Why it Matters

In a blog yesterday I offered my critique of God’s Not Dead, the recent Christian movie containing a smattering of apologetic arguments, a cheesy storyline, farfetched caricatures, and a conspicuous absence of subtlety, nuance, and sophistication—however noble and well-intentioned were the motivations of the film-makers. Someone responded with this comment: “Psssst. It’s a movie. Movies are meant to entertain. Provoke feelings. Make you laugh. Make you cry. Maybe start a little thinking. What movie has believable characters?? Really?? Enjoy it! I cried. I got angry. I laughed. I praised my Lord and Savior. It made me think. It inspired God filled conversation with my husband. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do??? So what if a freshman outdid a professor. Doesn’t God lead the ones we least expect??? I for one enjoyed it. Completely.”  

I don’t count it my job or duty or even prerogative to dictate to people what they like or don’t like, but this response was troubling to me for several reasons. Besides its needless and gratuitous snarky tone, the individual is obviously convinced that the main or perhaps even sole purpose of movies is entertainment—to provoke feelings, make you laugh, cry, maybe start a little thinking. And the person appears to be a Christian. This reminds me of when I used to teach business ethics, and students, including Christian students, would inform me, most soberly, that the purpose of business is to make money—which usually was taken to entail that pretty much anything goes. It struck me then as an emaciated picture of the purpose of business—what about a more expansive picture of what business is about? How about serving others, meeting needs, building relationships, following your passion, weaving a fabric of healthy, harmonious relationships—and in the process making a living? A narrow view of movies and the arts, too, strikes me as sadly myopic and theologically deficient. Especially when we’re talking about a Christian movie, what about conveying truth, provoking deep thought, smartly challenging reigning secular plausibility structures, imbuing wisdom, embodying excellence? And in the process, it can also entertain. Assigning primacy to entertainment seems objectionably thin to me, and predicated on a lame worldview.

Besides which, isn’t it relevant what entertains us? What’s entertaining about a movie lacking subtlety, depth, texture, honesty? What’s moving about one-dimensional characters and farfetched storylines, cultivating victimization mentalities and demonizing those to whom we’re called to minister, insulting secularists and trivializing apologetics, confirming people’s worst suspicions about evangelicals and communicating to Hollywood that we care more about a conclusion or resolution we like than quality production values in a film, bolstering the perception that evangelicalism is tantamount to superficiality and shallowness? I can’t say I find any of that remotely entertaining. But the simple truth is that we’re not here to be entertained, at least not primarily; as Christians we have serious business to do, and being entertained by simplistic caricatures and contrived narratives, even if they contain a modicum of cursory apologetics, doesn’t cut it.

I responded to that critic by writing this: “We’re called to think on what’s lovely, beautiful, of good report, excellent. We can and should do better–not convey to Hollywood that we as Christians are content, indeed thrilled to be entertained by movies with bad plots and shallow caricatures. There really is such a thing as excellent movies; there are such things as textured, profound characters; we should strive for these.” Our being merely entertained isn’t the end of the story. We shouldn’t be so easily satisfied and mollified into mediocre acquiescence.

I hate to rain on the parade of my Christian friends who are excited by such a film. I respectfully submit they haven’t thought hard enough about this. Let’s take just one example of the apologetics in the movie—the best part of the movie gesturing in hopeful directions, but still altogether too simple. The student defender of faith argues that secularists can’t make any sense of objective morality, quoting the Dostoevsky line that “everything is permissible without God,” as if that does the trick and makes the point.

The philosopher who replaced me at my old school when I moved to Virginia—a thoroughgoing secularist and bright fellow—recently wrote a scathing critique of the movie for the online version of Psychology Today. This was one of his points: “The ‘everything is permissible without God’ argument is one of the worst arguments for God. Not only are there many secular ethical theories, but divine command theory—the idea that God grounds all ethical truths—is one of the most discredited positions in all of philosophy. Not only is it subject to the Euthyphro problem (which suggests that God determining morality makes morality arbitrary) but it's not clear that divine command theory is any better than a ‘God of the gaps’ argument: ‘What makes a good, good and the bad, bad? I don't know, God did it.’”

I don’t at all agree with his assessment here; in fact, I think it’s predicated on a number of mistakes. The existence of “many secular ethical theories” doesn’t show that such a list contains the best explanation of objective moral values and duties, or even a plausible one; divine command theory is but one way to try couching the locus of moral obligations in God; most divine command theories worth their salt do not entail that God grounds all ethical truths since most divine command theories are delimited to deontic matters of moral obligation; divine command theory has undergone a major resurgence in recent years, garnering defenses and articulations by some of the brightest philosophers alive today from John Hare to Robert Adams to C. Stephen Evans; the Euthyphro Dilemma has been, in my estimation and in that of many others, definitively answered in the recent literature; and a whole panoply of reasons has been offered to take theistic ethics and even divine command theory seriously beyond a “God of the gaps” approach.

But such stiff resistance to the apologetics on offer in the movie is implicitly encouraged. Simplicity breeds simplicity; caricature breeds caricature. This is why this matters. It’s not just about our entertainment. These issues are important, and need to be handled responsibly.

Despite all of the various efforts to answer the Euthyphro Dilemma in the last decade alone, secularists continue relishing pointing to it as an utterly efficacious refutation of theistic ethics. In a recently published book by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Plato at the Googleplex), she writes: “Socrates proceeds to formulate a line of reasoning that will prove to be of fundamental importance in the history of secularism, one that will be adapted by freethinkers from Spinoza to Bertrand Russell to the so-called new atheists of today, persuasively arguing that a belief in the gods—or God—cannot provide the philosophical grounding for morality…. What is still referred to as ‘the Euthyphro Dilemma’ or ‘the Euthyphro Argument’ remains one of the most frequently utilized arguments against the claim that morality can be grounded only in theology, that it is only the belief in God that stands between us and the moral abyss of nihilism. Dostoevsky may have declared that ‘without God all is permissible,’ but Plato’s preemptive riposte, sent out to us across the millennia, is that any act morally impermissible with God is morally impermissible without him, making clear how little the addition of God helps to clarify the ethical situation. The argument Plato has Socrates make in the Euthyphro is one of the most important in the history of moral philosophy. … We humans must reason our way to morality or we will not get there at all. Relying on fiats, even should they emanate from on high, will not allow us to achieve an understanding of virtue.”

Answering these objections is eminently possible, but requires that we develop more sophistication in defending our theistic convictions, not watering down and simplifying the complex matters at issue. It’s remarkable that Goldstein acts as if the capricious pantheon of Greek divinities are on a moral par with the God of Christianity in whom there’s no shadow of turning. This is a huge disanalogy that makes a great deal of difference defending an intelligent theistic ethic, and one she dispenses with by a wave of her hand.

Included in the most important biblical command is loving God with all of our minds; this means we need to stop assigning primacy to entertainment, stop settling for superficiality, stop being indifferent to excellence, and stop settling for pat answers. Or we’ll get the relegation to irrelevance we deserve. If we treat those with whom we disagree like benighted dolts unable to think their way out of a paper bag, driven by irrational impulses, we’ll receive such treatment ourselves.