Dave Hartline interviewed Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, screenwriters for God’s Not Dead, which was the country’s fourth-highest-grossing film last weekend. The movie tackles the battle between the secular and the world of faith, especially as it relates to public universities.
Dave Hartline: First of all, in full disclosure, I met you guys about four years ago at Family Theater Productions in Hollywood while talking about my books and other projects. I was so impressed with not only your faith but your humility. A few years before, you were working with the likes of Sylvester Stallone, and you gave all that up to toil in the vineyard of faith-based movies. Why?
Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman: We felt like the Lord was asking us to leave the secular film world and go into making Christian films. It was a very personal thing, but since we’re guys from New Jersey — and not very bright ones at that — He had to make the signs pretty obvious. Eventually we got the point.
Hartline: I have to tell you that there’s a certain buzz that I am hearing about the film God’s Not Dead, not only on the Internet but actually in the theater. I have not only heard but have witnessed people clapping in the theater. In addition, with relatively no advertising budget, God’s Not Dead is blowing away films with huge advertising dollars. How do you explain this?
Solomon and Konzelman: We always pray first. And we felt really called to write this piece. But in terms of the response to it, what can we say? It’s all the Holy Spirit.
Hartline: God’s Not Dead was No. 5 last weekend, and that’s with one-third to one-fourth of the screens compared with the films that finished ahead of you. Will there be more screens in play, and what about a release in other countries?
Solomon and Konzelman: The film was actually No. 4 — the original estimates were a little low — so the rankings got revised on Monday. From what we understand, they’ll be adding another 400 screens domestically for the second weekend, with theatricals for the U.K. and Africa next month and pretty much all of Latin America in May. None of which was expected.
Hartline: I think a faithful Christian, or anyone of faith, feels a lot has changed in the last five or six years. People of faith are often mocked or belittled in popular culture, and the faithful are accused of all sorts of bigotry and ignorance. We are told to get with the times, as if our consciences could really leave the truth behind. It seems the movie is addressing that underlying feeling in the faith community.
Solomon and Konzelman: Yes, that’s definitely the nerve that’s been touched. Secular humanists insist that Christians in general — and Catholics in particular — are supposed to leave their belief system at home when it comes to matters in the public sphere. So according to the rules they propose, their belief system is allowable . . . and ours isn’t. Which is a deliberate attempt to subvert the whole democratic process. As someone else pointed out: Democracy is supposed to be about more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
Hartline: While the film is getting kudos from the faithful, some of the not-so-faithful are descending into the bizarre, and then some, in denouncing the film. I am not talking about just the cranky atheistic websites: The reviewer at Variety actually used the words “Nazi propaganda films” to describe the portrayal of Professor Radisson played by Kevin Sorbo. It appears the militantly atheistic professor has some admirers out there. Does that surprise you?
Solomon and Konzelman: No, it’s not a surprise. The secular press keeps saying “this isn’t a real problem” . . . or that the basic premise is manufactured. Our response to them is to ask why there are so many people saying this mirrors a situation they’ve encountered in college . . . or even earlier. In recent years it’s moved down into the high-school and middle-school world as well.
Hartline: Most of my grade-school years and all of my high-school years were spent in Catholic schools. Attending a public university was my first taste of my faith being belittled. I vividly remember a few professors mocking the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, and they seemed to take special glee in attacking Catholicism. Yet, to read some of the reviews that say your portrayal of Professor Radisson was over the top, it’s as if there’s no such thing as a college professor who mocks the faithful. Why do you suppose that is?
Solomon and Konzelman: Ask a bigot if he’s racist, and he’s going to insist, “No, of course not.” But to borrow from Shakespeare, our sense is that the reviewers “doth protest too much.”
Hartline: Yet the film offers hope and a chance of redemption to all of those in the movie, even those who have little use for faith. Was this intentional, or just part of the Christian message?
Solomon and Konzelman: Redemption is possible until the last moment of existence. That sometimes gets lost, even among people of faith. It’s like St. Augustine said: Anyone can, if they wish, become a friend of Jesus this very minute. And that means any minute, including the last one. Especially the last one. Heaven is full of deathbed conversions.
Hartline: College student Josh Wheaton appears to be the nondescript everyman. While everyone else accedes to the professor’s atheistic rants, Josh decides to take up the challenge, even though he’s far from being a theologian. Is there a message there for most of us?
Solomon and Konzelman: It’s a question of being willing to try . . . and fail, if necessary. Mother Teresa got it right: God does not require us to be successful, only faithful. Secular humanism has really been racking up the score in the culture wars lately, largely because of the unwillingness of many Christians to counter their efforts. Unfortunately, doing nothing is doing something: It’s enabling the other side. Every time we roll over and don’t confront the challenge, our forfeit shows up as a win in the other team’s column and encourages them to push further.
Hartline: It appears we are having quite a spurt of faith-based movies. Yet there are those in the faith community who are a little worried that some of the big-time blockbuster movies might not have many faithful folks involved. What do you think?
Solomon and Konzelman: Hollywood’s executive ranks are not exactly overrun with believers. That’s no secret. So the studios find themselves in the unusual position of trying to produce films for a market they don’t understand. Generally, they hire “guides” in the Christian world — trying to make sure they’re not inadvertently going to offend large blocs of their potential audience. In general, we think the audience is going to have to decide on a case-by-case basis if they like and agree with a particular film’s content. But if believers want to create a parallel production and distribution system, then someone’s going to have to decide to fund one. Catholics seem to be particularly remiss here. We can’t think of a single Catholic film of any significant size that’s been funded in the last five years, which is sad.
Hartline: With this being Lent, I know both of you frequently go to Mass during the week and regularly partake of the sacraments, especially confession. With the burgeoning success of God’s Not Dead, is this Lent any different from previous ones?
Solomon and Konzelman: Traditionally, Lent has been a fallow time for us, business-wise — 40 days where we struggle with work, and pretty much everything is difficult. So this enormous blessing dropping out of the sky in the midst of Lent comes as quite a surprise. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Hartline: I can’t let you go without asking about your film project The Resurrection. It has been something you guys have been talking about and planning ever since I met you four years ago. You often talked about “the right time.” Is the time about right? How’s the project coming?
Solomon and Konzelman: It’s still sitting on the shelf, waiting for the proper season to arrive. We’ve felt in prayer that we’re being asked to safeguard this project. And we’re not looking for studio involvement; we’ve had enough studio experience in the past to view a studio check like a poisonous serpent: something you really don’t want to touch. So this one’s going to have to be an independent film, from start to finish. But if we’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that God’s timing and man’s timing are two very different things. In the meantime, we’ll put our hands to whatever the Lord sends our way.
— Dave Hartline is an educator and writer from the Columbus, Ohio, area. He is the author of numerous political and religious articles and two Catholic books as well as the forthcoming Seven Great Things Happening in the Catholic Church, available this summer from St. Benedict Press.