“God took your daddy,” Joe Amable-Amo whispers under his breath at the funeral. “And now he’s taken you.”
Little Faith Elizabeth, the delight of her grandpa’s heart, lies in a little pink casket. And as the minister reads Psalm 23, bitterness seeps into Joe’s heart. “Where was our Father when she was sick,” he accuses. “He kills innocent children.”
“Daddy, we have to have faith,” his daughter, Audrey, pleads.
“I have no faith,” Joe spits.
But God? Well, He’s got other plans for Joe. Plans to challenge Joe’s grief, unbelief and rage. Plans that involve a winking dove, a dachshund and an aging biker who suddenly arrives to redirect the course of Joe’s angry life.
It begins quietly enough, while Joe’s sitting at work at the bank one day. “Joe. It’s God,” his computer reads. “I’ve chosen you for a special mission. I could have done the whole burning bush thing, but all of the plants in your office are artificial.”
“Hey there, God,” Joe types back. “About time I heard from you. Let’s meet for lunch to discuss—”
“Resist the sarcasm, Joe. Rather, behold and believe.”
That’s when the dachshund and dove show up, each delivering personal messages to Joe about what to do next. Soon, Joe finds himself following a map to a golf course. There, he meets a guy named Herb, an apparent messenger from God whose job it is to help Joe relinquish his bitterness, embrace faith … and win the biggest golf tournament the world has ever seen.
Joe has been crippled by his grief following the death of both his granddaughter and his son-in-law. Joe’s daughter, Audrey, seems to be handling those losses better than her dad is. Audrey has channeled her grief into running a school for homeless children in their hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico. But the school she’s founded is three months behind on its mortgage payments. And Joe (who works at the bank, as you’ll recall) is facing pressure from regulators to foreclose on her school.
When Herb shows up, he challenges Joe to relinquish his unbelief (more on that below), and to enter a golf tournament known as The Golf Championship of the World Entire. Every professional golfer in the world worth his salt will be competing. Joe, a former amateur back in the day, will beat them all and win the prize money (a cool $3 million) to not only pay his daughter’s school’s debts, but fund it for a long time after that.
Joe’s committed to winning, which he starts do to, thanks to Herb’s supernatural coaching and help. In the finals, Joe goes up against an angry Scotsman named Archibald Borthwick. At first, Archie (as he’s called) is enraged that an old man can even come close to keeping up with him. But slowly, Joe’s character begins to rub off on the hotheaded young player as they compete—so much so, in fact, that [Spoiler Warning] Archie makes an incredible and magnanimous gesture in the end.
Joe’s supported by his loyal, faith-filled and longsuffering wife, Sheila, who never loses faith in her man even when Joe loses faith in himself, God and everything else.
Someone observes, “A hero is someone who gives himself up for the benefit of others.”
The core of this story has to do with trusting God amid tragedy. Joe is devastated by the death of his granddaughter and (to a lesser extent) his son-in-law. He’s not even remotely interested in trusting such a God, even though his wife and daughter keep trying to nudge him in that direction.
That’s when miraculous, fantastical and comedic communications from God start coming at Herb from every direction. A dove delivers multiple tiny scrolls with specific words from God. So does Herb’s dachshund, Sandwich, who also wears a collar that sports various religious or spiritual symbols. (We can see a cross, the star of David, a peace sign and others.) When Sheila first encounters Sandwich, she quips, “Some very inclusive person is missing you!”
Herb also quotes Buddha approvingly: “Buddha said, ‘Death is not to be feared by someone who has lived wisely.’” We hear another reference to Buddha as well—someone Herb implies that he knew. Another interfaith suggestion is made when Audrey ends up in a romantic relationship with Gabe, her dad’s assistant from work and a man who’s outspoken about his Jewish heritage (and who wears a kippa). We see that Gabe goes to Audrey’s Methodist church with her.
Joe says that most religions have “something like the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule—no expectation of reciprocity.” For the most part, the story’s spiritual content draws from that tradition. We hear quotes from Psalms, Job, Romans 5:3 (“Rejoice in our suffering”), 1 Corinthians 10:13 (“No temptation has overtaken you that is uncommon to man. God is faithful, he will never allow you to be tested beyond your ability”).
That said, the only direct reference to Jesus is a use of his name in vain (which I’ll get to below). Instead, Herb says he’s been sent from the “Almighty Lord.” And later Joe abbreviates that to say, “I’m a disciple of A.L.”
There are multiple references to the burning bush. God jokes about it in His first computer message to Joe. We hear Exodus 3:14 translated and spoken in this way three times: “I will be who I will be.” The dove (the Holy Spirit) grabs a golf ball in mid-air and drops it into a bush, which spontaneously ignites.
We hear a couple of messages emphasize faith in a general way and even seem to focus on having faith in ourselves. Herb tells Joe, “And remember, faith is the belief in the right to believe in yourself.” Elsewhere, he adds, “My part in this mission, Joe, is to get you to trust and believe. And your part is to turn that self-doubt right there into faith.” One of Sandwich’s messages reads: “Sometimes we forget to remember what we have known all our lives. Such as the power of faith to fill us with the power to change our lives in an instant of revelation.”
[Spoiler Warning] Late in the film, Herb says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last He will stand upon the golf course.” Joe, still struggling with his faith at that point, sarcastically suggests that his “Redeemer better show up.” Which prompts Herb to reply: “I’m here. Welcome back, son. I love you.” Apparently, Herb has been God or Jesus all along, which all of the main characters recognize (albeit without the kind of reverence you might expect from that revelation).
Joe and Sheila kiss pretty passionately on a number of occasions. Another couple shares a similarly impassioned smooch. Several women wear tops that reveal cleavage.
Some viewers may wonder if Herb wearing a bright, rainbow-colored corsage and rainbow pants is intended to be seen as an inclusive message, though the film never explicitly connects those dots; Herb’s outfits are different throughout the remainder of the film.
We see a brief funeral that indicates Joe’s son-in-law died while serving in the Armed Forces. We also see a longer, poignant funeral that includes a little pink casket. A scene later takes place in the cemetery.
The only other violence in the film has to do with Archie ramming or throwing golf clubs into the ground when he’s frustrated with his game.
Joe exclaims, “What the h—?” then turns to Herb and jokingly says, “Pardon the satanic reference.” After one golfer loses to Joe in a tournament, he yells, “Jesus, Moses and Mary.” Sheila replies, “Love that group.”
Joe also says, “Oh my god” at one point, to which Herb says, “Yes, exactly, oh your God.” There’s an additional misuse of God’s name that way later.
Joe and Sheila enjoy wine at dinner a couple of times. A sports announcer says he’s never seen anyone act so silly on a golf course who wasn’t drunk.
Someone passes gas loudly. There’s a joke about the dove “pooping” on Joe’s head, and another about a wedgie. Someone makes a joke about a “fart in a spacesuit.”
I have to confess, Walking With Herb (screened by Fathom Events at theaters nationwide April 30, May 1 and May 3) left me scratching my head a bit.
On one level, this film comedically delivers a message that I think the vast majority of Christians would say amen to: We must trust God with the tragedies and great questions of our lives, relinquishing our bitterness so that we can make a redemptive contribution in the lives of others. I love that message, and it’s one that I need to take to heart personally each and every day.
But there are some surprising issues here that I can’t ignore. Jesus is never clearly mentioned. And while that doesn’t have to be a litmus test for what makes a Christian film, the fact that the Buddha is referenced a couple of times certainly highlights Jesus’ absence (save one misuse of his name!) here. Pair that with confusing dialogue about having faith in yourself—or perhaps faith in faith—as well as visual allusions to other religions, and I think you could walk away with a quiet emphasis on universalism here as opposed to the uniqueness of the Christian gospel.
I can’t say for certain that’s what was intended here. But at times, it almost felt as if the movie had been designed to bring a mostly Judeo-Christian message to the broadest number of people while alienating as few as possible. That’s a laudable goal, but not if the core message of the Gospel gets muddied or minimized along the way.
Families hankering for a faith-tinged George Lopez film (he plays Herb) can likely choose to navigate those theological concerns. But there are more of those concerns present here than I was expecting to have to navigate.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.