- HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL: The latest in the "God's Not Dead" series, set in a fictional "Hope Springs, Arkansas," is a more fully-fledged film, albeit one that clings to a picture of Christianity under fire.
As Leonard Cohen once sang, "There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say that there isn't." Like its predecessors, "God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness," the third movie in the "God's Not Dead" series, depicts the supposed "war against Christianity" at the center of white evangelical identity. You may have been unaware of this ongoing conflict, but apparently latte-drinking secularists, like the mythical Elders of Zion, hold fast to the motto: "We shall forbid Christ." Even here in Arkansas, a state whose Capitol grounds will soon feature a new Ten Commandments monument and whose political leaders regularly invoke the name of Jesus. Go figure.
The battleground this time is St. James Church, located on the campus of Hadleigh University in "Hope Springs, Arkansas." The church has become a site of conflict between determined secularists who want it gone and good-hearted, doe-eyed Christians who just want to worship in peace. One night, a student chucks a brick through the basement window, breaking a gas line and producing a conflagration that kills Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango) and destroys the church. Seeing its opportunity, the university board exerts eminent domain to claim the land for its new student union. Pastor Dave Hill (David A.R. White, who also produces), a minor character in the previous two movies, takes the lead in trying to save his church, enlisting the help of his estranged, non-believing brother Pearce (John Corbett), a lawyer specializing in social justice work.
"A Light in Darkness" is the second in the series to be filmed in Central Arkansas, and locals will recognize landmarks such as Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Doe's Eat Place, Philander Smith College, the Arkansas River Trail, Two Rivers Park and more. However, the film exhibits some sloppy inconsistencies between story and scenery. For one, the film is set in the fictional city of Hope Springs, which renders the Little Rock sign above the River Market pavilion, seen in one shot, an inconvenient presence. Too, the film employs the Robinson Center as a stand-in for a courthouse, but the establishing shot prominently features the name of the building engraved upon its face.
Like Donald Trump, the Christianity at the heart of the "God's Not Dead" movies is obsessed with its representation in the media, and the story is constantly interrupted with characters watching news coverage of the events depicted, imbuing every plot twist with world historical significance. More than the other two movies in the "God's Not Dead" series, however, "A Light in Darkness" attempts to be an actual film. Unlike his predecessor, Harold Cronk, writer-director Michael Mason understands that film is a visual medium; occasionally, his characters actually stop talking, and the camera lingers gently upon them and their surroundings. Too, the story offers something more than just your uncle's Facebook rant about the persecution of Christians, lacking the unambiguous villains of previous installments who proudly proclaimed, "I hate God." Corbett's Pearce is an engaging and likable character, portrayed by someone giving the first genuinely good performance in the entire series. Indeed, Mason highlights how dualistic thinking by Christians themselves can drive from the fold people who have sincere questions about faith. Near the end, a young woman named Keaton (Samantha Boscarino) explains to Pastor Dave the reason why people of her generation are leaving Christianity behind: "Because the whole world knows what the church is against, but it is harder and harder to know what it stands for."
Does this seeming engagement with the world represent a departure for the series? Well, producer White recently held a private screening of the film for Vice President Mike Pence at the Museum of the Bible in Washington and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch has a prominent cameo, so the church apparently stands for gay conversion therapy and loose firearms regulation. Dismiss that as a cheap shot, if you want. But at the end of the film, our token atheist characters are both holding Bibles after witnessing the goodness of believers around them. The message is clear: Christians may be willing to tolerate questions, but they won't tolerate any answer different from the one in the title.