The fact of a movie being the #1 Christian film in America is not, on the surface, much of a distinction. Christian movies are routinely panned and their box office sales don’t typically amount to much. So, when God’s Not Dead opened as the fifth-highest grossing film last weekend, people started talking.
God’s Not Dead doesn’t have much in the way of star power, unless you count Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain, or cameos from Duck Dynasty‘s Korie and Willie Robertson.The premise is simple enough: A college freshman takes a philosophy course in which his professor requires every student to sign a pledge affirming that God is dead. The student, a devout Christian, refuses to sign and he and the professor spend their time debating each other and trying to sway all the rest of the class to their side. “Your acceptance of this challenge may be the only meaningful exposure to God and Jesus [these students] ever have,” a friend tells Josh Wheaton, our protagonist, in the trailer.
In what some have called the year of the Bible, it may not be surprising that God’s Not Dead has done so well. It opened on 780 screens across America, no small number but certainly far fewer than a big studio film. Targeted marketing to churches and Christian groups proved effective in getting the right people into the theaters, earning a respectable $8.5 million over its first weekend. And, as a post at Moviefone has pointed out, “It’s contemporary. Christian movies with modern-day settings, like this one, or ‘Courageous,’ or ‘Fireproof,’ tend to open between $6 and $9 million. Period movies, like ‘Christmas Candle,’ are lucky to earn half that much during their entire run.”
The interesting thing about the contemporary nature of the film is that it comes at a time when higher education and conservative evangelical Christianity are more and more at conflict. Ohio’s Cedarville University has been through a mess of faculty turnover in the last year, culminating in restricting course offerings taught by women to female students. Bryan College, in Tennessee, is newly requiring faculty members to sign a pledge stating they believe, among other things, that God created Adam and Eve in an instant and that humans are not descended from any other life forms. It may be that those on the inside of this shift toward fundamentalism in the classroom have finally found their movie in God’s Not Dead, even though the thought of a philosophy professor requiring his students to sign a pledge against belief in God seems like the worst of straw man arguments. I would imagine that, for some of those folks, it may feel like a kind of triumph to see Kevin Sorbo’s Professor Radisson get his comeuppance — and delivered by a college freshman, at that! “A little child will lead them,” comes to mind.
Critics have found things to enjoy about God’s Not Dead; or at least things not to pan: “The film is slickly produced, with a competent cast, and although it sometimes stacks the deck shamelessly in defense of its credo, it does allow a few dissenting voices to slip into the debate,” said Stephen Farber at The Hollywood Reporter. Its earnings speak for themselves, and it’s possible that the film only does better before it leaves theaters. But that would be a surprise. People will either love it or hate it, and as The Christian Science Monitor pointed out, with an IMDB rating of 4.6, “there’s no shades of gray for those who see this film.”