Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead

The last couple weeks I've been feeling rather bad. A bunch of people at work came down with some sort of stomach flu. It's mild but causes diarrhea and mild dizziness and lasts for two or three weeks. I'm guessing I got the same thing. So please keep that in mind when I say this: I balled like a baby several times during the new Newsboys movie, God's Not Dead. This review will be spoiler-free because it's really not a movie review. I've been reading some other reviews which claim that the scenarios acted out in this movie are unrealistic because we live in a country that is over eighty percent Christian, so I'm going to tell some real stories from my own life that might bear some resemblance to parts of the movie. Mostly, this is me writing to figure out why it affected me so much. I don't think it was either happiness or sadness. It was more validation.

I went to college to study biochemistry because of the book Darwin's Black Box. My dad gave it to me in high school and I was instantly hooked. I was amazed by all the fascinating things that happen routinely in our own bodies. Molecular biology is the mother of all How It Works episodes. I had heard everything that young Christians hear about secular colleges, but I was prepared for it. In some ways, I was too prepared, always expecting a big debate on substantive issues to emerge in every class. Unfortunately I went to a university where just about everyone pretty much only cared about getting through the day, checking the box, signing on the dotted line, getting a degree. College was a big disappointment for me in some ways. I remember taking my Genetics class as an honors course. In order to get honors credit, we had to have a couple of sessions with just the honors students and the professor. The first session we decided what book to read and what chapters we would each be assigned. I advocated for Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, but pretty much everyone else voted for another one. I wanted a debate, and was denied. The second session we presented our assigned chapters to the group. We weren't even required to read the entire book. What a joke. At the second session I was the only one who presented without notes, mostly because I didn't care. From the looks of things nobody else did either. Three more honors credits. Check.

Nothing along the lines of what happened to the protagonist in God's Not Dead happened to me randomly or out of the blue. At my university there was the infamous anti-Christian professor just like in the movie, and some of my friends took his Old Testament class on purpose. I did not. But I did experience situations quite similar to those in the movie, mostly because I expected them and deliberately sought them out. That is an important thing to remember. The secular university is just fine letting people go along to get along, and most students do. The powers that be will only respond with a vengeance when threatened. If you are not threatening, you don't have much to worry about.

My first experience wasn't much to write home about. In my freshman English class which I took as a sophomore, we were required to give a presentation at the end of the semester. Most of the students, in fact I think all of them, presented the same topic as their final paper which made for some real yawners. But our teacher had said we could present on any topic we wanted, so I chose intelligent design. I remember going through most of the presentation completely serious, professional and stone-faced, except for a small bit of early 20th century comic relief:

I remember seeing several very serious looks back from the class, but the professor on the other hand behaved like she had ants in her pants the entire presentation. I was the only one out of the entire class whom she warned for time.

Sometime during my sophomore or junior year I started an intelligent design student club. The club was unsuccessful, mostly because I fail at marketing and people skills. For instance, I refused to go around to the various campus Christian groups to pitch the club, even when my own campus minister wanted me to pitch it for our group, because I was very intent on the group avoiding accusations of religious bias. I wish someone had told me then that the success of the group should not be a lower priority than what people would say about it. I organized a disbursal of table tents in the student union once, but as I found out it takes quite a bit more than that to make a student organization work. The one event we (really I) held was a debate with the campus atheist group, which went very well. I remember holding my own very well against several atheist students who showed up. In particular, I remember telling them very clearly and directly that I had no designs on forcing my religion on anyone, I merely wanted to be able to pursue an academic career in science without being in danger of losing my job. I'm not sure what they thought of that, but I received only silence in return. I knew then and now that many atheists actively and openly advocate against allowing Christians into scientific fields.

(EDIT: A couple years after I graduated, I learned that Dr. Martin Gaskell, the astronomy professor who had signed on as the faculty advisor for my intelligent design club at Nebraska, was denied a position at the University of Kentucky because he was, and I quote, "potentially evangelical". This and other revealing things were learned from subpoenaed emails, such as the revealing conversation among the committee responsible for filling the position saying in plain English that Dr. Gaskell was by far the most qualified applicant. Dr. Gaskell settled the case for $125,000. There are numerous other similar examples of persecution within scientific fields. When it comes to persecution of professional academics, the bias in our academic system is far, far worse than what is shown in God's Not Dead. Even President Obama's appointment of Francis Collins to head the NIH was vigorously opposed by atheists and scientists for no other reason than Collins was a Christian.)

Some time after that I took a philosophy of science course even though it satisfied none of my graduation requirements. Turns out, two of the guys I had debated ended up in the class with me. I thought, "Jackpot!" This was going to be fun. I was itching for a fight and was determined to make it happen. Unfortunately the professor was some LGBT fanatic who apparently had studied philosophy of science to prove the legitimacy of alternative sexual orientations. We spent an inordinate amount of class time going over the myriad genetic diseases affecting gender in excruciating detail, so there wasn't a lot of time for grander ideas. But I did manage to pin her down once when we were discussing matter as a basis for philosophy. I poked holes, prodded and provoked with questions until she finally lost her cool a little bit, took a few menacing steps toward me, loomed over at me and asked, "Well what would you suggest?" I must admit, having spoiled for a fight I was somewhat unprepared to be directly challenged. I will forever regret that the words which came out of my mouth were spoken only loud enough that a few students next to me heard them. The moment passed and never came again. I had won control of the agenda, and she had offered a portion to me, and I wilted. Not for lack of ability or passion. I wasn't a coward. I was simply surprised that what I was speaking about evoked a menacing response from her in the midst of what had been a cool, rational discussion. I wilted because I was embarrassed, yes, but embarrassed for her. The veneer of rational cool had lifted, only for a moment, and the bare emotional core revealed. After the moment passed, I couldn't help but glance at the president of that atheist club taking the class with me. The look on his face was priceless. A nerve had been struck, and he was looking at the professor with new eyes.

The next year I offered to debate the same atheist group again, but their leadership had all graduated and it was being run by completely different people. My debate offer was met with epithets and vitriol. I was directed to the natural history museum to which I had already been many times, being in my hometown. In short, a debate was out of the question. Interestingly though, the old leaders of the group still got all the emails, and several of them, including the old president, responded to the group in no uncertain terms that they would all be better for it if they would take me up on the offer. They still did not of course, but I'm happy to have made a positive impression on someone.

This incident made me quite angry, and I stewed over it for awhile. The thought arose in my mind that if they refused to talk to me in person after their own people told them they should, than they damn well would hear from me in another forum. I pounded out an massive, angry, ill-advised column for the student newspaper and turned it in, never believing for a moment that it would be published. I had published editorials in real newspapers before, and I knew there were standards which I had completely disregarded. Unfortunately for me, student newspapers do not have the same standards. So a few days later I walked into my early morning anthropology class, plopped down in my seat, and started reading the student paper before class started. There to my dismay, in full, five-column glory at the top of the opinion page, was my angry article. My friend told me later it was like I was punching everyone, which he described with the appropriate hand gestures. The general thesis was that truth was being subverted by power on both sides of the origins debate, and that science and reason should be sought out by anyone interested in forming their own, unbiased opinion. I was quite specific about how professors at universities used their power to enforce conformity with certain scientific viewpoints.

That same day, I went to my physical chemistry course. I was still completely mortified and hoping the day would pass without anyone acknowledging my existence. This professor brought in his usual Pyrex beaker full of coffee, a fun little joke of his, as well as a copy of the student newspaper, which he slapped down on his desk with more than a little force. After the lecture, he spent about five minutes of class time going over some obscure enzyme with an active site that could mutate between two different reactions with a single mutation or something. The class was dead silent. This was the same professor who had somewhat randomly lectured the class before on how all professional organic chemists descended from two old European families or some such nonsense. There was the class material, and then there were his soapboxes. This was clearly a soapbox, though I'm not sure how many of the students had either read my article or understood that this professor was doing exactly what I had accused him of doing: using his power to enforce evolutionary orthodoxy. When he made this presentation, his voice wavered like it never had before. His hand shook a little when he drew on the chalkboard. It was extremely disconcerting. This time I knew the whole class felt that same sense of embarrassment for this man as his veil dropped. When it was over, I walked out of class, something which I regret to this day. There was an obvious, sound-byte worthy response to the professor's presentation, one which could even take the form of an innocent question, but like the God's Not Dead protagonist, I did not have it prepared. Unlike him, I never got another chance.

Maybe I made some impression on this professor, because I actually failed his course. Physical chemistry was the hardest course I have ever taken, but I also failed two other very easy courses that semester. I was having some romantic issues and could barely concentrate. Normally when students fail PChem they retake it in the summer, a class known to be much easier. I'm sure this professor was used to students doing that. I wonder if he didn't gloat at my failure. But I refused to take the easy way out. I retook his course the next year. When I sat down to take the final, the TA told me, somewhat conspiratorially, that I could break the curve in the class. I ended up getting an A- because I couldn't remember how to do a specific problem that I had studied very hard, which ended up being the difference. But hey, I went from failing to an A-, so I can't complain. I got the impression during the second time around that this professor had staked a little too much on my not being able to succeed in his course, so when I did it may have shook him up a bit. But I don't know, and probably never will. His strength is made perfect in weakness.

The reader will probably have to actually see the movie to understand why it meant so much to me. God's Not Dead showed me my own world the way it could have been. The way it should have been. I did something, but I feel like it wasn't enough. Goliath is standing in the valley and mocking the Almighty God. If fighting him was as simple as walking out with a sling in one hand and five stones in the other, I would have done it long ago, consequences be damned. This beast lives in minds instead of muscle, and God in His wisdom has granted the beast of man free will. It cannot be slain with a sling, even in the wildest dreams of a man forever reliving his short-lived academic career.

We write and read stories because they are better than the real world. In stories, the good guys win. In stories, Justice is served. In stories, there are happy endings. We can make everything work out in a story. We say the right thing. We remember the right words. The truth is spoken out loud. In the real world, things usually don't go as planned. Things don't work out. We forget the words, and falsehood goes unanswered. Sometimes there just isn't a right thing to say or do because there's something wrong with this world. It's easy to despair of it. It's easy to believe that nothing we've done or said has made a difference in anyone's life. I don't know that much of what I have done or said has mattered, but I know a God who has promised me that nothing I have done for Him is in vain. I believe that promise because God's not dead, and He is the only one who can write stories in the real world.

Now that's whack.