Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…
Then Job answered: “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.
Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Rob Hardy directed and wrote this story of straying and redemption set in a large African American church in Atlanta. David Taylor’s (Boris Kodjoe) father Bishop Fred Taylor (Clifton Powell) presides over a large, growing church. A talented musician, it looks like David is destined for the ministry, until his mother is stricken and dies. David is so angry with God that he leaves Atlanta and forges a career in Los Angeles’ music industry. The “dissolute living” in the “distant country” (see the Parable of the Father and Two Sons in Luke 15:11-32) is well represented by the scantily clad girls dancing seductively around him in his latest video of his hit song “Let Me Undress You.” David’s rise to the top of the music industry is greatly aided by his agent Wesley (Omar Gooding).
Fifteen years pass, and back in Atlanta the church has fallen into financial trouble, so that it is doubtful that the congregation can afford to repair their dilapidated building or build a new one. When Bishop Taylor is hospitalized, the faithful church secretary Ernestine (Aloma Wright) calls David, In between concerts, he rushes back to check on his father. His long-time friend Rev. Charles Frank (Idris Elba) has remained on the staff, and is not too thrilled about David’s return, especially when the latter involves himself in a staff meeting and offers to stage a fund raising concert to help the church afford a new building. It is obvious that Charles enjoys being the center of the spotlight and regards David as a potential threat. The ailing Bishop has decided to appoint Charles as his successor, despite the fact that his other Assistant Pastor, Minister Hunter (Donnie McClurkin) is older and has served on the staff longer. As one might expect, Hunter is upset over this.
There are also romantic complications. David becomes interested in Maya (Keshia Knight Pulliam), a divorced mother who might, or might not, be headed for a reconciliation with her repentant soldier husband. Charles Frank and his wife Charlene (Nona Gaye), David’s cousin, are having marital difficulties, each of them with legitimate complaints. Fortunately, all this does not distract from the glorious music, the choirs and vocal soloists (the latter including Yolanda Adams, Fred Hammond, Martha Munizzi, the “American Idol” finalist Tamyra Gray).
As Rev. Frank says in one of his sermons, no pastor, and “no church is perfect.” This film explores what happens when success is more threatening to a Christian leader than failure, and also, in David’s case, that no matter how far into “a distant country” one might flee, the road back to God is the relatively short but difficult one that leads through a repentant heart. The film took me back to the days when I chaired the subcommittee of the MLK, Jr. Festival in Dayton, Ohio, that was in charge of the community worship service: what an incredible experience it was to hear the many choirs, their exuberant singing charging the air with such energy that it seemed that the roof of the church must have risen a foot or more. If you appreciate Gospel music, you will enjoy this film!
The above having been said, I would add that the gospel of this film seems to consist of praise and making the congregation feel good. I kept listening for a word of the cross, in either the music or the portions of sermons that we heard. Also, the wonderfully exuberant singing, rhythmic clapping and dancing of the people, could easily lead white viewers with little or no experience of worshipping with black Christians into a stereotypical view of African American worship. There were no lowering of the music’s volume nor pauses in the kinetic acts of praise, no moments of silence for the people to reflect and commune more quietly with God—which is the case in a real-life service. But this probably is to quibble too much. At least the church is depicted in a positive light, led by ministers who are far from perfect, but struggling to do, and be, better persons of faith.
Beware of Spoilers.
1) Have you been angry with God because of the death of a loved one, or some other deep disappointment? How did you handle it—did you run away from the church as David did?
2) How is Charles Frank like the elder brother in Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Two Sons? (See Luke 15.) How does his success as a minister change him so that he becomes like the people in the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, or the person Jesus warns about in 9:25?
3) What do you think of the Bishop’s words to Frank, “I’m of a mind that we should spend a little less time looking good, and spend more time being good”? How does both the church and society need to take this to heart? (For instance, how much of advertising is directed at our desire to look, smell, or feel good?)
4) How does the music take seriously the Psalmist’s invitation, “Make a Joyful Noise to the Lord” ? How could your church benefit from such music and its underlying approach that worship involves the whole body in praise? Have you seen the music and worship of your church change over the years, perhaps as the result of contact with black and Pentecostal churches or through hearing their music through the media?
5) The gospel preached in the film and celebrated in the music is strong on praise, but do you see/hear much of the cross, the cost of discipleship?
6) Both “prodigal son” and “elder brother” change: how is David’s anguish at the cemetery the turning point for his life? How do you think his will be a stronger faith for raising the questions he did? In what ways have you had your faith tested, twisted and battered, and finally strengthened by past experiences?