This article’s title is intended to draw you in, but I really mean it. Why did the recent Christian film I Can Only Imagine (a few details about the movie are below) pull short of showing redemption as fully as it could have done? Does that demonstrate something is wrong with Christian audiences? Is it a shortcoming of Christian stories in general–do we see it in speculative stories as well, like in the film version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader?
By “back away from redemption” I mean something specific. An online dictionary (Mirriam-Webster) has three main definitions of redemption. The second is about property (so we can skip it for this conversation), but the first says, “the act of making something better or more acceptable.” While the third definition is, “Christianity: the act of saving people from sin and evil.”
Note the third definition requires sin and evil. Without evil, there isn’t any real redemption from evil.
I would say that I Can Only Imagine wound up trading “the act of saving people from sin and evil” for “the act of making something better or more acceptable.” Not entirely, but to a certain degree. In other words, to a certain degree, it traded Christian redemption for a more secular kind.
This was not my first reaction to I Can Only Imagine, by the way. Though the movie has some of the corniness typical of Christian films, I was moved by the basic story of a son separated from his father and rebuilding that relationship with him, of a father turning to God, and a song partially inspired by that relationship. Though part of the reason that story resonated with me so strongly is my father drank. My father beat me severely only once, but he was recklessly dangerous for a child to be around apart from anything he did directly (I lost a finger as a child under his supposed supervision of wood cutting). He also was often absent while my parents were married and after their divorce, years would pass by without me hearing from him.
I saw God through a variety of circumstances change my father’s life, so that he no longer is an alcoholic, no longer is absent and dangerous–who married another woman and has had another child and has been a good, responsible husband and father. These are changes I prayed for, for decades, and saw them happen. So, seeing Arthur, the father in I Can Only Imagine (played by Dennis Quaid) change also–well, at first it struck me in a powerful way.
I saw the movie a second time in Mexico with my wife’s parents (dubbed into Spanish). It was only as the church I attend decided to show the movie at a Sunday Evening service, me watching the movie for a third time, that I noticed something was wrong with the storytelling in relation to redemption.
Yes, I’m aware that I Can Only Imagine is based on true events, but even in telling a true story, the screen writer and director choose what material to include and what to omit. What they choose to include is what I’m talking about.
So the story records the subject of the story, Bart, telling people his father was monstrous. But what did the movie show in terms of his evil? It showed him burning a paper spaceship his son built. It showed some yelling (especially yelling, “you’re not good enough”), some glaring, and one swing of a plate onto Bart’s head.
In a scene in which Bart says to his father (Arthur), “Do you remember the time you beat me so bad I had to lie on my stomach?” Arthur replies, “I cried all night when I did that.” Why did the story choose to have him say that? Even if the real father said those words at that moment (which may not have happened at all), I would have omitted it at that point in the story if I were the director, in order to heighten the contrast between who Arthur used to be and the redemption that came upon him after coming to Christ.
I probably would have also shown Arthur beating his son rather than having it referred to in the story.
Now I recognize that showing a father beating his son mercilessly would have possibly ruined the family-friendly status of I Can Only Imagine. Maybe it would have to have caused the movie to have been rated R, especially if they included the kind of language that Arthur probably actually used (which ironically perhaps, I would have been more reluctant to show than a beating). And the movie would have become traumatic to people sensitive to screen violence. So…I totally get why the filmmakers chose to steer away from that kind of controversy.
But why have Arthur say, “I cried all night”?
I find a similar situation exists in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie (a movie with many problems beyond what I’m mentioning here, to be sure). In the book version of Dawn Treader, Eustace is an annoying pest. But he’s also evil–he’s a bully, eager to hurt and humiliate anyone he sees as weaker than himself. And he’s a self-centered egoist, willing to take rations from others and let them suffer in the belief he was more deserving than everyone else. It’s a judgment of the acting and character portrayal, but I would say the film version of Eustace only managed to be annoying. Not evil.
Perhaps that was an accident. Or perhaps the director softened Eustace deliberately, to make it easier for us to accept him as a regular person later on in the film.
Because that’s how human beings tend to be, isn’t it? We find it easier to accept a person changing for the better if we see there was good there all the time, don’t we? Redemption for a certain level of sin we are OK with, but if you show a stronger version of evil, we tend to balk. That is, at least some of my fellow human beings react that way–not all of us do. (I, myself, actually don’t think I belong to the “we” in the first two sentences of this paragraph.)
Could it be we have a hard time accepting the miracle of redemption?
Could it be that Christian audiences are like Bart in I Can Only Imagine, who distrusted his father’s sudden change? Could it be we are actually more tolerant of “the act of making something better or more acceptable” than we are of “the act of saving people from sin and evil”?
I don’t actually know. But maybe.
If I were to make a recommendation, it would be that if we’re going to tell stories of redemption, we should not back away from showing those to be redeemed as in sin first, showing them as actually being evil in an unflinching way before they hit their big change. Because backing away from showing evil makes the redemption weaker.
What are your thoughts?