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God's Not Dead 2 [Movie]

God’s Not Dead 2 is a 2016 Christian-themed movie starring Melissa Joan Hart and directed by Harold Cronk. Filmed in central Arkansas, the movie is a sequel to the 2014 film God’s Not Dead and centers upon Grace Wesley (played by Hart), a high school history teacher who encounters legal trouble for incorporating words from Christian scripture in a classroom lesson.

During a lesson about civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, student Brooke Thawley (played by Hayley Orrantia), in her history class at the fictional Martin Luther King Jr. High School, asks teacher Wesley about the religious origins of King’s commitment to non-violence. Wesley’s answer incorporates a few lines of Christian scripture, specifically Jesus’s command to love one’s enemies, which results in the school board summoning her for a disciplinary hearing. The board demands that Wesley apologize, and when she refuses, members vote to suspend her and threaten the revocation of her teaching certificate. To try to facilitate her firing, the head of the board contacts Pete Kane (Ray Wise), a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who approaches Brooke’s parents, who both object to their daughter’s exposure to religion in the classroom. Kane talks them into suing the school district. Lawyer Tom Metcalfe (Jesse Endler) takes Wesley’s case, which ends up in the court of Judge Stennis (Ernie Hudson). Metcalfe decides to try to prove that Jesus was an actual historical figure, thus making discussion about him a legitimate exercise for a history classroom. To that end, he brings in a few real-life figures to testify, such as Lee Strobel (author of The Case for Christ) and J. Warner Wallace (author of Cold Case Christianity). In the end, the jury rules for Wesley, and Brooke Thawley announces to the assembled mass outside of the courthouse, “God’s not dead!”

This movie is not a direct sequel to God’s Not Dead, which was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and centered upon a young university student facing off against an atheist philosophy professor who required all of his first-year students to write the words “God Is Dead” on a piece of paper and submit it for course credit. However, it is apparently set in the same community, and the film’s various subplots include many characters from the first. The Newsboys, a Christian rock group, also return to perform their hit song “God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion),” as well as a new one, “Guilty,” written specifically for this movie. U.S. senator and renowned actor Fred Dalton Thompson makes his last cinematic appearance, credited only as “senior pastor” for a brief role, while longtime entertainer Pat Boone plays Walter Wesley, Grace’s aged father. Arkansas native Natalie Canerday, perhaps most known for her work in Sling Blade (1996), appears as the representative of the teachers’ union. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee makes a cameo appearance as himself, leading a talk show discussion about the Wesley case.

Director Harold Cronk had approached the Arkansas Film Commission, a division of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, on the advice of a friend, and the state provided assistance in the making of the movie, which was filmed in central Arkansas between May and September 2015, most notably at the Arkansas State Capitol. Other sites include the Pulaski County Courthouse, Benton High School, Hillcrest, The Fold Botanas & Bar, and downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County). The movie reportedly cost around $5 million to produce, compared to the $2 million cost of its predecessor (which ended up making more than $60 million at the box office).

The day before the February 1, 2016, Iowa Republican Party caucus, Huckabee, then conducting his second failed campaign for the presidential nomination, held an advance screening of the movie in West Des Moines, Iowa. Another advance screening billed as the “world premiere” was held on March 14, 2016, at Riverdale 10 cinema in Little Rock, with Hart, Cronk, and producer Brittany Lefebvre in attendance. The movie was released nationally on April 1, 2016, in more than 2,400 theaters, compared with the 780 theaters in which its predecessor had opened. There were also several official media tie-in products. Tyndale House Publishers produced a novelization of the movie, written by Travis Thrasher, while Broadstreet Publishing produced God’s Not Dead 2: A 40-Day Devotional, written by Robert Noland. Rice Broocks, who wrote the book upon which the first movie was loosely based, and whose book Man, Myth, Messiah was referenced extensively in the second, produced a variety of study guides for God’s Not Dead 2.

Most mainstream critics gave the film poor marks. Veteran reviewer and columnist Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, while appreciative of the use of local sites, described the movie as “an anti-nuance film.” He said, “It relies on an unrealistic case not because realistic cases don’t exist (I imagine they do) but because it’s much easier to win when you get to make up the other side’s arguments.” Luke Y. Thompson of Forbes took issue, in particular, with a scene “in which a heroic white lawyer lectures a black high-school principal on the meaning of Martin Luther King’s teachings. For a movie that otherwise tries to depict Christians as inoffensive victims, that one’s a jaw-dropper.” Many reviewers connected the thesis of the film to conservative politics; writing for the A.V. Club, Vadim Rizov described the film as “a movie for Ralph Reed’s Moral Majority, with all the entangled political baggage that comes with it.”

Even several religious reviewers criticized the film. Christian Hamaker, writing for the website Crosswalk, gave it a ranking of one out of five, adding, “Writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon have packaged a series of high-profile Christians-in-the-public-square grievances from the past several years into a story of entirely one-dimensional characters: persecuted Christian heroes against crusading anti-God lawyers who squarely fit evangelical stereotypes.” However, the movie was popular with many in evangelical circles. Michael Foust of the Christian Examiner compared the movie favorably to the first: “The story is more engaging and faster-paced, the acting is better—in fact, it’s very good—and the plot is more believable.” Plugged In, a Focus on the Family website devoted to popular culture, also rated the movie higher than the first, noting that it “feels closer to reality than even the student-vs.-professor stand-off in the first movie.” Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz held a screening of the movie before the April 5, 2016, Wisconsin primary election.

God’s Not Dead 2 opened in fourth place at the box office, earning $7.6 million during its first weekend, slightly lower than its predecessor. By the end of the month, it had earned an estimated $19.9 million. Pure Flix Entertainment, the production company that produced the movie, has reportedly decided to greenlight a third installment of the franchise.

For additional information:
God’s Not Dead 2. http://godsnotdeadthemovie.com/ (accessed March 15, 2016).

God’s Not Dead 2.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4824308/ (accessed April 12, 2016).

God’s Not Dead 2.” Plugged In. http://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/gods-not-dead-2 (accessed April 12, 2016).

Hamaker, Christian. “God’s Not Dead Sequel Takes 2 Steps Back for Christian Cinema.” Crosswalk.com, March 29, 2016. http://www.crosswalk.com/culture/movies/gods-not-dead-2-movie-review.html (accessed April 12, 2016).

Line, Chris. “God’s Not Dead 2: An Atheist Law Student’s Perspective.” Freethought Now! Patheos.com. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/freethoughtnow/gods-not-dead-2-an-atheist-law-students-perspective/ (accessed April 12, 2016).

Martin, Philip. “God’s Not Dead 2.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 1, 2016, p. 6E.

Rizov, Vadim. “God’s Not Dead 2: Jesus Gets Expelled from High School.” A.V. Club, April 1, 2016. http://www.avclub.com/review/gods-not-dead-2-jesus-gets-expelled-high-school-234668 (accessed April 12, 2016).

Willems, Spencer. “Filmmakers Find State Welcoming.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 6, 2015, pp. 1B, 9B.

———. “State Capitol Setting Scene for Christian-Movie Sequel.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 20, 2015, pp. 1B, 7B.

Guy Lancaster
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 5/3/2016

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