Fifteen years have passed since Ben Walker (Kevin Sorbo) shared a tearful goodbye with girlfriend Wendy (Kristy Swanson) at the bus stop in their small town. Instead of going to seminary as he'd originally intended, Ben headed into the business world, and now he's a successful investment banker who's completed his biggest deal yet. But on the eve of a celebratory trip to Paris with his new fiancée Cynthia (Kristin Minter), his brand-new Mercedes breaks down and Mike (John Ratzenberger), a mechanic calling himself an angel, gives him a sucker punch that sends him into a sort of "parallel universe" where he never left Wendy behind.
Ben resists his new life, delivering the world's lamest sermon on his first Sunday as the new pastor in his old hometown. He alienates his older daughter Kimberly (Debby Ryan) by forgetting her name, and sends Wendy into paranoiac tailspins thinking that he's going to divorce her. He wants desperately to be Banker Ben again, but Mike explains that God isn't going to let that happen until Ben surrenders completely to the life he was supposed to have.
As the evangelical version of the Nicolas Cage film The Family Man (2000), What If … tackles the thorny question of one's calling. Wendy asks, "What if this is one of those moments we're going to regret later?" She's worried about more than just making a mistake. She's worried that Ben is going against God's will for his life.
The movie's logic holds that God has a plan for your life, and that it's possible to go against that plan, thereby screwing up your whole life. As Mike puts it, "God's call always involves a choice." And while the mechanism of "calling" is a mystery best left to better theologians than this reviewer, it seems as though the God of What If … doesn't hold much to free will. You either follow God's plan for your life or your own plan, to paraphrase another of Mike's dictums.
The big problem with this line of thinking is that it denies God true power over our lives. It makes "calling" a one-shot deal; you either heed it at that moment, or you miss the boat forever. Yet time and again in Scripture we see men and women say "no" to God's call—and then we see God work his will in their lives and in the world anyway. Not only that, but the concept of redemption is utterly absent from What If …, which only offers a "do-over" that would erase those 15 years that Ben allowed the locusts to eat.
While Ben does give voice to repentance from sin, he also throws in a request for God to forgive him for "missing out on everything you wanted me to be." Since the concept pits Ben's good life against his bad life, this feels like moralistic therapeutic deism, rather than a sinner flinging himself on the mercy of a holy God.
While Sorbo and Ratzenberger nearly save the movie with their solid, committed performances as Ben and Mike, director Dallas Jenkins—son of Left Behind co-author Jerry Jenkins—lets things get way too soggy in the tediously long middle section. Perhaps no actress would be up to the task of enlivening pious Wendy, but Kristy Swanson barely even tries to play against type. She's just no match for Kristin Minter, who steals one scene by making long fingernails seem like they should've been prohibited in Leviticus.
Ultimately, What If … fails before it hits the 10-minute mark. Even though the movie's disdain for non-Christians oozes from every frame, Jenkins doesn't have the gumption to make Ben all that bad of a guy. His assistant seems to adore him, and he makes sure she gets a more-than-generous raise. He might be taking over a company, but his aim is to save the owners from losing everything. It's not like he's Henry F. Potter or anything. He might be a capitalist, but he's the kind who makes it seem like a good idea.
This begs the question of why Ben even needs to be a different man in the first place. Repentance isn't time travel. If it were, then King David never could've written the Psalms. Christ's call to Peter to "go, and feed my sheep" slays us because it follows, not negates, Peter's betrayal. Christ didn't come to earth to hit the rewind button straight back to Eden. He came to turn our sin and sorrow into his glory.
The logistics and metaphysics of Ben's "parallel universe" aren't really explained in a satisfactory way, but it does seem as though there's only one way that God wants Ben to live his life, and he's going to make it happen, no matter what.
Most people don't have the privilege of being given the kind of clear choice of vocation that God offered to Jonah, or Saul of Tarsus, or Abram. And unless you're trying to decide "one wife, or two?" even the biggest questions of life don't neatly break down into a sinful option and a pure option. What if Banker Ben was as much worth saving as Pastor Ben? Christ died to save the rich young ruler, too.
Click here for a list of theaters that are showing What If …
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What are some biblical examples of calling? Take Abram and Jonah as two examples. How did they respond and what did the Lord do in return?
- Do you believe that God has a specific plan for your life? Is that plan "flexible"? I.e., if you deviate from that path, have you blown it for life? Or can God's plan for us continue even when we go astray?
- How has God redeemed the poor choices you've made in your life?
- What does God want you to do today for his kingdom and his glory?
The Family Corner
What If … is rated PG for some mild thematic elements. There are veiled intimations that the "old" Ben is having a sexual relationship with his fiancée.
Photos © Christiano Film Group.
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