There is something about the spring that brings out religious themed movies. This year (2014) we’ve seen three released in quick order; Noah, God is Not Dead, & Heaven is For Real. One of the things I like least about being a pastor is that I’m expected to see these movies. They stir up a lot of questions and if I’ve not seen them, I will be clueless about how to respond. I’m able to duck most of them. This year’s crop is harder. Having said all that, I attended a matinee showing of Heaven is For Real particularly because I’ve heard that so many people I know are interested in it.
The movie is based on the very popular book (Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back) by Todd Burpo, published in 2010. It is described as a true story. I have no idea how closely the movie follows the book, and frankly, I don’t intend to find out. Maybe the movie follows the book very closely and the book follows the experience of the Burpo family accurately. If so, then some of the comments below take on a different meaning. I’ll simply assume that like most movies, liberties are taken.
I’m not a movie reviewer. This post will not focus on the performances or the other things common to movie reviews. Others can do that much better. What I will do is make observations and ask questions that come out of theological reflection. In that way, I hope this is a useful tool, and relatively unique. You see, movies like this shape our theological understanding of the world, often more than scripture does. Without good questions, we are likely to simply take these at face value.
An aside: I thought taking notes in a dark movie theatre would be a lot easier than it was.
Why is this “event” described as “a trip to heaven and back”?
Colton Burpo (age 4) nearly dies as the result of a burst appendix and has an “out of body” experience during his operation. It is made quite clear that he does not die at any point during that operation. He later has at least 2 (maybe 3) other experiences of “heaven” that most people would easily call, “visions”. These visions serve to reinforce his original experience. Why wasn’t this simply called a “vision of heaven”? That’s what it was. I’d be able to defend a vision of heaven very easily with the evidence presented. An actual visit to heaven has too many other problems.
What does this description suggest about who we are?
To say that Colton visited heaven is to subscribe to a type of dualism of body and soul that is not scripturally sound. The distinctions between flesh and spirit we see especially in Paul’s writings describe “passions” or impulses rather than our identity. The body spirit/soul distinction is dismissed out of hand in our creedal confessions of bodily resurrection despite what our culture might confess. I’ll simply suggest again, this is a problem with calling Colton’s experience as a “visit” rather than a vision.
What does this description suggest about heaven?
Popular culture describes heaven as a place where the dead person’s “soul” lives on with God. It describes heaven as a place existing now separate from the earth. The movie and the described experience reinforces popular culture’s description, not scripture’s description of heaven. (I’d be more willing to trust that this was a “visit” if it conformed to scripture’s description than popular culture’s.) I’m just going to leave that there, because scripture’s description of heaven is much more complicated and nuanced than I can do justice with here. Suffice it to say, the book of The Revelation does not describe the kind of heaven Colton describes.
Does God really control each and every event on earth?
The movie wrestles with God’s justice and mercy as a sub-plot. To its credit, it doesn’t resolve this question. God is seen as the cause for death and suffering (testing) but this is challenged appropriately.
Why does Jesus have to wear a robe and be a blue-eyed European?
How long will we continue to make God/Jesus into our own image? The movie presents a blue-eyed, brown-haired Jesus as fact. That’s how Colton saw him. That’s how the girl in the opening scene who has had similar experiences draws him. The overarching conviction of the movie is that this is exactly what Jesus looks like. That’s idolatry. Had I been at home watching a DVD of this movie my vocal chords would have been engaged pretty loudly.
Why the potshots at Universities, professors, secularists, and women?
As Todd Burpo wrestles with whether or not Colton’s visit was real, he goes to a University professor to get an idea about any alternative explanations. When he gets what he is seeking, he dismisses it completely, presumably because the person he asks is associated with a secular university, is still in grief over her husband’s death, is a non-believer, and, it seems, is a woman to boot. The whole University scene is cast in dark hues and the scene is full of elements that cause discomfort in the viewer of the movie. Clearly Todd Burpo has wandered into “enemy territory”. Women are the prominent purveyors of doubt and alternative explanations in this movie. Todd’s wife gives a reasonable, logical explanation of Colton’s vision, opposes telling anyone of the vision, and is only finally convinced of Colton’s vision when he tells her something she has never told him. Nancy Rawling is the first to suggest that they dismiss Pastor Todd from the church and that no one wants to hear what Todd preaches anymore. (Yeah, that’s right, Todd is a pastor. That gets left out of the promotional material I’ve seen for the movie.)
Why does the conclusion drawn by Todd Burpo in the movie’s final sermon dismisses his son’s experience?
For a book/movie about visiting heaven, the conclusion doesn’t fit if the purpose is to declare that heaven is a real place. In fact, the resolution that Todd comes to is that all of us have the ability to see heaven around us. It was very anti-climactic. I felt cheated by the ending, especially as Todd defends Colton’s visit to heaven throughout the story. One has to remember that the story is about Todd and his struggle with his son’s experience. It is not about his son’s experience.
What does this film say about the nature of the church?
The congregation is a key part of this story, but it is not a healthy congregation. In comparison, the volunteer fire department seems to be healthier. The congregation is quick to disappear as the pastor struggles. It seems that Todd is popular and attendance is tied to that popularity. Todd is not compensated properly, this is never resolved in the movie. There is some good person to person care demonstrated. The Board consisted of two strong personalities and one silent member. The church itself was never presented in a favorable light except as the location of a vision and the place where Todd redeemed himself.
Other quick observations
I was surprised by the references to intimacy between Todd and his wife, although it was portrayed as her power over him.
I appreciated the landscape scenes of rural Kansas.
So, do I recommend this film? No.
If you see it though, I’d recommend talking about the questions raised here, and those you might have from your own reflections.