Type God's Not Dead into Google search and it becomes evident: A film's success doesn't depend on reviewer opinion.
Having already amassed more than $20 million at the box office, audiences continue to flock to theaters for the so-named Pure Flix Entertainment production starring Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame) and Shane Harper (a Disney Channel veteran).
Featuring appearances by Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson and Jesus rockers the Newsboys, Christians cheer out loud watching God's Not Dead. Secular critics aren't as impressed. Variety called the movie, about a college student whose faith gets challenged by a volatile atheist professor, a "ham-fisted melodrama."
Eric Enriquez, youth pastor at Journey Church in Brandon, took a group of 15 to see the film.
"I saw it as a great opportunity to engage our youth," Enriquez, 35, said. "A lot of them are in high school and will be heading off to college. I think the movie shows how some people react to our faith and how to deal with that reaction."
In God's Not Dead, college freshman Josh Wheaton is threatened with a failing grade if he does not write on a piece paper that God is, well, dead.
After refusing the assignment, he agrees to argue God's existence to the class, which he does using computer graphics and inspirational quotes.
All the while, the movie uses secondary characters to move the plot along, including a left-wing reporter, a self-serving corporate businessman and a female student cast out by her Muslim family for adopting Christian beliefs. Included in the final credits are names of university cases producers say inspired the film.
Enriquez said that despite arguments to the contrary, the premise is not fiction.
"That's a fanciful thought but the unfortunate thing is it does happen," he said. "Last month on a California campus, a pro-life demonstrator was belittled by a professor in front of the student body."
Reports show University of California-Santa Barbara women's studies professor Mireille Miller-Young was arrested on battery and theft charges after taking a 16-year-old demonstrator's sign (a picture of an aborted fetus) and pushing her. Miller-Young told authorities images presented by the off-campus pro-life group offended her. The college later issued a letter of apology.
Rahul Agarwal, director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries at the University of South Florida, said many of his students have encountered professors who mock Christian theology.
"There have been multiple times where students have had a professor say, 'God is dead or that God doesn't exist, even this semester,' " he said. "It's not that we are on the defensive but that we are put in positions to defend ourselves."
God's Not Dead producer David A.R. White, who also appears in the cast, has said he made the movie to give Christians a voice. Scenes of professors laughing at believers add fuel to that pesky debate: Are Christians bullies or victims? Critics say the film presents mere cartoon versions of nonbelievers, making it evangelical propaganda.
But fans say the movie, at its core, offers a more spiritual than political experience.
"I think it can engage nonbelievers and get them to ask Christians questions like, 'Why do you believe?' " Enriquez said. "It is also an opportunity for us to ask ourselves those same questions. It helps drive us to understand what we believe and why."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]