In the very beginning of God's Not Dead, Josh Wheaton says, "I feel like God wants someone to defend him." For me, this was the moment in which the movie started to go awry.
Christians, we do not need to defend the Gospel. We do not need to defend God. God is GOD. He is all-powerful, all-sovereign, the Alpha and the Omega. Jesus defeated death and rose from the grave. He does not need a 17 year-old college freshman to defend him. Or a 35 year-old mostly stay-at-home mom either (did I say 35? I'm sorry, I meant 29). Honestly, y'all, I'm not worried about that Kingdom falling down out of the sky.
In all seriousness, here's exactly why we shouldn't defend the gospel: Because when I do that, I take my precious gospel, my good news, my hope and I ball it up and stick it behind my back. And then I turn and face anyone who doesn't value it like I do with my fists raised, ready to fight. I have just laid the lines clearly for "us" vs "them." I plant myself firmly between "them" and God, barring their way. And in the process label "them" (anyone who is not a Christian) as the enemy.
I cannot simultaneously defend the gospel and share it. It ceases to be "Good News" when I have drawn lines in the sand AGAINST others. I cannot defend God AGAINST someone and at the same time send them the message that God is FOR them. It is impossible.
But what about what the Bible says. Doesn't the Bible tell us to defend?
"Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil." 1 Peter 3:14-17 (ESV)
Look closely - it says be prepared to "make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you." That means that if someone asks me why I live my life the way I do, I make no secret that I am who I am and I live how I live because Jesus has filled me so full of love that it can't help but spill over. I cannot help but be worried about the poor, fight for the oppressed, visit the imprisoned, and love the neglected because Jesus has made my heart like his. I can't help but love my neighbors, I want to be the best friend I can be because I know that's the best way for me to love others like Jesus. And in order for anyone to have cause to ask me, I need to be living my life in relationship with other people. I can't have only Christians in my circle. I must be living a life so full of hope that someone notices and pauses to ask me why. It doesn't say I should start an argument, nor does it say that I should "fight fire with fire."
And did you notice? When I tell them about my hope, I am to do it with gentleness and respect.
I feel like God's Not Dead missed a beautiful opportunity. It could have been a movie that opened up lines of discussion, that sent a message to the masses that God is FOR you, that tore down the lines of "us vs them." But instead it built them up. Instead, it sent a message to anyone who doesn't identify as Christian that Christians don't think very highly of them. Think about it - every single nonbeliever in this movie was not just someone who didn't love Jesus, they were horrible people. The plot was so unrealistic it that I had to set the storyline down to even think about underlying issues. The only likable character was Josh Wheaton.
So what did I find when I listened? I heard some Christians tell me they were uplifted, that they loved the movie, that it was inspiring. But from people who don't identify as Christian? They said they felt offended, devalued, that the line between "us" and "them" was strengthened (and that they had been relegated to "them"). Worse, I read reviews from Christians online that celebrated the movie because "it sticks a thumb in the liberal’s eye and finally turns the tables on them, in that it portrays them as the evil ones as opposed to Christians and conservatives." (from a post here that goes on to poke fun at negative reviews others left about the movie.) And while that seems to be an extreme quote, I saw plenty of other reviews in that same vein. I fail to see gentleness or respect there.
I'm not saying it's not okay to make a movie "for Christians." I suppose that's fine. And I am going to assume that the intentions of the producers of God's Not Dead were good. I'm not sure I even fault them for making the movie. What upsets me is the culture in American Christianity that teaches it is okay to view non-Christians as the enemy, that it is a positive thing to defeat another person, that it's okay to portray people groups as stereotypes if they aren't Christians. A culture that says "my Christian preferences should trump yours!" I hear you saying, "but that's what they do to us!"... I acknowlege you. Yes, that happens, but look back at 1 Peter 3:9: “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing.”
And when Christian morale-boosting happens at the expense of the people we are supposed to love, we need to take a good hard look at the results of our actions. I want to point people towards Jesus because he's my hope; I want to point people toward Jesus because I want them to know that God loves them, that he accepts them just as they are because Jesus died for them long before they were born. And if a movie that makes some Christians feel good about themselves makes non-Christians feel devalued, we have missed the mark.
And my friends who watched the movie with me? These women I trust, women whose opinions matter to me, women who are open-minded and intelligent, who are part of my Mom-Network and are helping me raise my kids to be good people - - they found the movie offensive. Honestly, so did I. We had a lengthy discussion after the movie was over. Our main consensus was that it made the lines between "us" and "them" very clear and strengthened stereotypes about people groups (Muslims, women, Asians, atheists). I asked them if the movie made them feel any differently about God. The answer was a resounding no. Instead, they said that the movie made them want to distance themselves from anyone who would defend the movie.
And then they offered me a beautiful gift. They told me that they don't judge all Christians because of this movie. They said they know I respect them. They offered me grace, even though people from "my group" made a movie that was offensive to them. They commented how they liked the part in the movie where Josh Wheaton confirms that we all have a choice. They were the ones who pointed out to me that Josh Wheaton was a likable character. These friends of mine are a blessing.
I believe we can be united and respectful together. My most positive take-away from this is that my friends agreed to come watch this movie with me even though I told them I was afraid it might offend them. They were willing to hang out and talk about matters of faith and issues of divisiveness. They know that I believe Jesus loves them. I know that they respect my beliefs, just as I do theirs. Our relationships will continue. I see God in those friends. He has used them to help me be a better mom, to help me grieve the loss of my dad, to help me try to make sense of injustices. God has blessed me through those relationships. My life would be worse if these ladies weren't in it and I can't even imagine them being a "them." God doesn't love me more, doesn't give me more, doesn't value me more than he does them. We are an "us."
**semantic disclaimer (that my husband told me I need to include): when I say "defend" I don't mean saying, "this is what I believe to be true and here's why..." No problems there. I mean "defend" in terms of pitting yourself against another in order to prove them wrong. When the point is to win, we've already lost.