Okay, so I conflated the titles of two current movies much like scripture was conflated in the Paul movie. These two films targeted the Christian audience for Easter 2018, and they succeeded to varying degrees.
I Can Only Imagine is a box office success. It’s a monster hit with 17-million in earnings the first weekend alone. However, its producers (and myself) hoped that it would be a crossover success too — the Christian movie that even the secular liked. I’m doubtful that happened. For one thing, the professional critics generally panned it, and I suspect not more than a few dozen skeptics left the theater interested in becoming Jesus-followers.
I was disappointed in I Can Only Imagine. It’s the powerful story of forgiveness and redemption behind a great crossover hit, poorly done. It’s not the worst Christian movie ever by far but as I watched it I found myself critiquing it as art. It had its moments as a compelling narrative but struck me as very uneven. My primary standard for cinema as art is the degree to which I’m absorbed into the story. That’s my criteria for worship as well — did I lose Carl and become worship. This film did not pull me out of me and into the story. I kept thinking things like why did they do this scene this way or why is Dennis Quaid overacting, or why does the chubby protagonist always have a three day growth of beard, etc.
Anyway, the audience loved it — as did all my believer friends. Maybe I’m being too critical of this rendition of the story behind the song. Its creator is Bart Millard, the lead vocalist with the Christian pop group Mercy Me. The movie tells the story of Millard’s (J. Michael Finley) relationship with his drunken abusive father (Dennis Quaid). But IMHO with better writing and directing it could have been the crossover blockbuster that I’d hoped for. That’s what The Passion of the Christ was. Some secular critics hated it but they couldn’t deny its power or its artistry.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the song. It was about a decade ago. I was at a gym and I Can Only Imagine was part of the piped in pop mix on some FM station:
“Surrounded by Your glory
what will my heart feel
will I dance for you Jesus
or in awe of You be still. . .”
I was blown away.
I found it to be such a compelling song that I’d hoped to have the same worshipful reaction to the movie. Then again, anymore I find a lot of the pop Christian music they do at my church to be no more than over-produced entertainment. But when I’m sitting there being critical many in the congregation are lost in worship — and that’s okay. That just speaks to my issues. I am not disappointed that millions of believers are finding Imagine to be a worthwhile movie. I am glad that it is making a lot of money and I hope that leads to more Christian movies.
On the other hand I found Paul, the Apostle of Christ to be much more of an artistic success. It tells the story of Luke the Greek physician, and writer of the gospel and Acts, visiting Paul in a Roman prison in AD 67. Paul is old and awaiting execution by Nero’s decree. Luke is there both to minister to Paul and also to record Paul’s story for other believers.
When Luke arrives in Rome a small band of dispirited, persecuted Jesus-followers led by Aquila and Priscilla are rescuing orphans and slaves off the streets while trying to decide whether to remain in Rome or escape to another city, perhaps one more Christian-friendly like Ephesus. They pray and pray and get no clear answer —that has the ring of authenticity
The other parallel narrative is the dramatic tension between Luke (Jim Caviezel), Paul (James Faulkner) and Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), the warden of the Mamertine prison in Rome. Mauritius is a worldly cynic, much like Pontius Pilate. He has a nagging wife and a terminally ill daughter who he loves dearly. And almost against his own instincts and worldly conditioning he’s curious and drawn to Paul.
As Paul, Faulkner has a haunted, tormented, world-weary demeanor — a man who’s fought the good fight and is ready to join Jesus in eternity. Much of his story is told in flashbacks woven into the narrative he’s dictating to Luke. Many of Paul’s best scriptural one-liners are conflated into the script. I imagine this will bother some folks who are obsessively picky about scriptural purity — but it didn’t bother me. How else could one contain the best Pauline doctrine from a dozen epistles into an hour and a half movie?
The film was shot on the island of Malta. The cinematography, music and production values are all above average. Martinez, Faulkner and Caviezel all do superb jobs. In spite of its positives, many secular critics found things to dislike about the film. That’s okay, that’s their job — even if it is somewhat of a mission of the prince of this world — to some degree one can gauge the movie’s power by the vehemence of its detractors.