Essentially the “Why We Fight” series for The War on Christmas, the “God’s Not Dead” franchise has — with its first two installments — asserted itself as the chintziest and most intellectually counterfeit branch of the lucrative faith-based film wave that it’s helped to define. Whereas other recent offerings like “Heaven Is for Real” and last week’s “I Can Only Imagine” are largely harmless in how they preach to the choir and prostrate themselves before Evangelical audiences, Pure Flix’s “God’s Not Dead” saga has been defined by a persecution complex large enough to crucify Christ the Redeemer.
These movies are fundamentalist propaganda aimed at people who are convinced their religion is under attack in this country just because it doesn’t exempt them from the Constitution. At a time when antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise and America is openly hostile towards its own Muslim community (to say nothing of the Trump administration’s dehumanizing attitude towards immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ population), “God’s Not Dead” contends that white Christians are the real victims here.
According to these movies, secularism has silenced them to the point where they can barely hear themselves think — to the point where they believe that everyone else’s progress comes directly at their expense. So far as the God’s Not Dead Cinematic Universe is concerned, Christians are under constant attack, heathen liberals having grown so intolerant towards Jesus and his teachings that simply going to church on Sunday is enough to make someone feel like Joan of Arc. Fittingly enough, the third chapter of this hacky franchise begins with a pastor dying in a fire.
Picking up where 2016’s “God’s Not Dead 2” left off (God’s still not dead), and set in an alternate-reality Arkansas where a member of the clergy might be thrown in jail for refusing to share the text of his sermons with the government, “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” opens with the beloved Reverend Dave rotting in a prison cell, his signature goatee still perfectly intact. Played by actor and Pure Flix co-founder David A.R. White, Reverend Dave is something of a cross between Joel Osteen and Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger, but with less blood-sucking charisma than the former and less raw Canadian songwriting power than the latter. A supporting player in previous episodes, he’s the blandest and most benign hero this series has ever had, which makes him a natural choice for the blandest and most benign movie this series has ever produced.
Reverend Dave is hardly the only recurring character here, but “A Light in Darkness” isn’t inaccessible to newcomers — all are welcome here. Well, all who are willing to accept that diversity is vaguely satanic, and that NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch (playing herself in an interview segment) is a voice of reason. Anyway, Reverend Dave gets out of the clink, meets up with his old Ghanian friend Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango), and drops by the church they share on the campus of the fictional Hadley University. Rookie writer-director Michael Mason is completely lost when it comes to areligious small talk, so most of the chatter between these two men involves waffles, and how much they want some.
Alas, the good Reverend Jude is not long for this world, as an unidentified assailant throws a brick through a church window, which pierces a gas main, which explodes when the immigrant minister pulls on a bulb in the basement (a light in darkness, if you will). Kablam. Dead. Sad.
We soon learn via flashback that the inadvertent perpetrator of the fire was a faithless undergrad named Adam (Mike C. Manning), who vandalized the church in anger after his girlfriend, Keaton (Samantha Boscarino), essentially dumped him for Jesus. Nevertheless, the incident is assumed to be a hate crime, even though it would be the first time in the history of the United States that a church was burned down for that reason.
Things only go from bad to worse when the university recognizes the disaster as a golden opportunity to cleanse its campus of those pesky bible-thumpers once and for all, as Hadley — once a Christian institution before it was purchased by the state— now regards its last remaining house of worship as nothing but a lightning rod for controversy. Exercising eminent domain, they threaten to demolish the church. It’s up to Reverend Dave and his estranged lawyer brother (John Corbett, embodying the token atheist who comes to realize that he was in the wrong) to fight the good fight, recognize that “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior,” and prove that God’s not… you know.
It has to be said that “A Light in Darkness” is considerably better than the two movies that preceded it. Mason, in stark contrast to OG franchise director Harold Cronk, actually knows how to frame a shot like he’s ever actually seen a film before. Corbett also lends a real credibility to the scenes between Reverend Dave and his brother, to the extent that — if you squint — you might briefly forget that these are two of the most shamelessly didactic characters ever conceived in Christ’s name.
Most importantly, the script for this installment is, at least on its surface, much less absurd than “God’s Not Dead” or its first sequel. Keep in mind, this is a series in which a woman prayed away terminal cancer; one in which a Muslim girl with an abusive father saw the light of the lord and fled her false prophets; one in which Kevin Sorbo converted to Christianity as he lay dying in the street after getting hit by a car (and this was a happy ending).
Compared to all that, “A Light in Darkness” is practically even-handed. At times, it almost feels like a surrender, as Reverend Dave professes an interest in tolerance and unity. That interest, alas, is both empty and extremely disingenuous. Case in point: The climactic rally is covered by Fox News’ demonic Jeanine Pirro, who was once sued for accusing a prominent Black Lives Matter protestor of “directing violence” at a Baton Rouge rally. “Let’s stop shouting and start listening!,” Pirro pleas, appearing on leave from the television show where she regularly screams to the camera about how Hillary Clinton is in league with the devil.
And while that might seem like an irrelevant political knock against a dramatically inert movie that’s way too hokey and half-assed for any critic to engage with in a serious capacity, it’s emblematic of a film that’s about as fair and balanced as a Harlem Globetrotters game. “A Light in Darkness” only preaches compassion so that it can make it the sole province of its heroes, painting Reverend Dave as a hero who triumphs even in retreat.
He and his brother might come to realize that not every victory requires defeating the opposition, but the point of the “God’s Not Dead” franchise isn’t to win, it’s to reinforce the idea that fundamentalist Christians have to defend themselves from the ideal of the country they’ve claimed as their own. That this film is less overt about its intentions than the previous two might ultimately make it more dangerous.
Lucky for us, there is a light in the darkness. As Reverend Dave says: “For every example of someone who has misrepresented Jesus for some twisted reason, there are 100 others who have done good in his name.” After three installments of “God’s Not Dead,” there’s no telling how many good Christians must be out there reinforcing the true beauty of their faith, finding grace in places where these movies would never think to look.
“God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness” opens in theaters March 30th.