Ever since it opened nationwide on March 21, the film God’s Not Dead has been a favorite at the box office, beating out various other films with much bigger budgets and far more dollars spent on promotion and advertising.
Audiences have erupted with spontaneous applause during showings, and stories of conversions in theaters have appeared on the Internet and blogosphere. Critics — including some religious critics— have panned the film for being a “propaganda piece,” but the attention (and sales —after the April 11-13 weekend, it currently is No. 7 at the box office) it is garnering among ordinary people confounds and astonishes the naysayers.
Though it is frequently described as a “Christian film” (which it is), the fact is not always mentioned that the two men who penned the screenplay are devout Catholics, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman. The two writers, longtime friends who moved to Hollywood from New Jersey in 1990, took time out of their busy schedules to talk with Register correspondent Larry Carstens about the film and their faith.
Tell us about your own faith background. Were you always such strong Catholics?
Konzelman: No. I was a cradle Catholic, but I fell away from the faith in my 20ss. So I’m definitely a “re-vert.” Coming to Hollywood is what actually [caused me to revert]. Out here, evil is really blatant. It’s in your face. Before I came out here, I’d never seen people with demonic tattoos, pagan symbols on bumper stickers — it’s all over out here. And I think some of that has filtered out into society at large since we first arrived in 1990. But back then, that a real culture shock.
Solomon: And I wasn’t even raised Catholic. My mom was Protestant, my dad was Jewish, and I was confused. I grew up in New York and New Jersey. My parents would ask me, “Do you want to go church? Do you want to go to temple? Or do you want to play with your friends?” Ask a 9 year-old that question, and it’s pretty clear what they’re going to pick (friends).
I’ve always believed in the Lord, but didn’t have a relationship. And then when [Chuck] and I entered into this terrible, evil wicked business, [the film industry], what happened was that we got “destroyed” basically. We wandered in the desert for a long time, and that basically drove [Chuck] and me to our knees. And I think the Lord enters through a broken heart.
What happened was, I ultimately asked God, “What do you me to do? Do you want me to become Catholic? You need to give me a sign.”
Then suddenly, miraculous things began to happen. I walked into a bookstore, and a book fell off the shelf. It was How to Become Catholic. I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of miracles: healings, intercessions of the saints, and that all started, that was it. I said this where God wants me to be, and I just “jumped in” and it was the best thing I ever did. It probably helped that [Chuck] was praying for me.
Your movie depicts a young man resisting the ironically intolerant tolerance of secularism, an issue Catholics across the nation are certainly concerned about as of late. Have you gotten a positive reaction from the Catholic community?
Konzelman: Catholics are still largely unaware of the film, which is unfortunate.
Solomon: I think Catholics could learn a lot from the film. We feel this [point in time] is a “Boston Tea Party” moment for Christians, who are exasperated with being pressed upon and beaten down, and this movie kind of shows a positive example of resisting that trend.
Konzelman: The sentiment of Christians in this country is no longer “don’t tread on me”; it’s “stop treading on me.” That’s where we are. Our culture has become predominantly secular humanist. We’ve largely lost that battle already, and now we’re just fighting for the right to be who we are in public life.
Solomon: We believe the Lord is saying, “I’m still here, I’m still alive; I’m not dead.” Hopefully this movie starts a sort of revival of strong and proud Christian witness in the public square. I hope the movie changes the course of Christians’ lives, in the sense that it inspires them to begin to stand up and fight back for the Lord.
The movie chooses a really interesting place for a Christian to make his stand against secularism: a college campus. Why did you tell your story in this type of setting, usually thought of as one of the most anti-Christian environments in America?
Solomon: Well, for exactly that reason. When we started this project, we learned that about 65% of kids that are going into college as believers come out as non-believers. So what colleges are doing is they’re indoctrinating students and ripping away religion, making it seem “cool” to be a non-believer. We decided that someone standing up to this would make for a good story.
We’ve been accused by some of creating a fabricated reality by having a virulently anti-Christian professor as the antagonist, who basically demands that his students reject Christianity. “This doesn’t happen in American universities,” people tell us. But that’s absolutely inaccurate, because at the end of the movie, we list 35-40 cases showing how this assault on religious belief is an on-going battle.
Konzelman: Even before this was released, another writer we’ve worked with in the past told us, “This happened in my own college experience.” The film critics in particular keep claiming this a “nonsense scenario” and no one would ever do anything like this, but we keep hearing from people saying, “Yes, this is exactly what my college experience was like.” A lot of professors are atheists and a lot of atheistic professors use their bully pulpit to bully.
Judging by the box office numbers, this film appeals to a wide audience. Why don’t more stories like this come out of Hollywood?
You have to understand that if you empower Hollywood to tell your story, they are going to tell it from Hollywood’s point of view, which is secular humanist. “There is no God,” is their mantra.
Konzelman: With Noah, for instance, a visionary atheist [Darren Aronofsky], was in charge of telling a Judeo-Christian story. They spend $125 million on the budget, another $130 million on marketing and advertising, so they spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars making a piece of garbage, which is heretical and Gnostic.
Solomon: But it’s still a somewhat celebrated film. Compare that to the reception for God’s Not Dead. Variety, the “king” of Hollywood reporting, basically said that our film was the equivalent of Nazi propaganda. What propaganda is there in this movie? That it claims there is a God? That it argues you have free will? And so you have some people who love the movie, and you have the so-called “intellectual” critics who are lambasting it.
That’s the culture war. Like I said, I think this is the “shot heard around the world,” as far as Christians saying we’re fed up with being marginalized and belittled. I don’t think this revival is going to stop. We hit a nerve and I think a lot of Christians are devouring the film; they’re getting strength from it.
Your film has primarily appealed to evangelical Protestants, and that’s the group that financially backed the project. Did that present any challenges to you two as Catholic writers? Has there been any blowback from Protestants who are concerned that Catholics wrote the film?
Konzelman: I actually have been pleasantly surprised in my dealings with evangelicals. At least out here in California, it doesn’t appear to be part of any evangelical program, formal or informal, to vilify Catholics.
Solomon: [For our part], we accept them as our brothers in Christ. We don’t agree with their theological take on everything. But I do think that they are stronger than Catholics in some ways. For example, they read the Bible. Catholics generally don’t. We should be reading the Bible.
Konzelman: When writing the film, we deliberately adopted a tone of discourse that’s clearly an evangelical one. We added some Catholic “brushstrokes,” but they were ultimately cut. Originally there was a smidgen of Thomas Aquinas and a couple of other Catholic references, like the one regarding the Belgian physicist, [Father Georges Lemaitre], who developed the idea of the Big Bang, and we had a character mention that he was actually a Catholic priest, but they edited around it.
Why aren’t you two writing scripts for Catholic films?
Konzelman: It’s because there aren’t any. Catholics do not fund films. I cannot think of a Catholic film [made in Hollywood] of any size funded in the last five years.
Solomon: Which is really a sad reality, because the media is the most powerful cultural force, in my opinion. St. John Paul II knew that. Who was more powerful in shaping public opinion than Shakespeare in his time?
When you really look at it, it all comes back to God and the Devil. There’s a secret battle going on that too many people don’t see. And it’s behind the veil. The Devil manipulates the media and he manipulates intellectuals.
Konzelman: As Lenin put it, “Of all the arts, the cinema is the most important, and we must wrest it from them and turn it against them.” That’s what secularists have done to Christians in recent years, but we have to turn the tide by reclaiming film and using it to defend and promote our beliefs.
Larry Carstens writes from Los Angeles.