If you didn’t know, I have a bit of an obsession with the independent Christian film market. Whether it’s a Kendrick Brother film or a biopic of Polycarp, I tend to track the box office and the cultural interactions with various independent Christian films.
So, when Pure Flix’s spiritual successor to the box-office buster GOD’S NOT DEAD (better known as DO YOU BELIEVE) hit the box office, I had to take some time out of my schedule and watch it. DO YOU BELIEVE was written by the same team who created GOD’S NOT DEAD, and directed by Jonathan Gunn, a young filmmaker whose most recent credit was THE WEEK, a film about a TV anchor who gets drunk and goes on an adventure to rediscover himself.
IMDB summarizes the film up with the following: “A dozen different souls-all moving in different directions, all longing for something more. As their lives unexpectedly intersect, they each are about to discover there is power in the Cross of Christ … even if they don’t yet believe it. When a local pastor is shaken to the core by the visible faith of an old street-corner preacher, he is reminded that true belief always requires action. His response ignites a faith-fueled journey that powerfully impacts everyone it touches in ways that only God could orchestrate.”
Full disclosure: I walked into this film with the assumption that the writers wouldn’t improve on the huge cultural and writing holes that they tended towards in GND. It turns out that I was partially right. In my opinion, DO YOU BELIEVE is better than GOD’S NOT DEAD on a technical level and on a thematic level.
Corey Atad of Movie Mezzanine notes that
“The leap in quality (in Pure Flix’s film catalog), at least in terms of production, from What If…, to God’s Not Dead, to Do You Believe? has been impressive. The Lifetime movie aesthetic has slowly been replaced with more cinematic storytelling, and the acting has gotten considerably better.”
That description felt fairly accurate. The film looks good and visually worked for me. Most of the actors gave what I’d consider to be adequate performances, and the camera shots were decent. The writing was weak, but the aesthetics hold up to most standards of theatre-level filmmaking.
What make DO YOU BELIEVE thematically better than GND was the fact that it wasn’t based on a straw meme. Many bloggers have chronicled how GOD’S NOT DEAD resembles an old chain letter/meme from the early 90s about how a young Christian student disproves an angry atheist professor in his own classroom, then goes on to preach to his classmates. DO YOU BELIEVE doesn’t rely on a such a straw man. While many of the characters are simplified archetypes designed to fulfill certain plotlines so that the filmmakers have a large “web” of characters, many of them seemed to me too be more believable than Professor Raddisson in GND.
But even if this film was a significant improvement when compared to GOD’S NOT DEAD, does that mean it is a good film on its own? I don’t think so. In my viewing, I noticed three problematic areas in the film that really weakened its ability to tell an entrancing story.
Too Many Characters: A constant thread in most reviews I read of GOD’S NOT DEAD and of DO YOU BELIEVE is the comparison to 2004’s Oscar-Award winning film CRASH. All three films followed an assortment of characters, whose lives all intertwined to create the plot of the film to explore a larger thread . While CRASH was commended by many (including Roger Ebert) as one of the best films of the year, LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas notes that:
“The characters in Crash don’t feel like three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings so much as calculated “types” plugged by Haggis into a schematic thesis about how we are all, in the course of any given day, the perpetrators and the victims of some racial prejudice. (Nobody in Haggis’ universe is allowed to be merely one or the other.) They have no inner lives. They fail to exist independently of whatever stereotype they’re on hand to embody and/or debunk.”
While GOD’S NOT DEAD and DO YOU BELIEVE don’t deal with the racial themes that CRASH does, they both rely on “calculated types” that are all written specifically to fit into a greater scheme that may seem miraculous and interesting at a first viewing, but is actually just designed to create a variety of situations that are threadbare and uninteresting if left by themselves.
DO YOU BELIEVE has every archetype in it, from the reformed gangster to the cancer patient to the homeless mom with a sweet daughter to a pregnant girl who wants to give away her girl to an adoption agency. Many of these characters had the potential to be really interesting in their own right. For example, I wanted to spend more time with JD and Terry, the two seniors who were struggling with their daughter’s passing. However, the film doesn’t give the couple enough time to flesh themselves out and develop attributes that exist separately from of “mourning elderly adults”.
Telling, Not Showing: A friend once pointed out to me that one of the biggest issue with most attempts at creating Christian films is their tendency to tell their stories over showing them. Film is a visual medium, and if filmmakers aren’t using every chance they have to tell a story visually, then they’re misusing the potential of the medium. This seems fairly consistent. There are a lot of interesting characters with semi-interesting backstories. But the filmmakers decision to emphasize having the characters tell their backstories rather than try and tell them visually or through their actions really weakened the film.
The example that stuck out to me the most was the EMT lawsuit. In DYB, The EMT shared the gospel with a dying man after (according to the film) he’s done everything he can to save the subject. When the dying man’s wife finds out that the EMT shared his faith, she sues him for acting outside of his function. Why? Because she and the man are apparently humanists. But how do we know this? The only mention of it is by the lawyer who’s handling the lawsuit.
While this is certainly one way of emphasizing why a character is terrible, I think it’s an ineffective one. It’s about as helpful as the pro-evolution, humanist and vegetarian bumper stickers that were on the back of the attack reporter’s car in GOD’S NOT DEAD. It doesn’t show us anything about the humanist, or if the EMT actually did his best. We’re just told to assume that all statements made about the characters should be all we need.
Overemphasizing conversion: DO YOU BELIEVE is about the Gospel and how it changes the twelve characters in the film. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that. Watching the Christian gospel change a person is a fascinating and enlightening experience. But I think the filmmakers tried too hard.
The film gives too many characters a point in the film that could be considered a “conversion point”. Now, this conversion point could be as simple as someone making a decision to help someone, or it could be as cinematicaly “big” as accepting Christ as their savior. Each of these points could have been important and a solid piece of cinematography. But the filmmaker’s decision to have 7-10 conversion points in the film killed the pacing and made it hard for to invest in a narrative that felt convoluted and threadbare.
Conclusion: DO YOU BELIEVE is Pure Flix’s attempt to move beyond their Lifetime-style filmmaking and create what they think will be a box office hit. The film is a technical improvement, but the writers haven’t moved away from the flaws that their last film, GOD’S NOT DEAD. The film has too many characters, emphasizes telling over showing, and its heavy emphasis on conversion killed any tension or plot consistency that was there. The films doesn’t do much more than confirm things that Conservative Christians already think.The film creates what Ken Morefield describes as an echo chamber.
In his feature “Do You Believe in Confirmation Bias”, Morefield notes that films like DO YOU BELIEVE do very little to break the conservative mindset out of a set bubble. Humanists are still awful, gangsters are terrible and Christians win in the end. While this might be true in a limited extent, it doesn’t help me or the other viewers thoughtfully or lovingly engage our neighbors.
Maybe the more pertinent question to ask in the face of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead and Do You Believe? is not whether they are accurate representations of the world we live in, but whether the way they respond—and invite us to respond—to that broken world will help us to remake it into something healthier, holier, and more reflective of kingdom principles.
If Pure Flix wants to be a film company that changes the culture AND the Church, it should try to make people reconsider what they think, instead of reinforcing concepts that a significant portion of the Conservative Christian culture already accepts