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Why Does ‘I Can Only Imagine’ Back Away from Redemption?

Does the movie I Can Only Imagine cut redemption short by not fully portraying evil? Do other Christian stories also cheat redemption in the same way?
| Jul 12, 2018 | 16 comments |

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.

Arthur, unrepentant but regretful.

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”?

Eustace

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?

 

 

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C. J. Darlington
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Good article. I agree that in order for light to truly shine you have to see the darkness first. There are ways the filmmakers could have done that with the beating without actually showing the beating. I haven’t seen the film, btw. But I also understand that they wanted the movie to appeal to a very wide audience so they’d be able to make future films. Don’t even get me started on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader… I disliked it more for how far it strayed from the book.

notleia
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notleia

Or is evil more mundane than we figure?

I guess it’s human nature that we prefer the more dramatic stories rather than “I was kind of a jerk but then I came to Jesus.” It could be that they were emphasizing character over thematics, trying to make the dad seem like a more like a real person and less like a stereotype.

Tammy
Guest

I only saw it once and while I cried and related as you did, I didn’t dwell on the story dynamics too awful much because I knew it would have ruined the experience for me. More than redemption, I think the story was about how the song came to be and Bart’s incredible ability to remain faithful in the storm around him. The line “I cried all night” stood out to me, too, as an obvious tool used to offer credibility to Quaid’s change. The dad’s story alone could have been a two hour movie, which makes your point even more interesting. It’s easy to skimp on the power of redemption for the sake of story, but If we only get one shot to speak to a dying world, which story should be told? Great post, btw.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I see your point, and I agree that there ought to be more stories where evil is redeemed in bold contrast, but I think using these two movies as example is kind of a poor choice. As you yourself said, straight on violence would have ruined the movie for families (and there are a lot of Christian families in need of good and safe movies) or triggered people with trauma. As for him saying “i cried all night” I think there is actually a point to helping the audience understand that even the worst humans can have regret and guilt…that they are not too far from the rest of us all. Seeing that in stories helps encourage us look for it in real life.

There are other stories of bolder contrast in redemption, and better yet, we can write them.

But frankly, good points in this article aside, this article irritates me. I’m tired of seeing Christians nitpick each other in an effort to look smarter. I’m tired of all the complaining. It was a well done faith-made movie (of which there are precious little). It didn’t even have to do with speculative fantasy.

I just wish there were more articles on this site encouraging and supporting authors and sticking to the actual subject genre, rather than waxing eloquent on what everyone else does wrong.

Tiger Hebert
Guest

Good article, and I agree.

I know that it won’t resonate with everyone, but the the concept of the darker the night, the brighter the light is the whole point.

Yet as an author, I have had non-believers leave reviews on my books saying that the character’s change of heart was too unrealistic. Hey, you can’t win ’em all. 😉

Autumn Grayson
Guest

The line about Arthur crying all night isn’t necessarily humanizing and pity inducing in every case, regardless of how the film makers meant it. To me it was humanizing, but I know other people would have seen it as Arthur making excuses or trying to make himself look better. Personally, I found it to be a very important piece of characterization for him. That’s how people talk in arguments sometimes, and regardless, it hints at why he was abusive(anger issues, alcoholism, or something of that sort). An abuser with those traits is way different than someone that is abusive due to a personality disorder like narcissism or antisocial personality disorder.

That said, there are definitely a lot of cases where showing the character’s previous depravity is extremely important for truly expressing their redemption later on. One of my chars in particular comes to mind when I think of this. I will hold back in some parts of her story because it would be too graphic otherwise, but those things are still heavily implied. And even if some parts of her story aren’t shown directly, there’s plenty of other things she does that would make the audience see her as a very horrible person at the beginning.

With her story, there’s actually something really interesting I’ve learned. When writing a character, it’s possible to humanize them with actions that show they care about others, but later on show how even those behaviors are very unhealthy. This character I’m talking about, for instance, is an angel descendant, so at times in her youth she is seen as being kind to a particular human sometimes, but a few centuries later she reflects and realizes that she almost treated him like a child or a pet sometimes and feels yet another wave of guilt over who she used to be.

As for Voyage of the Dawntreader, yeah, they did a bad job with that movie. Part of it may have been that they didn’t understand how important Eustace’s redemption was for the story, or they felt that audiences would prefer a story driven by ‘action and plot’ rather than a character arc.

julie d
Guest
julie d

I see this sometimes with Christian reviews of films… it’s like “villain does bad things” under objectionable content and I’m just …like… it’s in the word.