Thursday, December 3, 2020

Christmas Cameo Month: I Still Believe

I Still Believe

This film is an anomaly for 2020 -- it's a new film that debuted in movie theaters (admittedly, I watched it via streaming on Hulu). I Still Believe seems to join I Can Only Imagine in a new genre: Contemporary Christian Music hits made into biopics. ICOI was about the founder of MercyMe and his troubled relationship with his father. I Still Believe is the story of Jeremy Camp’s first romantic love.

There is very little Christmas in the film (we take what we can get), and there isn’t much church in the film, but there is an interesting observation about clergy.

The film opens in Lafayette, Indiana in the fall of 1999 (shout out to my brother- and sister-in-law and family in said city). Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) is preparing to go off to school at Calvary Chapel College in Murrieta, California. Even if IMDb didn’t tell me, I would know this wasn’t filmed on location but instead in Mobile, Alabama. The school seems to be right by the beach instead of the 45 miles across southern California freeways. And Pacific Ocean beaches look different from Gulf Coast beaches. For instance, I can't think of anyplace on the California Pacific coast where the sun rises over the ocean as it does in the film when Jeremy’s love interest, Melissa (Britt Robertson), goes for a morning jog.

At his new school, Jeremy makes friends with Jean-Luc LaJoie (Nathan Parsons), the front-man for a Christian music group, The Kry. Jean-Luc and Jeremy bond over their love of music, but unfortunately, both have feelings for Melissa. If you ever had to deal with a tedious love triangle like this when you were in school, do you really want to relive it in a film?

It is here Christmas makes its cameo appearance. Jeremy goes home to Indiana for Christmas to be with his parents, Tom and Teri (Gary Sinise and Shania Twain), and his brothers, Jared and Josh (Josh is disabled). That house is well decorated for Christmas, tree, lights and all. At home, Jeremy receives a call from Jean-Luc who tells him that Melissa is very sick. Jeremy drives back to school in his father’s Pizza King delivery car. (Won’t this impact family finances during the holiday season?)

Jeremy drives straight to the hospital back in California and learns that Melissa has stage 3 liver cancer. It is at this time that Melissa and Jeremy admit their love for each other. Jeremy goes to the hospital chapel to pray (a bit of church). I found it a little strange that although Melissa and her family are all devout Christians, we never see clergy -- or anyone else -- from their church visit Melissa. 

Miraculously, Melissa seems to recover, and six months later, Jeremy and Melissa marry.

I was hoping for a church wedding, for the sake of the blog, but the happy couple marries on the beach. I was looking for a clergyman at the wedding, but I didn’t think I saw one. Then I realized that Jeremy’s father, Tom, performed the ceremony. Because the wedding is -- supposedly -- in California, and Melissa’s family pastor doesn’t perform the service, I realized that Tom is probably a clergyman of some kind. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would get his ordination from the back of Rolling Stone Magazine or online (especially at the turn of the century).

But when Jeremy and Melissa return from their honeymoon, she becomes ill again. As Melissa returns to the hospital, Jeremy begins to question his faith. He sings Melissa a song he wrote on their honeymoon, “Walk By Faith”, and then Melissa dies. We don’t see a church for the funeral, but rather a graveside service, again officiated by Jeremy’s father, Tom.

Jeremy talks to his father about his disappointment with God and the seeming futility of his prayers. He asks his father about his disappointments in life, about the prayers God didn’t answer. “I remember I prayed and prayed in this room for Josh to be born healthy. And you prayed for your ministry and nothing. And I prayed for Melissa. What am I supposed to do with that?”

So apparently, Tom had hoped to be in full-time ministry but was unable to make his living in ministry. One of the great disappointments in life is not being able to pursue what you believe you're called to. Think of those who want to be in show business or professional sports when those dreams die. I know the pain of those who feel called to ministry (for myself and friends) when things don’t work out. You can feel like you've disappointed God as well as yourself.

But Tom’s answer is interesting. He says, “Josh’s disabilities were disappointing, sure. Did I have big dreams that didn’t come true? Yes. Do I know why Melissa isn’t here? No, I don’t. But I have had a full life. I don’t know how to answer your questions. But my life isn’t full in spite of my disappointments....It’s full because of them.”

Jeremy returned to his music. His songs “Walk By Faith” and, of course, “I Still Believe” inspired by the events depicted in the film, became enormous hits. If Tom, in the eyes of the world, didn’t have much of a ministry, he raised a son who ministers to millions.

That said, how would the clergy and church -- such as they are -- in this film do with our steeple ratings? I give Tom Camp (and his ministry) a solid three steeples.

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