The independent Christian film studio Pure Flix found themselves with a hit on their hands with the 2014 film “God’s Not Dead,” which grossed $62 million on a $2 million budget. It spawned a sequel, “God’s Not Dead 2,” which earned $25 million on a $5 million budget. And clearly they’re hoping box office success will strike again with the third film in the franchise, “God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness,” the debut effort of writer/director Michael Mason.
The major theme of the franchise pits faith against academia as a point of debate in the separation of church and state. In “A Light in the Darkness,” Pastor Dave is back, as the hero this time. He’s played by Dave A.R. White, actor, filmmaker and one of the co-founders of Pure Flix. His radical, loose-cannon Pastor Dave is embroiled in a battle about his historical family church, located on a public university campus. The controversy over whether the church should stay on campus becomes so heated that the church is vandalized, causing a catastrophic fire, which results in the death of co-pastor Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango).
The project seems built to capitalize on a particularly intense political moment, but the story is so garbled and nonsensical, while playing fast and loose with heavy-duty contemporary social issues, that it ends up downright offensive — to a person of any faith.
The dopey Pastor Dave isn’t exactly a galvanizing representation of Christianity. Finding himself caught in a career-ending controversy, he ends up suing his own friend, the chancellor of the university (Ted McGinley), assaulting a college student and blowing up at his brother Pierce (John Corbett), whom he’s called in for legal help. He’s a complete mess, and it’s never clear why we’re supposed to find this mop-topped pastor in any way inspiring, because the film never makes it clear what he’s actually good at.
Ostensibly, the story seems intended to offer a backdrop for a debate about the role of Christian faith in today’s political climate (one character declares that Jesus was the “ultimate social justice warrior”), but it is riddled with provably dangerous logical fallacies. There’s the seriously questionable notion that ranting Facebook commenters just might have a valid point. But more disturbing is the argument that the young white male who commits the act of violence against the church did so because his girlfriend broke up with him, which sounds a lot like the troubling rhetoric surrounding the epidemic of school shooters at the moment. That the morally corrupt NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch makes a cameo, interviewing Pastor Dave, makes the uncomfortable parallel all too real, and one just might be inspired — to walk out.
“God’s Not Dead: A Light In the Darkness” bends over backward to be topical and edgy. There are TV news debates and protests, and one antagonist is clearly modeled after Black Lives Matter activists, which doesn’t sit right. The filmmakers are at once trying to appeal to a specifically conservative audience, with loaded language and imagery, while also attempting to not completely alienate anyone else, and the film twisted into an impossible contortion. Ultimately, it alienates everyone, because it ends up saying absolutely nothing at all, and makes not one lick of sense. Sorry, Pastor Dave, you’re just not the messiah anyone should be looking for.
God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness
Rated: PG for thematic elements including some violence and suggestive material. Starring: Dave A.R. White, John Corbett, Shane Harper. Director: Michael Mason. Running time: 104 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.