Because I am fundamentally broken, wretched person, I come to the films in the God's Not Dead franchise with a certain expectation of laughing at the ineptitude, cringing in merry pleasure at the deep lack of understanding of human behavior, and feeling a twisted, ripped-up churning in my guts, like I've got a live copperhead in my stomach, at recognising that real people really think this way, and they have some measure of political power. It's quite the roller coaster of bad movie fun times.

It's a mixture that is almost entirely banished from God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, the third and almost certainly final entry into the franchise that has come to define "movies for right-wing Christians" in the popular consciousness. Like God's Not Dead and God's Not Dead 2 before it, A Light in Darkness is a nasty-minded piece of shit. But unlike those two, it's also telling a single, unified story in which its human protagonist (there's only one this time, in aΒ  break with series tradition) undergoes change as a result of what happens around him, and his reflections on his own shortcomings as a person. It is absolutely in every way an advertisement for a very particular branch of American Protestant Evangelical Christianity, one hyper-attached to movement conservative politics, but it's also ready to raise questions about how that form of Christianity has managed to lose its way in some respects, and acknowledge that some people who are wavering in their faith, or even atheists - gag choke gasp - are still people, still have the basic strengths and faults of other people, and can still do good, though the film is quick to imply that they're doing good sort of by accident and definitely for questionable reasons).

Basically, the film comes entirely too close to being intellectually and morally fair, and it is very nearly a functional motion picture narrative, and this comes about as a huge disappointing shock. Because instead of of a raging bonfire of heinous idiocy, it's really just a clunky, bad movie, and that's just not as much fun to watch or write about.

The change comes about in large part, I am sure, from a new infusion of talent: director and co-writer Michael Mason isn't merely new to the God's Not Dead series, he seems to be new to filmmaking altogether, to guess from his nonexistent list of credits, and co-writer Howard Klausner has a decent number of non-insane conservative movies under his belt, and at least one full-on Hollywood picture, the 2000 Clint Eastwood film Space Cowboys. Between them, they've crafted the simplest, least obviously-impossible film in the series thus far. You may recall that, at the end of GND2, beloved Pastor Dave (David A.R. White, founder of producing studio Pure Flix) was arrested for refusing to submit his sermons to the federal government for censorship or some such things. Well, he gets released pretty much immediately once the film starts, since that turns out to be something you absolutely cannot fucking arrest people for, which is our first indication that a new wind is blowing through God's Not Dead-dom. Even though he no longer has to worry about running afoul of Johnny Law, Pastor Dave's recent spate in national news has created a headache for the board of trustees of Hadleigh University, on whose property Dave's church resides. They've decided to deal with this turbulent priest in the bluntest way possible, using eminent domain to buy the historically important building and raze it to build a new student center. And while the film is aware enough that there's a problem with this scenario to even put the line "but why is a church on public school property in the first place?" in the mouth of a character, I will credit Mason and Klausner for coming up with a conflict whose logic remains intact beyond the introductory paragraphs of the film's Wikipedia page.*

The overcooked melodrama this time around involves a college couple, Keaton (Samantha Boscarino) and Adam (Mike C. Manning), who break up because he's being a smug asshole about her crisis of faith; in his pain and fury, he throws a brick through the window of St. James Church, nicking a gas line, and causing the church to explode just exactly when Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude (Benjamin Onyango) are visiting it one night; Pastor Jude dies, and Dave plunges into a fit of revenge-seeking anger. In no time flat he's suing the school, with the help of his atheist lawyer brother Pearce (John Corbett), who hasn't spoken to him or anyone in the family for a long time, but is taking this opportunity to reconnect and rebuild bridges.

Where A Light in Darkness goes right, it goes right in that relationship. Pearce is by far the most sympathetic non-believer character I've ever seen in one of these overheated Christian persecution complex movies, and Corbett's performance is easily the best ever given in a God's Not Dead movie: he captures something very warm and winning about being an older brother who watches Dave's annoyances and flareups and pain with a kind of wry sense of "I know you think this is all very serious but it's really not, and it's adorable that you're so into it". He is easily the most human and humane character onscreen, which is something that I think has never once been true of John Corbett in anything ever. Which does tell us, I think, about the overall level of acting quality to be found in A Light in Darkness.

The other thing the film does that I didn't expect at all was to actually push back against Dave a bit. It does this in a couple shockingly direct ways, when Pearce, with that warm, sympathetic way of his, says to his brother "You guys love to play the victim card", and in the context of that particular fight, the film clearly agrees with him entirely. Which doesn't just take a little of the piss from Dave, it openly calls into question the entire foundation of the God's Not Dead universe. Later, as Dave moans and whines about all the things going on in his life, an African-American fellow pastor, with almost exactly that same level of warm, wry, "you are such a tit" good humor points out that as a Black preacher in the deep South, he's had more bricks lobbed through his own windows than Dave could ever dream of.

These are little things, but they come at key moments, and they contribute to a very unexpected facet of A Light in Darkness: it demands that Dave look at his behavior, realise that anger and self-righteousness and a peremptory dismissal of people who disagree with him are all directly against the moral code that he preaches. These films are, lest we forget, not propaganda to turn non-believers into believers; they're red meat for people who look at figures like Dave as heroes and martyrs and models. And the film's main message for that audience, expressed through its primary character arc, is "you know, you've kind of forgotten about this 'humility' thing, and maybe it's worth going back to that".

I wonder if that explains A Light in Darkness's complete implosion at the box office; it's fun to be told that you're right and everyone you hate is literally evil, it's a lot less fun to be told that you should think about getting down off of that high horse and pumping the brakes on that "hate" thing altogether.

Anyway, it's best not to go too far down that rabbit hole, because the film still does the thing that God's Not Dead pictures do: it presents all the non-Pearce atheists (which is everyone who isn't a member of Dave's congregation, basically) as foaming-mouthed Christ haters who do what they do purely out of a sense of rage; it gives cameos to toxic figures like Fox News talking head Jeanine Pirro and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch that presents them as the level-headed voices of wisdom; it presupposes that white conservative Christians are an embattled minority in the United States (though it no longer holds up the pretense that they are the embattled minority); it allows the deeply uncharismatic members of Christian rock group Newsboys to show up and spit out some extremely awful dialogue.

It's also still a really bad piece of filmmaking. Corbett's presence magnifies how bad everybody else is in the cast. In particular, White has been handed his biggest part by far, with the most complex undercurrents of guilt, rage, and abashed late-blooming humility, and it does nothing but showcase his incapacity to do that thing called "acting". There's also no end to very dumb "let me say the themes at you" dialogue in scenes that mash people together for the sole purpose of generating such conversations. The film also manages to demolish continuity in a series that barely has enough continuity to break, hauling back God's Not Dead 1 hero Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to show that, in certainly less than four years, he's gone from college freshman to law school graduate, which I must say makes me feel like a bit of a piker.

So it's all badly-made, over-articulated yet incomprehensible, smug trash. But it's not contemptible, and this really bums me out. These films are not built to be thoughtful, and seeing one actually try to be is just kind of sad and miserable. Anyway, we very likely shan't have any more, and there's really no sense in which that's not for the ultimate good of humanity.

Reviews in this series
God's Not Dead (Cronk, 2014)
God's Not Dead 2 (Cronk, 2016)
God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (Mason, 2018)

*To be fair, this is in part because the introductory paragraphs of the film's Wikipedia page primarily talk about how much money it lost.