Recently I had the chance to see the independently produced “faith based” film God’s Not Dead. The movie, taking name from Nietzsche’s famous exclamation ‘God is dead’, has received quite mixed reviews with the overall consensus being fairly negative, at least on behalf of critics. Some of which is to be expected of an independent “faith based” film the moment it makes a public debut; otherwise we might have to actually re-examine the pejorative Hollywood and critics take. Regardless, the movie is a shining display of ideology which is far too rich to simply let slip by.
The Film as a Movie
The plot is fairly simple and of course predictable. A freshman at university named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is challenged by his cruel and Dawkins archetype philosophy professor, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), to present evidence for his faith or else he will fail the course. The whole engagement begins when the smug atheist professor demands his students to write “God is Dead” on a sheet of paper at the start of class so they might “skip the whole debate”. Josh of course, being the young brave teen protagonist, courageously defies his professor and accepts his challenge to prove rationally the existence of god. The main plot really starts to ‘unfold’ as this stereotypical and wooden script becomes a bewildering screenplay riddled with those cliche so famous in the line of evangelical films. Although my main point is to analyze the ideological motion within and surrounding the film I thought it would be useful to at least ‘review’ the film in some ways.
The pace of the film is sort of plods along although there are points of feint suspense. The film attempts to reign in several plot-lines which in someway connect to each other via characters and spiritual message. The film is a minor success here in its ability to narrate several lines of action in a stuttering pace. Ultimately a couple plot tracks are left undeveloped and clearly ‘forced’ by the evangelical weight into some half-conclusion. The content is that of which you would expect from a Christian centered film. Real life melodrama with a gloss of superficial animation which makes it difficult to relate to the movie or enjoy the simpler points (unless of course you fit the evangelical white middle-class silhouette the movie intends to fill).
The actual philosophical content, upon which the plot rests, is severely lacking. I expected to see some hashed out drama at a podium between the brave Christian protagonist and his crass heathen professor however such scenes were kept to a minimum. Most of the action occurred ‘behind the curtain’ and this was somewhat upsetting. When the two did engage each other there was no clear line of articulation or consistent coherency to argument; certainly drawing away from the competency of such a ‘debate’. In fact the ‘debate’ traverses familiar ground in philosophy and actually prefers pop-culture renditions of philosophy: take stabs at Hawking, Dawkins, and so on. Going as far to utilize lines such as “if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permissible” (seriously, this exact quote appears in a presentation of the protagonist on the futility of atheistic morality) and “one cannot disprove the existence of god”. By the time these ‘debates’ conclude and the protagonist is throwing around lines like “the scientific proof supports god” and (my favorite) “why do you hate god?” I am sincerely persuaded there was no genuine intention to discuss the existence of god. Quite disappointing given the unique opportunity to invite critical philosophy into the minds of the general (non-philosophical) audience.
Overall, the acting feels coerced and the only believable performance, that of Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), is constantly hindered by the almost satirical script in which he engages in all manner of outrageous arrogance, cruelty, and even threatening persona. However, one glad feature of the film (which I shall analyze later in regard to ideology) requires the removal of several characters early on. This is refreshing as one of the first characters to leave the script is easily the least believable. Josh Wheaton’s girlfriend, who is probably onscreen for less than 10 minutes cumulatively, looked as though she was vomiting the script. It’s entirely possible the producer removed her previously scripted parts finding the footage so uncompelling. Although this is not any dig against the actor as an individual, she likely played the part to the best of her ability. The problem was her character was so incredibly archetypal it might have been impossible to breathe life into this stale persona (likely fillable by cleverbot or something of the like). And this is a reoccurring problem throughout the script. The most compelling acting performances could not breathe life into a plot which is so adamant at preaching to the choir and truly nothing more.
There were a few scenes in particular I found either hilariously distasteful or just awful in a whole.
The first of which is the scene where bearded American hero Willie Robertson and his wife from the hit show Duck Dynasty appear as themselves (of course) to give some contemporary taste to the film. And when I say “give taste” I mean demonstrate a severe lack of self-awareness in their shameless aggrandizement. The two are ‘interview ambushed’ by an arrogant and rude leftist blogger with self-doubt (of course) who interrogates their faith, fortune and lifestyle centered around the killing of innocent birds. The two are certainly unshaken in their faith and financial well-being and simply brush away the criticism with a country/home-town smile. God Bless America.
The second is more awful in the literal sense where we are forced to endure a terrible islamophobia. The build-up to the scene follows the small sub-plot of a Muslim young woman who feels oppressed by her strict fundamentalist father who rails against Christianity and Christians. The young woman is a secret Christian (of course) who upon being revealed as so by her little brother is set upon by her father. The following scene is difficult to watch. Not only as it depicts a brutish patriarchal violence but it does so with the intent of illustrating the violent intolerance Islam to the passive audience. I mean certainly, we should condemn the terrible violence of patriarchy whereby gender violence is sanctioned against women and daughters and so on. However this scene has no intention of exploring gender violence or what have you, the clear intent is to paint the Muslim man/or father as a cruel and abusive individual with a violent hatred for Christians and Christianity. The scene is only made worse when the young woman is then comforted by the white savior Christians of a local church who encourage her in her faith after being disowned by her Muslim father.
Perhaps the most intriguing and terrible scene occurs at the end when the smug atheist professor (it’s a shame that is a real character) is making his way towards his girlfriend to renounce his old ways when he is hit by a car. The effect here has an odd CGI feeling for whatever reason and thus is neither believable, nor startling, nor particularly saddening. What’s saddening is what happens after he is hit. The car speeds away and the diligent pastor with his missionary friend (black sidekick), who occupy an additional sub-plot, happen to be witnesses of the event (of course). The pastor rushes to the side of Radisson to immediately ask him “do you know Jesus?” I almost chuckled at this point but was quickly sobered to the really offensive scene at play.The man is dying, as observed by the missionary who somehow immediately knows his “ribs are crushed”, and the first thing our used-car Pastor does is try to sell him a Heaven Protection Plan. Talk about cinema trivializing the sting and loss of death. The loss of a main character in the movie is simply a spring-board for reanimating the tired ‘death-bed conversion’ act. Any real emotion or grief in the scene is negated by the hit-and-run proselytizing. Really all we can ask is why? The scene was entirely unnecessary from any sense of concluding the plot. Maybe it was a chance to give meaning behind the otherwise empty pastor-and-missionary subplot? Or maybe the screenwriter had a book of religious cliche he wanted to make full use of.
To conclude the ‘review’ portion of the piece I should note the potential this movie has to be decent. For being an independent film on a low-budget, the production was actually pretty good. The camera shots were engaging and flowed well with the movie as a whole. Maybe the only thing preventing the movie from being released as a YouTube skit was its solid physical production. Granted, the acting was sub-par, and the plot horrible. Yet I feel as this is more attributable to the original religious intent than any work of the actors or screenwriters. They were given this ‘field of work’ and creative leniency which essentially doomed them to cinematic hell. If one were to remove this evangelical weight and readjust the screenplay as such you might actually have a decent film. The acting could easily be adjusted to highlight some interesting drama of the human condition, while still leaving in the question of faith as a living dynamic rather than this enormous pink elephant marched through every scene (rather unwillingly). This is a massive ‘if’ but I feel as though the potential was certainly there.
Clearing up the Nietzsche Quote
Now I shall address the reason why I chose to review this film given its rather dogmatic content and appeal. Actually, this quality is what makes the film most accessible as an extrapolation upon ideology and the interplay of ideologies with subjects and so on.
Take, for example, the title. God’s Not Dead. A terrible redressing of Nietzsche’s famous declaration from The Gay Science “God is dead”. By examining the full context of Nietzsche’s quote we understand the depth of this misconstrument:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
One does not need to be an expert on Nietzschean thought or fan of his work to understand the metaphor at play. In actuality, Nietzsche is lamenting the ‘death of god’ in a metaphorical irony reflecting the progression of human thought and Nietsche’s own criticism of emerging ‘reason’ of the time. Put simply, Nietzsche is not trying to make a slam-dunk against Christianity. His own work primarily concerns a nihilist criticism of then contemporary thought-forms such as ethics and epistemology. He is, in fact, remarking upon a fundamental transformation in regard to continental ideology which manifested in the displacement of hegemonic religiousity for bourgeois thought; something that Marx himself also noted but in a different contingency:
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”.”
In a phrase: the bourgeoisie ‘killed god’. Although, I would suggest the same ideological function has simply been modified and assumed by our array of bourgeois ideology, rendering true the phrase “God’s Not Dead” (he just had a makeover), this is neither here no there.
Naked Ideology as the Visible
I drew attention to this issue to demonstrate the clear naked self-ignorance of the film. Ideology is best employed when it is therefore unnoticed. Ideology is able to move quietly and succinctly through social apparatuses via the camouflage of social relations, interpellated subjects, and the whole embodiment of ‘objective’ normativity. Through critical analysis we can often discern these ideologies in motion as if we had put on the magic glasses from They Live. However there are also instances where ideology stumbles rather recklessly before us without any mechanism to conceal itself. These instances become possible, it would seem, through the social march of the masses; the locomotive of history, embodied in the particularity of class struggle. We observe this ideology, in the present sense, through inter-subjectivity; the classic example being cinema in our regard.
In the movie God’s Not Dead, we see the religious-moral ideology permeates every crack and crevice available in the screenplay to articulate itself as ‘present’ as possible. This is the enigmatic power of ideology. The way in which it is able to articulate every social instance carefully through its own narration and then re-articulate itself through its own self-narration as uninhabited and reproduced everywhere. This gives us a rare glimpse into the apparent unlimited desire of ideology to mediate all that which exists through itself. Imagine, here, the example given by Zizek into the ‘video game persona’ of same gamers. In which, the gamer takes upon a certain persona abstracted from his social being to ‘be as he truly is’ not only what he intends to explore. For example, if the gamer takes upon this hyper-masculine, aggressive, and sexualized identity within his video game, he is in actuality reflecting his ‘being’ before having been seized upon by the Social or what have you. We can articulate this ‘being’ of ideology in the same way in which we observe its own self-narration and re-articulation. Principally, the way in which this re-articulated ideology is all-encompassing and mediating reflects the endless ambition to be as such.
However, like the subject who cannot resume this agency or modified ‘being’ limited by the Social, ideology is also limited. Limited not in its capacity or material internal-contradiction (as capital), or the revealing investigation of some rational heroes, but in the multiplicity of ideologies which fall into contradiction (both antagonistic and non) among each other. In the film, we see the antagonistic contradiction between the religious-moral ideology collide with that of other ideologies most notably that of the familial and capital sort. Certainly, we are being crude in this manner of analysis by which we have forsaken engaging dialectical depth for brief analytic models but we still must make the extrapolation nonetheless as the epistemological progression remains ultimately the same.
The contradiction with the familial ideology in the film is first overcome, and antagonistically so. The protagonist, Josh Wheaton, rejects his girlfriend’s insistence to give up the conflict with Professor Radisson, citing the importance of their relationship. However her efforts are ultimately futile here. The moment Josh Wheaton read Matthew 10:32-33 aloud he became an interpellated subject of such ideology:
“32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
And so it goes as Althusser gave example to with his analogy of the police officer and person in the street: the officer yells “hey!” and in the moment at which the individual turns and realize it is she being addressed she becomes the subject. Such is interpellation. The same can be drawn here from Wheaton’s experience and in a rather similar exemplification. After visiting the pastor he feels “called upon” and even makes reference to this during his discussion with his girlfriend. Reading aloud the above verses he sets out to “acknowledge” this “call” and in a quite clear fashion consciously accepts his interpellation as a subject to the religious-moral ideology.
Embodied in this interpellation is the promise given by Ideology to the Subject of some abstracted relationship to the Other. By which, only this act of self-conscious interpellation can the subject draw into relation with the Other; mediated through the articulation of Ideology. In this concrete sense, we find the verse Wheaton reads aloud giving form to the abstract. Specifically, how Jesus declares “I will also acknowledge before my Father” offering Wheaton a relationship to this Other, God the Father, granted he become a subject or “acknowledges me before men”.
In this way, the pure subject of religous-moral ideology, Josh Wheaton, is able to overcome the familial ideology that his girlfriend brings to contradiction with him via his thorough interpellation (being that a self-conscious subjection). It is interesting to note how not only does this re-articulated ideology defeat its competitor but the way in which the self-narration articulates the contradiction as primarily antagonistic. The ideology, through its own self-narration, is seen as thus ‘jealous’ in some regard and perhaps lends historicity to religious-moral ideology in the scope of superstructure. However, even within its own narrated realm ideology cannot entirely escape its social limitations as Wheaton’s girlfriend is not interpellated to the religious-moral ideology but instead remains a subject of the familial. This perhaps also reveals the gluttonous character of the pure ideology, re-articulated here. That in some respect the Ideology does not seek to interpellate the Subject who has instead been made that pure mediation of another. The dialectic identity of the Ideology requires it find some great antagonistic contradiction by which it can relate. This would then necessitate the negation of that other aspect to then ‘fulfill’ the quality of its dialecitcal identity. Wheaton’s girlfriend is then, in our example, discarded from the movie, the script, and the narration of ideology.
Contradiction and Limitation
However this interplay of ideology in cinema is tragically dramatic in light of antagonism. The reality of interplay among ideologies of varying orders usually offers the solution of a re-articulation of the previous antagonism to be non-antagonistic. Let us turn to history for a concrete example of this phenomena, specifically within the antagonism between the traditional bourgeois ideology of the virtuous self-interested capitalist and the, at time, dominant christian moral ideology. Such an analogy, even though being historic, requires a level of crude assessment on ‘what is’ such and such ideology and for the sake of such analogy we will presume the nature of this comparatively static bourgeois ideology (although, as with all things, ideology is internally dynamic). The rising bourgeois ideology of the self-interested Free Man could not defeat all at once the christian moral ideology of self-sacrifice, effacement, humility and so on which had been dominant for centuries upon centuries upon every level of social formation. However, such a statement also suggests that such capital ideology, or any ideology in the abstract, seeks to dominate entirely the space of other ideologies. This is presumptious at best and we can only draw such an inclination from the examples of self-narrated ideology such as the film in question. The tactical alignment of ideology would rather indicate that through history the strategic victory of one ideology over another does not require the entire dismantlement of the opposing aspect but only its envelopment into the rising aspect. Consider the Protestant Work Ethic. Not in the entirely Weberian canon of capital social relations developing from a Protestant deviation but the actual Protestant Work Ethic as some moral indignant principle of a rising bourgeoisie in Europe.
The antagonism between the self-interested Free Man and the self-sacrificing Christian ethic was re-articulated as non-antagonistic and (partially) resolved through the Protestant Work Ethic. The new synthesizing ideology of a righteous and ascending bourgeoisie who founded their intrinsic power as Free Men of capital in their protestant moral duty. The ultimate, albeit crude, historical analogy of the sort of ‘re-articulation’ we speak of. This reconciliation of contradiction does not eliminate the antagonisms between the two at their most basic levels of mediation. And, as we have observed over time, this initial reconciliation and re-articulation precedes the more vapid dominance of the rising over the former (e.g. the subsequent secularisation of European life resulting from the initial victory of the self-interested bourgeois ideology).
Therefore, the interplay of differing ideologies is perhaps ‘limited’ by the need to re-articulate the original contradiction between the two. In a single instance, there cannot be the full integration of one into another but certainly an obvious dominance of one over the opposite. The ‘mask’ of ideology is then cast to hide the remaining antagonisms as being non-antagonistic contradictions so that in the greater course of time and struggle the two might be made one in the spectacle of ideology (think here of the American Dream: the fanciful dance of bourgeois ideology and a religious contention of duty).
Throughout the course of the movie we find a consistent theme in ‘loss’. Loss including a loss of faith, relationships, friends, even life etc. In this way we could consider the film’s obsession with ‘loss’ as quite telling of the ideological inclination at play. The narrative being that the human agency is weak, frail, and even contemptible. Subjectivity is then not a positive construction upon some Thing but truly a negative space of ‘meaning-absence’. That subjectivity must be filled in with the interpellation of ideology for the subject to be complete.
“Trust Only in the LORD”
Thus we see in the film the protagonist takes upon himself willingly a great deal of loss. But he does so with the aforementioned promise of that ideological mediation to the Other (God, in this sense). The loss of his meaningful social relationships (such as that of his girlfriend) are then redeemed as an odd ideological duty of some sort. Recall then the Biblical account of how Jesus fasted in the desert for weeks; enduring endless temptation from Satan to exercise his human condition. However, God the Father sustained him and thus we see that Josh Wheaton needs no relationship but that with the Other. Ideology can indeed work to transform the social relationships upon which it is ‘imagined’. As the old saying goes ‘trust in God and the rest will fall into place’ as the ideological motion of the subject transforms those same social relationship or at least ‘how they are imagined’; which we might suggest is all that is important in the realm of social forces. Trust only in God as that interpellation offers a substantive transformation of subjectivity which can ‘re-align’ the world-as-meaning in the most material sense.
As if the earlier exploits of the plot were not enough, the movie’s ending scene, alluded to earlier (with the dying atheist professor) examines the greatest religious-moral instance of all: the salvation. It’s almost with sly grin you have to imagine the producers gleaming over this final portion of the script. That dastardly atheist professor finally gets what he deserves; the salvation he never wanted. Although this too can be read in light of ideology. Recall earlier the great ‘negative space’ of subjectivity and the loss of all social relations (then transformed). Ideology is always there to rescue the subject from the intolerable Absurdity or even the risk such a being might become ‘conscious’ and all the trouble that brings. Without ideology, what is the subject? Certainly, without the most critical aspect of ‘being a subject’ and therefore ideology will always imagine itself as the savior upon the meaningless plight of a would-be subject.
It might be said that capital is the alpha-omega of Capitalism: the beginning and the end. Certainly this would be true in the most technical and yet broad understandings of the capitalist mode of production. Everything is mediated through capital, and understood in its relation to capital. Yet how do we imagine this capital? How do we imagine its motion, its relationships, our relationship to it and so on? These are questions answered in analysis of ideology and certainly we must consider then ideology as being intimately ‘caught-up-in’ the real material functioning of capitalism and our contemporary social order; perhaps fare more than we often give credit.
In the scope of ideology, what do such movies as this even offer? No one is going to God’s Not Dead and expecting to see the next masterpiece of modern cinema. So why do people drag themselves and others along to such dreadfully obvious expositions of ideology? As cynical as it seems, such events are really just classic rituals of belief. But such rituals of belief only become greatly significant in light of a waning ideology. Recall that one is only invited to kneel down and pray before God when one doubts their very faith. There is not the same precondition for such rituals in light of the bourgeois ideology of capitalism; in fact, it would seem such an ideology is reproduced at every instance of interaction in the totality of capital. Everything we do, and how we do it, in some way articulates that inescapable gaze of capital (and how we relate to it). The Christian moral ideology, on the other hand, is not so dominant. Rather, recent trends suggest that the extreme religiosity of Christians in the United States is indeed waning. The final victory of the bourgeois secular ideology is perhaps upon us. So then we might see such movies and film events as being those rituals in belief for Christians and the health of Christian moral ideology as a whole. A chance to say, ‘Look, we still exist!’. A chance to further indulge themselves in their Great Commission to carry the Word from every corner of the earth. Although, it could be asked how much of this is that genuine outburst of the faithful over the guilty reflection of the doubter? Certainly, as Zizek points out in regard to Pascal’s famous statement ‘if one wants to believe, get down on your knees and pray and you shall believe’; the trick is not in getting the subject to ‘believe’ in that mediation but into thinking they had ‘always believed’.