Hollywood these days is rolling out religiously-themed movies for the big screen with marquee name actors. So far we have seen Son of God, God’s Not Dead and Noah. Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale, will be released in December. Heaven Is for Real is the latest in this line-up of the faith-based genre.
Based on the bestseller of the same title written by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, the film focuses on the experiences of Burpo, a Wesleyan pastor in a small Nebraska town and his four-year-old son Colton, who has a near-death experience while he is undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.
Colton’s experience is unusual in that he does not die during surgery, which is the case with most near-death experiences. On the operating table, Colton sees himself being operated on and is then escorted to heaven by angels where he ultimately meets Jesus. Jesus then proceeds to take him on a quick tour, introducing him to some of Colton’s relatives including his great-grandfather and older sister who died in the womb. As Colton describes it, heaven is more beautiful than anything he has seen before. The remaining focus of the film shifts to his father’s struggle to make sense both personally and theologically of his son’s experience. This in turn has a serious impact on Todd’s congregation.
The movie paints a picture of a typical Midwestern farming community in which everyone, the Burpos included, is struggling to make ends meet. Todd pastors a small Wesleyan Church, but like so many contemporary churches, he must maintain a full-time outside job in order to take care of his family.
The Burpos seem like the proverbial all-American Protestant family. They are a likeable, young family who love each other, have two adorable, well-mannered children and who care about their neighbors.
Todd’s wife, Sonya, is a supportive pastor’s wife who conducts the church choir and quietly serves the members. In addition to running a carpet installation business and pastoring the church, Todd also is a volunteer fireman. Though small, the church appears to be growing, which the church attributes to their pastor’s theologically sound and spiritually inspired sermons and his natural people skills. The story takes place in a conservative town in the heartland of America with conservative values and a conservative theology.
The focus of the book is on Colton’s experience in heaven and the people he meets, but the movie focuses on the impact of Colton’s experience on his father and those around him. Todd is challenged by his son’s experience. He’s not sure if his son’s experience was real or a product of his imagination. And if he did visit heaven, were his descriptions really what heaven is like or did they stem from his experiences as the son of a pastor? He raises other questions most people ask when contemplating the spiritual world. “What really happens when we cross over into the spiritual existence?” “What is the spiritual world really like? Who will I meet first?” “Will I see any of my family who have passed on?”
The difference between Todd and most of us is Todd doesn’t just raise these questions in his thoughts or just with his wife, but also asks these questions from the pulpit with an interesting result. It makes many of his congregants very uncomfortable while others simply don’t know what to make of it. Many of them want clear answers to their questions and the others want their pastor to be forthright and confident in his responses to them.
The more the mass media enters into the picture, the unhappier his church is with him talking about these issues in the public arena. In fact, the members of the church board are so uncomfortable with everything that, at one point, they meet with Todd and tell him that church membership has dropped, his sermons are not the same as before, so maybe they should look for a new pastor unless he stops these theological musings and things return to normal. As in the way of many family-based movies, with prayerful theological reflection, Todd and his congregation find closure and are able to come to terms both personally and theologically with these vital questions.
I enjoyed the movie, and was relieved it avoided the temptation to offer saccharine or pat answers to the important theological questions it raised. The portrayal of Colton is natural, straightforward and honest. This added to the believability and credibility of not only Colton but of his experience. Randall Wallace, the film’s director, overcame the temptation in Hollywood to make Colton bigger than life and to over-dramatize or sensationalize his experience.
I also appreciated the attempt to focus on the questions all of us ask at some point in our lives. I cannot deny that I don’t reflect on these questions myself on a fairly regular basis. The more seunghwa (funeral) services I attend, the more I reflect on life after death. Certainly I had to address this issue recently when counseling my two nieces at the passing of their father after he had taken his own life. Cudos to Hollywood for at least opening up the dialogue on this issue and braving the market forces that traditionally opine that religious or faith-based movies cannot succeed in the pop culture.
The time is right for movies such as Heaven Is for Real. Though recent data from respected pollsters like Pew, Gallup and Barna note that the fastest growing “religion” is that of the “nones” – those who do not identify with any particular faith community or religion – this does not mean people are not asking the hard questions about life and death. People are worried and afraid that this may be all there is – that there is nothing beyond this life., At the same time, they inherently sense there must be something more than just our material existence. They just do not know what the “something more” is or if the next life is static or dynamic. They want assurance they will be able to see their loved ones again. They want to believe this isn’t all there is to life. They want to have hope that even if they made huge mistakes in life that those mistakes will be forgiven or at least they have another chance to make amends – even in the afterlife.
The official trailer for “Heaven Is for Real” (Sony Pictures).
An interesting side note from the film is Todd’s on-going curiosity as to what Jesus looked like., The modern Western Christian world has generally grown up with an image of a blue-eyed, English-speaking Jesus with fine, long-flowing hair. Throughout the movie, Todd shows different pictures of Jesus to Colton. Each one reflected images used by the diverse Christian denominations throughout the history of the church. With each picture, Colton simply said no, that was not the man he met. At the film’s end, Todd comes across a painting of Jesus created by a 12-year old Lithuanian girl who also had an experience with Jesus in the spiritual world. When Colton sees that painting, he clearly notes this was the man he met. This small point is what confirmed for me that Colton’s experience was real, as that is also the Jesus I experienced early in my church life.
I also appreciated that the film portrays some of the moments of honesty and realism that were experienced by some of the parishioners who were challenged by Colton’s experience. One such moment was a conversation between Todd and a leading church board member at the foot of her own son’s grave. She had not been able to come to terms with his death in Afghanistan and was still angry with God for taking him too early. Colton’s experience challenged her to the core. As a “faithful” churchgoing person, there were questions she could not or would not dare ask, yet they were always there right under the surface. Why her son? Why was Colton saved and not her son? Has her son been made physically whole again now that he is in heaven? How can God be called a “loving parent” when He seemingly takes away a mother’s only child? Fortunately, the film does not attempt to answer her questions but allows the audience to ask these questions.
In another scene, Colton’s mother, who seems to exhibit a strong faith throughout the film, had been dealing with her own private struggle and asking her own questions about what happened to her unborn and unnamed child after she miscarried. She was torn between being “faithful” yet afraid to voice her own fears and concerns about what her daughter was experiencing in the afterlife – if she was even in heaven. Was there a place for such children? When Colton describes meeting and being hugged by his sister during his visit to heaven, Sonya’s own healing process begins.
Cinematic history is replete with both fairy tale images and sci-fi notions of the afterlife. Hollywood has also been guilty of offering simple feel-good or “moral of the story” conclusions for movies dealing with profound issues such as life after death. Though the ending of Heaven Is for Real comes off as a bit simplistic – that heaven begins on earth with our ability to love one another – when it comes down to it, the most profound theological truths are not complicated. They are just difficult to realize.
“Heaven Is for Real,” rated PG, is now in theaters. Directed by Randall Wallace; written by Wallace and Christopher Parker, based on the book by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent; produced by Joe Roth and T. D. Jakes; released by TriStar Pictures. Running time: 100 minutes. Cast: Greg Kinnear (Todd Burpo), Kelly Reilly (Sonja Burpo), Margo Martindale (Nancy Rawling), Jacob Vargas (Michael), Connor Corum (Colton Burpo) and Thomas Haden Church (Jay Wilkins).
Dr. Kathy Winings is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Director, Doctor of Ministry Program, and Professor of Religious Education and Ministry at UTS. She is also the Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.
Photo at top: Connor Corum and Greg Kinnear in a scene from “Heaven is for Real” (Credit: Allen Fraser, Sony Pictures).