Here’s one reason:
The glaring problem with God’s Not Dead, and most other films made for and marketed at the “faith audience,” is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.
God’s Not Dead enlists an army of straw men (the evil atheist professor who will fail a student for refusing to sign a paper agreeing that God is dead, the evil atheist boyfriend who abandons his girlfriend as soon as she announces her terminal illness, the evil Muslim father who kicks his daughter out of the home for converting, the evil liberal ambush journalist with a bumper sticker on her car that reads “I love evolution”) then burns them in effigy. The movie isn’t content to merely convert our main antagonist, effectively forcing him to grovel before his 18-year-old student. It also trots in a deus ex machina and kills him off. (Spoiler, sorry.)
I can look past characters created by writers who have only heard about liberals and secularists on talk radio. But every non-Christian character in the movie, and so many others, “hates God” (direct quote). They believe or hope the Almighty has kicked the can, and do so for deeply personal reasons. They’re all secretly miserable, every last one. I believe in the power of representation enough to know that God’s Not Dead insidiously shapes the imaginations of the audience, especially if their daily lives don’t bring them into contact with people who don’t believe the way they do. And that’s true for many (and not just Christians).
Rarely do I even recognize myself or my family and friends in Christian movie characters. Left Behind, a faith-based film in which virtually all the Christian characters are weirdly portrayed as nutjobs, is a great example. And the God-fearing characters in God’s Not Dead seem like decent people, even if Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson co-star in a dash of ill-conceived product placement. But I believe we’re all in the same strange family of misfits. Which is why I get twitchy with the “faith audience” designation. The implication is that, if you’re not in that audience, you’re… what? The doubt audience? The unbelief audience?
The Coen brothers, however, gave a better reason in their latest, “Hail, Caesar”:
All of this means, however, that the Bible-Blockbuster religion depicted on the screen is going to be in significant ways distinct from actual Christian religion (or, in the relevant parts of Ben-Hur and the whole of the Ten Commandments, from actual Jewish religion). Hollywood owners, executives, and directors can sincerely believe that such Bible-Blockbuster religion is a unifying and salutary thing to portray for the nation, and more importantly, they can know that it is a very profitable thing to portray. But in the Coens’ telling, the problem is that Bible-Blockbuster religion cannot but be deceptive, hypocritical, and at the deepest level, faithless. Many of the key actors and many of the key film-makers will not believe in the relevant actual religions, and any serious believers that are on the set may either disagree with the religion that is being depicted, or disagree with one another about its correct interpretation. On the doctrinal level, it is only going to fully work for those who are in the vague sense believers but who have decided not to look into doctrine or the pages of scripture very much. On the dramatic level, it is going to involve actors, writers, and image-makers imitating a faith that many of them don’t have, and which is itself perhaps impossible to depict.
So the Bible-Blockbuster is going to have to primarily make faith seem to be a matter of melodramatic emotional inspiration, which from another angle, is a matter of manipulation. Hollywood magic, used…well, used for what? Not simply for escapist entertainment, but for more firmly setting the religion of America?
Carl Eric Scott admits that he feels awkward laughing at Jesus through the Coen’s smart alecky ways and tries to answer this here. But if Scott were truly a 2k Protestant, he’d know that he wasn’t laughing at Jesus in “Hail, Caesar.” He was only laughing at Hollywood trying to capitalize on Jesus. And if Alissa Wilkinson watched more Coen Brothers’ movies, she’d know not to go to Christian movies. What’s the point?