Last weekend I took some friends to go see Heaven is for Real, the latest offering of mainstream Christianity on film.
The film recreates, as far as we know it, the actual experiences of a four-year-old preacher’s kid who had a supernatural vision of heaven while he was gravely ill. People are skeptical, and his family has to chose between their Family (capital letters for members of the Trinity) and his job at the church, where everyone is embarrassed and uncomfortable with a little boy with visions of heaven.
This is a very well-made film. The days of sub-par production values on excellent stories (Flywheel) are long past. Randall Wallace’s film has every touch of serious professionalism. Establishing shots, sets, casting, this film has it all.
Greg Kinnear plays poor family man (and pastor) Todd Burpo, with a sympathetic, strong, and sensitive character that every woman in the audience will compare to their own husbands, to their own husbands’ detriment. Young Connor Corum does a wonderful job playing Burpo’s son Colton. Thomas Haden Church (whom I’ve enjoyed ever since Wings) does what he does best as straight man and best-friend Jay Wilkins. Kelly Reilly is beautiful and charismatic as Burpo’s wife, but does not have much heavy lifting to do in the script.
Beautiful shots of the American farm country, a fantastic church building, a home the Waltons might enjoy, and background music that mixes orchestral work with CCM all combine for a constant drumbeat of emotional warm fuzzies. This film goes for the heart with all the subtlety of a Thugee priest in an Indiana Jones flick. Most time it works in the wonders, so well done that the blatant manipulation doesn’t overwhelm. The top-twenty list of touching emotional moments are all here: Tucking kids in at night, beating up bullies to defend The Family, kids overcoming their fears, mother’s tears when their children are sick, road trip songs, church softball games, honest handyman stories, emotional band moments, mourning the fallen soldiers… you get the idea.
Apart from the heavy-handed sentimentalism, this film is an excellent matinee choice. It is the film equivalent of a heated massage chair: powered, soothing, penetrating, and persistent enough to relax the stiffest muscles.
Now for the Medieval Lutheran breakdown of the film. Spoilers follow.
This film tries so very had to make me happy, but I walked out of the film as sad as I’ve ever been after a well-performed Hamlet.
Todd Burpo, as a character, demonstrates everything wrong with a popular, friendly pastor who fits right in with American culture everywhere he goes. He doesn’t preach about the Bible, he preaches about children’s stories, preaches about how dedicated people are, and how proud they are of their own courage and loyalty. Missing in the entire film: The concept that Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we could live forever.
You know… The Gospel, also known as how we get to heaven.
Burpo has, by context, led an entire funeral without ever once giving the soldier’s mother hope that she and her son would be united in heaven. What could he have spoken about, instead, since that is the New Testament’s commentary on the grief of loss?
He hasn’t preached the message that a worker is worth his wages, and it is the duty of a church to support those called to preach the Gospel whenever it is possible. That would be quoting St. Paul, you know, out of the New Testament.
When his daughter responds to verbal teasing by physical assault, Pastor Burpo doesn’t have a word to say about loving our enemies, about patience and kindness leading others to repentance, or even the words of somebody or other about turning the other cheek. Nope. Pastor Burpo wants to teach his daughter to punch better. So much for three more passages of the New Testament.
When his son Colton claims that he was taken up to heaven, Pastor Burpo questions whether or not it could be possible. So, he has never read, or never believed St. Paul’s claim that he himself was taken up into heaven, whether in body or in spirit he did not know. It is not even necessary to go past the very first book in the New Testament, where Jesus assures the lestes (thief/murderer/bandit) on the cross next to him that he would be with him that very day in paradise. Paradise… otherwise known as…. heaven?!?
Why find such things in the Bible when you can have a nifty praise and worship band and some track lighting for your pulpit? Basically Pastor Burpo until this moment has been the pastor of a church without preaching the hope of resurrection, the letters of Paul, the Sermon on the Mount by some dude named Jesus, or speaking about the atoning death of that same Jesus for our sins.
IF, and I stress if, Colton’s experience is from the Lord, I can see what the Most High would need a miracle to break through to Pastor Burpo’s skull to turn a focus towards…
Wait… Jesus said that if we didn’t listen to the Bible even people coming back from the dead wouldn’t convince us to repent…
And sure enough. Pastor Burpo goes to a secular, anti-Christian shrink instead of turning to another pastor. He uses Wikipedia to look up near-death-experiences instead of breaking open a Bible and seeing if anyone is in heaven (Jesus said that God is God of the living, not the dead, by the way, which requires the dead to be alive… somewhere… with God… um… I will remember the name of it in just a second.)
So, naturally, Pastor Burpo neglects to do the one thing he is commanded to do in the face of a spiritual supernatural explosion. He never tests the spirit behind the revelation. There are angels of light!!! No need to remember (if Pastor Burpo ever read it) that Satan likes to use that disguise, because they sang pretty music.
[Folks, if there was ever a single scene to sum up the problem with America’s failing church, it would be when Angels show up not with a word or message from God, but pretty music. God doesn’t send messengers, he sends a praise and worship band. That’s how you know it’s from Jesus because they sound like a keyboard synthesizer playing major chords…]
Yes, folks, even though I believe that young Colton saw everything that he said he saw, I am still not sure if he went to heaven. Every single thing he saw in his vision could have been provided by The Enemy and demons. Pretty sure demons of whatever rank like to play dress-up to get you to trust them, or anything but God, his Son, and his Word. Angel of light? We’ve got that suit. Space alien abduction? Sure thing. People see amazing visions of past lives in hypnosis (originally taken from German shamanism. Do the research.) NO demon could have possibly been around while the Burpo family’s baby was dying, or seen Todd’s grandfather when he was young to pretend to be the right person. No demon has ever appeared claiming to be Jesus… wait… Jesus said that exact thing was going to happen!!!
Modern Protestants beat up on the Catholic church for the doctrine of purgatory, but they love this film. Folks, the idea of purgatory got started when a man in Roman times, waiting to be executed, told his dream about heaven (including purgatory) to other Christians (who like Pastor Burpo never bothered to test the spirit) and the rest is history. So this is exactly the same theological process, divorced from God, dependent on supernatural special effects, totally driven by emotion, untested in spirit, and changing the doctrine of the church (didn’t the Bible say something about demons preaching false doctrines?)
For example, it didn’t make it into the film but in the book young Colton fills his father in that all the males in heaven will have to fight for Jesus.
Um… what? What happened to the prophecy that in heaven we would train for war no longer? On one hand I have God’s Word. On the other hand, the very real, potentially poisonous experiences of a four-year-old boy. Now, the Bible is nowherer near as adorable as Connor Corum’s portrayal of Colton Burpo, but I’m going to plant a red flag on that, and remain in doubt.
That’s what made me sad. I walked out of the movie theater with a bunch of Christians who bubbled about how wonderful the movie is. They didn’t notice the total lack of the Gospel. They noticed the supernatural experiences. They cheered as the pastor betrayed the teachings of Christ and cheered on his violent daughter’s betrayal of the teachings of Christ. They never noticed that the church was not obeying the call to support their pastor. I heard no one but my good friend whose blog I have already quoted here on this film, mention anything theologically wrong with this film at all.
Folks, many more “Christian victories” like this film and I’m going to believe that Satan is not waging war against the church in America. He has already taken it out. Oh, the Christian heartstrings and hormones are working just fine. It doesn’t matter that everyone’s ignoring or ignorant of God’s Word. We can ID him from a painting and spend time with The Holy Family (ours, not God’s). Isn’t that what it’s really all about?
Satan has apparently shot the American church right between the eyes, where it was already too numb to feel the blow.
But seriously, this movie is pretty, enjoyable, and perhaps usable as a teaching tool to discern truth in the popular culture.