Intimations of grace at the movies

John Corbett, left, and David A.R.White in God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. Photo:
Published December 21, 2018

The idea of grace is connected with the God-given gifts of virtue and redemption—worthy subjects for the person of faith to contemplate. But seeking intimations of grace at the movies can be a hit-and-miss affair. Films that overtly address religious faith typically have a proselytizing agenda, and their preoccupation with preaching usually gets in the way of good storytelling, overwhelming such basics as plot and character development with heavy-handed didacticism. Four recent movies touch on aspects of grace: three are explicitly Christian in perspective, while the fourth is implicitly grounded in faith.

The best of the quartette is Paul, Apostle of Christ. It’s the year 67 AD, and the apostle Paul (James Faulkner) is imprisoned in Rome, awaiting death, while the Christian community there is facing brutal persecution. They are convenient scapegoats, falsely accused of setting the fires that destroyed part of the city. Into this fraught, perilous setting comes the apostle Luke (Jim Caviezel, who played the lead in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ); he ministers to the beleaguered flock and visits Paul in prison to comfort his mentor while recording his story for posterity. Paul has unshakeable faith; he will not respond to violence and hate with more of the same: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds more.” His strength and Luke’s gentleness are admirable without seeming artificial. Solid performances, and a message that feels unforced, combine to pleasing result: “You are completely known to God, and you are completely loved.”

In God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, a historic church situated on a secular university campus is no longer welcome. Its pastor fights the attempt at expropriation; things escalate. The minister is jailed for contempt of court for refusing to hand over transcripts of his sermons, though what is so controversial about their contents is never revealed. The result is artificial (real people don’t talk like this), heavy-handed and didactic. It suggests that organized religion is under attack by secular foes; but, so far (in the West, at least), that’s a hyperbolic premise. There’s a message here about forgiveness, humility and healing, but the film is slow to reach those self-evident conclusions. The writing and cast are uneven, with the standout (the engaging John Corbett) unexpectedly being a character who has lost his faith.

I Can Only Imagine is based on the true story of the lead singer for MercyMe, a Christian music band that struck a chord with the song that gives the film its title. It’s well-intentioned stuff—about turning pain to inspiration. But its protagonist (J. Michael Finley’s Bart Millard) is dull. The story gets much more emotional traction from others:  Dennis Quaid, as his physically abusive father; Trace Adkins, as his gruff agent; and Nicole DuPort, as the Christian singer Amy Grant.

A Wrinkle in Time, which sends children on a trans-dimensional journey to find a missing father, is a disappointment. The 1962 novel by Madeleine L’Engle is a classic about love, family, courage and self-acceptance. And director Ava DuVernay did first-rate work with 2014’s Selma. But authenticity is missing here, in a film hampered by inconsistent casting (the actors playing the young siblings are awkward), an overreliance on effects and a misreading of the story as an action piece, when it is actually anchored in relationships—the bonds that tie us together through thick and thin. It inflates the potency of evil. (“The only thing faster than light is the darkness.”) And the heart of the story, which is about grace, is neglected: “What if we are here for a reason? What if we are part of something truly divine?”

Copyright © 2018 by John Arkelian

This review first appeared on June 1, 2018.



  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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