“God’s Not Dead” and the Evil-Philosophy-Professor Trope

Tekken_SorboFloating among the detritus of literature known as “chain emails,” you may have stumbled across the following scenario:

“An atheist philosophy (or biology, chemistry, physics) professor at a major research university was speaking to his class on the problem science has with God. He then asks one of his new Christian students to stand and proceeds to interrogate the student on his faith. With a barrage of logical proofs the professor corners the student in a seemingly impossible quandary disproving the existence of God. The classroom sits in stunned silence.

But then, the student rallies.

Imbued with spiritual enthusiasm, the student fights back: ‘You’re wrong sir…what about [insert anthropic principle, Anselm’s ontological proof, prime-mover argument, etc].’”

Invariably, the student’s retort is some iteration of the proofs of God that theologians have been repeating for centuries. And without fail, the professor capitulates to the student’s incisive intellect.

Versions of this chain letter, including a spurious exchange between Albert Einstein and an atheist professor, have been circulating for over a decade, but March 21, 2014 marks the day that a studio will earn the ignominious title of being the first to bring it to the big screen.

God’s Not Dead, produced by the Christian film company Pure Flix Entertainment, is a drama that pits the unimaginatively named Josh Wheaton, a young Christian college student, against his atheist, and unsurprisingly vitriolic, professor in a philosophy smackdown over the existence of God. Bolstered with cameos from the Newsboys and the Duck Dynasty cast, I’m sure this film will be a blockbuster within (and only within) the Evangelical demographic.

I have every intention of watching God’s Not Dead and reviewing it here at Religion for Breakfast, but for the time being, the teaser trailer alone has troubled me enough to share my thoughts.

The very fact that this film exists illustrates that the all-too-familiar stigma of anti-intellectualism is alive and well in Evangelical Christianity. Worse, it capitalizes on the fears of home-schooling mothers everywhere that their sons and daughters will lose their faith in the lecture halls of their university.

Evangelical Christianity has an uneasy relationship with higher education. As a whole, the tradition has shown incredible enthusiasm for it. Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, the Nazarene universities, and my own alma mater Messiah College all illustrate that Evangelicals are happy to emulate the American educational system, participate in professional associations, and publish in academic journals.  At the same time though, theological hangups with academic criticism in archaeology, biblical studies, and the sciences have caused evangelical scholars to lag behind the curve in academia, leading to what Mark Noll has dubbed “the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.”

In her recent book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Mary Worthen suggests that this academic bipolarism stems from a confusion over authority. Their allegiance is divided between two authorities: the Bible, seen as the final authority in all faith and practice, and the academy, which they embrace only when it doesn’t threaten their presupposed theological paradigm.

God’s Not Dead is a product of this authority-confusion. The academy is conceptualized as antagonistic and vitriolic, thereby requiring proper apologetic training to maintain faith in its hostile coliseum.

As an aspiring educator of religious studies, this troubles me. My colleagues hail from a variety of faith traditions—Muslim, Christian, Hindu—with many others self-describing as agnostic and atheist. Some are committed pastors and lay-leaders while others are ex-Christians having undergone de-conversion experiences. But, by and large, they are tolerant, studious, and passionate teachers. Inflated academic egos aside, I cannot think of a single professor or graduate student colleague of mine that would act like this farcical philosophy professor in the trailer.

Teaching religion does indeed require empathy. Professors of religious studies recognize that students in their classes come from all walks of life, and we must be sensitive to their deeply held convictions. Moreover, though, it requires extreme patience, particularly when a student openly challenges the professor on the minutiae of New Testament historicity (which happens more often than you think). We aren’t there to destroy anyone’s faith nor do we relish the cognitive dissonance that the academic study of the Bible may cause. I’m in this profession to share my enthusiasm for religion and hopefully foster a deeper appreciation for it among my students. As I’ve said before, religion is a profoundly existential aspect of human culture. Regardless of your religious convictions or lack thereof, studying religion brings us up against humanity’s most pertinent questions of our origins, purpose, and future. It certainly may be uncomfortable, but demonizing experts in philosophy, religion, and science does little to encourage self-reflection and personal growth.

I’m sincerely hoping God’s Not Dead will surprise me. Perhaps it will acknowledge the very real phenomenon of cognitive dissonance without disparaging the pursuit of higher education. In the meantime, I’ll strive to explode the evil-philosophy-prof stereotype as long as I am in front of a class.