The recent abundance of excellent Christian movies has been a joy to take in. Three movies released in the last year have immediately made my top 10 list of favorites of the genre. Paul, Apostle of Christ and The Case for Christ were two films that are both well done cinematically and tell a highly compelling Christian message. I reviewed these movies, Paul Review Case for Christ Review and felt we were having a great movie year based on these two hits alone. Then I Can Only Imagine comes along as a movie that was not on my radar at all. Surprisingly, it may have surpassed the previous two. It not only tells a great story of redemption through Jesus, but it does so in an authentic and highly relatable way. I cried tears of sadness and joy throughout the movie.
I highly recommend this movie. It does deal with hard subjects like child abuse so parental screening is recommended.
Redemption. It is at the heart of the Christian faith. Jesus takes what is broken, lost and evil and changes it. In exchange for His blood and His body broken, He takes our ugliness and sin and gives us something eternally wonderful in return. He exchanges the sacredness of God for the brokenness of man.
Redemption is a theme that runs all through the Bible. It also, not surprisingly, appears throughout the great stories that men have told since the time of Jesus. We Christians love stories of people, who are very lost and headed to destruction, but are saved from themselves at the last moment. They testify to the greatness of our Lord Jesus. It is the heart of our faith. Yet, when we ourselves are in the midst of great pain inflicted upon us, it can be the last thing we are interested in, as it involves our submission. We want justice for the perpetrator or to nurse our wounds rather than desire their salvation. We can focus on our hurt and pain to the exclusion of God’s plan. As a result, we can miss the possibility that we need God’s reclamation just as much as our abuser does.
This is a big part of the story behind I Can Only Imagine. It is billed as the history of the hit song of the same name by Bart Millard, the lead singer of MercyMe, but it is way more. It is the story of the redemption of Bart’s Dad by Jesus. It is also about the redemption of Bart who is in desperate need of salvation and revival from the scars that sin have left on him. A stunted life as a result of someone else’s sin is just as much of a tragedy as if it was from our own sin.
At the beginning of the movie, we are taken back to Bart’s childhood home filled with pain, anger, and abuse at the hands of his father, Arthur, played by Dennis Quaid. Arthur was a football star with the dream of playing in the NFL who did not make it. Life after his hopes have been shattered has twisted him into a terrible and hard man who takes out his frustrations on his wife and young son. All of the acting in the movie is good, but Quaid gives a standout performance as Arthur. His depiction of malevolence, self-hate and boiling anger that some people choose to live life with is chilling. Looking into his dead yet taunting eyes, you can understand why Bart describes his Father as a monster before Jesus.
Growing up as the son of such a man is a terrible burden for Bart to bear. The movie does an excellent job of showing the twisted family dynamics involved. Bart idolizes his dad and tries his best to be just like him but can never do enough to gain his approval. Since Arthur is merely expressing his own dark soul, it has nothing to do with Bart’s performance, as he takes pleasure in demeaning his son and keeping him defeated and uncomfortable. In the midst of this world of struggle and violence, Bart finds his escape through attending a church camp and being introduced to Christian music. He also meets his later girlfriend here. Amy Grant songs on an old style walkman becomes his refuge from his dad and his only joy in the darkness. Despite this, as Bart grows up and understands the evil in his dad, bitterness and a sense of loss over a terrible childhood take root.
When the time comes to set out on his own, Bart struggles against the weight of his father’s shadow. He discovers the love of singing and then begins to follow his own dream to chase after: being a music star. Yet, the very coping mechanisms that he developed to deal with the abuse also leave him unprepared for real life. His deep-seated need to hide from his dad and from the world leaves him unable to fully embrace his own life, personality and identity. His simmering anger and resentment for his father also betray his desire to move on and grow as a Christian artist. Trace Adkins, in the role as Bart’s manager, plays the part of the patient mentor who encourages Bart to work through his issues. After the initial efforts of MercyMe’s attempts at stardom fail spectacularly, Bart heads home to try to face his demons and find the real him. The discovery that Bart’s father has cancer and came to Jesus greatly complicate this situation. Where it had once been comfortable and accepted to be the victim and hold onto bitterness,it is not so easy now. Bart is given a choice that will define the remainder of his life. Quaid’s awkward attempts to reconcile with his son and explain what Jesus has done to him are a joy to watch. His question to his son, “If God can forgive other people, why can’t He forgive me?”, is so filled with truth and meaning. Bart’s choice is summed up beautifully in a saying someone once told me that set me free:
Forgiveness is like choosing to free someone from prison and then learning that you have also been the prisoner.
This is an aspect where the movie really shines. It gets the Gospel of Jesus and teaches it through Bart and his Dad in ways that people often miss. Bart chooses to forgive his dad just as Jesus did, and in the process, finds peace for his own troubled soul. He really finds Jesus when he extends peace to someone who doesn’t deserve it, simply because it is what Jesus did. It is the gospel of grace. He sets his dad free and is freed himself in the process. So many people get stuck at this stage. They are Christian and they are beloved of God, yet, they don’t grow because they are too comfortable imprisoned by the hurts and pains of the past. Jesus says to forgive and they say, “Lord, you don’t understand how much pain I went through”. The Cross of Jesus testifies that He does understand and wants us to forgive anyway. It is what is best for us not only the forgiven person.
Bart and Arthur have a wonderful time of reconciliation and enjoyment in their grace covered relationship before his dad succumbs to cancer. Father and son rebuild their lives as they work together rebuilding an old Jeep in the family barn. It is a wonderful picture. Jesus changes Arthur from the man who laid hands on his son in violence to a man who tenderly does so in affirmation and love. It is such a sweet presentation of the power of God!
I have never cried as much as I did in this movie, as in many ways I walked a very similar journey as Bart. My own father was the dominating presence that cast a shadow over me for a good portion of my life. His alcoholism, personality and our shattered home left me just as lost, confused and desperate for my dad’s impossible-to-gain approval as Bart Millard. I found World War 2 books as my refuge to Bart’s Amy Grant tapes, but the same desire to hide from the world of pain drove me. In the early part of my adulthood, I walked around carrying the weight of my dad with me through life like an anvil. I was a hollowed out version of a man due to both the wounds inflicted and the habits and sins I developed to escape them. The anger and resentment were tearing me apart, as I descended into the same life of alcoholism that destroyed him. I was just as lost and trapped as my Dad and headed down the same road of destruction.
It was the same cure that Bart and Arthur received that freed me from my prison – a whole lot of Jesus and hard-fought forgiveness. In order to be me and trust totally in Jesus, I had to forgive my dad despite him not asking for it. Jesus forgave me for my many sins so who was I not to do the same for my Dad. The day I forgave him a huge burden was lifted, and I was free to live the rest of my life out of his shadow. It was a wonderful moment that has allowed my family to be filled with all of the joy, hope, faith, and love that I was desperate for as a kid. It never would have happened had I not forgiven him. The sin of unforgiveness would have kept me imprisoned and adversely affected my family and life.
My Dad has not yet found Jesus. My grandfather, though, is a different story. Just as much a monster as Dennis Quaid’s character, perhaps more; He also gave his life to Jesus shortly before he died and was set free. This history and this movie provide me with hope and encouragement to keep on praying and working on my Dad while there is still time left. As Bart Millard says in the movie, if God can change that monster into my best friend, He can do anything. “I am the Lord, the God of all people. Nothing is too difficult for me.” Jeremiah 32:27
Honestly, if God can change me, He can change anyone.
Let us never forget this amazing hope and truth. No one is too far gone for Jesus.
I Can Only Imagine is a wonderful and nuanced movie. It is a sweet and authentic story of Jesus saving a Father and Son out of the rubble that sin made of their lives. It is surely one of my new favorite movies and resulted in my faith increased and Jesus being praised.
Go and see it.