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“I Can Only Imagine” offers a timely message of repentance and forgiveness

The new movie is an antidote of sorts to the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of scandal-ridden Hollywood.

John Michael Finley, as Bart Millard, and Nicole DuPort, as Amy Grant, star in a scene from the movie "I Can Only Imagine." (CNS photo/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

MPAA Rating:PG

USCCB Rating: A-II — adults and adolescents

Reel Rating: 3 out of 5

Have you ever wondered about the story behind the fourth-least annoying Life Teen Mass song? No? Well, Lionsgate and director brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin made a movie about it anyway. It turns out that MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” is the most-played Contemporary Christian song of all time, the only song of that genre to go double platinum. Yet friends of the New Liturgical Movement should not be too dismayed, as I Can Only Imagine is a decent film, made even better by timely concurrence with a recent social movement.

Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) grows up with an abusive father and absentee mother. His oasis is the local Evangelical church where he learns to sing and make friends. When he decides to pursue a career as a professional Christian musician, his father Arthur (Randy Quaid) berates him, saying it won’t “pay the bills.” It’s hard to fault Arthur, as Bart had been a rising football star until he suffered a bad injury. But Bart couldn’t care less about his dad’s opinion, and soon finds limited success with his band MercyMe. Bart has talent, but something is holding him back from being truly great, even after a seasoned talent agent takes the fledgling band under his wing.

After many years and some success, Bart returns home to find that his dad has significantly changed—or at least is trying. In the wake of a cancer diagnosis Arthur wants to make amends, but as an abuser he has no idea how to have normal social interactions. The best he can do is make Bart breakfast and insist that he is “willing”—language familiar to 12-step members. Bart is understandably angry and suspicious at first, but soon admits that forgiveness is necessary. The two reconcile and live briefly in happiness before Arthur dies. “I listened to you on the radio,” Arthur admits shortly before the end. “Then I would listen to the preacher after. That’s what started this.”

Shortly after the funeral, Bart pens his most famous hit in just 10 minutes, imagining what his father was experiencing in Heaven:

I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk, by your side.
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When you face is before me.
I can only imagine

Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?

Will I dance for you, Jesus,

Or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine.

It’s not Shakespeare, or even Hillsong, but one could do worse.

As an avid cinephile, for me the Oscars have always been the most important non-religious event of the year. Yet after last year’s debacle (I don’t mean the Best Picture mix-up), this year I missed the telecast for the first time in two decades. It wasn’t even that I was deliberately boycotting the ceremony—I just plain forgot, which is even worse. I was fed up with the political and self-righteous nature of Hollywood’s elite, especially during the #MeToo movement. Sexual assault is, of course, a grave sin, and it’s good that light is being shed on the subject. Yet I was disgusted by the pretentiousness and hypocrisy that surrounded it. Pornographers of the vilest stripes were given a free pass, while at the same time a blacklist was being created that would make Joe McCarthy blush. This reaction is an odd consequence of a disbelief in sin. If morality is relative and evil unreal, then forgiveness is impossible. One can only have total acceptance or total damnation.

One of things that makes Christianity so radical is its acceptance of human failings—the doctrine of original sin. We all need salvation. This can be seen throughout the gospels, from Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath to forgiving the adulterous woman. “I have not come for the righteous,” he said. “But sinners.” The central message of I Can Only Imagine is that even the gravest sinners not only can be saved but should be saved. The film itself is fair, but it offers a message to the rest of Hollywood that is not only relevant, but powerful.

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About Nick Olszyk 205 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".


  1. “It’s not Shakespeare, or even Hillsong, but one could do worse.”

    Pretty uncharitable. Do you really think the lyrics are bad?

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