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REEL REVIEW - God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness
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Rating: PG

Genre: Drama

Directed By: Michael Mason

Runtime: 120 Minutes

Cast: David A.R. White as Rev. Dave Hill; John Corbett as Pearce Hill; Benjamin A. Onyango as Rev. Jude; Samantha Boscarino as Keaton; Mike C. Manning as Adam; Shane Harper as Josh Wheaton; Ted McGinley as Thomas Ellsworth; Jennifer Taylor as Meg Harvey; Tatum O'Neal as Barbara Solomon; Gregory Alan Williams as Reverend Roland Dial; Shwayze as Mateo

MOVIE PREVIEW by Adam R. Holz - PluggedIn

Reverend Dave Hill isn't a fighter. No, he's naturally a mild-mannered, all-'round nice guy. The kind of guy you'd share your struggles with. The kind of guy who'd listen patiently and offer wise and winsome advice afterward. In other words, he's exactly the kind of guy you'd want as your pastor.

But when push comes to shove, he won't back down from a fight either.

As this story opens, Dave continues to fight the legal battle still lingering from God's Not Dead 2, one in which he's refused to turn over his sermon transcripts after being ordered by the court to do so. That conviction has landed him in jail, further stoking controversy at Hadleigh University in the town of Hope Springs. Dave's church, St. James, is on the university's property. And students are demanding that the church be removed because they see Dave as a dangerous, divisive presence.

"We don't want you here!" students protest.

After he's released from jail, Dave tells his good friend Rev. Jude that when his father pastored St. James before him, the doors of the church were open 24 hours a day for anyone seeking refuge or spiritual solace. "Now," Dave laments, "we hire armed security guards to protect us from the people we're supposed to be ministering to."

"It's just fear, David," Jude tells him. "And it can be overcome. You know this." Then he adds, "One thing has never changed: God is good, all the time."

Dave certainly believes that. But when St. James is burned to the ground in an apparent hate crime—taking the life of someone trapped inside—it tests Dave's faith as never before. Adding insult to injury, Hadleigh University's board of trustees refuses to rebuild the church. Instead, they seize upon the tragedy as an opportunity to claim the land under eminent domain laws.

Dave Hill may not naturally be a fighter. But now he's got another fight on his hands. And it's a battle that will once again affect not only his life, but the lives of many others in Hope Springs—especially a young college student named Keaton who isn't convinced that God really hears her prayers anymore.

Rev. Dave has been a secondary character throughout the God's Not Dead franchise. This time, he's front and center in a story that broadly mirrors some of the cultural divisions we see in the news virtually every day. His journey here is a fundamentally spiritual one, which I'll detail more below. As he seeks to defend his church from those who would take it from him, he's forced to face hard questions about how best to respond.

Dave's joined in that journey by his estranged brother, Pearce, a lawyer from Chicago who focuses on social justice cases. Whereas Dave has embraced his father's faith, Pearce has rejected Christianity and largely been distant from his brother for many years. But Pearce is willing to represent his brother to prevent the university from taking the church property. Along the way, the brothers must confront hurts from their shared past that have long separated them.

Dave also finds encouragement from his friend Meg, a woman who runs a local soup kitchen and outreach to homeless people. Meg stands with Dave through several difficult moments, constantly encouraging him to persevere.

God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness seems as if it's going to tell another tale about the culture war between secularists and evangelicals. After all, it revolves around Dave's fight to rescue his church from those who believe he's a divisive influence on campus. Early in the film, he says in a TV interview, "Truth is a person—the person of Jesus Christ. It’s the one truth above all others." That statement riles up rancor among many at Hadleigh. In another interview later on, Dave argues, "People still have a right, a fundamental human right, to express their beliefs—even at a state university."

Much of the movie revolves around defending that right. But as the story progresses, we see that Dave's increasingly vitriolic crusade for justice is actually damaging others. He gets into a physical altercation with one man. He threatens someone else. He suggests that the person who started the church fire should get the maximum prison sentence. Dave's passion for justice slowly morphs into a toxic demand for vengeance.

In a conversation with another pastor, an increasingly bitter Dave asks, "When is it our right to fight? I'm tired of being pushed around. I'm tired of turning the other cheek. … And I think it's time that Christians stand up for themselves."

The pastor responds, "People were drawn to Jesus because of His love, His patience and kindness. … We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don't forget, we are called to be a light in the darkness."

That conversation is a pivotal moment for Dave as he realizes that grace, mercy and forgiveness are actually more important than winning his legal battle against the university. At a contentious rally attended by protesters from both sides of the conflict, Dave becomes a unifying influence, saying, "Please, let's stop the shouting at each other and start listening. … It's the only way things will get better." After he has everyone in the crowd light candles, he says, "Let this candle represent peace, hope, unity and love."

Woven throughout Dave's story is that of Keaton, a young woman who's grown up in faith, but who is battling to hang on to it as she struggles to hear God's voice. Her boyfriend, Adam, belittles her beliefs, as do some of her other non-Christian friends. She prays, "I can barely hear you anymore. Are you even there? I hope you are. I feel so lost, God." Keaton eventually breaks off her relationship with Adam because of their spiritual differences, which enrages Adam.

Later, they reconnect again, and Adam confides that his antipathy for Christianity stems from painful struggles in his past: "Do you know why my mom divorced my dad? He used to beat her. I was 9 when she left. You know what our church did? They called her a sinner. They said if she married again, she'd be an adulterer. They humiliated her. What I remember most about that time is the sound of my mother crying herself to sleep...So, yeah, I get angry sometimes."

Despite those deep wounds, Adam eventually comes to a place where he longs to experience God's forgiveness for his anger and the destructive choices he's made. On a parallel course, Pearce and David engage in multiple conversations, too, about Pearce's deep doubts and past pains that propelled him away from the faith.

Keaton, for her part, articulates the importance of the connection between what we say we believe and how we actually behave: "If being a Christian doesn't affect the way we act, then how do we know that our values and beliefs are any more valid than anyone else's?" She also confronts Dave, saying, "Do you want to know why my generation is leaving the church? Because the whole world knows what the church is against, but it's getting harder and harder to know what it's for."

Throughout the film, characters quote various passages of Scripture, and a couple of scenes take place in churches. We see several different people reading their Bibles. (And, once, Dave hurls his across the room in frustration.)

Keaton swims laps, and we see her in a conservative one-piece bathing suit. She and Adam kiss and hug a couple of times. Another couple inches slowly toward a romantic relationship. Some college students dance with each other at a party.

When a vandal throws a rock through the church window, it inadvertently hits a gas line. The resulting explosion burns down the house of worship and claims the life of one man trapped inside (due to a combination of the blast, burns and smoke inhalation, it's suggested). David pulls the man from the burning church, but he's unable to save his life.

David and his former friend, Hadleigh University chancellor Thomas Ellsworth, trade punches. We hear that a university administrator is receiving death threats, and a brick is lobbed through that man's window (terrifying his young daughter and wife). A black pastor matter-of-factly says that he's had many bricks lobbed through his windows over the course of his career.

No profanity. A lone use of "oh my gosh."

We see Adam and other college students drinking from red cups. Pearce stays with Dave and asks his brother, "Got booze?" (He doesn't.) Elsewhere, another character makes a passing reference to attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Someone jokingly calls another person a "crackhead."

David's initial response to discovering the identity of the person who threw the rock through the window isn't one of mercy or forgiveness, but an angry, self-righteous desire for justice.

A vandal spray-paints a church sign. A man drives while talking on his cellphone.

We live in loud times.

On TV, on the radio, on social media, in newspapers and even (at times) in the church, loud and angry voices hurl accusations and invectives at the "other side." Polarization is the result. As Fox News contributor Jeanine Pirro says in her cameo appearance in this film, "It's a sign of the times, isn't it? Everybody's yelling, nobody's listening."

In our reviews of the first two God's Not Dead films, we've suggested that this franchise at times perhaps unintentionally reinforces that kind of us-vs.-them bunker mentality. And as this movie got underway, I suspected the third entry in this franchise might head that direction as well.

But then this film does something unexpected: It suggests that winning the culture war isn't what matters most for Christians in America. Instead, what matters is loving and forgiving others, living out the gospel in acts of kindness and graciousness.

Rev. Dave doesn't get to that realization easily or quickly. More so than the first two films, God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness paints pretty gritty portraits of Christians genuinely struggling with their faith. Dave doesn't always know what to do. Some of his responses to his struggles are downright ugly. And that characterization of Dave's flaws lends a depth to his character that was arguably a bit lacking in the first two installments.

I like the overall message here: Being light in the darkness requires listening and loving. It requires kindness and a willingness to sacrifice our rights. Those are important reminders for us all in the combative cultural moment in which we live, one in which being faithful is just as important—and perhaps even more so—as being a fighter.