[Screen It]


(2018) (David A.R. White, John Corbett) (PG)

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Drama: A preacher must not only contend with his church burning down, but also the public university where it's located trying to use eminent domain to take their land.
Reverend Dave Hill (DAVID A.R. WHITE) is the pastor of St. James Church, a community pillar in Hope Springs, Arkansas where it's stood for a century and a half. But Dave's jailing for contempt of court over refusing to release transcripts of his sermons has drawn unwanted attention via protests to Hadley University, the public school that came along after the church and ultimately surrounded it. Things go from bad to worse when one of the students, Adam Richerston (MIKE C. MANNING) -- who's upset that his girlfriend, Keaton Young (SAMANTHA BOSCARINO), has dumped him for mocking Christianity despite her having some serious doubts about her faith -- throws a brick through a basement window and runs off without anyone identifying him.

Dave's new church associate, Reverend Jude Mbaye (BENJAMIN A. ONYANGO), not realizing a gas line has been accidentally broken, ends up mortally wounded from the resultant explosion. Seeing this as their opportunity to get rid of the church, the university's board of directors votes to take the now condemned church's land through eminent domain, something that doesn't sit well with the school's chancellor, Tom Ellsworth (TED McGINLEY), who's a personal friend to Dave.

When he realizes they're serious, Dave reaches out to his long-estranged, social justice lawyer brother, Pearce (JOHN CORBETT), for help. Unlike his sibling or Josh Wheaton (SHANE HARPER) who dropped out of law school to run the church's Harbor House program, Pearce gave up religion long ago, but agrees to help Dave simply because that's what older brothers are supposed to do.

As they set out to come up with a legal strategy to fight the university, and as Dave becomes friendlier with Meg Harvey (JENNIFER TAYLOR) who runs a local soup kitchen, tensions rise between the church's supporters and those who want a religious institution off a public university's grounds.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Here's the deal regarding individuals, organizations, and institutions that peddle fear, conspiracy and paranoia to the masses or at least highly coveted, target audiences -- people eventually wise up and/or get tired of hearing such messages. Sure, such tactics have always been effective to some degree or another and there will always be the stalwart hangers-on who will go down fighting in their "us vs. them" beliefs. For the most part, however, the vast majority don't.

Such is the case with the so-called war on Christianity, sometimes narrowed down to the war on Christmas. I don't know the exact percentage of my total friends and associates who are Christian vs. those who are not, but it's high, and not one of them has ever believed such a war ever existed in the first place.

That's most likely because Christians far and away outnumber every other religious and non-religious group in America combined, not to mention such fear and conspiracy was obviously created by certain individuals and organizations interested only in drawing in bigger audiences -- and thus revenue -- for themselves.

All of which likely explains why the third installment in the "God's Not Dead" series -- this one subtitled "A Light in Darkness" eases up quite significantly in that paranoia. Yes, there are still the obligatory us versus them moments and yet more rounds of various characters pointing out the flaws of how some so-called Christians have perverted the religion to meet their own self-centered needs and agendas, only to have the film gloss over or quickly dispatch such observations and objections like before.

But it's definitely clear that all of that has been dialed back as compared to the first two entries in the series, making this film more watchable for those who want to see a return to Christianity of old. And by that I mean what Christ himself preached and practiced, something that eventually comes around at the end of the third act here, perhaps too abruptly in terms of storytelling but certainly welcome in regard to messaging.

The film -- written and directed by Michael Mason who's new to this cinematic fold -- picks up where the last installment left off. Namely, that's Reverend Dave Hill (David A.R. White) getting out of the slammer after being jailed for contempt of court after refusing to release transcripts of his sermons. He's hoping to get back to serving the community alongside his associate pastor (Benjamin A. Onyango), but little does either of them know a romantic breakup is going to upend their world and end one of their lives.

That stems from college student Keaton (Samantha Boscarino) who's been questioning her faith and apparently her relationship with her boyfriend Adam (Mike C. Manning) as she quickly dumps him for a snide religious-based comment he makes. In response, he defaces the announcement sign at Dave's church and then throws a brick through the basement window before running off, unaware that would lead to a gas leak, explosion, and accidental death of Reverend Jude.

The ruthless school board (collectively representing the secular "them") decide to use that and protests on the public university campus where the church is located to grab that land via eminent domain. While I'm no real estate lawyer and thus can't say this with absolute certainty, that reeks of "they're coming for our churches" paranoia as I doubt a school could do such a legal land grab (whereas a municipality, city or state certainly could).

In any event, that leads to the big battle storyline where the board digs in their heels and protests grow on both sides while the pastor seeks out his long-estranged social justice lawyer brother (John Corbett) to help him, and brick-throwing Adam finds himself drowning in guilt.

Those two storylines go above and beyond the one-off "religion is bad/doesn't belong on public land" comments by addressing religious intolerance toward those who question their faith or have serious issues with how some abuse that against those who don't fit into their specific dogma.

And most of that revolves around the two brothers, one a man of faith and the other one who's moved on from that due to the way his family treated him way back when at the time he started asking tough questions. White and Corbett credibly portray such a sibling riff and that gives the film some nice depth and feels genuine as compared to other bits that still feel a bit too manufactured for the delivery of the film's titular message.

But it's when Keaton informs her pastor that the reason her generation is leaving the church -- that the world can see what modern Christianity is against rather than what it's for -- that the film finally finds its true footing (and calling). Coupled with the reverend apparently getting a direct message from God that allows him to see the titular light (limited to the ruins of the burned out church briefly transitioning to a star field -- although without an actual sighting of the Almighty), the film heads in the right direction and conclusion, albeit one that might not appease those who still believe they're victims in some war to take away their religion.

I would have liked to have seen that fleshed out a bit more as the revelation and conclusion feel hurried, but at least the transition occurs. Only time will tell if that means this will wrap up this series with something of an unexpected, throwback development to the early roots and original teachings of Christianity and thus eliminate the need for "GND 4." If that's the case, "God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness" will go out on a ray of hope rather than paranoia, conspiracy and fear. It rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 27, 2018 / Posted March 30, 2018

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