God’s Not Dead, American Sniper, and Higher Education as a Rorschach Test

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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65 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    American Sniper was a bizarre movie choice for the University of Michigan student mixer. From what I read, UMix is s non-alcholic affair that includes activities like build a bear. The usual movie choices are much lighter than American Sniper.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

      At the university I went to, they had free (and alcohol free) movie screenings on Friday (or was it Saturday?) nights that mixed fairly recent releases with some arthouse stuff. I remember seeing Terminator 2, the Costner Robin Hood movie, Silence of the Lambs, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover. So, not really lite fare.

      (plus now that I think about it, each one had an attempted or perpetrated sexual assault at some point of the film).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kolohe says:

        I saw Gattaca for the first time at one of these things.

        My best friend went to a Baptist school. They showed Matrix. Edited it for language. “Hell” became “Hades” and “jeepers creepers” was spliced in there somewhere.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    American culture wars are about one thing, who is and who is not a real American. Even though the United States has long history of separation of church and state, lots of Americans have basically saw American as a Protestant, white, or in its most vicious form, White Protestant place. It has been this way from the time the Puritans landed. For this faction, any institution or person that goes against this identity is an enemy of America.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    This post has some spoilers for the film God’s Not Dead…

    …He really is dead after all?

    Okay, done snarking. I’ll RTFA now.Report

  4. Avatar Mr. Blue says:

    I might agree more if it weren’t for a lot of people inside universities talking about it, too. I mean, I don’t think Freddie has the same agenda as God’s Not Dead.

    With Michigan, it’s not clear what the students were demanding. Asking for a different venue seems reasonable, but their letter suggested that screening the movie at all was unacceptable. If so, I’m not inclined to try to meet them half way. But at least this time nobody’s home was vandalized.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Mr. Blue says:

      After I finally read the letter, I thought it was pretty reasonable. The undersigned did not want to see the movie for whatever their reasons at the mixer. The made no demand, just politely asked that something else be shown.

      I’ll say the same thing I said over at Hit Coffee, the media mischaracterized the tone of the letter, and the university, instead of just making a dead simple statement that the movie was being changed because some students felt it inappropriate for the event, decided to release a big, rambling statement full of signaling that they were committed to inclusiveness, etc.; which was obvious red-meat for critics.

      I’m starting to think university communications directors get paid by the word…Report

      • Avatar Guy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Hey, it got Mr Blue on the university’s side in the ensuing, inevitable controversy. I’d say that communications director did a pretty good job.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        The initial letter was probably written by quite low-level “administrators” responsible for organizing this kind of event in dorms, probably like people who are the immediate bosses of the student House Fellows (as they were called in Madison). I doubt it was reviewed by a superior outside of that person’s boss – i.e. the person overall in charge of this kind of undergraduate dorm programming. I guess I don’t really think of these people as being “the university” or “university communications.” These are low-level people trying to communicate the considerations that go into decisions like this, mainly to the immediately concerned parties. We really think they should be writing such an explanation with an eye to not confusing looking-to-be-confused national right-wing internet media outlets?

        The subsequent letter from the Michigan Vice-Chancellor (I think) (i.e. a person I would normally think of as “the university” and charged with representing the university in communications to the world, i.e. including right-wing opinion outlets looking for ways to ridicule American universities) was much more direct and to the point, simply stating what course of action was going to be. And while I disagree with the policy course they chose at that level, it was indeed responsive to the national “free speech” outcry over the incident, and as a matter of public communications was pretty effective.

        So the question is: do we want a world in which house fellows’ immediate bosses need to send their public explanations of how they will resolve inevitable disputes about the particularly of dorm life up through the sixth and seventh floors of the main administration buildings on campus in order to avoid stoking right-wing media who are looking to be stoked, or do we just want to CTFO?Report

    • Avatar Guy in reply to Mr. Blue says:

      Those dang students, how dare they have the gall to have an opinion about what their institution should and shouldn’t promote! Only we, America’s internet commenters, are truly qualified to decide what kinds of media should be displayed at university social events.

      Sarcastic apologies for my snark. As an actual university student, all of this discussion of how university students are just children whining to be protected from the world, unaware of the importance of being thrown outside their comfort zone, into an acid bath, has really started to annoy me. Especially this crap. You really care what happens at a fricking student mixer? Nobody even goes to those! Come back when we’re talking about something you actually have a stake in.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Guy says:

        If nobody goes to mixers, what difference does it make what movie they show?Report

        • Avatar Guy in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          I dunno, but Mr Blue seems to care. This is a non-story about a few people objecting to a university student a activities office doing something dumb. Whatever. But it’s a chance for every commenter on the internet to sagely parent the students of America’s higher education system, so it’s been turned into a big deal.

          Maybe Mr Blue meant well, or at least meant no harm, but I’m to sick of this crap to care.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Guy says:

        Well, as you probably are experiencing firsthand, @guy , college students sometimes get some wooly-headed ideas about what they ought or ought not do in the name of any number of noble-sounding causes. For instance, UC Irvine’s Student Union came closer than was strictly comfortable to banning display of national flags on campus. Fortunately for the free speech rights of current and future Anteaters, that situation self-resolved.Report

        • Avatar Guy in reply to Burt Likko says:

          That sounds more like the student legislature didn’t use effective language to implement a policy change (“We’ve decided to take the flag down” > “the flag is not allowed to remain!”), but I’ll not say more in defense of people who thought banning the American flag from a location in America was a good plan.

          My problem with Mr Blue’s comment is not that we disagree over whether the students acted appropriately (I suspect we do, but whatever). Rather, it is that Mr Blue has decided that he is qualified to judge the students over this. The students at U Mich did not so much as break wind in his direction. They asked their Student Life organization to reconsider a decision, and that organization did. Then the organization decided it was important to cover their buttocks, and did so in a manner that hit a bunch of people’s free speech buttons in the wake of all this triggers-on-college-campuses stuff. Mr Blue is one such person. A common thread through all the condemnations of this discussion, and through all the recent discussion of university students and what they want, is the unstated idea that college students are simultaneously adults and children – that they act like children, and their actions should be scrutinized in the same manner as the actions of children, and their words should be taken with all the seriousness we accord to the words of children, and that this is their fault, because they are really adults, and if they want to be treated like adults they should act like it. And when they do the adult thing, when they say, “hey, organization, can you not do this? It doesn’t seem appropriate,” they are still children until such time as we find another, more childish group to sustain the narrative.Report

          • Avatar Guy in reply to Guy says:

            Further: universities make plenty of ill-advised decisions in a manner similar to this flag banning thing, and then walk back on them. It happens all the time. But nobody is really interested in talking about it, because it doesn’t involve young, overzealous (or possibly just aware) students doing something that upsets a few 40 year olds.

            No offense meant to those over the age of 39; I’m just trying to make the point that you guys have a fair bit of control over what gets talked about. “Young people are dumb” has been a popular story for far longer than there have been blogs or formal news organizations; I’m sure you’ve been on the other end of it.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Guy says:

              See, I don’t think young people are dumb. I think they’re inexperienced, but we can’t hold that against them. Us fortysomethings were that way once, too: about my only real criticism is it doesn’t seem like young people have earned the right to quite be as cynical as they often are. Don’t worry, you’ll get there soon enough..

              While the inexperience is sometimes inconvenient, it also comes packaged with energy, creativity, curiosity, and fearlessness, which generally is a pretty good combination regardless of the occasional stumble and the slightly less occasional deployment of an idea before it’s been thought all the way through.

              But dumb? No way.Report

              • Avatar Guy in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Yeah, I’ve got no real problem with anything you’ve been saying in this thread*, you’ve mostly just been cracking hilarious jokes. The pro-Sniper side of this discussion, though, feels like an unnecessary call out of the students. They asked for an accommodation and got it, do we really need to second guess things here?

                *Or really ever. You rock.Report

  5. Once I saw a movie set in All Secular Places of Higher Learning. It was called The ASPHL Jungle.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Lee is right about American Sniper being a potentially odd choice for what it is picked for. I’ve read the same stuff. UMIX is Michigan’s attempt at having activities for students to do that don’t involve heavy amounts of drinking and drugs on weeekend night. Most of the events are seemingly as safe as Lee mentioned, so picking a film like American Sniper was an oddly heavy choice. The replacement, Paddington, was probably more in the spirit of UMIX.

    I largely concur with this post but universities have been a kind of bogeymen in American life for a long, long time. Decades if not longer. I think there is a large element of fear that colleges and universities will turn everyone into Godless Cosmopolitans. IIRC partisans just end up becoming more partisan after college so those on the left will stay left and those on the right will stay right and become more so.*

    Lee is still onto something though. Culture Wars (for lack of a better term) are about proving what belongs and what doesn’t belong so they are about real Americanness. I haven’t seen American Sniper but it is a movie that divided the Left on whether it was Islamophobic or not or Militaristic or not. Clint Eastwood leans right but he is also good at nuance and exploration and does have skepticism about the usefulness of war. Letters from Iwo Jima was a great film with a real message on shared humanity and futility of war.

    One thing that I think the Left (and also the right) has a hard time dealing with is the idea that representation does not necessarily equal endorsement. You can present an idea or a morally complex person and not fully or even partially endorsing their darker views. Lots of people have trouble with this kind of moral nuance.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    You know the forwarded email called “Marine Todd”?

    God’s Not Dead strikes me as being a feature-length film of Marine Todd.

    When you’re not allowed to masturbate, you are pretty much stuck with some pretty sublimated fantasies.

    (When I was a kid, I remember watching Christian Movies at the Church’s Christian Movie Night that had stuff happen like “Christians Take Over The Local UHF Television Station And It Becomes The Top Rated Station In Town” (this was years before UHF, by the way) and other “man, if only the deck weren’t stacked against us…” kinda movies. Good to see that these scripts are finally getting real budgets.)Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

      Marine Todd?

      I’m going to refrain from googling and just take a shot here: A musical about a sailor who kills people and puts them into cioppino for other people to eat?Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Marine Todd is a story about a Professor who demands that God has 15 minutes to knock him off his soap box or he doesn’t exist. As the 15 minutes winds down, Marine Todd stands up, punches the Prof so hard he falls off the soap box, and then makes some statement about how God is busy, so he sent Todd.Report

        • Ah. So Marine Todd is like God’s Smithers.Report

        • Avatar ACIS in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          Gawker already did an amazing send-up of the meme but here’s the original version. http://gawker.com/marine-todd-is-an-awesomely-stupid-right-wing-meme-th-1555109402

          A Marine was taking college classes between his deployments to Afghanistan.

          One of his courses had a professor that was an atheist and a member of the ACLU. One day the professor shocked everyone by walking into class, looking up and stating “God, if you are real, I want you to come down and knock me off this platform, I will give you 15 minutes.

          Several minutes tick by in silence, when the 15 min. time almost expired the Marine gets up from his seat, approaches the professor and punched him in the face knocking him off the platform and out cold. The Marine simply went back to his seat.

          The professor came to, visibly shaken and asked the Marine, “What the heck did you do that for?!”

          The Marine said, “God was busy protecting America’s military who are out protecting your right to say stupid shit like that, so he sent me to fill in.”Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yeah, aren’t there a ton of pro-Christian emails and Facebook memes at the expense of arrogant atheist professors who get their comeuppance as the punchline?Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I prefer the ones where the professor is out-argued (even if the Professor seems ridiculously inept for an outspoken atheist, but strawman arguments are common on every side) than the ones where’s he assaulted.

        The latter is more troublesome — and sadly common.

        One I saw in the run-up to Gulf War 2.0 was between an anti-war protestor and a True American, that ends with the True American punching that hippy pacifist until he understood reality.

        I like arguing as much as the next guy, but I’ve never actually had the urge to physically assault someone to change their mind. Seems counterproductive.

        Makes me wonder what’s going on, under the hood there. Mentally, why are you moving from words to violence in a parable about ‘your side’ being right?Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    More serious than my last comment now.

    Who, other than Our Tod, was ever going to see GND other than someone who already thought that secular society is oppressively antagonistic to faithful Christians? The target audience for the movie, and the overwhelming number of people who actually saw it, already believed this to be true and the film simply affirmed this world view. There’s a term for that: “red meat.”

    And hey, some red meat every once in a while is just fine and very enjoyable. I like steaks and lamb chops, burgers and roast beef sandwiches. Similarly, I take pleasure from reading and viewing things that affirm my world view and tell me how effing right I’ve been all along.

    But the thing about ideological red meat, just as with nutritional red meat, is you really shouldn’t make a habit of it. Eating a burger every day will, cumulatively, have a bad effect on your body. Consuming intellectual red meat will, cumulatively, close your mind to any new or potentially uncomfortable ideas that might be out there.

    You need to eat some vegetables, too.Report

  9. Avatar ACIS says:

    You forgot the part where the protagonist is named Josh Wheaton. Josh as Yeshua, Wheaton as a derivative of old english “hwit” meaning white.

    He’s literally named Jesus White. The last name this obvious was the protagonist of “My Parents Open Carry” who’s named Dick Strong.Report

  10. Avatar zic says:

    As to the spoiler, made me laugh. ‘Cause human nature it is to measure by our own yardsticks, so if Godly U. has an oath, they must all. . .

    Thanks for watching so that I don’t have to.

    One of the university things that so strikes me is how the discussions tend to focus on this handful that a few ten-thousand will attend. Kinda like always discussing Neiman Marcus when talking about places to purchase clothing or something.

    Tod’s right again.Report

  11. Avatar North says:

    I wiki’d the plot of GND and almost went blind from the hideous writing; even though it was a second hand plot summary. What really strikes me is that if I was faithful I’d be pretty angry about this movie: this is the best arguement Christian Americans can come up with?Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

      The Catholic Church and the mainstream Protestant denominations always produced better thinkers and debaters than the Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. There is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in the latter that prevent them from creating really compelling arguments beyond raw emotional appeal.Report

  12. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I’m tempted to simply conclude that mostly white, mostly male, mostly Christian, mostly conservative folks are engaged in this sort of self-victimization as a response to them losing their sense of control/social standing.

    But I don’t think it is that simple. And I don’t think that is a particularly productive way of looking at it.

    So I’m trying to think of the sorts of things — the ‘issues’ — that folks on the other side of the aisle might look at and think are similarly unfounded and which they could even find evidence to support. And I’m left thinking of things like racism, sexism, and homophobia. I think the issue of systemic racism is clear as day… but I’m sure they think anti-Christian sentiment in higher learning is clear as day. And just as I can construct a pretty good argument that they are wrong, they could find evidence that I am clearly wrong. I’d argue that they are cherry picking… but, well, they’d probably argue the same thing.

    And I don’t know where that leaves us… because I’m still pretty sure racism is a real thing and anti-Christian sentiment in higher learning isn’t…Report

  13. Avatar Pinky says:

    I haven’t seen GND, and I’ve never heard anything good about it. But let’s not say that college campuses are diverse. Or, rather, let’s admit that there is a diversity of types of colleges, but let’s also admit that there is a narrow cultural view within each of those types.Report

  14. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Well, I have watched the trailer now. It piqued my interest up until the point that Kevin Sorbo started acting irrationally angry and assaulting the kid. The comparison to the Roman Colosseum was interesting- it really is a part of the faith that Christians be persecuted. One question though: when the kid inevitably wins the debate, does Kevin Sorbo turn into Satan and vanish in a puff of black smoke? (Please say yes!)Report

  15. Avatar Kolohe says:

    If the purpose of a mixer is to meet people, why show a movie at all? Unless it’s something like Rocky Horror?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kolohe says:

      To get people to show up.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Will Truman says:

        I thought that this was a response to my question and I thought that I was going to have to come in here and throw down.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

        Will Truman:
        To get people to show up.

        Right, which makes the students completely reasonable to have said that the one chosen had an effect strongly in the opposite direction for themReport

        • Lots of people showed up to see American Sniper!Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

            But you shouldn’t schedule a movie that will viscerally repel people who would otherwise attend, which is fairy clearly what happened from how passionately engaged in the question of what movie would be shown these students expressed themselves to be. And if you do so by mistake, you should just immediately change it to something that will at worst fail to get others to come. And there should be no uproar about that.

            And if you want to argue that Paddinton’s badness repels people in the way that seeing people from your part of the country torn apart by the bullets of a (real, depicted) person widely regarded in this country as a hero, then you can, and we can be clear that one of us thinks one of those kinds of repulsion should be credited in this type f context and the there not, while the other thinks both should.Report

            • I don’t think picking the movie was necessarily a mistake, nor do I think changing the movie was necessarily a mistake. Nor changing it back.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

                I think selecting it was a mistake but not a bad one, and one easily made because you can’t know the reaction before it comes. You’re not going to do a public review process every time you select a movie for a mixer. Then when there’s a serious issue with one, you address it and move on. Good and good.

                So I agree, basically. It’s not a huge problem that they chose it; it was a minor mistake of the kind that’s inevitable. But it isn’t and shouldn’t have been made any issue at all to change it.

                The bigger mistake was choosing a movie that they didn’t anticipate would be so difficult to change, something they obviously need to have the flexibility to do. And that has everything to do with the valence of the movie in lingering left/right identity politics regarding Iraq, not free speech.Report