This is a guest post by Bo Gardiner, the nom de plume of a Virginia-based environmental professional, naturalist (in both senses of the word), writer and humanist activist. She blogs at Under the Greenwood Tree.
They’re baaaaaaackkkk… those smarmy Christians and evil atheists have returned to your neighborhood theater! Pure Flix’s Do You Believe? opened yesterday in theaters nationally to the same critics-hate-it/audiences-love-it response that their film God’s Not Dead received last year.
Do You Believe?’s predecessor God’s Not Dead was a disturbing collection of clichéd anti-atheist caricatures and American Christian persecution fantasies. Pure Flix marketed it well; thousands of churches held special screenings, and an online store sells GND shirts, hats, keychains, bracelets, window decals, and souvenir cups.
Did the filmmakers tone it down after hearing our criticism that GND encouraged divisive hatred and bigotry? With God’s Not Dead earning over $100 million worldwide on a $2 million investment, what do you think?
Actually, what they did is distribute another film with more of the same to over twice as many theaters (1320) as before in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.
At RogerEbert.com, Peter Sobczynski describes Do You Believe? as “punishingly preachy.” Comparing it to what he calls “the lunacies” of God’s Not Dead, which he describes as “pretty awful — a frequently ridiculous stew of straw man arguments, stacked decks, an overwhelming persecution complex,” he calls Do You Believe? “so ridiculously ham-fisted that it almost makes its predecessor seem reasonable and open-minded by comparison.” Of this new crop of the godless, Sobczynski says:
… the most grotesque of the bunch [is an] EMT [who] proselytizes to a dying accident victim instead of doing his actual job and winds up being sued for everything he has by the secular humanist widow and her money-loving, religion-hating lawyer… The lawyer, by the way, is married to a cynical doctor… who refuses to believe in miracles and, in one especially astonishing scene, gets irrationally upset at the sight of a couple saying grace before eating…
The finale, in which all of the storylines finally converge (and how) is exceptionally ludicrous…
Subtle as a sledgehammer to the toes and only slightly more entertaining, “Do You Believe?” will no doubt play well with viewers already predisposed towards liking it because it has been designed to reconfirm their already deeply-felt beliefs rather than doing anything that might cause them to think about or challenge those beliefs in any meaningful way. Those who are not as heavily invested in its core message will probably find it laughable (though not nearly as much as “God’s Not Dead,” a film so risible that it is being screened next month at the 2015 American Atheists National Convention, complete with riffing by two of the guys from the late, great “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”) and will likewise not find any reason to question their own personal value systems.
I quite like this guy, who surely deserves his place on the film criticism website that bears the name of the much-missed (atheist) Roger Ebert.
Jordan Hoffman at The Guardian had a similarly intelligent reaction:
It’s a fascinating look at the persecution complex many evangelical Christians feel, and it comes to a head in the ludicrous conclusion when everyone in the film — all 12 characters — smash into one another in a collision on the bridge…
… Do You Believe? makes it pretty clear what its opinion of medical science is. My sibling is alive as a result of experimental treatment at New York’s leading cancer hospital. I very nearly threw my shoe at the screen.
… only the converted… are going to be able to watch the more heavy-handed sections without cracking up. The bridge sequence left me in stitches…
Variety‘s Scott Foundas is equally blunt:
… the old us-vs.-them sentiments bubble up to the surface. For want of a Friedrich Nietzsche to throw under the theological bus, or an entire university system to deride as a bastion of atheist groupthink, “Do You Believe?” instead spews its venom upon trade unions, the medical establishment and the American legal system — all variously depicted as secular strongholds hostile to anyone who dares to reveal him/herself as a true believer. “I do His work. I should get the credit,” snarls an ER doctor (a hilariously miscast Sean Astin) with a “god complex.” Elsewhere, the movie literally puts God on trial, when a devout paramedic (Liam Matthews) finds himself charged with “proselytization under cover of authority” for sharing his faith with a dying man in the line of duty. (The man and his wife, we learn, were both members of the American Humanist Assn., whose motto, “Good Without a God” is offered here as the ultimate mark of secular shame.) “Inherit the Wind” it isn’t.
“Do You Believe?” is agitprop plain and simple, less interested in varieties of religious experience than in proffering the old televangelical/tent-revival assurances that faith will not just save your soul but also cure cancer, PTSD and whatever else ails you… “Do You Believe?” proves about as spiritually enlightening as a Kmart throw rug.
Even the Salt Lake Tribune calls Do You Believe? “preachy,” with “heavy-handed dialogue, thinly drawn characters” and “bad writing” that takes
… predictable shots at family planning clinics, humanists and even science — with Sean Astin, as a cynical ER doctor, designated as the rationalist a-hole.
[The film] may please the faithful, but for most people it will stir a longing for the days when God had a better writing staff: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Several reviewers shared my sense of Do You Believe?‘s unpleasant racial overtones. Sobczynski notes its all African-American gang of thugs and Variety says “only a couple of white screenwriters could dream up” its “stocking-capped, Cadillac-driving gangbangers.” The Wrap says:
This is the kind of movie in which white characters get deathbed miracles, while most of the people of color get to die to teach white people life lessons. The good Christian white people, that is; the non-believers are, to a person, supercilious smug jerks, including a doctor (Sean Astin) and his lawyer girlfriend (Amanda Logan White).
On that note, a guest at an early preview posted this unsurprising comment earlier this week:
I went on a set visit for this in October… During a special presentation to the gathered press and distributors… [T]he screenwriters went on such a tirade about how mean atheists are one of the producers had to get them to stop, because it was starting to feel like a Klan rally.
It’s a sure-fire formula that will inevitably generate copycats… including Pure Flix themselves. Producer David A. R. White announced on a Christian interview show yesterday that he’s starting production on God’s Not Dead II in May.