How to Start Gospel Conversations Using the "I Can Only Imagine" Movie
"I Can Only Imagine," the movie, tells the heart-rendering story behind Bart Millard's writing of his well-known, well-loved, and inspiring Christian song.
As new showings of the movie find their way into Asia, and in anticipation of the movie's release digitally and on DVD in June 2018, I thought it would be good to offer a guide for starting gospel conversations, using a Gospel Story-arc approach.
A Gospel Story-arc approach pays attention to the "rules" of the world in which a story takes place. The "rules" govern the way things work. They also connect listeners and viewers to the deeper themes or messages about life that the story asserts, reinforces, or challenges.
Stories often introduce the "rules" in their opening scenes, alerting us to possible themes to begin or focus gospel conversations.
The opening scenes of the movie show young Bart growing up in a world of superficial and broken relationships, a world that isolates him, and that threatens him with one of the most hideous forms of death, the death of community—the fate of someone stuck forever in an existence beyond the pale, a destiny of eternal alone-ness,
The movie begins with Bart raking leaves for his grandmother, by himself, no Tom Sawyer-like cadre of friends to rope into joining him. And when he finishes, there's no conversation, no interaction, no honest exchange between Bart and his grandmother about the quality of his work. His grandmother simply pays him, and Bart rides away on his bike—alone.
Before riding away, Bart puts on his earphones to listen to music, yet another symbol of his isolation. So for now, even Bart's music threatens his involvement in community, as does everything and everyone else.
Everything and everyone—including Bart's mother, who takes him to camp to abandon him; including Shannon, the girl at camp who pledges her never-ending love, but who seems to go away once camp ends; and including Bart's father, especially Bart's father, who embodies the death-of-community/life-beyond-the-pale rule that governs Bart's world.
Every act of Bart’s father isolates Bart, pushing him farther and farther from community. He abuses Bart physically and verbally, destroying their relationship with each other. He wreaks havoc on Bart’s relationships with his mother and his girlfriend. He even does damage to Bart’s relationship with his inner self, as he burns the cardboard helmet that Bart painstakingly crafted in his first act of creative genius, as he blames Bart's football injury on a deficit of character, as he mocks Bart's role in the school play, and as he refuses to go to church to hear him sing.
So what sets Bart free from this destiny of life beyond the pale?
The answer in a word is forgiveness.
Bart's forgiveness of his father not only restores him to community with his father; it also restores Bart to community with God, with creativity, with music, with the band, with his girlfriend, and with so many others, as the song that Bart wrote connects him with people all over the world.
What is true for Bart is true for the rest of us. The practice of forgiveness is essential to our own participation in community. It is essential to our restoration to community as needed, and ultimately to our overcoming the hideous death of relational brokenness. And as the movie shows, the practice of forgiveness is possible only through Jesus, the one who laid down his life for us, who restores us to community through forgiveness, and who calls us to do the same for others.
Conversation Questions Based on This Analysis (the questions are not arranged in a particular order):
- Which character in the movie do you identify with the most?
- Describe how you felt when you saw Bart becoming isolated from so many people and relationships?
- Have you ever suffered the hurt of seemingly irreparable relational brokenness? What happened?
- How would forgiveness have changed things? How would forgiveness change things now?
- Is there anyone in your life now that you need to forgive?
- It's not possible to forgive an enemy. Do you agree, or disagree?
- How did Bart's experience with God's forgiveness help him to forgive his father?
- How would your life and relationships change if forgiveness ruled?
- What do you think about these statements: We are made for community. We are made for deep, meaningful, and loving relationships with others?
- Has anyone ever shared with you what Jesus taught about forgiveness?
- Has anyone ever shared with you what Jesus taught about forgiving others and loving them, even if they are an enemy?