As the bus rolls west on Highway 90, concrete and high-rises give way to cotton fields and stores with names like "Cowboy Basics" and "Jimbo's Country Kitchen." Ramshackle billboards advertise hand-dipped ice cream and chicken-fried steak, while endless fields of cactuses and cattle watch lazily while the world goes by.

I silently wonder how to get to Utopia, a question many a dreamer has surely asked. According to a makeshift road sign all we have to do is cross West Squirrel Creek, take a right at the convenience store, cross the railroad tracks, and go straight for another 22 miles. One way or another we'll get there. I am traveling with about 25 journalists and critics to Utopia, Texas (Population 246) to visit the set of a new film titled Seven Days in Utopia. The drive alone speaks volumes about the vibe of the upcoming movie.

About 30 minutes later we arrive at "Utopia Golf," a sprawling, peaceful course nestled in the Texas hill country. The rustic yet comfy clubhouse is where we'll begin learning more about the project. The film is based upon the book, Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia, written by renowned sports psychologist Dr. David L. Cook. Cook, a very kind and gentle man, explains how the book came to be. A very successful mental coach for professional athletes and pro golfers, he also enjoys leading men's retreats. One day he was in an open pasture of his family's ranch, thinking and praying about an upcoming retreat. As he surveyed the landscape he noticed a seed bin; it was a 75 year-old antique that had literally become part of the terrain.

"I went over and lifted the lid of the seed bin," Cook recalls, "and it was about one-fourth full of seed that had never been planted. I reached my hand in there and watched the grain run through my fingers. The parable hit me hard." When the event finally came, Cook encouraged the men at the retreat to find the unplanted seeds in their own lives and fearlessly sow them. As he admonished the others he noticed that there was seed in his own hand, which prompted him to ask for divine direction. He says the answer came almost instantly: "I have called you to write."

Cook got the idea for the book about three weeks later after wandering on to a makeshift driving range near Utopia, Texas (which now, by the way, is the aforementioned nine-hole course.) Shortly thereafter he says the fictional tale was being poured in—or rather through—him. The story revolves around aspiring golfer Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black, Get Low) who blows it at an important tournament. (Side note: Black is apparently known as one of the best golfers in Hollywood, which producers say makes him a perfect fit for the role.) Reeling and distressed, Luke starts driving through Texas and ends up in Utopia where he meets eccentric rancher Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall, Get Low; Crazy Heart). What ensues is a friendship that completely changes not only Luke's paradigm, but also his life.

Changed lives, says Cook, are what he is all about. A devout Christian, he hopes that the film will impact millions of people across the globe, ushering them into God's kingdom. After Cook's sincere and earnest presentation, several from the movie's marketing team stand up to say that their aim is not only to support Cook's vision, but also to bring it to life. Citing the success of a recent stream of faith-based movies (The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, Facing the Giants) they contend that a demand for entertainment with explicit Judeo-Christian values is on the rise. And they believe that this trend is a golden opportunity to spread the Good News to moviegoers. Perhaps, they say, it will be the next Blind Side.

Everyone loves a redemptive story, and Seven Days in Utopia is clearly nothing less. But is this a "Christian" movie? It may depend on whom you ask. During an impromptu chat with us on the movie set, Lucas Black talks about a turning point that his character reaches in the film. Apparently there's a scene where he and Duvall are at a cemetery, and Black realizes that he needs to surrender his life to God. Prayer ensues. In an attempt to clarify what actually happens in the scene, a reporter asks Black whether or not his character explicitly receives Jesus as Savior.


Black, with a wry smile and a deep southern drawl, replies that if people don't pick up on that from the scene, there's something wrong with them. From that I gather that the story apparently explores Luke's faith journey, as well as his subsequent enlightenment, but it doesn't contain the "sinner's prayer" or present the "four spiritual laws." This begs the question: What exactly is a Christian movie? Some say it's one that embodies Judeo-Christian values. Others claim that a film isn't "Christian" unless there is a clear Gospel presentation. It's a complex issue to be sure.

We spend an entire afternoon mingling with the marketing team, the producers, the director, several PGA golf pros and the film's stars—including Duvall, Black, Academy Award nominee Melissa Leo (Frozen River), and The Hurt Locker star Brian Geraghty. Most of them are eager to talk about the story. A majority of my colleagues seem at ease with the implicit spiritual nature of the film, but a few are openly bothered by the fact that they perceive the writers/producers/actors/directors are "watering down" the message. And that brings up an interesting question: is there significant spiritual value in a story that doesn't spell out what it means to come to God through a relationship with Jesus Christ?

As we mill around and prepare for dinner at the clubhouse, I strike up a few conversations to that end. One woman points out that approximately one third of Jesus' teachings were parables, and that he rarely explained them or spelled them out. Simple stories about ordinary things, she says, were apparently transformed into life-changing truths. I ask another colleague if he thinks God can reach people through stories alone. "Yes," he replies. "I think sometimes we act as though everything is up to us. The Holy Spirit clearly had a part in the enlightenment of the masses when Jesus spoke in parables, and I think He still has the power to do that today—if we'll give him the chance." I pose the same question to another colleague, however, and he gently but firmly explains that an unwillingness to be explicit about the Jesus element dilutes the message. "If we don't tell them," he asks, "who will?"

Though all don't see eye-to-eye, we have interesting dinner conversation about such things. It remains to be seen how redemption will be portrayed in Seven Days in Utopia. And it also remains to be seen how people will receive it. Until the last edits are lying on the cutting room floor, probably no one will know what kind of an impact the film may have. My guess is that with Robert Duvall involved, it will somehow be powerful.

It is dark when we board the bus to return to San Antonio. We make our way down the aisle and slip into our spacious, comfortable seats. It would be easy to fall asleep; our bellies are full of Texas barbeque and we are tired from the heat. It has been a long day. The bus makes its way toward Highway 90, but now it's difficult to see anything but headlights. For about five minutes things are relatively quiet as we settle our belongings and fiddle with our phones.

I begin talking to the woman in front of me and before I know it there are about six or seven who have chimed in, and have inadvertently formed a makeshift circle. We are telling stories about our lives and it occurs to me that the only things missing are a campfire and maybe a marshmallow or two. We listen, we laugh, and we tell. And somehow by the time the bus rolls into the hotel driveway, I feel like I've picked up a new perspective or two. Funny how listening to someone's life can do that.



A release date has not yet been set for Seven Days in Utopia, which is still in production.  For more information about the film, the book or Dr. David L. Cook, please visit here.

Photos © Laura Jenkins 

**This article first published on September 10, 2010.