Bart Millard (with Robert Nolan)
I Can Only Imagine: A Memoir
W Publishing, Nashville, 2018
ISBN-13: 978-0785216735

I Can Only Imagine Book

 

“My dad was a monster,” Millard recalls telling Christian music legend (and personal hero) Amy Grant as he explains where the song I Can Only Imagine came from. “I mean, that’s the only word for it.  And I saw God transform him from the man I hated into the man I wanted to become, into my best friend. This song was born out of that experience.”

While it’s billed as the “story behind the song”, Bart Millard’s memoir – which charts his story from growing up in a household where he was physically and emotionally abused by his father to his days with the world-renowned US Christian band MercyMe – is a powerful testament to the ever faithful transforming grace and love of Jesus Christ.

The book’s release accompanied the release of the film of the same name earlier this year (which stars J Michael Finley as Bart and Dennis Quaid as his father) and both focus in particular on how Millard came to write the hit song – on both secular and Christian charts – I Can Only Imagine.

Coming from a broken home, it charts the abuse Millard suffered at the hands of his father Arthur Millard, Jr, a one-time football star who had probably suffered a significant brain injury when he was hit by a truck as a young man and woke up eight weeks later “with a new personality”.

The abuse, including being repeatedly beaten, having a dinner plate broken over his head, and being told by his father time and again that he didn’t care what Bart did with his life, reached such a degree that Millard recalls wishing his father was no longer part of his life.

Yet God was at work and after his father was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 44, his faith in God was renewed and he underwent a dramatic transformation into a new man. And not only that, his relationship with Millard was restored.

“My dad was a monster,” Millard recalls telling Christian music legend (and personal hero) Amy Grant as he explains where the song I Can Only Imagine came from. “I mean, that’s the only word for it.  And I saw God transform him from the man I hated into the man I wanted to become, into my best friend. This song was born out of that experience.”

Millard, who became a founding member of MercyMe a few years after his father’s death, recounts how he wrote the famous song in 10 minutes while on MercyMe’s bus heading back to Texas after a weekend leading worship at a student conference and notes that the lyrics remain unchanged from when he first wrote them.

“No tweaks. No changes. That was the only time in my history of writing that I’ve written a song, start to finish, in 10 minutes. I’ve heard such stories from my musical heroes, but it never came close to happening to me – until that moment.”

The actual phrase, I Can Only Imagine, came from a comment Millard’s paternal grandmother, known to him as 'Mawmaw Millard', made as they were driving away from his father’s funeral: “I can only imagine what Bub [her nickname for her son] must be seeing right now”, referring to the fact that he would now be with Christ in Heaven.

The story of how I Can Only Imagine came to be written is told in the second half of the book which traces the founding and development of Millard’s musical career with MercyMe as well as the development of his faith and how he came to marry his wife – and longtime friend - Shannon (although, as Amy Grant told him, I Can Only Imagine was actually a song he'd been writing his entire life).

The dramatic change he’d seen in his father has remained a powerful reminder to him of God's faithfulness throughout his career and has become something of an anthem for his life.

“In every interview about the song I’ve ever done, I’ve told the story about my dad,” Millard writes. "Imagine is an ongoing tribute to my heavenly Father and to my earthly father. Dad always told me he would be forgotten soon after he was gone, but his attachment to this song has kept his story alive. What a legacy!”