It’s a docu-drama that wraps a handful of deeply personal interviews around a sincerely affecting retelling of the story of the prodigal son. Watching the movie on a whim, without any prior context, I was surprised at the realness and the rawness. At more than a few moments, “The Heart of Man” was tear-worthy.
A Film Worth Seeing
For one thing, the film is shot with far more artistic panache than any other “Christian film” I’ve seen. During the drama portion, the film is visually stunning, not far from “Planet Earth.” And the cinematic beauty is outdone by the parable itself: wordless, heart-rending, frightening, uplifting.
For the artistry of the film, the score, and the prodigal son storyline, the movie is worth seeing.
The documentary component of the film—interviews with seven or eight individuals who found themselves trapped in spirals of various sexual struggles—is hugely vulnerable. Anyone who has faced challenges of abuse, pornography, or lust in general will find resonance.
Interviewees, including William Paul Young (author of “The Shack”), counselor Dr. Dan Allender, John Lynch (author of “The Cure”), and ascendant Christian hip-hop talent Jackie Hill Perry, tell unfiltered stories of their dealings with infidelity, abuse, and same-sex attraction. Relationships with earthly fathers, a “perverted view of maleness,” shame, and grace play prominently in the discussion.
All of the stories are compelling in their own ways. The acknowledgement of brokenness, of repeated and seemingly inescapable addiction, echoes.
I love the emphasis on fatherhood, especially the Fathering of God.
“Fathers have a way of telling their sons and their daughters the truth of who they are. And when we lose that, when nobody tells us, we are open to every lie that anyone will tell us.”
In a world saturated with perverted and sellout sexuality, there is also something refreshing—and wrenching—about grown men and women talking about how much their struggles cost them. How helpless they felt. How low they sank.
Likewise, describing confessions and rebukes was striking. These are not popular ideas in the culture. This movie does not shy away from such truth:
- “A lot of us have to get caught; and that is a great and terrifying grace.”
- “I always felt that God was mildly disgusted with me.”
- The “insanity” that we might find momentary sexual gratification more appealing than the eternal presence of God.
Allender describes the unquenchableness of sin, especially sexual sin. “You have a million dollars and you sell your soul for a quarter you see on the ground.” Another describes seven affairs, followed by a separation from his wife after being caught, only to fall back almost immediately into another one-night-stand.
The film is at times almost scary, but it seems somehow appropriate. After all, sin is scary.
It is unashamedly emotional. You feel like you’re watching a real-life version of “This Is Us.”
Ultimately, it is unreservedly hopeful, condemning motivations of fear, praising God’s eternal goodness, and pointing to the newness and freedom we have in Christ.
“When the prodigal hits the bottom, something can grow.”
But Bring Your Bible
So what might we do differently with “The Heart of Man”?
The film is worth seeing (though, because of the frankness of the discussion, it’s not for younger audiences). Because it deals in intense subject matter that may trigger memories of past trauma, and will certainly inspire serious questions and possibly genuine vulnerability, I recommend watching it in a group with other Christians. This is a movie to be discussed after watching, Bibles in hand.
“The Heart of Man” deals rigorously with Christian themes: sin, forgiveness, freedom, identity. My primary wrestling with the film is that it doesn’t often fall back on the Word of God, but rather on the moving testimonies of the interviewees. There is plenty of theology here, but also plenty of pop psychology—and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Young and Allender have both been called out in the past for skewed, syncretistic presentations of the gospel. Some of this skew comes through, albeit subtly, in “The Heart of Man.”
Allender especially presents a few lines that require a little deeper explanation that never comes. Toward the end he says, “You think I (God) am out to change you, to ruin you, to in many ways judge you. All the judgment has already been taken care of. All your sin has already been taken care of. And what I want is for you to know my delight, even in your brokenness.”
He also says, “I’ve become more holy, not because I’m better, but because I’ve understood the beauty of God for my brokenness….There’s more wholeness, and yet, the paradox: I’m more broken than I’ve ever been—more needing grace than I’ve ever been.”
To be sure, there are seeds—if not forests—of truth here. But it’s essential to recognize that God really is out to change us—that’s what sanctification is. He calls us, by the power of his Spirit and the atonement of Christ, to become more like him—not to stay as we are. Likewise, God’s grace does not erase his call to righteousness. They are beautifully intertwined.
“The Heart of Man” hits the right notes that God is inexplicably loving toward us. And of course it is beautifully true that despite our sin, Christ imparts his righteousness to his children.
Even so, God hates our sin.
We don’t earn God’s love. We can’t lose his love. But our sin is nevertheless repulsive.
The movie makes a bold counter to the distorted—yet common—perception of God as a distant, angry diety. But its alternative caricatures a somewhat antinomian God for whom grace seems to overwhelm justice, love dominating holiness.
In reality, God’s mercy and justice are not in competition. Neither must he sacrifice his holiness to practice his love. God is one hundred percent merciful and just. He is completely loving and completely at the same time.
The testimonies in this film are incredible. Heart-breaking, but full of the hope of the Christian. Redemption happens to broken people. Christ came for the sick and the lost. Perry’s testimony is among the most moving. When she didn’t want him, Christ pursued her and called her his own.
This is a profound drama with compelling stories. It’s also cinematic eye-candy and deals forcefully with issues many churches would prefer to tiptoe around. I wish it was a bit more rooted in the entirety of the counsel of God, a bit more erudite, but it is still a powerful feature and worth careful, self-reflective examination.