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David Taylor and Charles Frank were boyhood friends—and sometimes rivals—who attended the church led by David’s father, Pastor Fred Taylor. But after David’s mother dies unexpectedly while his dad is away on church business, David blames his father and abruptly abandons his faith.
Fifteen years later, he’s a rising music star with a sexy R&B hit called “Let Me Undress You.” His relationship with his dad and the church is strained. For his part, Charles never left the church and is the heir apparent to Pastor Taylor’s pulpit. When the legendary minister is struck down by cancer, David returns home. That’s when he learns that Charles has a “new vision” for the church, one that will surely boost his old friend's already swollen ego but do very little to further his father's work.
David is caught up in the turmoil of his father’s illness, the machinations of Charles and his coterie, and the pressure from his agent and label to get back on the road to promote his hit record. (The temptation of pretty girls and riches that come with that lifestyle is no small matter, either.) Throw in a budding relationship with single-mom Rain, a threatened lawsuit from a musical rival and a questioning of his own lack of faith and you have the makings of a Prodigal Son story with a distinctly modern and urban twist.
Talk of grace, forgiveness and faith permeates this film. Pastor Taylor is a living, breathing example of a saved sinner. He has his faults, but he lives a life of reliance on God and tries to offer grace to those around him—without excusing their sin. When a church committee discusses a seemingly insurmountable problem, he says to a skeptical man, “It’s bigger than you, but it’s not bigger than God. If you put your faith in God you can never go wrong.” And when Charles cynically questions the propriety of sexy R&B star David singing in the church choir (“It wouldn’t look good”), Pastor Taylor responds, “We should spend less time looking good and more time being good.”
Despite having run away from the church as a teen, David has not completely lost his faith. He is willing, in effect, to commit career suicide to help save his father’s church. Despite falling in love with Rain, he lets her go with a good deal of graciousness when her husband wants to reconcile, saying that her daughter needs her father.
Charles is ambitious and thinks he’s operating under the best of motives, but it takes a fight with his wife to bring him to a crushing epiphany: “You quote Scripture and know the Bible backward and forward,” she taunts. “But you have no clue.” (What a great echo of Isaiah 6:9, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”) Upon being confronted with his arrogant schemes, Charles’ heart is softened; he breaks down and acknowledges his faults (“There is no perfect church, but there is a perfect God”).
Assistant Pastor Hunter is visibly hurt when he learns that Pastor Taylor intends to hand over the pulpit to the younger, less-experienced Charles, but like the true servant he is, he accepts the pastor’s decision. Despite his misgivings about what Charles is doing, he remains true to the church. Still, he is not afraid to confront Charles about the destructive path he believes he’s taking. (Compare this to Proverbs 27:6, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”)
As mentioned, The Gospel is essentially a retelling of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (found in Luke 15). Because so much of this story is infused with biblical truth, my "Positive Elements" section already contains quite a bit of spiritual content. Adding to that, it's worth noting that the movie is brimming with gospel music—from a simple a cappella rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” to Yolanda Adam’s bouncy “Victory” (“He rose again on the third day, and I have the victory”) to a rocked-out version of Rich Mullins’ “Our God Is an Awesome God.” Even better, when the music stops, God isn't turned into some generic feel-good deity. He and his Son, Jesus, are regarded with love and respect. Scenes shot inside Pastor Taylor's church don't just feature snippets of sermons, they include relevant biblical preaching and even altar calls.
The camera lingers on the cover of young David’s Bible as he rushes to his mother’s bedside in the hospital. After she dies, he throws the Bible at his father in anger. That sets the stage for David walking away from Christ and his family, which duly paves the way for coming to terms with his anger toward his father—and God. Standing at his dad's grave, David engages in an “argument” with both Dad and God but then falls to his knees and confesses to the Lord, “Whatever you want me to do, I will.”
David performs his song “Let Me Undress You” with some scantily clad backup dancers. After the concert, his agent presents him with two groupies. David wakes up in the morning with one of the women in his bed (no "nudity" is seen, but the camera does take in a good portion of David's bare legs and torso). And he's then seen fishing around for his underpants amid the rumpled sheets. His agent, Wesley, is often spotted with girls on his arm, and in one phone conversation he says, “Have a couple of damsels on standby for the most deviant of pursuits.” A nude painting catches the camera's attention at a restaurant (we see the woman's back and backside). A few women show some cleavage.
David and Rain kiss after a date. Wesley provokes David by calling Rain a stripper. He then speaks disparagingly of her wanting to save sex for marriage.
Charles and his wife, Charlene, have sexual difficulties in their marriage. In one scene they kiss passionately, but then she begs off, saying, “I can’t.” Later, he kisses her in bed, but she pretends to be asleep. Charles later complains to her, “It sure would be nice to have the loving part of our marriage back.” (It turns out she can’t bear children, and that has put a strain on their relationship.)
David finds he cannot get away from the sexy persona he has created for his R&B career, even when he wants to. A girl flirts with him, saying, “You’re the undress me guy!”
David and another man get into a fistfight. David smashes a bottle against the wall in anger.
Crude or Profane Language
Two uses of “d---,“ one of “h---“ and one misuse of God’s name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Various people smoke and drink at a concert. A music mogul holds a huge cigar. In a crisis of faith after his father’s death, David drinks booze straight from the bottle.
Other Negative Elements
A church member attributes a good turn for the church to their efforts: “God helps those who help themselves.” (That tired mantra, so out of place in all the talk of God’s grace and providence, is unfortunately left undisputed.)
Pastor Taylor opens a sermon with, “The God I serve is an awesome God.” This, in turn, is an awesome film. It has been a long time since such a clear presentation of the gospel, in both word and deed, has appeared on the big screen. Best of all, this gospel message is woven into a compelling story of realistic, flawed human beings who know they need God’s grace. There’s nary a plaster saint in sight, and there’s no moral merely tacked onto the end of this story; it’s lived throughout.
And the music! Anyone whose toe is not tapping by the end simply can’t hear. With musical arrangements by Kirk Franklin and performances by gospel greats Yolanda Adams, Martha Munizzi and Fred Hammond, you know you’re going to get good music with solid biblical content.
We encounter a few brief scenes showing the life David lived as the prodigal, but we're not forced to wallow in it. Most important, David must make a real choice. He must truly repent of the sexually charged lifestyle he had lived as a music star. There’s no praising the Lord one moment and going back to his sleazy lifestyle the next. What a pleasant contrast to so many music stars we see today, thanking God at an awards show but otherwise living a hell-bent life.
If you want to experience church sometime this week besides Sunday morning, go see this film.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Boris Kodjoe as David Taylor; Idris Elba as Charles Frank; Nona Gaye as Charlene Frank; Tamyra Gray as Rain; Clifton Powell as Pastor Fred Taylor; Donnie McClurkin as Assistant Pastor Hunter; Omar Gooding as Wesley; Aloma Wright as Miss Ernestine
Rob Hardy ( )