Do You Believe? (Gunn, 2015)

Warning:  Mild plot spoilers ahead!

Full disclosure:  knowing that the screenwriters and production company behind God’s Not Dead were teaming up for another movie, I had already girded for battle and put on the full armor of atheist activism.  I was ready to dissect Do You Believe?’s intellectual shortcomings and logical fallacies, just as I’d done for Pure Flix’s surprise hit last year.

I was therefore astonished to find that there are many likeable aspects to this new movie.  Do You Believe? contains improved filmcraft, with better production values and some clever editing of its disparate story elements.

Screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon even seem to have learned something about character creation.  God’s Not Dead was peopled with cardboard cutout good guys and bad guys, whose interactions were coldly transactional rather than relational.

By contrast, some of the characters in Do You Believe? are struggling with real-world difficulties in semi-plausible ways.  An elderly couple is mired in grief for their deceased daughter; a combat veteran can’t move past guilt and nightmares related to deeds done and undone on the battlefield; a mother and daughter find themselves homeless.

It helps, too, that Do You Believe? has some topnotch actors to work with, starring the likes of Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin, Cybill Shepherd, and Lee Majors.  That last one surprised me a bit, but it turns out that the Six Million Dollar Man is a big improvement over Hercules (God’s Not Dead’s Kevin Sorbo).

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From stalwart Samwise to jerky Thomas: Sean Astin in “Do You Believe?”

Using the narrative trope that animated hits like Crash and Magnolia – multifarious lives intersecting on American city streets – Do You Believe? hums along decently for its first 90 minutes or so.  Only in the final act do the wheels completely fall off this story, in laughable style.  I won’t spoil too much of the ridiculousness, but let’s just say that Pure Flix and company are way too attached to the notion of car wrecks as tidy climaxes.

Even more disastrously, the “god goggles” through which Konzelman and Solomon see the world fatally contaminate their new film.  For starters, positive character development and maturation are inseparably coupled with a person’s embrace of Christian dogma.  Additionally, the only jerks in this film – a stickup crew, a self-absorbed prick of a physician, and a snide prosecuting attorney – happen to be unbelievers.

As my teenage daughter astutely pointed out to me after the movie (and she identifies herself as a Christian, by the way), the world is populated with both crappy and virtuous atheists, as well as both debauched and deeply moral Christians.  That Konzelman and Solomon fail to acknowledge this reality either indicates a fundamental dishonesty on their part, or unambiguously signals that these gentlemen need to step outside of their Christian ghetto fantasyland.

The fictitious notion that dominated God’s Not Dead, of a Christian majority of Americans somehow being persecuted by an atheist minority, shows its ugly head again in Do You Believe?  In one of this film’s storylines, a fireman named Bobby proselytizes a dying man.  It turns out that the widow is a member of the American Humanist Association (their motto is “good without God,” we’re dismissively reminded) and vengefully recruits a sinister anti-theist lawyer to sue the pants off Bobby.

Of course, in post-9/11 shorthand, fireman is synonymous with hero, so any character taking victimized Bobby to court will automatically be considered a villain.  But step back for a moment with me.  Would you want a fireman or EMT to pray the sinner’s prayer with your gravely ill relative, rather than undertaking essential tasks like checking vital signs, looking for sources of blood loss, and starting an IV?  And Christian readers, let’s turn the tables for a moment:  how would you feel if a Muslim doctor tried to convert your dying relative to Islam?  It speaks volumes about the arrogant blindness of the Pure Flix mindset that a negligent, coercive individual who deserves to be fired and shunned from his profession is elevated as someone to emulate.

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Persecuted or coercive? Liam Matthews as Bobby, in “Do You Believe?”

So, is Do You Believe? an improvement over God’s Not Dead?  From a technical standpoint and in terms of acting, unquestionably so.  In terms of storytelling, to a marginal degree.  Unfortunately, however, Pure Flix’s narrow-minded notions of right and wrong, coupled with their bigoted notions that secular humanism equals evil, remain deeply offensive.

And in this film’s case, the message is much more important than the medium.  You can wrap ugly prejudices and self-aggrandizing paranoia in a pretty package, but they remain repellent just the same.  Until the minds at Pure Flix emerge from the Dark Ages, humanists and discerning Christians alike will do well to seek enlightenment and inspiration elsewhere.

1 out of 5 stars

2 Replies to “Do You Believe? (Gunn, 2015)”

  1. Joseph

    I watched the movie tonight and I liked it a lot. It was well structured, it had good characters and surprises in the plot.

    The doctor was not a “jerk”, he was just critical about miracles and religion. Most militant atheists are that way, mainly online. That’s the image you project and you are PROUD of it. That’s not only the stereotype, but actually the goal attitude humanists most consider.

    Humanists (like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) claim that atheists should not respect religion in any way because “it is bad for human progress” and that’s EXACTLY what the doctor did.

    Far from that, the doctor was pretty ethical and he helped a lot of people… he was a doctor, after all.

    Was he a jerk? Well, maybe you must reconsider your own secular image and attitude first.

  2. Andrew Spitznas

    Joseph:

    I appreciate that you read my reviews, even if we don’t share the same worldview.

    A couple of comments in response:
    – I’ve noticed in recent years how “atheist” has replaced “feminist” as the noun most likely to follow the “militant” or “strident” descriptor. I can’t help but feel that this adjective is misplaced, since impartial folks following news in, say, the Middle East or even Indiana would likely agree that the religious are more likely to be militant in their efforts to impose their values and beliefs upon others. This is quite true in my home state of Tennessee, where pharasaical lawmakers are pressing to make the Bible our official state book and Christianize our state constitution.
    – I would urge caution on ascribing emotions or mental states to those you’ve never met. You have no way of knowing for certain whether I’m proud or humble. I do happen to feel very at home in my atheism, and in writing for a website that “hosts the conversation of faith,” it seems highly appropriate to periodically refer to one’s faith perspective in offering cultural commentary.
    – Likewise, you may want to read more broadly before making sweeping generalizations about humanists’ attitudes towards religion. Sure, Harris and Hitchens assert that “religion poisons everything,” but others like Daniel Dennett acknowledge its beneficial aspects. I’ve just recently listened to interviews with a couple of humanist chaplains who are very active in interfaith projects. Your statement would be akin to my saying that all Christians are homophobic bigots. Plenty are, but many aren’t.
    – Regarding Sean Astin’s character in the film, I’m astonished that you didn’t find him jerky in the least. Then again, my medical background may predispose me to find his conduct especially noxious, in dismissively naysaying his patient’s and colleague’s belief systems. Medical ethicists make it quite clear that any form of proselytizing is inappropriate in clinical settings, whether from a faith or “no faith” perspective. In 21 years as a psychiatrist, I’ve also learned to keep my beliefs out of my interactions with colleagues, since faith matters can be so divisive and contaminate a spirit of collegiality.

    Thanks again,
    Andrew

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