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To some people, the God’s Not Dead films function as unwelcome Christian Lives Matter protests. The franchise’s first film took on religious discrimination that many Christian students face on university campuses, and the second the pressure that some Christian teachers experience to deny their faith in high school classrooms. But critics who are charging God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness (GND3) with being a “persecution complex” three-peat weren’t paying close attention this time.
GND3, which opened Easter weekend, certainly looks to be a tale about Christians having another axe to grind. The film’s central conflict is Church vs. State—a church vs. a state university, to be precise. Writer-director Michael Mason, a franchise newcomer, fashions the best of the three films, though. And he does what a disciple of Christ should do—put his axe away.
In the film’s first scene, authorities arrest and briefly jail Pastor David Hill (David A.R. White) for having refused to turn over his sermon transcripts to city officials. David’s church, located on the grounds of (the fictitious) Hadleigh University—also the setting of the original God’s Not Dead film—becomes the site of anti-Christian protests and violence. The university decides to eliminate the problem through eminent domain. How does David respond to an order to sell the church building and grounds? Not so well—and this seems to be Mason’s point.
The book of Acts records multiple occasions when the Apostle Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen. GND3 shows what can happen, though, when Christians put their interests above God’s glory. David wages an unseemly public relations campaign and engages in what’s probably the motion picture industry’s first (and, I hope, last) on-screen fistfight between a pastor and a university chancellor (Ted McGinley). Without spoiling the ending, the movie sends the right message for all involved; believers, too, have something to learn. Did the naysaying critics walk out of the theater early?
All that being said, the battle to keep the church on campus takes a back pew to two compelling subplots. David’s estranged older brother, Pearce (John Corbett), becomes legal counsel for the church. Corbett superbly plays a free-spirited lawyer who has rejected his faith. And White has noticeably improved his acting craft since his painful showing in Faith of Our Fathers. The back-and-forth between Pearce and David, as they revisit the family issues that tore them apart, rings true.
The other story concerns a Hadleigh student, Adam (Mike C. Manning), who vandalizes the church and accidentally kills the co-pastor. Adam’s struggles with guilt and the decision whether to turn himself in make for the film’s most emotionally genuine moments.
But GND3 (rated PG for thematic elements including some violence and suggestive material) also has several starchy moments, sermonettes that come off overly rehearsed. Still, for the most part, Mason keeps the film real—no tide of converts, just characters who for the first time give pause to their bias against Christianity.
That’s something a few movie critics should consider doing, too.