From the opening scene to its closing postscript, God’s Not Dead tells a story of persecution and courage, focusing on a young white man named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper). “Mr. Wheaton,” as he is referred to in various parts of the movie, finds himself in a predicament on the first day of his Philosophy 150 course. In a scene that echoes Rome’s historic persecution of Christians, the powerful intellectual Professor Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) stands before his class of impressionable students and tells them they can skip the section of the course that discusses the existence of god, if each of them signs a piece of paper that says “god is dead.” The professor makes it clear that this proposal is more of a threat when he slowly and emphatically informs his students that the section on god’s existence is where “students have traditionally received their lowest grades of the semester.” This is Mr. Wheaton’s unexpected predicament: can he sign a piece of paper that proclaims god, as a philosophical category and concept, is dead? And if he decides not to sign that paper, can he have the courage to face the consequences?
It comes as no surprise to viewers when Mr. Wheaton cannot allow himself to sign the paper. What may surprise viewers, however, is the fact that there are two other characters in the film who face hardship for their faith—both of whom are seemingly absent from the film’s promotional materials. Mina (Cory Oliver) and Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) find themselves in situations where their faith requires courage, but this movie is not about them. This movie is about Mr. Wheaton. It is about his predicament, his struggle, his sacrifice, his courage, and his God-given task to defend God. According to the movie, the task of defending God is given to the young, white man; it’s not women’s work.
The protagonist’s name, "Josh Wheaton," is loaded with Scriptural and cultural allusions. In the Old Testament, Joshua leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua is a conqueror, a fighter who works against pagan peoples on behalf of the LORD God of Israel. In God’s Not Dead, Josh Wheaton does similar work as he engages in an intellectual battle on behalf of God. As Joshua purified the Promised Land of the pagan oppositions, Josh Wheaton attempts to purify the university classroom of the oppressive and tyrannical pagan opposition embodied by Professor Radisson.
The cultural allusion of Mr. Wheaton’s last name to the evangelical university Wheaton College, is striking. For a production company who recently released the film My Hope America with Billy Graham, the connection between Mr. Wheaton’s last name and Billy Graham’s alma mater is too obvious to be unintentional. Mr. Wheaton is the one to whom "much has been given," as it says in Luke 12:28 -- a verse quoted repeatedly in the film. It is a key verse that Pastor Dave (a sage-like character played by the film’s producer David A.R. White) references when he tells Mr. Wheaton that his presence in a godless institution "may be the only meaningful exposure to God and Jesus that [the people in that institution] may ever have." The task of defending God and freeing people from the oppressive threat of atheism is not simply Man’s work, but it is the work of a particular kind of Man. For God’s Not Dead, the conquering of the pagan opposition in the Promised Land of the University is the work of Mr. Wheaton.
I am troubled by God’s Not Dead. Specifically, I am troubled by the racial stereotypes that underwrite characters, such as the Muslim father who is controlling and violent, the white pastor who counsels people in their moments of crisis, the cheery African missionary with simple faith, and the godless Chinese exchange student who is good at science and math. I am troubled by the gendered stereotypes that elevate men to positions of authority and relegate women to positions of weakness, such as the imposing male professor, the bold young man who defends God, the vulnerable woman with “Cinderella Syndrome” who is caught in a verbally abusive relationship, and the assertive vegetarian woman who runs a liberal blog and is made weak by cancer. Perhaps most of all I am troubled by the way the film positions Mr. Wheaton as the young, white, and masculine savior of the university. Ultimately, through its iconic emphasis on Mr. Wheaton, God’s Not Dead offers a distorted picture of Christian discipleship that places the burden of properly witnessing to the Gospel on one particular kind of person.
Jordan Farrell attends Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in Chapel Hill, NC and is currently pursuing ordination in the Mennonite Church USA. He has a B.A. from the University of Sioux Falls and graduating in the May with an M.Div from Duke Divinity School.