No prophet could have predicted this outcome: “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness,” the third chapter in the conservative Evangelical franchise known for its flabbergasting box office success — as well as for a combative stance seemingly designed to alienate the very non-believers it has sought to court — might have learned some Christian humility.
OK, not much humility. But on this map’s legend, an inch equals a mile.
Catching up: in the first film, God is unequivocally proven to be Not Dead by conscientious Christian college student Josh (Shane Harper). Josh’s comically villainous atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo) learns this the hard way when a car strikes him the opposite of Not Dead in the film’s final moments. Take that, infidel.
In the first sequel, “God’s Not Dead 2,” a Christian teacher (Melissa Joan Hart) is put on trial for daring to mention to her history class that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian. As straw-man scare tactics go, it was a rousing one, but only for any audience member that didn’t bother to read the blog on the film’s own website that listed court cases involving real-life alleged persecution of Christians. Overwhelmingly, those cases involved Christian businesses not wishing to provide services for members of the LGBTQ community, or to provide legal birth control.
In other words, businesses and other legal entities felt persecuted because they were told not to persecute others. In any case, the teacher wins the right to teach verifiable facts in public school, even as secondary character Reverend Dave (producer David A. R. White) is shown being hauled off to jail for refusing to turn over transcripts of his “controversial” sermons. Was he advocating violent overthrow of the U.S. government? Was he threatening anybody? The film never delivers this vital information.
And we pick up there for “Light in Darkness,” which mentions the whole sermon subpoena thing but isn’t really interested in it. In fact, the film still refuses to mention what those sermons were about, or why law enforcement officials would care. That subplot was bait, and this time around there are bigger fish to fry, as Rev. Dave’s church is on the chopping block.
It sits on the campus of a formerly religious, now state-run, university, and the school wants to close it in the name of church-state separation. This would seem to be a matter of property law, but first time writer-director Michael Mason decides to muddy the water with more “controversy.” What controversy? Well, apparently that’s still a secret.
Mean-spirited characters deliver lines like, “The church has brought nothing but controversy to the school for years,” yet the script offers no examples of this. A skeptical student describes Rev. Dave’s message of faith in Christ as “poison,” but offers no further offending statements to back up that assertion. It is a bizarrely disingenuous cinematic universe, set in Arkansas, predicated on simple Christians being unjustly interrupted on their daily rounds of feeding the hungry — Rev. Dave does this quite a bit, to his credit — and having their churches burned to the ground as though this little college town was suddenly invaded by a vengeful mob of 1990’s Norwegian Black Metal bands.
Rev. Dave calls in his estranged, lapsed-Christian brother Pearce (John Corbett), a civil rights attorney, and together they attempt to fight a public university from evicting a Christian church from its property. The film decides you are on the church’s side in this matter and doesn’t feel the need to do a lot of explaining about the legal ramifications or reasons why this marriage might need to be annulled.
As handsomely mounted, TV-movie-quality cinema goes, “Light in Darkness” is at once the best looking, most coherent, and least histrionic of the franchise. Cinematographer Brian Shanley (returning from “God’s Not Dead 2”) works low-budget magic with light and composition. Meanwhile, Corbett, whose good-natured generosity as a performer gives his less experienced cast mates a chance to look competent in shared scenes, is a welcome addition to a project where NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch makes a cameo that nearly manages to strip the film of any goodwill it might have earned up to that point.
And then there’s that twist, the details of which will not be divulged here, but it’s one that Mason — and, presumably, producer-star White — would not be expected to deliver based on the oblivious and, at times, straightforwardly cruel disposition of the first two films. When a doubting Christian character says that “the whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to see what it’s for,” an earlier installment of the series would have dismissed the criticism or delivered a very physical comeuppance. This time around, a glimmer of common decency breaks through.
It’s not the light the title had in mind, of course, and the film’s tone remains one of self-congratulation. But under these bleak conditions, it’ll do.