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Grace Unplugged is one of those movies that delivers a very good message about putting God first—until the very end. In its final two scenes, the movie does a 180 degree flip and punches home the message that the real satisfaction in a Christian’s life comes not from exalting God, but from using God as an excuse to exalt oneself.
THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER
The star of our story is young Grace Trey—a Christian teenager who has just turned 18 and is thereby a legal adult. Adults can do anything they want, including running away from home without telling their parents to seek fame and fortune in the music industry of Los Angeles, CA. And this is exactly what our headstrong, underappreciated and massively misunderstood Grace does. She’s bursting with musical talent—an obvious gift from God that she seems to have inherited from her one-hit wonder dad, Johnny Trey. Johnny was very famous back in the day with his song “Misunderstood.” He’s been there, done that: the fame, the drugs, the concert tours, the physical exhaustion. Years later he found God and realized that his carnal priorities were taking him nowhere good. Now he’s the picture perfect dad: great marriage, beautiful daughter, and the worship pastor down at the church. The movie opens with him leading worship with Grace singing and playing her guitar right alongside of him. Johnny is clearly trying to keep his performance toned down while Grace is trying to ramp hers up. Despite sharp looks from her father, Grace becomes more and more affected in her performance and crosses Johnny’s moral lines. When rehearsal is over, he’s reprimanding her for not submitting to his authority as band leader, and for trying to exalt herself. Grace responds with a self-righteous huff. Everyone else in the church thinks she’s amazing and they recognize her obvious talent. But her wet blanket father is always trying to stifle her.
Lectures are all Grace ever receives from her father anymore—lectures on her moral failings. She’s sick of lectures and tired of feeling so oppressed in life. With high school behind her, she dreams of going big time, but her parents want her to go to college. Grace agrees because she feels like she has no choice, but when they’re not looking she’s going to the movies instead of youth group and trying to cover her tracks with lies that only increase the tension between her and her father.
When some young kid dusts off Johnny Trey’s one hit wonder “Misunderstood” and uses it to win the American Idol show, a video of Johnny performing the song from back in the day goes viral on YouTube. Enter Mossy—Johnny’s long lost pal who had been his manager all throughout those headline making years. Mossy sees an opportunity for Johnny to make a great comeback with all of this free publicity. Mossy has just gotten hired onto the staff of a record making company and he wants Johnny to be the star who makes him rich again. But Johnny is not about to trade his satisfying life for another exhausting round of carnal living. He turns Mossy down and Mossy is quite ticked. But eavesdropping on the whole conversation is young Grace, who sees the golden door of opportunity appearing before her. Secretly recording her own version of her father’s song, she emails a copy to Mossy who agrees to take her on. Mossy’s not thrilled about going behind Johnny’s back, but then again, he feels like Johnny owes him. So begins the budding career of daring Grace—a girl who boldly defies her parents and throws herself into the clutches of worldly people just so she can pursue her own dreams in life.
While many Christian teens will be quite impressed with Grace at this point, we adults know what would happen to Grace in real life and we’re hoping that this movie doesn’t let us down. It doesn’t. With excellent tension building and tons of lump-in-your-throat emo, the script writers show naïve Grace getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. She starts to drink the hard stuff in order to fit in with the crowd. She’s told that to make it big she’s going to have to promote her own sex appeal. She finds herself being pursued by a big television star—the tall and rugged Jay Grayson (who we learn is determined to take Grace’s sex whether she wants to give it to him or not). Of course the whole relationship has been fabricated by Grace’s manager to get her name in the gossip columns and Grace is crushed when she finds out. But at every low point, Satan is right there to give Grace a reason to stay on the road of compromise. Every time she gets a new wave of disillusionment about what the life of a star is really like, her manager delivers some piece of great news. Her song is climbing the charts. Her music idol wants her to come on tour. Even when Grace gets herself into trouble by purposely lying, things work out for the better. When her claims to be a composer are proven false, she’s told not to worry—there is a pool of talented song composers who are pumping out guaranteed hits for her to cover. So despite having her heart broken, being shamed by her father, and feeling like the independence she fought to have is being once more taken away from her, Grace presses on.
Grace Unplugged is one of those rare Christian movies that has a well-written script, convincing acting, and a smooth directive style. If only it stayed on course, it would have been worth buying for the church library. Unfortunately it follows its protagonist down the road of compromise…and never recovers.
The movie tries to convince us that Grace finally realizes her mistake and comes running home like the prodigal son. A young Christian man down in Los Angeles helps her see that God is the One she’s really fighting—not her overbearing father. In fact, her father has been right all along that if we aren’t living for God, we’re missing the point. Johnny says that trying to exalt oneself is a sin. But at the end of the movie, that’s exactly what we see both Grace and Johnny doing—and they’re doing it with gusto.
THE PRODIGAL RETURNS
Once the words of her friend sink in, Grace has a breakdown in her apartment and we see her praying to God. When she’s done we see the beginnings of a smile on her face. We assume it’s a sign that her soul is finally at peace, but it turns out it’s really the smile of inspiration because God has just given her the idea for a new song. The next thing we know, she pays a surprise visit to her home church where she sits down and sings her first original composition. Sitting down at the piano, she gives a very affected performance of her song “All I’ve Ever Needed,” which is clearly directed at her parents. If Grace finds it easier to communicate her feelings through music, then she could have just sung the song for her parents in their living room. Seeing this supposedly just humbled young woman soaking in the applause at church makes it very hard to swallow that her soul change is genuine.
When the song is over, everyone hugs and cries all over each other. By now Johnny has already apologized for holding his daughter back and not appreciating her great musical ability. Of course he has been holding her back because he didn’t want her to get sucked into repeating all of his same mistakes. Isn’t that what a good father is supposed to do—shelter and protect his daughter? Despite Grace’s skewed perspective, it’s obvious to us that Johnny hasn’t been making unreasonable demands on his daughter. His “annoying lectures” were sincere attempts to teach her righteous morals. When he did raise his voice, it was only in response to her blatant defiance of his authority and mouthy attitude. So what exactly is Johnny apologizing for? Well, like many haggard parents who are tired of fighting with their children, Johnny takes the blame for things he didn’t do and recasts his good parenting as the stifling thing Grace has decided it is. We should be bothered by Johnny’s admission to things he never did. But the movie zooms in on Grace’s trembling lower lip and tries to convince us that Johnny has said the right thing because Grace is so obviously touched. Well, if a brat rejoices over their parent buying them a tenth candy bar, does that mean we should conclude the parent did the right thing? Since when is good parenting defined by the child’s response instead of God’s standards? Grace Unplugged definitely botches it with the character Johnny, but we can let that go. No movie is perfect.
A NEW KIND OF REBEL
Now that everyone’s reconciled, and now that Grace has left her manager in L.A. in a lurch with a brief note saying she just can’t explain why she’s suddenly running out on her contract, we’re supposed to feel like everything’s great. Grace has obviously learned to put God first, she’s learned that self-promotion is wrong, she’s reconciled with her dad, and the church worship band has one of their star performers back. Now the screen goes black and we see the words: “Two Years Later.”
This is your cue to leave, but you stay because you want to see that nice Christian man down south end up with Grace, since they were so obviously a match for each other. The screen comes to life again and now we’re backstage with Grace and Dad and Chris Tomlin. Yes, the Chris Tomlin who plays himself in a very brief and random cameo which is obviously inserted to make Grace Unplugged more popular.
We learn that Grace and that nice Christian man from down south are engaged. We also learn that Grace and Johnny are capitalizing on their renewed fame. Grace has her own band (which her fiancé is now the manager of) and she’s about to open for Chris Tomlin’s concert–quite the worldly boost for someone so new to the industry. But wait–what happened to not promoting ourselves? Oh, but this is different. Grace is singing about Jesus now. We see her waiting backstage as Johnny heads out to join the band. The huge audience screams with delight. A camera pans their eager faces, and we see handmade signs that read “We love you Grace” and “Number 1 Fan.” That’s Grace’s fan, not Jesus’ fan, because these people are all clearly gathered to worship Grace—the sexy Christian girl who has somehow managed to get the best of both worlds.
After an intentional pause, Grace starts out on stage, clearly wanting to bask in a new wave of screams and cheers that is meant just for her. Picking up her guitar, she starts belting out that famous “You Never Let Go” song with Johnny chiming in. It’s a father-daughter rock out and as Grace works the mic and tosses her head around, it’s painfully obvious that she hasn’t learned anything. But the writers of the movie are clearly trying to tell us that she has, because once a person “repents,” well, then obviously God will reward them by letting them bask in the glory, right? And it’s a cinch to be a sold-out Christian without having to give up any worldly perks—after all, Chris Tomlin’s doing it. This is what the movie tries to tell us. As our once shy Grace tosses a casual “thanks Chris” to Tomlin and then leaves to go continue basking in the worship of her fans, she is showing off her newfound confidence now that her life is “back on track.” Look, this is what Jesus can do for you, the movie says.
While she’s down in L.A., Grace’s Christian friend (who we’re supposed to believe is a very committed Christian), loans her a book that he’s read four times. It’s title “Own It,” he explains, is a reference to really owning your relationship with God—not just treating Him like a casual thing. Reading this book is supposed to be what helped Grace see the error of her ways. But at the end of the movie, she’s back on the pedestal, soaking up the glory while flinging around the Name of a God she obviously doesn’t care much about. After all, God is jealous. He hates having other people standing in His spotlight. Grace doesn’t mind doing what God hates, and neither does Johnny or her fiancé—two men who had supposedly already strayed from God once and had finally learned better. But now, as they team up with this new rising star, it’s clear that they are also forgetting where their priorities are supposed to be.
If Grace Unplugged presented its ending to be as terrible as it really is, then it would be worth promoting. But as it is, the movie takes back everything it tried to teach us in a matter of minutes and instead leaves us walking out with a big fat lie. “It’s perfectly fine to exalt yourself, as long as you do it in a Christian context”–this is the rot that Grace Unplugged promotes. When she sees fans declaring their adoration for her in writing, Grace doesn’t flinch. When everyone screams and cheers at the sight of her, there’s no uncomfortable squirming. Instead she beams. She basks. “Look how great it is to be sold out to God” the movie tells us. What a crock.
Have you ever stopped to consider how offensive our so-called worship concerts are to God? While we all sing His praises and lift our hands skyward, who are we really adoring? The performers, of course. If it wasn’t about them, no one would scream and cheer when they come into view. And if Christian performers were really as humble as they claim, they wouldn’t be mounting stages and towering over us in the blinding light of spotlights. If they really aren’t trying to appeal to our flesh, why are they dressing in costumes and putting on make-up? Is there anything about these “authentic” worship sessions that isn’t scripted and staged? Isn’t it true that we’re paying these people to manipulate our senses just so we can get some carnal rush? If we are really after worshiping God, we can do that just fine in our own homes. If we think music helps us focus, we can pipe it through our headphones. We don’t need to see the singers dancing about. We don’t need to watch their staged music videos that give us close ups of biceps and facial expressions. While we exalt created beings, we claim that we’re just focusing on God. What a crock. We can deceive ourselves, but we cannot deceive Him. He sees who is actually being worshiped at these nauseating concerts of ours. We actually think we become morally unaccountable as soon as we mention “Jesus” and point to Heaven with strained looks on our faces. After all, this is what Grace Unplugged teaches us: we don’t need to really care about God because He’s so easy to manipulate. As long as He hears some praise lyrics filling the air, He’ll never know the difference. What a dope He is, yet how convenient for us, since we were never really serious about following Him anyway.
On their promotional cover, the makers of Grace Unplugged ask us this question: “Would you give up what you need to get everything you want?” For the first part of the movie, God is promoted as the One we need—the One who is worth giving up everything for. But at the end it suddenly exchanges this truth for a lie, and insists that it’s the worship of others that we need–worship and plenty of anything else that our flesh desires. As for God—we neither need Him nor want Him. But by all means, let’s use His Name to boost our ticket sales.
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