God’s Not Dead, American Sniper, and Higher Education as a Rorschach Test
[Note: This post has some spoilers for the film God’s Not Dead, and reading it will therefore give away key plot elements to the film’s story. On the other hand, it’s inconceivable to me that if you’re smart enough to be able to read the words on this page that you couldn’t also be able to see anything I reveal here in the the first five minutes of watching the movie, because Chinatown it ain’t. So do with that warning what you will.]
During my time here, there have been three movies that I’ve had multiple readers whom I’d never met take the time to email me about and insist that I see. But I’ve never received anywhere near as many emails — or received them over a longer period of time — as I have for the film God’s Not Dead (GND). To date I’ve had no less than fifty recommendations that I view and write about the film. (To be honest, I strongly suspect that none the people who emailed me are actual readers of mine or OT; rather, I suspect it’s something the film’s fans do to random online sites to promote the damn thing.)
I watched GIND on Netflix late last night — or to be more precise, I watched big chunks of it because I found it dull and slow-paced, and so I skipped around a bit. To my surprise, I decided to actually write about it this morning because it crystallized something that’s been niggling in the back of my brain for a while now on the topic of higher education. To my observation, colleges and universities are becoming a go-to touchstone in our culture wars in a way I don’t remember them being since back in the early 1990s. And while I find that most of the conversations we are collectively having are interesting, there’s something about them that’s been bugging me that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on until last night, watching the GND.
If you haven’t seen GND, it’s one of the newer entries from the highly targeted (and oft-times highly profitable) Christian film industry. It’s story takes place at an unnamed secular college meant to represent All Secular Places of Higher Learning. The film’s central conflict takes place in a philosophy classroom, where a secular professor (played by Hercules) demands that all of his students sign a declaration stating “God is dead” in order to get a passing grade. There is some additional melodrama added as our plucky heroes battle various lesser evil villains — campus liberals, student journalists, Muslims who don’t convert to Christianity — but mostly the film is a condemnation of how today’s secular colleges and universities don’t allow students, faculty members and administrators to be diverse in their faith.
I know motion picture plots aren’t supposed to be held up as a perfect mirror of reality, but still — what a load of horse s**t.
As far as I know, there are only one subset of accredited colleges and universities where students and faculty must sign oaths of religious belief, and where deviating from those oaths can mean termination or expulsion — and they ain’t secular, they’re religious. IN fact, to be honest I’m even using the word “religious” here in a way that might well be overly broad. I’ve never even heard of any US university or college that has such requirements that isn’t Evangelical Christian. Most Catholic and non-Evangelical Protestant seminaries I am aware of allow for an enormous range of religious belief and Biblical interpretation, including doubts of God’s existence; I’m certainly not aware of any of them requiring the kind of oaths institutions such as Oral Roberts University, Liberty University, and Bob Jones University demand. I know a lot — and I mean a lot — of people who work as professors and administrators at secular US colleges and universities, and they’re all over the map religiously as well as politically. I don’t know of one that would link the grading of a student’s performance to their personal theological beliefs; I don’t know of one that wouldn’t rail against anyone in their departments who might be stupid enough to do so. All in all, GND might be the single-most unintentionally ironic film I have ever seen in my life.
But for me the important takeaway from watching GND isn’t its creators’ eye-rolling lack of self-awareness — although that is certainly there in spades — but rather how normal, mainstream and pedestrian it’s views of higher education truly are in 2015. Mock GND if you will, but it is probably the most pure crystallization of all of our culture war talk about colleges and universities.
Most of what I read about higher ed these days say far more about us than it does higher ed. For example, there was the kerfuffle over how colleges and universities like the University of Michigan are are censoring American Sniper — a very mainstream film — for not being politically correct. Which makes for a fascinating conversation about the importance of Free Speech, except for the tiny detail that it just isn’t true. Michigan didn’t actually ban the film from it’s campus, nor did it is refuse to let it be shown at a film festival, a seminar or conference on the Iraq war, or a political science class. It just decided not to show it at a student mixer after some complaints from some students — something that isn’t really that uncommon for that type of campus activity.
In fact, here is what the student campus newspaper had to say about the film prior to the Internet deciding what the those student campus newspaper nazis were probably saying:
American Sniper is a thought-provoking, disturbing film, not a tool for censorship, racism or blind patriotism… Film is a platform for discussion; the fact that we are still having one means Clint Eastwood did something right.
[This article is] an attempt at understanding the role of cinema in a society so politically inclined, so blinded by its own ideological trappings that it has ceased to examine cinema for its cinematic quality but for its realism. The loudest proponents and detractors of this film alike extract the same meaning from it: validation of their own political leanings. What people have failed to see is that “American Sniper” rises above politicization to give to the public a narrative. Not the narrative, mind you, but a single perspective: of one American soldier delegated immense power, and how that power takes its toll on him and his family.
I know — what a bunch of future Joseph Goebbels, right? As are all of the other colleges and universities that are censoring the film and refusing to use it as a springboard to talk about art, foreign policy and other larger issues. Still, for most libertarians and free speech activists around the Internet, what is actually happening at UM and other college campuses isn’t as important as the story they really, really want to tell. Which is why there really is not difference between the people who made GND and the folks at Reason.
The truth about American colleges and universities is that they really aren’t a single bellwether for anything. They’re a hugely diverse and robust group of institutions that have almost 5,000 separate campuses, millions of faculty and admin members, and over twenty one million students. The fact that every now and then any one of the above says or does something foolish is entirely unremarkable; the fact that we collectively lose our s**t about it and declare it the End of the Republic whenever they do suggests that we are hunting for very, very particular narratives we wish to see validated.
 Just in case you were curious, the first two were documentaries. I wrote about America: Imagine the World Without Her here. The second was an online, no-budget amateur screed about Gamergate and the evils of letting women anywhere near a gaming console. I never wrote about it, since somethings are simply so terrible that it’s best their trolls not be fed, even just to mock.
[Image: Self-created screenshot of God’s Not Dead & American Sniper movie posters]