What Would Jesus Doubt?

So the other day a feller named David R. Henson delivered himself of the passing odd conclusion that God’s Not Dead is not a Christian movie. Here, from the horse’s mouth, is the critique:

I’m not going to mince words about this.

Heaven is For Real and God’s Not Dead are not Christian movies.
They are not even religious movies. They are schmaltzy, vacuous, “inspirational” movies.

If a film leaves viewers with a fist full of answers rather than questions, with declarative reassurances that heaven is real and God is alive, then it’s not really a movie about faith and it’s certainly not a Christian movie.

Those films are little more than mindless memes.

You can read the rest of the article here. I haven’t seen Heaven is for Real, so I’ll confine my comments here to God’s Not Dead.

Twenty years ago, I had a chance to hear Billy Sprague speak on the interaction of Christian truth and art. He told us about his own grief when his fiancee died, and how angry he was at God for allowing it to happen. He described his feelings when he got in his car one day and Twyla Paris’ song “God Is In Control” came on the radio.

God is in control
We believe that His children will not be forsaken
God is in control
We will choose to remember and never be shaken
There is no power above or beside Him, we know
Oh, God is in control,
Oh, God is in control

Furious, he turned the radio off. Of course God was in control, he thought. The problem was, God just didn’t seem to care.

Later, another song, “Show the Way” by David Wilcox, got his attention.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe

‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins, it is

Love who makes the mortar
And it’s love who stacked these stones
And it’s love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s love that wrote the play
For in this darkness love can show the way

So now the stage is set
Feel you own heart beating in your chest
This life’s not over yet
So we get up on our feet and do our best

We play against the fear
We play against the reasons not to try
We’re playing for the tears
Burning in the happy angel’s eyes, for it’s

Love who makes the mortar
And it’s love who stacked these stones
And it’s love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s love that wrote the play
For in this darkness love will show the way
Show the way, show the way

He sang the song for us. Then he said, “Did you notice that they both make the same point?” Both songs tell us that God is in control, that He cares about us, that it’s going to be okay in the end. But “God Is In Control” just says it straight out. It’s a sermon set to music. “Show the Way” takes a more indirect, artistic tack to show the truth to someone who might not be ready to hear the sermon yet. Then he said something that I wrote down, something I’ve never forgotten: “Art takes truth past doors where truth can’t go alone.”

Then he did something else which I have also never forgotten. He urged us not to be contemptuous of “God is in Control.” There’s nothing wrong with a sermon set to music. For what it is, it’s good. But it didn’t have the power to reach him in his grief. At that time, he needed a song that would take the indirect path, and help him to see God at work. “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.”

“God’s Not Dead” falls into the same category as “God is in Control.” It’s a cinematic sermon, and a bit of a heavy-handed one at that, telling rather than suggesting, driving home its point without a hint of self-doubt, posing questions only in order to answer them.

That’s what bothers Henson so much. “If a film leaves viewers with a fist full of answers rather than questions, with declarative reassurances that heaven is real and God is alive, then it’s not really a movie about faith and it’s certainly not a Christian movie.” In Henson’s mind, a proper Christian movie would make you struggle. It would leave you questioning, doubting.

Henson goes on in his article to talk about one such film, and I’m looking forward to watching it. I expect it to be a good experience. There’s certainly room for such films, and we could do with a few more of them.

Doubts and questions are okay–God can handle them. When we have doubts and questions, we certainly should be honest about that. And it’s true, sometimes good art can reach us in our doubts and questions when simple assurances leave us cold. Art takes truth past doors where truth can’t go alone. But it is possible to be too much the cynic, too enamored of the doubts and questions. It is possible to fall in love with one part of the process and forget the goal.

Isaiah had answers by the bucketload, not that anybody wanted to listen. Jeremiah’s answers were likewise unpopular. John the Baptist got himself tossed into jail for having one answer too many, and being a little too certain about it. If only he’d had some tolerance for ambiguity where Herod’s marital choices were concerned…. And what they did to him was nothing compared to what they did to Jesus for speaking out His answers a bit too loudly.

All these guys were sure–as God’s Not Dead is sure–that God really is not dead, that He really does sovereignly control events, that He really does find people in their time of need, and they really do respond–even people who hate Him, or think they do. Lots of answers there, no question.

That has its place. There’s a time for every purpose under heaven.

In ninth grade, I entered public high school well ahead of most of my peers academically, and ended up in honors classes and so on. There were about 40 of us in my grade who were in all the same classes, and what a mad little coterie of brainy sophists we were! Now, we weren’t so far gone, back in those days, that we just celebrated all the different interpretations of a thing. We argued ferociously over whose interpretation was a better reading of the facts. But — sophisticates that we were — we all understood that it was about a conflict of interpretations. We would always say, “This is my interpretation,” never, “This is just how it is.”

So one day, the girl who sat in front of me in World History class–a gorgeous blonde named Danielle–turned around and said, “Tim, I have a question. What does the Bible say about having sex before you’re married?”

No rube I, I said, “I can tell you my interpretation.”

“I don’t want to hear another interpretation, Tim,” she said. “I want to know what it says.”

Now, a philosophy or a hermeneutics professor would be tempted to point out the inevitability of interpretation, and intellectually speaking, the prof would be right. Spiritually speaking, though, the prof would be an idiot to voice that notion at that moment. Danielle didn’t need a lecture on philosophy or hermeneutics. She had a boyfriend that she loved, she was making a really important decision, and she needed to hear a clear word from God. She was asking me, as God’s representative, to give her one.
God be thanked, I was not too sophisticated to see that.

So I told her. “It says to wait until you’re married.”

She gave me a long look. “It’s that simple?”

“Yes.”

And it is.

God’s Not Dead isn’t high cinematic art. It’s direct, simple and straightforward. Perhaps even childlike. But unless you become like one of these, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

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