Just about everyone in this area of the country has heard the song “I Can Only Imagine” somewhere, in some form. In Bible Belt America, this song by Christian rock group MercyMe is a favorite among worship pastors, a mainstay of Christian music stations and a commonly-performed piece by country and gospel bands.
With over 2.2 million copies sold, Almost There (the album which features “I Can Only Imagine”) is one of the best selling Christian albums ever, and “Imagine” is the best selling Christian single of all time. However, even in the face of this double-platinum track, the most impressive thing about “Imagine” has very little to do with sales and popularity, and everything to do with the lifetime and strained relationship that inspired its creation.
Fortunately, this life and relationship can now be experienced by anyone, through the lens of cinema.
I Can Only Imagine is a strong example of how a film with a religious message can have very broad appeal. On first glance, the movie is a touching film about the transformative power of God to evoke drastic change in even the most wicked of men. However, there is another story which takes a back seat for most of the film, but is no less inspiring and powerful. This story is that of Bart Millard himself, the frontman and vocalist for MercyMe, and the writer of the titular track, “I Can Only Imagine.” Millard’s story is one of incredible strength and determination, and alongside his deep seated faith, this determination allowed him to overcome crushing adversity, myriad disappointment and years of domestic abuse in order to achieve his greatest dream.
Played by J. Michael Finley, the character of Millard is realistically portrayed in a way that makes him entirely relatable and believable. The scenes chronicling Millard’s abusive relationship with his alcoholic father are fittingly nerve-wracking, as Dennis Quaid’s high-strung screen presence leaves viewers tense, anxiously on edge for the next explosion of anger and violence. The intensity of these scenes begins to put the viewer in Millard’s shoes and makes us skeptical, even a little bit angry, as Millard’s father eventually expresses his desire to change and live life differently. It’s this act of putting the viewer in the mindset of Millard that lets the viewer share, even just a little bit, in his feelings and conflicts as he struggles with the darkest experiences of his past.
Finally, as the film nears its end, viewers can share in the cathartic joy as Millard overcomes these terrible scars and goes on to pen the song after which the film is named.
Overall, I Can Only Imagine is a great inspirational film which demonstrates both the infinite power of faith to redeem the wicked and the sheer resilience of humanity. It celebrates that which is greatest about all of us: the desire to be better and the wisdom to seek out the means to do so. Millard’s story is about more than a song; it is a testament to determination, a tale of redemption and of loss.
Christians and non-Christians alike can find something inspirational and joyful in this story, and if you need a pick-me-up or a little ray of hope in your life, find time to see this film. You won’t be disappointed.