If you begin singing the tune “Amazing Grace” in church, on the street, or while sitting in a Starbucks, practically everyone around you would recognize the song. But if you asked those same people who John Newton was, they'd probably have no idea. And yet, the life of the slave ship captain turned Christian abolitionist and hymn writer is one of the most amazing lives ever lived.
That's why I was so thrilled last year to attend the opening night performance of “Amazing Grace”—a musical play about John Newton’s life—at Chicago’s Bank of America Theater. And I’m even more thrilled that “Amazing Grace” is now on Broadway. It should be—it’s one of the most incredible plays I have ever seen. It is a first-rate example of why Christians MUST become more active in the arts.
The musical tells the story of how young John Newton, a brutal slave ship captain, underwent a spiritual transformation when his ship nearly sank during a storm off the coast of Ireland in 1748. As the ship filled with water, Newton cried out to God to save him. After he’d returned to England, Newton eventually joined William Wilberforce in the long effort to abolish the British slave trade.
As a writer myself, I’m especially impressed with how the creators of Amazing Grace have created a story that’s historically accurate, but which also flows the way a theatrical musical production must flow. The young actor who plays John Newton, Josh Young, is a staggering voice and talent—in fact, he’s probably got the strongest voices I’ve heard on a stage.
Let me also say that the ending of the first act is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen in the theater. I won't spoil it for you, but it involves Newton's rescue from the storm that causes him to turn to God. The moment is visually magnificent, one of those things you’ll never forget and will tell everyone about once you’ve seen it. It's stagecraft at its finest.
The musical also does a great job describing the love story between John Newton and his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, who longs for Newton's conversion. But Amazing Grace doesn't sugarcoat the horrors of the slave trade, nor the role that Africans themselves had in selling their own people to white slave traders.
The play brings in God, but in such a way that playgoers will feel attracted to Him—so it's absolutely not a play only believers will be interested in seeing. Christians will love it, yes, but it's also the perfect play to bring a nonbeliever to. And that is incredibly rare.
At the end of the show, the entire cast and audience sing “Amazing Grace” together. And that is an experience I’ll never forget.
Chuck Colson often said that Christians must be engaged in the arts, because our gifts witness to the truth of God's love and salvation to people who would never think of setting foot in a church. In effect, their defenses are down, and their hearts more likely to be open to the truth.
Now, plays like "Amazing Grace" come along only about once in a decade at best. So take a trip to New York City, please. You need to go see it. And take your church youth group. Take your friends, and then talk about the play's meaning over a late dinner. Be ready to answer their questions about the hour YOU first believed, and the meaning behind those immortal words: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
Editor’s note: A version of this commentary first aired October 29, 2014.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: September 1, 2015