into the plot. There's also an Asian college student who converts to Christianity, much to the dismay of his abusive father. This is essentially a repeat of the first movie's subplot in which a young Muslim woman did the same thing. Pat Boone is here, too, playing the elderly grandfather Grace lives with.

Even when sticking to the primary story, the movie is a weird mess. The screenplay feels like it was written by people whose only knowledge of the legal system comes from other movies and TV shows. All kinds of inappropriate questions and techniques are inexplicably allowed by the judge (Ernie Hudson), as are flagrant interruptions of the trial process. At times, God's Not Dead 2 is unintentionally funny in the way it depicts the manner in which it thinks the legal system works. Kane, for example, tosses a potential juror for liking Duck Dynasty. Tom's closing argument, meanwhile, clearly strives for an over-the-top “You can't handle the truth!” moment, a la A Few Good Men, but is so preposterous that not laughing is virtually impossible.

Whereas the first film at least had some interesting faith-versus-science debate scenes, the sequel takes a more awkward approach to its message delivery system. Two real-life Christian authors – J. Warner Wallace and Lee Strobel – are put on the stand in Grace's defense; the movie literally stops so they can plug their books. Again, this does not seem like an accurate representation of how a trial would be conducted.

Despite solid performances from Hart and Metcalfe, it is hard to take God's Not Dead 2 seriously when the entire premise it's built around is faulty. It is not illegal to talk about Jesus. It is not illegal to educate about religion in schools. You can't proselytize, but you can certainly teach general truths about the existence and beliefs of different religions. In this movie's world, a mere public mention of Jesus' name is enough to get people picking up their pitchforks. There's even a bizarre plot strand about pastors being forced to turn over their sermons to the government for approval. While it's true that some people sincerely believe there is a “war on Christianity,” most Christians probably do not identify with this concept. (How can one be on the side of Jesus Christ and still be a victim rather than a victor?) That means God's Not Dead 2 is far less affecting than Miracles From Heaven or War Room - faith-based films that take a more relatable, down-to-earth approach to the power of Christian belief.

And that leads to the most disturbing thing about God's Not Dead 2. This is a Christian movie with a very anti-Christian message. In the film's view, anyone who isn't a Christian is a hostile enemy waiting to angrily suppress the rights of decent God-fearing people out of sheer spite, and must be crushed. (The Pete Kane character is just the most blatant example.) The end credits list a string of real-life events that inspired the picture, all spurious examples of cases where “religious liberty” was denied. They involve incidents in which children were not allowed to hand out invitations to church-sponsored Easter egg hunts in school, and, more notably, where Christian-run businesses were not permitted to openly discriminate against gay people without repercussion.

Anyone who is not us is an enemy to be defeated, the movie says. Jesus said something else: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” God's Not Dead 2 isn't as concerned with accurately reflecting His words as it is with using cheap theatrics to sell a fundamentally unsound and intolerant conspiracy theory.

Bad message, bad movie.

( 1/2 out of four)

God's Not Dead 2 is rated PG for some thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

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