There is much that can be said about how music can influence our lives, that it can be deeply uplifting, poignant and more importantly, utterly personal.
Thus, when a young Bart Millard wrote I Can Only Imagine following his father’s death from cancer in 1999, he meant it as an outlet to express the loss of the “father he has always wanted”, but never could he have imagined that the song would go on to become a smash hit not only amongst the American Christian pop charts but also resonated intensely with the rest of the world.
The truth was, Bart’s relationship with his father, Arthur Millard, was one that was extremely strained and abusive. The elder Millard, in Bart’s words, was “a monster” who would relentlessly subject his son to corporeal punishments and constantly berate him for just not being “good enough”. However, this relationship would radically change when the elder Millard encountered God.
The film, I Can Only Imagine, straddling between a coming-of-age story and a plot that chronicles the birth of the famous Christian band, MercyMe, opens with a young Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) growing up in suburbs of Greenville, Texas in the early 1980s.
The prepubescent Millard clearly loved music. In one part of the film, he used all of his allowance earned from mowing his grandmother’s lawn to purchase cassettes of the latest pop songs of the time. Whilst Bart’s mother was supportive of her son’s musical pursuits, Arthur (Dennis Quaid) was the angry, negative presence that sought to downplay his son’s abilities, making him feel generally worthless.
Things came to a head when Bart’s mother finally moved out of the house, leaving Bart behind with his father. It led to the boy thinking that it was somehow his fault–a thought that would haunt him for most of his young adulthood.
Following an accident in a football game that all but ended Bart’s aspirations to play the sport (and somehow please the gruff Arthur), and made him even more useless in his father’s eyes, he moved on reluctantly to join his school’s Glee Club. When Bart’s teacher discovered his singing talent, the rest was history.
I Can Only Imagine is a tale that explores the themes of forgiveness, redemption, the important role fathers play in their childen’s lives, for better or for worse, and the need to pursue one’s dreams, even if it breaks your heart.
The latter half of the film, when Bart returned home to confront his father following a failed attempt to get his band, MercyMe, recognised by major record labels in Nashville, was easily the turning point in the movie. We discover here why Arthur was so adamant that Bart dropped his illusions of grandeur in music and how he was transformed from a belligerent parent to one who desired his son’s forgiveness. Perhaps, Arthur Millard was the ultimate protagonist in the movie.
The film weaves in the beautiful message that God is truly the restorer of our broken lives. In the words of Bart Millard, “The gospel took my dad from being a monster to being one of the godliest men I ever knew, and that’s what set me on a warpath for the gospel. If the gospel can change that dude, the gospel can change anybody.”
Jason Woo –
is Methodist Message’s Editorial Executive. When not working on the latest articles, he enjoys long jogs and cuddling up with his three cats along with a good book.
Artwork courtesy of Shaw Organisation, used with permission