Let me qualify everything I’m about to say by first saying that I have not seen the movie God’s Not Dead yet. This is not a movie review nor is it meant to discourage anyone from going to see it. From talking to some friends who have seen it, I understand there are some redeeming things about the movie and the story it presents. Amongst them is the fact that the main character is willing to stand up for what he believes in and takes the time to research and find answers to difficult questions posed by the antagonistic philosophy professor. I find it interesting that Focus on the Family’s movie review website, Plugged In, had this to say as the negative elements of the movie “Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.” As much as that bothers me and could be topic in and of itself or a blog—the portrayal of non-Christians in Christian movies—that is not the issue I have with this movie.
Surely there are professors that are antagonistic towards Christianity and organized religion in general. Many of them have published works that provide their explanations of why they think faith in a deity is intellectual suicide. I don’t doubt that many of them don’t shy away from sharing their antagonistic attitude in class. That being said, they are still professional. In any philosophy class you are not tested and assessed the same way you are in a math or even a science class. The field of philosophy does not require that you subscribe to the worldview of your professor. It does however require you give a rational support and or explanation of the worldview you’ve chosen. Thus the premise presented in the movie of a professor demanding that students deny God or gods completely at the outset of the semester is extremely far-fetched. Still that is not what bothers me the most.
For a number of years we’ve been warned that philosophy and professors of the sciences pose a major threat to Christian college students. We’ve been told that these cunning men and women are the main ones responsible for the often quoted statistic of somewhere between sixty to seventy percent of young Christians leave the church by their second year of college, a third of which never return. Yet in all my years of doing youth ministry—as a student, volunteer, and a pastor—I’ve yet to know of anyone who walked away from following Jesus Christ because of what they learned in a college philosophy or science course. On the other hand, I know a multitude of persons who have walked away from Christianity, all of whom walked away for one of three reasons.
The first is that they went away to college and eventually the guilt and shame from having premarital sex and or getting involved in alcohol and drug abuse became too overwhelming and thus it was easier to abandon faith than deal with their junk. Many of them feared being left out of all the fun everyone else was having and wanted to belong with their peers. They had been handed a faith that was primarily about behavioral modification and proved to be shallow and without roots. Some quite simply can be described by John 3:19 in that they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
The second reason is that they encountered some sort of tragedy or crisis, often the divorce of their parents or death of a loved one, and became either disillusioned with by God’s seeming disregard for their troubles or angry with him. It became easier to walk away than wrestle with what the Bible says about the present age and the age to come, namely the paradoxical reign of Christ on earth (the paradox of Jesus reigning on earth while there is still evil and suffering in the world) while yearning for the overflowing reign of Christ on earth where pain and suffering will be no more, and death will be defeated. Often times they’ve been handed a faith that says you suffer because you’ve been bad and God is punishing you. Ironically enough, this is where some adopt the Anosticism which says, “if there is a God who created the earth he or she is now totally uninvolved in the affairs of the earth”.
My point in bringing this to the table is this… Let’s stop blaming liberal college professors for the failures of the church, youth ministries, and parents. Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity summarizes the problem quite well, “it remains true that most churches are strong on teaching about conversion, but weak on teaching about how to live after conversion.” If anything college, or more to the point independence, is the testing ground of faith and the gospel message young people have been taught to believe. A gospel that primarily teaches you to modify your behavior is usually heavy on guilt and light on grace. A gospel that primarily teaches you that Jesus came to make your life better is light on hope for a world that is perishing and the cost of discipleship. A youth ministry primarily focused on having fun is going to yield young adults in search of more fun and entertainment. Sermons on how you’re blessed or claiming your blessing are light on telling the story of how God set out to bless the entire world and why it needed to be blessed in the first place. Parenting driven by fear of what could go wrong is light on talking about how the world went wrong and what God does about it in the past present and future.
We need to present our young people with a robust gospel that fosters disciples instead of converts and well-behaved kids. We need to own our failures instead of blaming them on people and institutions that weren’t around for the formational period of young adults lives. Otherwise, God’s Not Dead will be wholly accurate in their depiction of a young adult who has to go search for answers to tough questions in isolation, instead of in loving community, or abandon their faith all together.