|Promotional photo from the film God's Not Dead|
I’ve never seen the movie God’s Not Dead or its sequels. I have no intention of ever doing so. I realize many people like these movies and draw hope from them, and I also recognize that they represent the leading edge of a Christian indie movie industry that’s massively lucrative: the first God’s Not Dead film grossed $62 million on a $2 million production budget. Yet, as a Christian myself, these films irk me endlessly.
And I’ll tell you why.
When my sister was seventeen and shopping for colleges, she settled on two. She ultimately wound up attending the state university a few hours’ drive from home, partly because that’s what the family could afford. But she really had her heart set on attending Northwestern College of Orange City, Iowa. This private liberal arts college is institutionally affiliated with the Reformed Church in America and has Christianity in its curriculum.
My sister (whose permission I don’t actually have to retell this story) was massively excited by Northwestern’s explicitly Christian content. She loved that Orange City, itself a heavily Dutch Calvinist community, largely closed down on Sundays so everyone could attend church. The idea of surrounding herself with all Christianity, all the time, while pursuing her liberal arts credentials, got her downright giddy. She really wanted this entirely Christian education.
Her bank account, let’s say, didn’t.
When she discovered there was no chance whatsoever of affording private-college tuition, she became paralyzed with tears. I remember her standing in the family kitchen, weeping like her dog had died, half-screaming: “If I go to a state university they’ll tell me to go stand over in the corner and keep quiet and never say anything because I’m a Christian.” The mix of rage and grief in her outburst was palpable. So was the baloney.
|Architectural drawing of the new Learning Commons at|
Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa
I was more conservative then than I am today, certainly. But I’d also perused both schools’ catalogues, and knew the state university had religious options available. Certainly, as a public institution, it couldn’t offer theological or seminary training, and was too small to host a religious studies program. But it had courses in biblical literature, the social science of religion, religious psychology, and more. And it hosted, though it obviously couldn’t sponsor, several on-campus ministries.
Yet for years, in our small-town congregation, we’d gotten barraged with messages about the inherent depravity of secular education. Well, all worldly institutions, really, but state-sponsored schooling was the nexus through which everybody passed, and therefore, the first test of godless secularizing mind control the good Christian had to surpass. Getting through high school, in many people’s understanding, meant walking through a purifying fire and emerging holy. Going back for more public education? I never.
Please understand, we weren’t part of some hyper-partisan fundamentalist sect. We attended the United Methodist Church, a centrist denomination that, among other things, tried (unsuccessfully) to censure Jeff Sessions for his behavior in authority. Yet, as often happens in small communities, a lack of diversity meant people became more extreme and intolerant in their opinions. From politics and religion to loyalty to the Denver Broncos and country music, everyone generally became more rigid, not less.
But this moment forced my first meaningful break with my childhood certainties. (Childhood, yeah. I was 23.) Seeing my sister paralyzed with grief because she had to attend public university, like three-quarters of Americans and most future pastors, struck me as beyond odd, especially as she’d had a fairly successful campus tour. She’d internalized the popular narrative of modern Christian persecution. And in her mind, months in advance, it had already begun happening to her.
|Asia Bibi, a woman who actually, literally fears for her life because of her Christianity|
Please don’t misunderstand me. I know Christians in this world are still persecuted. As I write, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, has narrowly evaded the death sentence for “insulting the Prophet,” an accusation the high court admits is probably fake; she still lives with constant death threats. There are places in the world where Christians have to fear violence daily. America isn’t one of them. Having to attend public education isn’t a human rights violation.
Yet a constant propaganda assault has convinced some people, unable to comprehend their own blinders, that that’s exactly what’s happening today. Mass media like God’s Not Dead convince believers to see conflicting views not as challenge and learning, but as attack and oppression. Years later, my sister doesn’t regret her state university education. But could she convince another small-town kid, raised on persecution media, that she won’t be silenced for her views? I don’t know.