Have you ever felt burnt out? Purposeless? Lost?
Samuel Allen certainly has. Raised alone by his preacher father (after his mother died during childbirth), Samuel learned God’s Word well. And he always thought he’d be a preacher, too.
But the strict ordinances of the God’s Church Organization (and his inclination to punt on its teachings) always gave him grief.
Samuel’s dad, Joe, believed that what was in a man’s heart was far more important to God than whether or not a man followed the GCO handbook to the letter. He even went as far as buying an electric guitar (which the GCO believed was “of the devil”) for his musically talented son.
Because of his father’s leniency, Samuel asks a lot of hard questions that church elders can’t quite answer. And because of his own love of rock ‘n’ roll, he has a hard time convincing the GCO he isn’t going to start indulging in sex, drugs and “full-blown devil-worship.”
But after a tragedy in Samuel’s life (ironically caused by GCO strictures), he leaves the church. He starts down that dangerous rock-‘n’-roll path (though he stops short of any kind of devil-worship). And pretty soon, he’s about as lost as the prodigal son.
But then … God.
Circumstances lead Samuel home again. He starts going to church again. He starts reading his Bible again. But it’s not quite enough.
You see, God created Samuel for a purpose. He gave Samuel a dream to build his own church, one that wouldn’t excommunicate members for making the mistake of sinning.
Samuel just needs to have patience and trust God long enough for God to work things out in His own perfect timing.
There are many positive elements in this film, but since they overlap with Spiritual Elements, I’ll discuss them more below. But suffice it to say that there are demonstrations of forgiveness, mercy and grace, as well as strong familial bonds.
If there’s one takeaway from this film, it’s that God’s love conquers all.
Samuel quite literally becomes a prodigal son: He initially wastes all the gifts that God has given him to pursue worldly contentment. But when things look bleakest, he returns to his father’s house (both his earthly father and his heavenly One).
Samuel turns his life around. He heals his relationship with his father. He pursues God with fervor. He begins to preach about God’s amazing love. And he refuses to discriminate against those whom the GCO would rather not have around.
He really gets that God isn’t just for rule-following church folk. Rather, God is for everyone. And God loves everyone. Yes, we will sin. But nothing can separate us from His love.
But Southern Gospel goes a bit deeper than that. We see Samuel transformed through his interactions with T.L. Whittmore, an overseer of the GCO who despises Samuel and his father. T.L.’s own father embraced Samuel’s “edgy” style because he believed Samuel could reach more people that way. But T.L. seems to believe that edge will only serve to tip church people over into sin.
“I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience,” Samuel quotes from 1 Timothy to T.L. during a disagreement over Samuel’s preaching.
“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal,” T.L. responds from the book of Matthew.
“He has not punished us as we deserve for all our sins, for his mercy toward those who fear and honor him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth,” Samuel refutes, quoting Psalms.
“They that have done evil will come upon the resurrection of damnation. For the wages of sin is death,” T.L. finishes from both John and Romans.
It’s after this exchange that Samuel realizes: T.L. knows the Bible very well. He’s memorized it. But he doesn’t truly understand what God’s Word says.
T.L. has never felt the need for God’s forgiveness or grace. His whole life, he’s never broken a single rule in the GCO handbook. He’s never gone swimming. He’s never had an alcoholic beverage. He’s never cussed. And he’s certainly never listened to “worldly music” or attended a “picture show.”
But he’s also never addressed the fact that he doesn’t have a relationship with God, either. And even though he’s never broken a GCO rule, he’s sinned in other ways. He’s loathed Samuel and his father the whole time he’s known them. He’s tried to have the Allen men removed as pastors and even gone as far as interfering in their personal legal matters.
However, Samuel realizes that if he judges T.L. for his bitterness against them, then he’s a hypocrite. Because Samuel has also hated T.L. nearly his whole life for the trouble he’s caused the Allen family. He makes the decision to forgive T.L. instead of continuing the animosity. And this helps T.L. to be transformed by God as well, letting go of his hatred and finally asking God for forgiveness himself.
Southern Gospel doesn’t stop there either, though. Because there’s also a beautiful demonstration of God’s covenant with the church through Samuel’s marriage to Julie.
Julie knows that Samuel has a difficult past. She knows he’s changed a lot from the boy she was convinced she’d marry one day to the man he is now. But she also knows he’s trying to be the man God wants him to be—that He created Samuel to be. And later on, when tragedies from her own past come back to haunt her, Samuel stands by Julie, loving her and praying for her as she works through many horrible memories and current self-worth repercussions. And no matter the difficulties they face, they choose to love each other as God loves the church.
Sadly, not every faith message in this film has a happy ending. Barry, a lifelong friend of Samuel’s, is moved by his friend’s faith. He tries in earnest to follow God. But he never truly feels worthy of God’s love or forgiveness, so he gives up on God and himself.
While the GCO is founded on biblical principles, many of its rules are man-made. This often lends itself to a toxic culture as many people pretend that they follow the rules but break them in secret. A pastor is excommunicated for preaching God’s love above GCO rules.
We hear many sermons, Christian songs and prayers throughout the film. We also see churches adorned with crosses. Samuel is baptized by his father in a lake.
Julie and Samuel get married and have two children. We see them lying in bed together in one scene after they wed. (And when Samuel gets up, we see him in a tank top and boxers.) They share a kiss in another.
Barry, a lifelong friend of Samuel’s, invites a prostitute to his motel room. He decides not to go through with it, but it’s clear this isn’t the first time he’s hired the woman. In another scene, he talks about how he uses a scar to attract women. Samuel talks about how he had premarital sex with a woman during his prodigal season. The GCO forbids swimming because “mixed bathing encourages lust,” and one family is criticized for it.
We hear that a woman was sexually abused by her father from the time she was 5 years old until his death. We see him slap her across the face, causing her mouth to bleed. (And we hear the man beat her and her brother frequently, even threatening her life.)
Samuel, Barry and their bandmate, James, are in a horrific car accident involving drugs and alcohol. James (who fell asleep at the wheel) is killed, and Barry is thrown through the windshield and badly burned.
A man takes his own life after battling depression and alcoholism for years. (We see the actions immediately preceding his death and blood on a sheet covering his body after.)
A teenage girl drowns in a river. We hear that Samuel’s mother and younger brother died due to birthing complications. We hear a man died from a heart attack.
A police officer beats Samuel unprovoked. Barry attacks a man, throwing him to the ground and kicking him, after learning the man was taking photographs of him to prove that he and Samuel are sinners. Samuel arms himself with a gun, intending to kill a man, but he never draws the weapon.
The GCO strictly forbids any form of swearing—and this is backed by a verse from the Bible. That said, we hear multiple abuses of God’s name, even from the most devout members of the GCO. We also hear several uses of “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” And there’s a singular use of “b–ch.”
When Samuel decides to pursue worldly pleasures, we see him and his friends drinking heavily and smoking. Samuel also uses narcotics. And after he and his friends are involving in a car crash, Samuel is nearly arrested for possession of the drugs. (He is released on the condition that he will do community service by talking at schools about the dangers of drugs.)
A man tries to cope with chronic pain and depression using alcohol. He drinks heavily before his untimely death. A woman drinks wine in a few scenes (and it’s assumed she combines the booze with medications as well).
People sometimes act wrongly out of jealousy and pride. Characters lie. A man tries to pin someone’s suicide on the victim’s friend.
Southern Gospel is about how God’s love prevails above all else. It teaches us that no matter what we do—no matter how badly we screw up—we can always count on our heavenly Father to welcome us back with open arms. Moreover, the story powerfully reminds us that He will still fulfill the purpose for which He created us.
This is also a story of perseverance. Samuel faces moments when he wants to give up, when he wonders whether he’s on the path that God has established for him. But he continues to trust God, to follow and preach His Word. And eventually, he is rewarded, as Galatians 6:9 tells us we will be.
Families looking to watch should be aware of a few content concerns. The prodigal son of the Bible went through a period where he indulged in the pleasures of the world, and Samuel has a similar story. He and his friends party, drink, do drugs and have premarital sex (though we don’t see the later on screen). However, these scenes don’t serve to glorify the acts but to convey how dangerous they can be.
The language here isn’t heavy, but considering how many people in the film preach against cussing, it’s important to note that the script does include some of that language.
The film also touches on the subjects of sexual abuse, child abuse and depression (which leads to a suicide). A violent car crash kills one man and badly injures another. And a teenage girl dies from drowning.
Honestly, Southern Gospel is a strong retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. With that, it packs in the difficult parts of Jesus’ parable—the straying from God—but it also brings home the enduring message of God’s unfailing love.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her husband indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.