An Amazing Disgrace

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He was eighty years old. He had been in the pulpit thousands of times. His eyesight was too poor to read notes and his mind was too tired to speak quickly.  He looked down at the text before Him and peered out at his congregation, barely able to make sense of the outlines of their faces, and cried out: “Jesus Christ is precious!” Then, once more with the gravel and crack of an aged prophet sighed, “Jesus Christ is Precious!”  His helper then whispered, “Dr., you have already said that. . .” To which the old saint retorted, “I said it twice, and I will say it again: Jesus Christ is Precious!” His name was John Newton.

I once had to write two movie reviews for a theater appreciation class in college.  This is not a review; it is a warning to keep you from making a bad decision. With that said: do not watch a film entitled The Amazing Grace on Netflix.  If you are like me – literally – then this film is very likely to show up on a personalized recommendation list for you or it will catch your eye both with the title and supposed content.

The film bills itself as a biopic about the former slave trader who turned hymn writer and wrote the song entitled “Amazing Grace.”  The description of the film is essentially the ending of anything resembling a historically (let alone spiritually) accurate account of the individual destined to pastor a congregation in Olney, work for an ecumenical alliance of latter eighteenth century evangelicals in England, write memorable hymns, and work for the abolition of the slave trade.

The film is not a biopic. The film has a character named John Newton, but he bears little to no resemblance to the Newton of history (on second glance, he looks a little more like a werewolf from the Harry Potter films). As my wife observed, “it seems like someone read a Wikipedia article and then made their own movie.”  I would agree with my wife (it is normally prudent to do so) except for the fact I just read the Wikipedia article on John Newton and find the content to be much more reliable than anything related in this film.  Admittedly, for the first 15 – 20 minutes they almost reeled me in with thinking, “they took a little liberty, but this is pretty good.” That first 20 minutes is where it ended. The film did not even do a good job of pointing out what a scoundrel Newton actually was during this period (a spectacle that is difficult to read about let alone commit to film). He instead was portrayed as on his way to something good with a need of enlightening. The individual(s) responsible for producing this film had an agenda. Whatever the agenda was, it was not to tell the beautiful story of redemption in the real life narrative of John Newton. It would seem it had something to do with pointing out there is nothing good about men, white or black, and everyone is a hypocrite.

Amazingly, there is absolutely no mention of the Savior whom Newton proclaimed: Jesus Christ (aside from the one time the character uses the word “Christian”).  The viewer is instead led to conclude that there is some form of a deistic power over the universe whom all people recognize but have a different name for and that a chance common good of humanity was actually the “salvation” Newton experienced and was inspired by.  His humanistic realization is then purported as “the Amazing Grace” which eventually inspired Newton to write his famed hymn. It would seem the producers of this film either do not know or are completely unaware that Newton’s title for his hymn was “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” While it is true and an appropriately moving fact that no one knows exactly for sure where the tune for the most popular hymn in the world came from, and that it sounds remarkably like an African mourning dirge, the writers creatively fail in their mission to make this point.  A point which they are also unaware of or miss.

Do not watch this movie.

If you are interested in Newton (and you should be) I highly recommend both the film entitled (simply) Amazing Grace with a memorable and very moving portrayal of William Wilberforce’s aging pastor by Albert Finney and the historically accurate and easily read book, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken  . These are two excellent resources that will point you towards the preacher this other film ignored: an aging former slave trader, fornicating, cussing sailor who ended life with failing eyesight and memory and reminds us all of the goodness of the Gospel:  “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things — that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”

And, whose remains rest in the chancel vault of St Mary’s Woolnoth (instead of in a field by a country church with a white marble stone with just his name as the film portays) with a plague on the wall that reads:

JOHN NEWTON,
CLERK,
ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE,
A SERVANT OF SLAVES IN AFRICA;
WAS
BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR
JESUS CHRIST,
PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED,
AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH
HE HAD LONG LABOURED TO DESTROY.
NEAR SIXTEEN YEARS AT OLNEY IN BUCKS,
AND TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS IN THIS CHURCH.

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