Movie Review – I Can Only Imagine

I’ve mentioned this movie before, but here’s my more complete analysis of it. Of course, I’m not a script writer or an expert on movies, so this review is more from the fan side of things than my book reviews might be.

The Story. One reason I like this movie is that it’s a true story. In short it’s really the story about the song “I Can Only Imagine,” written by Bart Millard, lead singer for the band MercyMe. But in the opening, the Bart character says he spent only ten minutes or so writing the lyrics. The Amy Grant character says, No, it actually took you a life time.

From that point the story centers on the elements in Bart’s life that brought him to the place that he wrote the song and eventually how the song came to a place of widespread recognition.

I’ve heard interviews with the real Bart Millard and he said more than once that he felt the movie fairly and accurately portrayed the events, and the actors got him right.

Strengths. I thought the acting was first rate in this movie. Each of the characters seemed truly believable. I understood their motives, felt for them, pulled for them. It was easy to forget that this was not a documentary or that the main character wasn’t playing himself. In fact, the friend I saw the movie with, asked that very question. The role of Bart Millard was J. Michael Finley’s movie debut, and I think he was outstanding.

The only character that threw me was the one played by Trace Adkins, the country singer. He has such a distinct look and persona that I had a hard time remembering he wasn’t playing himself. He was good, don’t get me wrong. Very believable. But he looked so much like Trace Adkins! And sounded so much like Trace Adkins! Sometimes I would forget.

The others in the cast were good, but the other winner was Dennis Quaid who played Bart’s father. He was exactly right at every turn. Such a good performance.

The other great strength of the movie was how the script writers, director, and actors played the elements of change. When an actor has portrayed someone who is angry and mean-spirited and violent, it’s no easy thing to show them as something else in the last act of the film and maintain the aura of believability.

These professionals did an admirable job, I thought, in showing the change in the characters who changed. They didn’t just snap their fingers and all things became new. As much as possible within the scope of the movie, I thought they showed the characters’ struggle to the place where they ended up.

Of course the theme of the film was a major strength. No one can miss what the movie has to say to all of us, and yet it does not preach the message. It unfolds before our eyes through the lives of the characters.

What to be aware of. First, this story involves abuse. It’s not always easy, and it may hit some nerves. Young children aren’t the intended audience.

Second, the band MercyMe plays in a number of Christian venues, and their songs are largely worship songs. Someone unfamiliar with praise music and the audience response to such might be a little uncomfortable. I don’t know.

Third, this story took place in Oklahoma for the most part and as a result the audiences were . . . not particularly racially diverse. Here in SoCal where streets and grocery stores and movie theaters and classrooms and church and workplaces are diverse, such a uniformity of race seemed a little startling. But maybe no one else will think that.

Recommendation. I hardly need to say it, I think. I suspect it’s pretty clear from the above that I think this is a great movie, one I highly recommend to anyone 14 and older. I’ve tried not to give any spoilers, because I think a movie is most powerful when you don’t know everything about it before you see it.

But actually, I did know quite a bit about Bart Millard’s life from the interviews I heard, and I still loved the movie. I’ve read some reviews that say this is one of the best faith-based movies ever. Well, I think it holds its own against other movies, whether faith-based or not.

I understand it had a much smaller budget than some of the other movies that came out that same weekend, and it didn’t have nearly as many theaters where it debuted, but it still came in third two weeks in a row, and then only fell one place, to fourth. People have reported packed theaters, but better is the report that some have come to Christ because of this story.

Now that makes the movie worth seeing, for sure.

Because He Lives

Bill and Gloria Gaither

Back in 1971 Bill and Gloria Gaither came out with a song entitled “Because He Lives.” It became quite popular, but I never latched on to it like others did. There’s a line in the chorus that sort of bothered me:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;

The thing is, I believe there’s an answer for fear, but I don’t think fear is necessarily gone.

That might seem like a picky point to some, but I see it as the difference between a cliched, shallow answer to life’s heartaches, and delving into the deep truth of what Jesus Christ provides because He’s alive today.

The shallow approach is the, don’t-worry-be-happy answer that brushes off the negative emotion as if it has no valid reason for existing. In truth, fear is not really a “negative emotion.” I mean, God gave it to us to keep us from jumping off a ten story building just to see if we can fly, or other such dangerous endeavors.

We should be afraid in many circumstances. Our fear is healthy. Our fear protects us. So it’s not really negative. But it does stop us at times. It can induce worry. It can even consume us and become uncontrollable.

God doesn’t want fear to dominate us like that, and we do have the way out of such debilitating thinking. But I don’t think we can make it vanish by simply saying “all fear is gone.”

Last week I saw the movie “I Can Only Imagine,” the true story about Bart Millard, writer of the song by that same title. I think it’s excellent, and I highly recommend it.

However, it does portray some physical abuse and the anger that accompanies that kind of domestic violence. But one thing that made the movie so good, I thought, was that belief in Jesus Christ as Savior didn’t get tossed out as an instant answer. This was not easy to accomplish in a 110 minute movie, but I thought the writers, producers, actors did a credible job, showing that difficult things had to be wrestled into submission. In other words, “all fear” didn’t simply vanish. But it was overcome.

And that’s because Jesus lives! So the Gaithers got it right, but saying the words or singing the song doesn’t wipe away fear. It actually is trusting Jesus who is alive and real and with us. It might mean giving Him a problem over and over because we seem to take it back almost as soon as it’s out of our hands.

I think my greatest understanding of this kind of trust came some fifteen years ago. I was working as a writer, but I hadn’t started editing yet. I didn’t have health insurance, was living on my savings.

One day I started to the backyard from my upstairs apartment, and I fell down the stairs (don’t ask!). I mean I really fell. I lay there for a second, and the first thought I had was, I think I broke my back. And then, what am I supposed to do if I did?

I really had no choice. I could worry which would not change a thing, or I could trust God to see me through the crisis. I started by seeing if I could move my legs. And I could. Then I sat up, stood up, and made my way back into my apartment. I went for about a week not being able to walk much. But friends prayed, and I knew God would take care of me.

Because Jesus lives. I’d have to say He gave the peace that passes understanding. I can’t explain it. But it’s what Romans says—“He who did not spare His own Son but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also, with Him, freely give us all things?”

No, I didn’t think God had to make everything turn out OK for me. If I had broken my back, He would have cared for me in that circumstance, too. But I knew He had a hold of me, that I was His to take care of, that He was going to work those circumstance for my good that I might become more like Jesus.

The One who is alive, who is with me.

Becoming A Christian—What About The Repentance Part?

In my post yesterday I defined a Christian as someone who believes and continues to believe. But believes in what?

The Bible is quite clear. A Christian believes in three separate things. First he recognizes that he is a sinner and that his sin is the problem. His sin keeps him from God. Second he recognizes that the penalty for his sin is death—the physical death we all will experience, but also a spiritual death brought about by God’s judgment. Third, he recognizes that God took the initiative and sent His Son to die in our place, to bear our sins, and to attribute His righteousness to us.

In short, we admit our condition—we are essentially dead men walking. We acknowledge that Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves—namely that we couldn’t remedy our own condition, so He did it for us.

But what about repentance?

The first part of becoming a Christian is recognizing that sin is the problem. That no matter what we might desire, we simply can’t and don’t love as we should. We don’t love God as we should, we don’t love our friends and family as we should, we don’t love our neighbors as we should, and we certainly don’t love our enemies as we should.

We can do all kinds of things to get rid of sin. We can study self-help books, go to 12-step programs, see a counselor, attend church or even confession, and in some cultures still, perform sacrifices. No matter. Our sin remains.

But even if we do learn a thing or two, if we change our habits and patterns of behavior, if we “clean up our act,” we’re still guilty for what we have done in the past. We face the consequences and we face the penalty.

Unless we accept what Jesus did for us, paying our debt when He went to the cross.

So does that mean we’re then free to return to our sinful ways? Paul says in Romans, may it never be.

The thing about confronting the sin in our life is that we do more than acknowledge it—yep, that’s me, I’m a liar. I’ll just buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can keep on lying.

Or yep, that’s me, an angry person who lashes out at anyone who ticks me off. But I’ll buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can continue allowing my anger full rein.

No, no, no. That kind of admission of sin is more nearly condoning of sin. The only way sin can be properly dealt with is with repentance—a full recognition that the sin is short of God’s mark and deserving of His judgment. And the only way that this kind of repentance is actual, verifiable, real, is if there’s also a turning from that sin.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation that aired on the radio last week. Pastor Greg Laurie was interviewing Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe about the upcoming movie entitled I Can Only Imagine, and the book by the same name.

Both tell the true story behind the song “I Can Only Imagine,” which Bart wrote and which became a big crossover hit. As it happens, Bart’s dad was abusive, both physically and emotionally. To top things off, his mom left, but didn’t take Bart with her. He described his dad during that time as a monster.

And then He found Christ. His whole life changed.

Bart described his last years as his dad being the man Bart would like to be.

That’s more than repentance, however, that’s believing in the power of God to change a life. But repentance is certainly part of the equation. Bart’s dad was not thinking, OK, I’m saved now so it doesn’t matter how I treat people. Quite the opposite.

Paul says in Romans that we now walk “in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” It’s the difference between having to do something and wanting to do it. Instead of plodding along in our failure and guilt and shame, we can confess and forsake, with God providing the power through His Spirit to not only become new creatures in Christ but to live as new creatures.

Does such a transformation happen over night? Sometimes, but not usually. Romans 7 gives a good picture of the struggle between our new spiritual nature and the sin that controls our flesh: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

The great thing is that the end of chapter 7, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” leads to the beginning of chapter 8: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Repentance, then, is actually the means to and the proof of our new relationship with God. Paul explains: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

This dying to sin occurs as we identify with Christ: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Do you think I understood any of that when I became a Christian? Not at all. But I’ve come to understand more and more. I hear stories such as the transformation of Bart’s dad, and I know in a new way that what the Bible says is true.

Christ saves us from the penalty of sin and starts us on the process of living free from sin.

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