While watching Herald Conk’s recently released film “God is Not Dead,” I was reminded of a thought from James Baldwin’s essay, “The Fire Next Time:“ “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
Conk’s film opens and the audience meets Josh, a tall, lean, handsome college freshman with dark hair and green eyes, bearing a cross-necklace on his chest. In his first philosophy class, Josh encounters a militantly atheist professor who forces all students to sign a contract reading: “God is dead.” Josh resists, and the professor challenges him to a debate that will decide if Josh passes the class.
Within the first 20 minutes of the movie, Conk has created good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, the underdog-savior vs. the villain. And, ironically enough—in the land that prints, “In God We Trust” on its tender, in the land that has christian organizations setting out to “cure” homosexuality, in the land that was conquered by, and has since been governed by christians—Josh is the one who up against it all.
The prophetic line of Conk’s film comes from a minor character – Pastor Dave – in regard to faith: “It’s so simple,” he tells Josh. For Conk, life really is that “simple,” as the entire film operates under a single, dangerously simple assumption: either one is a christian with a fulfilling life, or an evil atheist with an empty life.
Conk, however, does not stop with exploiting an oversimplified narrative; he is also pressed to exploit racial stereotypes. In just under two hours, the audience meets a quite, studious, and passive character from China; a fundamentalist muslim father who beats his daughter for listening to christian sermons; and an African-American missionary who is reduced to a side-kick caricature – similar to Jim from “Huck Finn” – having only the capacity to mumble, “God is Good.” Moreover, none of these characters proactively participate in the on-going feud between atheism and christianity. Instead, they are passive agents in a White world—and it is up to the White christian to liberate and protect them.
The most dangerous part Conk’s film, however, is its resolution: the atheists convert and die, while the ethnic minorities convert to christianity. For Conk, the solution for this pluralistic world is that the Others – the atheists, Muslims, East-Asians – become like him, or die; preferably both.
In Conk’s world, there is no room for coexistence, and it is quite obvious that all god has done for Conk – and those who share his sentiments – is created a topic for debate, and a debate that must be won. In fact, by the end of the film, the cross that Josh bears on his chest is a marker of supremacy.
In this light, I was less offended as an atheist, and more disturbed as a human being: Life is certainly not as simple as Conk suggests, and in no way does creating a reality dominated by good vs. evil make anyone “larger, freer, [or] more loving.” Rather, that framework is paralyzing.
Conk’s movie as evidence, as a society, it seems we should be less concerned with whether god is – or is not – dead, and more concerned with whether or not the concept of god will divide and kill us.
**NOTE: keep all capitalization as-is; keep christian/ god/ muslim NOT capitalized**