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Hey, God, if you're there... have mercy on filmmakers

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Sorbo (left) sports a devilish goatee and a smug attitude.

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Sorbo (left) sports a devilish goatee and a smug attitude.

When you lose your temper, mother always taught you, "You've already lost the argument."

That's not good news for God's Not Dead. This is the angriest faith-based film in memory.

Believers here are outnumbered, a persecuted, righteous and intellectually rigorous minority.

Non-believers run the gamut from fascist, bullying college professors to an abusive Muslim who would rather beat his child than let her study the Christian Bible, from godless Chinese who fear government persecution to "ambush" journalists out to get those God-fearing Duck Dynasty millionaires.

It's a movie where rare is the voice that is raised, but deep is the rage bubbling through its rabid anti-intellectualism. When a non-believer is better off dead, that's not brimstone you're smelling. It's bile.

Shane Harper plays Josh Wheaton, a freshman at Hadleigh University who ignores warnings and enrols in Professor Radisson's philosophy class. Radisson is a smug, sneering atheist who insists that his students sign an admission that "God is dead," before he even starts the semester. Josh refuses to sign, and thus the professor, played by Kevin Sorbo in a Lucifer goatee, decides to give the kid the entire semester (apparently) to prove the opposite.

Radisson is a caricature of a know-it-all college prof: "In that classroom, there IS a God. And I'm him."

He's fond of calling Christians "flat-earthers," of quoting Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and the like -- atheists all.

To which Josh fires back C.S. Lewis, John Lennox (a British mathematician and debate foil for Dawkins) and "Lee Strobel," who is not identified as what he is -- a TV preacher. No, those thrown into the fray from the "God is good, all the time" side are neither as numerous nor as credentialed.

Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache) is a blogger who wears her "Meat is Murder" and equivalent liberal bumper stickers with pride as she surprises Willie and Korbie Robertson of Duck Dynasty and Christian rockers Newsboys with confrontational interviews.

She's dating callous atheist lawyer Mark (Dean Cain), whose believer sister (Cory Oliver) is dating her former professor, Radisson.

Hadeel Sittu is Ayisha, a student whose stern Muslim dad keeps her covered up and unassimilated.

And then there's the preacher (David A.R. White) who only wants to take his African missionary friend (Benjamin Ochieng) to Orlando, but every car he gets into fails to start. Divine intervention? He's needed for a higher purpose here in this Louisiana college town?

The pace is stumbling, the characters are broad, the makeup and the performances uneven, though Sorbo dives into his tactless, unethical indoctrinator role with Satanic glee.

It's a movie better versed in propaganda techniques than cinematic ones. Band-wagoning, for instance, filling the closing credits with decades of legal actions by the James Dobson-backed Alliance Defending Freedom against colleges that have somehow impinged on Christian students' rights, suggesting more suits and a tidal wave of "success" that isn't really there.

And like the Creationist documentary Expelled, God's Not Dead is a straw-man debate, with myopic and hopelessly biased theists laying out the other side's arguments for it, making them easier to swat down.

Movies too often paint Christians with the sort of laughably broad strokes that this Harold Cronk sermon-to-the-choir picture uses to depict atheists. Cronk and his movie are their own worst enemies here -- pandering, telling the faithful what they want to hear and, by giving Duck Dynasty a prominent role, giving away how frustrated and angry believers can feel that they have no better spokesmodels for their points of view than a bunch of blow-dried duck-call salesmen.


-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2014 D6

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