Recently watched I Can Only Imagine with a friend who’s very particular about the movies she sees. Must be high quality. No lame faith-based films with predictable dialog and two-dimensional characters. We both agreed that this one was as well made as any Hollywood movie. Authentic characters. Realistic storyline. Good acting. Definitely not preachy.
My initial response was one of optimism. Hurray! Christian movie-makers are finally getting it. They’re growing up. They’re telling real stories about real people. Those shallow movies with the B actors and the cardboard characters are becoming a thing of the past. We’re moving on.
A few hours later came the crash of realizing another painful possibility. Maybe our movies aren’t real because we’re not real. Maybe our movies portray make-believe lives because we’re living and promoting make-believe lives. Why do I hear so many Christians raving about the latest shallow faith-based film? Maybe these believers simply don’t know any better. Maybe they’re championing the same kind of life as they’re living. The kind of life they’ve been taught to live. The evangelically-correct life.
In a women’s group twenty-some years ago, one of the moms asked us to pray for her daughter, Violet, an extremely shy kindergartener at a local Christian school. Violet was occasionally wetting her pants in class, and nothing the adults had recommended had resolved the issue. Thus the request for prayer.
I could immediately identify with this young girl. When I was the same age, in the same situation, my shyness was so inhibiting that I couldn’t work up the courage to draw attention to myself by standing up and walking the few steps to the bathroom. I thought I could “hold it” until school got out, but I didn’t always succeed.
I was trying to decide how to share my experience with the women’s group when the mom continued, “She knows her position in Christ,” as if that should resolve the entire problem. I was too stunned to speak, but all the other women nodded their heads wisely, indicating their agreement that a five-year-old who knew her position in Christ should be able to conquer every challenge in her life.
What more could the adults around her offer her? Psychologically-based solutions? Understanding of her inner turmoil? As in many Christian movies, in this real-life situation God was the only answer. If we have enough faith, God will fix the problem without our having to think or to do any hard work. I was overwhelmed by the absurdity of the women’s responses, but I had no hope that I could convince my friends to look at the problem from Violet’s point of view. I was obviously the anomaly in the group.
Near the end of the Imagine movie, the Christian main character angrily says to his father, who abused him the entire time he was growing up and is now repenting, “Am I supposed to just forgive you?” Real. Authentic. Honest. Expressing his heart, not just tossing off the expected Christian response.
From a few rows behind me, I heard another audience member give an emphatic, “Yes.” No grasp of how we humans actually work.
Yes, God wants us to forgive as He forgave us (Colossians 3:13). But the truth is that such consistent, ongoing abuse can take years to heal and to forgive. We are not God. We are broken and fallen. Our minds and souls are warped by the wounds inflicted on us in childhood. God doesn’t often heal those wounds instantaneously.
What happens if I buy into the evangelically-correct assumption that simply saying the words, “I forgive you,” fixes everything? How does this affect me when I’m hurting? Such denial leads to continuing stress and stumbling, blocking growth, blocking intimacy with God and others, and potentially ending in blaming and rejecting Him when it doesn’t work.
How does it affect my ability to minister to those who are struggling to forgive someone who has deeply wounded them? I see them as failures who just need to get with the program and everything will be okay, instead of recognizing them as hurting people who need time to process their emotions and responses.
Many years ago, when I was leading a group in my church for overcoming anxiety and depression, we watched a video featuring a reputable Christian psychologist. (If I could remember his name or the title of the video, I would cite them here, but that info is long gone from my brain.) He told the story of a couple that he had recently counseled. I might not have all the details right, but the gist of the situation was something like this:
The parents were traveling with their six children when they were involved in an accident caused by a grossly negligent driver. Two of their children were killed. The couple immediately “forgave” the driver. Local media picked up on the story and marveled at the strength of their faith. Within a few years, though, two of the surviving children committed suicide as teenagers. In their now undeniable sorrow, the parents went to the Christian psychologist for help.
It turned out that they were still mourning the deaths of their first two children. They thought all they had to do was say, “I forgive you,” and trust God to make it all okay. They were painfully, tragically wrong. They had never faced their anger, doubts, and grief. They were living in the make-believe world of most faith-based movies, thinking they were being good biblical Christians. The parents appeared to be coping, but the life of denial was too much for the two teens who committed suicide. It was only after the remaining family members dealt with their trauma and turmoil that they found true peace and the ability to truly forgive.
It took work. It took time. It took courage. But God eventually brought healing when they stopped denying the pain.
Maybe Christian movie-making won’t change substantially until Christian thinking changes substantially. Maybe we get the movies we want—those that reflect the way we live our shallow lives. Or maybe I Can Only Imagine is an indication that attitudes are changing, that we’re becoming more real, that even evangelically-correct Christians are recognizing the need to be more authentic. I can only pray.