It was the dead of winter in Ankara. The few months after my conversion had proven to be exhilarating during the rare hours of Bible study and fellowship, but most of my time was spent with atheists or Muslims who were at best puzzled with my newfound fervor for Christ. On one of those discouraging days where the path felt extra narrow and less traveled, I went to the swimming pool. Water made things better.
The radio station of our mostlyleftist university played music for the swimmers. Usually I paid no attention. That day was no different. I was lost in thought and in that eerie underwater silence. In the middle of the lane, the lyrics —no the music, actually the entire song— of a song that did not belong to my surroundings blasted. “I can only imagine when all I would do is forever…Forever worship You… I can only imagine… I can only imagine.”
See, I am not a good swimmer. I genuinely thought I was drowning, an inch away from my death and Jesus had sent me this song to ease my passing. For an instant, I was really scared because I was not yet baptized. Then I had the good sense of holding onto the lane divider to calm my breathing. But the song continued on, in a Muslim country, in the middle of one of the most anti-religion universities. It was one of those moments the Creator of the Universe plucked up a dandelion just for me so that I would know that He cares. Many of us had those moments.
Needless to say, I have a very soft spot for this song, even after 15 years. The song became immensely popular after its release in 2001 by Mercy Me. Bart Millard, the lead singer, wrote and composed the song after the death of his father. That much I knew, but no more. I had pictured a good Christian boy, raised by wonderful, loving and caring Christian parents, at whose loss Bart was moved to compose such an emotional piece. The movie I Can Only Imagine, written by Alex Cramer and directed by Erwin Brothers, set out to prove me wrong. Bart Millard’s dad was far from the perfect father I had envisioned.
Mr. Millard was a man stuck in his past failures. In his disappointment and cruelty, he beat his wife. When Mrs. Millard left her husband and son, Bart became the receiver of his father’s physical abuse. As her grew up Bart came to live two separate lives. His home life was lonely, unforgiving and angry. At school and at church, he was a bubbly football player with friends. Even his girlfriend, whom he has known for a long time, was not privy to what happened in Bart’s home. That wedge grew as high school graduation approached. Not being able to forgive his father or disclose his brokenness to his girlfriend, Bart found himself traveling in a bus with his band, trying to make it into the music business.
But he can never reach his true potential because wherever he goes, he carries the bag of rocks that is his unredeemed relationship with his father. When he finally decides to go back to the home of his childhood, he finds his father a changed man. This time, it is Bart who is unwilling to extend a hand. But the Lord takes a piece of really bad news and brings reconciliation and redemption out of the mess Bart’s father created. In the end comes the song, and there may be some tears.
Michael Finley portrays Bart as a young man who hides behind laughter, chatter and too many fake smiles. Even when he is chasing his dream, Finley shows us how Bart is always a little hesitant and uneasy. Dennis Quaid was superb as Arthur Millard, whose dreams were crushed when young. His cruel and bitter fragility could be read every time Quaid grabbed his belt or tried to make amends in futility.
Both character and story development went into enough detail without getting boring, while the supporting cast did a wonderful job in portraying how different people stepped in different times to encourage Bart into making peace. The picture and the music brought me a few decades back.
This is a movie that depicts how much fathers matter. Of course, we know this, but often it is easy and comforting to say that children are resilient. Even though the movie avoids showing Arthur Millard beating his young son, we know from Bart’s description that it was a common aspect of his childhood. How can he, then, grow in trust, love and true manhood, if all he received from his earthly father was anger and violence? This movie offers but a glimpse of one of the major causes of break down in today’s society. In a way, Bart was lucky to have grown around committed Christians to make up for some of the damage his father inflicted, but many boys end up either completely alone or get befriended by the wrong people.
In a time where men are expected to be more feminine, and women more masculine, I Can Only Imagine is able to cast some light into the lives of real men and their all-too-common and all-too-real problems. Yes, I did cry in the end, but the tears were shed because, like Bart, I knew that Christ will pick up all the broken pieces of our lives and make everything new. That is, if we let Him. This movie is a reminder that no matter where we are in life, nobody is beyond redemption, and nobody is alone either in an abusive home or in the middle of a Muslim country. Our God is a god of love and forgiveness.