Review: The Heart of Man + Participant’s Guide

Distributor: Unearthed Pictures

Director: Eric Esau

Writers: Eric Esau, Jason Pamer, Jonathan Sharpe (co-writer)

Composer: Tony Anderson

Starring: Robert Fleet, Serena Karnagy, Justin Torrence, William Paul Young, Jackie Hill Perry, Dr. Dan Allender

Genre: Documentary, Christian

Originally released in the United States in the latter half of last year, if The Heart of Man sounds familiar to you, then it may be because it has popped up in your recommended viewing list on Netflix or iTunes. Featuring the testimonies of many prominent Christian figures, including but not limited to William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, The Heart of Man is an odd film that breaks genre but seeks unity between God and the Prodigal Son. “I don’t think you’ll have seen a film like this,” Jason Pamer stated at the Sydney premiere, while actor, Justin Torrence, echoed sentiments about remaining open-minded.

A film that is also accompanied by a Participant’s Guide–a book that’s a “six-scene journey” structured similarly to a Bible Study–does The Heart of Man provide a confronting experience for Christian audiences, or is there a reason why this one may have been originally overlooked?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A man, in a trance, jumps off a cliff and battles the waves once in the ocean. A man is tricked into kissing a corpse. Maggots swarm a man’s body, causing him to panic. Physical assault–a man’s head is bashed against rocks during a fight, scarring his face and drawing blood. People talk about the real-life physical and sexual assault they have experienced in the past, some as children.

Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is said once.

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: Several people (men and a woman) give their real-life testimonies about how they dealt with their sex-related sins. They speak openly and rather bluntly about pornography use, marital affairs, sexual assault, and casual sex. One talks about a homosexual relationship. A man is seen tempted by a woman. They both disrobe–the bare back of the woman is shown, while the man is seen shirtless. They kiss.

Spiritual Content: This is a Christian documentary containing the testimonies of people who have struggled and overcome their sin by understanding their identity in Christ. On screen, there is a silent, metaphorical retelling of the Prodigal Son.

Other Negative Content: None.

Positive Content: All the testimonies are gathered together and structured similarly to the story of the Prodigal Son; a tale about our separation from God due to our sinful desires, but His love is forever faithful, despite our apparent unworthiness.

 

Review

Jason Pamer certainly didn’t over exaggerate The Heart of Man’s defiance of genre convention. It’s a tough movie to define. The film operates mostly like a self-help documentary, though it’s brutally honest with its content and lacks any intent to manipulate the audience into a particular response. At its core is a collection of several unsanitized testimonies, all interwoven with each other, as the interviewees attempt to articulate their struggles with sexual-based addiction and the shame that prevented them from connecting with God.

To keep the film visually engaging, not resorting to a series of talking heads, these conversations are overlayed with a silent dramatic retelling of the Prodigal Son. Though it’s not a scene for scene Biblical account of the story. Rather, The Heart of Man takes advantage of the film medium and creates a pastiche of powerful images that express the essence of the original story.

For instance, an everyman figure plays the violin alongside an older man–The Father. It’s beautiful to watch them create music together, though the everyman’s interest wanes and his gaze is mysteriously drawn to the horizon, where an unknown, unexplored island beckons his attention. We know this story–it’s familiar. That island away from the presence of the Father will contain nothing but misery. The Heart of Man is a parable of a parable if you will; a metaphorical representation of a well-known Biblical tale.

It’s a deep, delightfully messy exploration into the human soul. While the testimonies are edited together to resemble a three-act structure, all resoundingly praising God’s love and forgiveness, this isn’t a solidified message, seeking to convert or necessarily preach to the audience. The Heart of Man mercifully isn’t one of those pushy Christian films. These are real people, sharing their experiences, still grappling with the metaphysical nature of God and their relationship with Him. On that level, it’s something that all Christians can relate to, and the film is driven by a desire to form a connection with the audience and to develop a sense of community; we’re all in this together.

The people interviewed are extremely frank about the sins that they have committed in the past, ranging from pornography usage to marital affairs. It’s confronting at first to hear such bold confessions, though it quickly becomes refreshing as these topics are rarely ever spoken about with such bluntness.

Jackie Hill Perry’s testimony was of particular note for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a woman speak about her struggles with an addiction to pornography, not only in Christian circles but also in society in general. Considering that some statistics state that upwards of 70% of young adult females have watched porn within the last six months, it’s a wonder why this issue isn’t broached more often. So I applaud The Heart of Man for providing a different viewpoint on a sin that affects so many.

On a technical level, The Heart of Man is incredibly beautiful. The cinematography is gorgeous, gently sweeping across luscious forests and ferocious oceans, or jarringly framing some of the horrors found in God’s absence. There’s no dialogue between the actors, though the movie’s soundtrack fulfills all of the communicative means. A technical marvel, it’s hard to fault this movie.

While this is a wonderful film from an objective standpoint, subjectively it may not resonate universally with audiences as much as the filmmakers might have hoped. As mentioned previously, it does not present a direct adaptation of the Prodigal Son. In many ways, the silent narrative in this film is a conglomeration of Biblical truths, with the Prodigal Son being the most prevalent, but it nonetheless strays from the some of the nuances found in the parable.

For people who identify with that story–the rebellious nature of the son, along with the humiliation endured and the humbled yet apprehensive walk back home–may take issue with the film tweaking these aspects. Instead, in the movie, the son leaves seemingly out of compulsion, and it’s the Father that steps in amongst the son’s sins and pulls him out of it. It’s not an incorrect point; several times throughout Scripture, God rescues Israel out of their oppression, sometimes even when they haven’t asked for rescue. But it’s disingenuous to say The Heart of Man is only pulling from the Prodigal Son narrative.

As much as the filmmakers tried to make this movie about the trappings of sin in general, it is predominantly about sexual sin, though there’s some wriggle room for the messages to also apply to addictive and repetitive, destructive behaviors. Throughout the film, I found myself doing some mental gymnastics in order to recall a time where I felt that level of unworthiness before God. On one hand, it’s comforting to see how I’ve grown in my relationship with Christ, yet on the other, this struggle to relate to the depths of suffering experienced by these people, feeling shackled by their sin, did, unfortunately, distance me from the film. “I just wasn’t feeling it,” to put it crudely.

That’s not to say that The Heart of Man isn’t useful for people who are more confident in their identity in Christ. As I’ve touched upon, it is wonderful for reflective purposes. There are also many beautiful images and moments that operate as great illustrations and will assist in communicative purposes. It also builds empathy and understanding about what people with addictions are going through in terms of their faith. Overall, The Heart of Man is a gorgeous film that any Christian (that is age appropriate) should see, though your level of engagement with the content is dependent upon your own personal experiences. For some, this will be a deep, impactful, life-changing film.

The Participant’s Guide

The Heart of Man also comes with a book–a Participant’s Guide to the film, which operates similarly to the Bible Studies we upload here at Geeks Under Grace. Book lovers will delight in holding this piece of literature in their hands. From a textural standpoint, it’s a gorgeous book filled with beautiful pictures from the film, coupled with a visually pleasing layout consisting of quotes, notes from the filmmakers, easy to read text, and deep solid questions. The Participant’s Guide breaks the film up into six major scenes and analyses each one with a short study (the book is 122 pages long, though the information is very spaced out given the number of pictures). It’s intended to be a seven-week process, with the first meeting being the screening of the film.

To clarify, it’s important to emphasize that this is a film study. While there was nothing that struck me as being theologically incorrect, the Participant’s Guide is rather filtered from the original source material. That is since The Heart of Man is not a close adaptation of the Biblical narrative, consisting of metaphors and testimonies, and then the Participant’s Guide is based off the film, the book is therefore now two artistic steps away from Scripture. There are no Biblical passages directly quoted within the guide (actually, there is one, but it’s not noted as such).

This is not a good or bad thing–this generalization of Biblical lessons may assist some people who struggle with the language contained within Scripture or are fairly new to the faith and feel rather daunted approaching an ancient text. Other times it’s refreshing to see what we can glean from another’s interpretation, much like sermons. But it’s just something to flag, because ultimately this guide doesn’t replace Scripture, and it’s important to refer back to God’s Word. Having an additional study about the Prodigal Son before watching the film may be a good workaround for those that are uncomfortable with the book’s lack of Bible quotations.

A larger concern involves how this study should be run. The writers suggest that the series can be approached as an individual or as a group, though it becomes clear as the weeks go on that it’s more intended for the latter setup. To quote from the guide’s introduction: “Authentic community is absolutely essential to begin breaking our painful, destructive patterns, so whether you are experiencing this journey individually or with a group, make sure to share with others what you are learning about yourself.” The book definitely encourages opening up to others, though participants may want to take note of the key suggestion there; that it needs to be an authentic community.

It’s a hardcore study designed to make people feel welcome enough to discuss their sexual sins. Other ailments of the soul could be applied, though the language adopted throughout the guide works best when it’s referring to addictive behaviors. As drug and alcohol rehab health workers will know, seeking a community is vitally important for the vast majority of sufferers, as it helps to manage their addiction. However, for Christians that are blessed to not experience this level of compulsion, and are merely going through the daily grind, then this study is too intense and sometimes overly dramatic for their average means. It’s not suitable for a normal, casual Bible Study.

Maybe think this one through before jumping right in. If you’re a facilitator, read the book first to determine whether it’s right for your group.

The problem, of course, is that people can’t always be trusted, and sadly there have been incidences of spiritual abuse within the Church. Care and discernment must be utilized when deciding whom to trust with our darkest secrets. Taking those concerns into account, if I may be so bold as to make a few suggestions, I believe that The Heart of Man’s Participant’s Guide will work best under the following conditions:

  • It must be run by a knowledgeable and experienced facilitator. While the guide tries its best to take a broader approach, attempting to not always be about sexual sins, the fact is that it is subconsciously catered to that market. In doing so, discussions surrounding this topic have a high chance of uncovering past trauma. Facilitators must be equipped to know what to do in these situations. It must be a safe space.
  • Due to the personal nature of the questions, this guide may work best in a one-on-one set up, or a specialized support group. If one does have a desire to run this as a larger event, then it must be made clear from the start that the questions are very forthcoming. Therefore, by attending, people have consented to be willing to share at that level. Take note that the official website offers some guidance and support as to how to run this as a church-wide or “Table Experience” event.
  • Consider doing this series as an intensive, two-day workshop as opposed to a seven-week course. This is due to how each study is structured. It’s not like a streak of sermons where each message turns back and ends with the Gospel message. While the movie has a three-act structure and eventually concludes with the good news of God’s forgiveness, the guide only analyzes a scene at a time, so there’s not as much of a resolution at the end of each session. For instance, in the third week, participants focus on what sins have pushed them over the edge, however, it’ll then be a few more weeks to learn about how God is still with them. That’s a long time for someone struggling with their faith to potentially ponder over their separation from God. While the content is heavy and requires some time to mull over its depth, a shorter time period than what the guide recommends may work better for those who are unclear about God’s salvation.

If an authentic community within a safe environment can be achieved, then this study has the potential to be a wonderful tool, one that will help people reconnect with God. It will change some people’s lives for the better. If you work in mental health, substance abuse clinics, or specialize in sex-related matters, and are looking for new ways to help others, then this movie and guide certainly deserves your attention. For others, it’s an insightful, thought-provoking look into how we fall victim to sin, though while some lessons will serve as reminders to not become complacent, other times the questions seem too intense to be relatable. A great study, but discernment must be adopted when considering its use.

Positives

+ Brilliant technical execution + Takes a refreshing, bold approach to traditionally taboo topics + Offers some wonderful imagery with its use of metaphor + Sends a message without being pushy + Participant's Guide will be extremely helpful for those suffering from addiction

Negatives

- Not a straight retelling of the Prodigal Son - Not always relatable, depending on one's personal life experiences - Participant's Guide encourages disclosure of sins, which can lead to spiritual abuse in unsafe spaces - Participant's Guide too hardcore for casual Bible Study groups

The Bottom Line

The Heart of Man is a visually stunning film that digs deep into our feelings of brokenness, shame, and unworthiness before God, before highlighting the Almighty’s awesome faithfulness. Watching this film is a spiritual experience, though exactly how much we relate to its content will depend on our personal life story.

 

8.8

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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