Category Archives: Evangelical Christianity

Heaven Is For Real: Reflections on the Movie

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.



Christmas Wars

I think it is worse this year.

More and more “Christian” groups are stridently demanding that Christmas be celebrated as the remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ and are opposing what I refer to as “secular Christmas” celebrations.  One group, “Repent Amarillo”, has gone so far as posting a video of the execution of Santa Claus.

I observe that as a group loses influence within a culture, they often become more strident and work hard at regaining lost influence.  This is what I think is happening to religious conservatives.

I operate with the assumption that there are two Christmas celebrations.  One is firmly rooted in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  The other is a secular winter holiday with the same name.  When someone wishes me “Happy Holidays”, they are in fact being considerate because they don’t know which one (or ones) I celebrate.

Here is the kicker.  I celebrate both.  I don’t find that to be a problem at all.

What religious conservatives and Christmas “purists” don’t seem to recognize is that they continue to drive a wedge between Christians and non-Christians with their strident rhetoric.  When it gets to be an either/or situation, evangelism suffers.  Far better to use Paul’s example in Corinth when faced with the monument to the “unknown god”.  He shared with the people of Corinth what he knew about that unknown god … Jesus Christ rather than beating them over the head with their paganism.

The way Christians can claim Christmas is through that interpretive maneuver.  After all, it is a short step from the secular Christmas celebrations to the Christian celebrations, and when approached reasonably, most who observe the secular holiday are open to Christian interpretation.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

I didn’t know that there was a debate about this.  I should have known better.  Never underestimate the ability of some rigidly legalistic thinking people to find reasons everyone else is wrong.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?  An article distributed to participants in one of our men’s groups suggested that there are plenty of reasons the answer should be “No!”. (Unfortunately I don’t have the name of the author of the article.)

  1. The word Christmas doesn’t appear in the Bible.
  2. The celebration was not instituted by an inspired apostle.
  3. The date of Christ’s birth is disputed, and most certainly is not December 25th.
  4. December 25th was chosen in 440 AD to replace pagan worship of the sun gods.
  5. Pagan symbolism has been embraced in many Christian Christmas celebrations.
  6. Many Christian traditions pre-date Christianity.

The author of the article concludes with the following paragraph:

Well, you must answer this question for yourself: Should Christians observe Christmas? For me, I am not going to add holidays or observances of any type originating from men and pagan sun worshipping to the worship of the church. This includes the observance of Christmas as well as other holidays such as Halloween. Apart from the church, I personally observe Christmas as any other national holiday – no different from Halloween, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, or St. Patrick’s Day. In this rests my liberty: I may personally observe anything good and moral unto the Lord (Rom. 14). But the minute I make my liberty part of the work and worship of the Lord’s church thereby transgressing the doctrine of Christ (I Cor. 4:6; II Jn. 9), I worship the Lord in vain – “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).

<Insert slow head shaking here>

There were two powerful and compelling arguments for the celebration of Christmas by Christians discussed at our men’s group that I think trump this unknown author’s reasoning.

First, why should we worry about Christianity “baptizing” and adopting for itself pagan practices, when each of us are “baptized” and adopted into the body of Christ “while we were yet sinners”?  Baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit makes the profane holy (called santification).  I am taken as a sinful and unclean person and made holy.  We can do likewise with symbols and signs that are relevant.  Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.  What more powerful time in the Northern Hemisphere is there than late December for the realization of this truth?

Second, the institution of the celebration of Christmas in the 5th century corresponds (if the unknown author’s dating is accurate) to a real tension in the church related to the doctrine of Christ’s “substance”.  There is no better way I know to affirm the incarnation of God in human flesh than to celebrate a birth.  Mary is the god-bearer.  The celebration of the birth of Jesus reminds us of his human nature, and at the same time, the miracle of it all reminds us of the divine nature.  Christmas (literally meaning the mass celebrating the birth of Christ) then is a holiday helping us keep the paradox of Christ being fully human and fully divine intact.

Oh, by the way unknown author … “Easter” doesn’t appear in the Bible either.

Pondering Pastor

James Dobson’s Sinful Actions

Regular bloggers know that there are times when the blogging enterprise becomes a chore and a lapse into infrequent blogging occurs.  James Dobson and the Focus on the Family organization has committed such an egregious sin that it needs to be brought to the light of day.

In a recent Action Letter, Focus on the Family has posted a “letter” proporting to be from a person from October 2012 describing the consequences of 4 years of an Obama presidency.  The “cover letter” maintains that these are natural consequences of the policies Mr. Obama has proposed.

AP religion writers Eric Gorski and Rachel Zoll have summarized portions of the letter in this way:

  • A 6-3 liberal majority Supreme Court that results in rulings like one making gay marriage the law of the land and another forcing the Boy Scouts to “hire homosexual scoutmasters and allow them to sleep in tents with young boys.” (In the imagined scenario, The Boy Scouts choose to disband rather than obey).
  • A series of domestic and international disasters based on Obama’s “reluctance to send troops overseas.” That includes terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that kill hundreds, Russia occupying the Baltic states and Eastern European countries including Poland and the Czech Republic, and al-Qaida overwhelming Iraq.
  • Nationalized health care with long lines for surgery and no access to hospitals for people over 80.

Gorski and Zoll have not lifted out the most astonishing “predictions”, but theirs is a rather tame summary of the 16 pages of fear-mongering.  Appealing to their audience, the letter describes governmental intrusion into Christian ministries like Christian schools, Christian adoption agencies, & Christian broadcasting, mostly because of their positions on homosexuality.  Laws relating to broadcasting of pornography are abolished, therefore porn is on television 24 hours a day.  Christian books are no longer sold by large bookstore chains.

Why did this all happen?  The letter says this … “Christians didn’t take time to find out who Barack Obama was when they voted for him.  Why did they risk our nation’s future on him? It was a mistake that changed the course of history. ”

Whether or not one is a supporter of Barack Obama, this technique is not appropriate for “Christians”, as it is a huge violation of the 8th commandment, “You shall not bear false witness of your neighbor.”  James Dobson and Focus on the Family need to be held accountable, rather than hiding behind their “disclaimer”.

The entire letter is written as a “What if?” exercise, but that does not make it empty speculation, because every future “event” described here is based on established legal and political trends that can be abundantly documented and that only need a “tipping point” such as the election of Senator Obama and a Democratic House and Senate to begin to put them into place.

This is disengenuous Mr. Dobson.  One only has to look at the Boy Scout example.

  • Boy Scouts of America has in place some of the most stringent child protection policies in our country.  Adult scout leaders do not share tents with children.  Scoutmasters are not “hired”.  There are already gay adult scout leaders.

Is Dobson positioning himself and Focus on the Family as the “savior” should Obama be elected?  It makes me wonder.

Pondering Pastor

Victoria Osteen Trial – Day 1

The lawsuit trial accusing Victoria Osteen with assault against Sharon Brown, a flight attendant, began today in Houston.  Opening statements were the order of the day, according to Brian Rogers of the Houston Chronicle.

The truth is somewhere in between?

From Ms. Osteen’s perspective:

As her husband, celebrity evangelist Joel Osteen, sat by her side, Osteen’s attorney said she didn’t yell at the Continental Airlines flight attendant and never touched her. Hardin said Osteen, who was with her husband and children, asked for napkins to clean up the mess, then had a brief verbal confrontation with Brown before returning to her seat.

From Ms. Brown’s perspective:

Sharon Brown will testify that Osteen grabbed her by the shoulders, pushed her into a restroom door and elbowed her in the chest, her attorney said.  “They were doing their job,” Reginald McKamie said of the flight attendants, at whom Osteen is accused of yelling. “They were protecting the passengers, they were protecting the crew, they were protecting the plane.”  McKamie said two flight attendants stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the cockpit door to block Osteen, who tried to get in to talk to the pilot.

From this not so casual observer:

  1. These days, you don’t try to get into the cockpit to talk to the pilot for any reason, no matter who you are.  It puts everyone at risk.  You have no business in the cockpit unless invited in (and there are rules about that also!)
  2. Any event onboard an airplane that delays the flight 2 1/2 hours is significant.
  3. Federal Aviation Regulations require all passengers to comply with flight crew instructions.
  4. Entitlement does not come from first class seating, traveling with family, or how big the church is that you lead.

As I’ve said before, I think Ms. Brown has gone overboard with this lawsuit, but I believe Ms. Osteen bears significant responsibility.

The judge expects that the trial could last up to a week!  Those are our taxpayer dollars at work!

Pondering Pastor

No apology! What it costs!

In my post yesterday about Victoria Osteen, I neglected to mention that Sharon Brown, the flight attendant suing Ms. Osteen, is also asking for an apology.  Apparently Ms. Osteen’s demanding behavior resulted not only in this alleged assault, but a 2 1/2 hour delay for the flight, the Osteens not being permitted to remain on the flight, and a $3000 fine from the FAA.  We all know how these things can get out of control, and how those who provide care for others are often treated poorly.

The demand of an apology is a demand that one being treated as inferior be recognized as having value.

Too often, today’s apologies fall far short of that.  I’ve written about the apologies of Michael Vick, Larry Craig, John Hagee, the producers of Desparate Housewives, Bill Belichick, Southwest Airlines, and Mattel.

Only time will tell about the nature of any apology from Victoria Osteen.

Pondering Pastor

Victoria Osteen

For the most recent news (August 7th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – Day 1

For the most recent news (August 8th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – Day 2

And, I learn she testifies (August 8th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – She Testifies!

For the most recent news (August 12th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – Day 3

For the most recent news (August 13th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – Day 4

For the most recent news (August 14th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – To the Jury

And finally (August 15th) Click here: Victoria Osteen Trial – Verdict

The AP is reporting that a jury has been seated in the lawsuit against Victoria Osteen, spouse of popular televangelist and author Joel Osteen.  The lawsuit alleges that Ms. Osteen assaulted a flight attendant.  I personally have little doubt that the assault happened, but like many lawsuits, I think the plaintiff overstates damages and is pretty bold in the amount being asked for compensation.

Sharon Brown alleges the assault happened before a flight in 2005.  Brown says that Osteen threw her against a bathroom door and elbowed her in the left breast during an angry outburst over a stain on her first-class seat.  The Federal Aviation Administration fined Victoria Osteen $3,000 for interfering with a crew member. The FAA report states Victoria Osteen asked another attendant to clean a liquid on her first-class seat armrest. When that attendant said she would get another flight attendant, Osteen grabbed a second flight attendant and took her to the seat, the report said.  The second attendant said she would call cleaning personnel and headed to the cockpit, the FAA said. Victoria Osteen followed her and came across Brown, whom she pushed and elbowed in an attempt to get to the cockpit, according to the report.  Brown’s suit claims the flight attendants asked to have Victoria Osteen removed from the plane. Hardin says Victoria Osteen and her family left voluntarily. The incident delayed the flight about 2 1/2 hours.

OK, so far, pretty believable.

And then, Brown claims that she suffers from anxiety and hemorrhoids [emphasis mine] because of the incident and said her faith was affected. She is also suing Osteen for medical expenses for counseling.

The requested judgment?  Ten percent of Victoria Osteen’s assets!

Kind of reminds me of Fancy Pants!

Brown doesn’t do herself any favors with her suffering.

The real news in this case is whether or not the jury can provide a fair judgment.

Pondering Pastor

PS – Additional post about Ms. Osteen here.