"What If. . .," the 2010 direct-to-DVD Christian film starring Kevin Sorbo (and not to be confused with the 2014 mainstream theatrical release, "What If?), is an "It's a Wonderful Life"-like story of Ben Walker, a successful, self-centered CEO of a major corporation who, fifteen years ago, left his college sweetheart Wendy (Kristy Swanson), and ultimately his faith, in order to pursue a lucrative business opportunity, abandoning seminary for an MBA.
When Ben's car breaks down on the way to the airport, he is visited by an angel who tells him that he needs to see what his life would have been like had he followed God’s calling. Suddenly, Ben finds himself in an alternate reality, married to Wendy, with two daughters, and getting ready for church on a Sunday morning, where he’s scheduled to give his first sermon as the new pastor. After the usual shock, disbelief, and attempt to escape, he comes to grip with his faith, realizing that he has missed his calling.
Yes, I know. We have seen the story before, and this is not a movie that has any unpredictable twists to it. It is entertaining and heartwarming, another lesson on the value of taking stock your life and reconsidering the direction in which you are headed. But Les Miserables it's not.
But I am not here to critique the movie. We can find many Christians who render scathingly critiques of this and many other Christian cinematic offerings as sentimental, cliche, hokey, and poorly produced and acted. These critiques often have some validity, and it is true that life is generally more complex than the narratives of these movies lead us to believe. However, I found "What If. . ." valuable as an indictment of my own heart, which is more jaded and cynical than I thought.
Ben Walker's life dramatically changes, and my impulse is to disbelieve it or call it simplistic, perhaps because I don't sufficiently believe that God can change people. Wendy prays a heartfelt prayer for her doubting husband, and I feel. . . what? . . . embarrassed by her sincerity, at the childlike nature of her prayer, at the spectacle of someone praying a sincere prayer onscreen? And when Ben begins to read the Bible I question his sincerity in a time when you rarely see a Bible read in a mainstream movie by anyone who is not mentally disturbed, bigoted, or judgmental. Feeling these emotions, I realize anew that we live and breathe the air of a disaffected time, when people have lost hope for "change," when having been disappointed by ministry leaders, pastors, teachers, and (naturally) politicians, we look askance at every assertion of faith.
"What If. . ." may follow a predictable narrative, and perhaps change is often halting and fragmented and incomplete, and yet this movie and others like it remind me that faith and prayer and radical change are possible, that the same God who appeared to a rebel Saul can, virtually overnight, remold him into a faithful Paul. And when a nagging voice in my head suggests that this kind of change doesn't happen anymore, I remember that even in my lifetime I have seen Watergate "hatchet man" Chuck Colson come to faith and found the life-changing ministry of Prison Fellowship or seen more than one man I have known give up alcohol and philandering to return to a faithful wife. Yet, this age is so suffused with the lies of fatalism and cynicism that a regular remembering prompted by the Word and the testimony of others is necessary to counter it.
"What if. . ." real change is possible? The testimony of Scripture is that it is. I need to remember that. And this decent movie is also a welcome reminder that God still changes people.