From the Classroom to the Courtroom

Opposing attorneys in God's Not Dead 2
From the Classroom to the Courtroom
A Review of God’s Not Dead 2 by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

            The new sequel of 2014’s smash hit God’s Not Dead raises the stakes even more as it moves the question of religious liberty in an increasingly secular culture from the classroom to the courtroom. Here, the tables are turned, and it is a history teacher who faces termination and financial ruin for simply mentioning Jesus in public school setting. It’s doesn’t have the knockout punch of its predecessor but still a decent left hook.
            The aptly named Grace (Melissa Joan Hart) is a perfect example of St. Francis’ “actions not words” approach to Christian witness. She sacrifices good pay and personal ambition to teach AP United States history at Dr. Martin Luther King High School and seems genuinely interested in her students’ success. At home, she sacrifices a normal family life to take care of her ailing father, played by pat Boone, who has not appeared in a mainstream film since 1967. One afternoon while discussing civil rights and school’s name sake leader, one of her students, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), asks if MLK’s inspiration came from the teachings of Jesus. Grace affirms her suggestion and quotes the famous passage from Luke about “turning the other cheek” as a compliment to MLK’s use of nonviolent protest. When Brooke’s parents discover this exchange, they complain to the school board who insist Grace apologize. When she refuses, Brooke’s parents see an opportunity for a cash grab and maybe some liberal street cred for her daughter’s potential college admission. Against Brooke’s wishes, they hire the ACLU to sue Grace for violating their daughter’s first amendment rights. Unable to afford legal consul, the court assigns Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) as her defense attorney. He isn’t interested in her religious faith but also “doesn’t like to lose.”
To even the most hardened professor, Grace’s “classroom antics” would seem like a reasonable response to a reasonable question. Unfortunately for her, she does not live in reasonable time, and even Catholic schools can experience pushback for presenting a Judeo-Christian worldview. It’s odd that this kind of academic exploration does not seem to apply in the cases of other religions like Hinduism or Islam. Knowledge is knowledge, and religion is the dominant force in the lives of most humanity. It’s insane to attempt any kind examination of history, especially American history, without factoring in Christianity. To prove Grace only acted in the interests of expanding her students’ thinking, Tom brings in several real experts, most former atheists or agnostics, who can attest to the historical reality of Jesus Christ and the validity of the gospels. This fact will be obvious to most, even non-Christians, but it good to hear the reasons anyway.
If all Brooke had asked was the question in class, the prosecution would have a difficult time, but there is a deeper, more interesting layer to Grace’s case. Prior to this event, Brooke’s brother had died suddenly, and she was desperately searching for a meaning to life that her parents had refused to provide. Outside the classroom, she approached Grace about this problem in her life, and Grace spoke honestly about how her Christian faith helped her understand suffering. In the courtroom, Brooke had to admit that had it not been for Grace’s evangelism, she would not have asked the question or become a Christian.
This beautiful and haunting episode highlights a deeper problem in academia today. One does not need a teacher to provide knowledge on a specific topic; even Wikipedia can provide that. Rather, teachers provide an essential human contact that gives life to both the material and student. On parent’s night, I always make this fact very clear:
“It is my goal to get your daughter to Heaven. I’ll be very happy if she get great grades, is accepted to Yale, and becomes a world famous doctor. However, my main purpose is to make sure she sees God forever and helps those around her do the same.”
Teachers should be role models inside and outside the classroom, mentors of both word and deed. Yet, this kind of just authority is totally intolerable to the secular mind. I remember during the Tiger Woods scandal how Brit Hume gently invited him to consider the gospel and the horrific backlash that came against him for that act of charity. Christians must always insists on the right to publicly express their faith. The screenwriters explained this brilliantly in an earlier CWR piece:

“The secular-humanist progressives insist that people are free to worship as they choose, but they need to leave their personal beliefs at the door when they enter the public sphere. And unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into that. But it’s a trap: it means the other side gets to bring its belief system into the public square, but we don’t. We’ve got to stop making that concession, or we’re going to end up losing the right to exercise our religious faith as well.”

            The biggest obstacle facing God’s Not Dead 2 is its final act. After establishing several compelling characters and relationships, Tom descends into a tirade of theatrics that don’t make sense in either the film’s narrative or real life. The film is also not as brash or innovative as the original. Partly, these are the normal problems that plague sequels, having to both honor the previous endeavor yet creating a new vision. They certainly get the first part right but miss the mark on the second.
            Despite the film’s hopeful ending, there is a sense a looming dread that surrounds everything. It understands that the clouds on the horizon are darkening and that more challenging times are ahead. Perhaps it would have been better to not have finished on so positive a note but allowed Grace to fail in the eyes of the world, to prepare Americans to deal with failure as well as victory. For even if Grace had lost and been thrown into poverty and obscurity, she still would have won. She saved a soul, and that single accomplishment is worth more than any honor the world can give.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 13th, 2016.