Do you believe in Heaven?
Most studies show that 85-90% of Americans believe in some kind of afterlife they call Heaven. That is a high percentage of people to believe in anything. For comparison, some polls have that only 80% of Americans believe we actually landed on the moon in 1969. Heaven is doing pretty well in the court of public opinion.
The widespread belief in Heaven might be why the interwebs are all abuzz about the movie Heaven is For Real. I have been asked by several people over the past couple of days what I think about the movie. At first, I referred them to my review of the book a couple of years ago. Click here to read the review of the book. Yesterday, though, I broke down and bought my ticket to see the movie. I watched it in a theater filled with 70ish year old women. I sorta stood out.
Part One: The movie as a movie
The acting in the film was really great. Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly are great together and it feels like they’ve been married for years. It was good to see Thomas Haden Church again and Margo Martindale almost steals the show. Most people will point to the child actor, Connor Corum as cutely adorable and compelling in his portrayal of Colton Burpo, but I have high standards for kid actors and only rate him as average. In some parts of the movie he reminded me of the creepy kid from The Shining rather than the sweet boy from the book.
The movie is beautifully shot. Most of the filming takes place outside, which is nice.
The key problems with the movie was pacing, editing, and the screenwriting. Some of the dialogue, particularly that of anyone not Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly was either filled with clichés or weirdly over structured. I found this particularly with lines ascribed to Colton. I didn’t feel the movie came to a good conclusion either. It just sort of ended without any kind of resolution.
Watching the film I could tell there was a tension in the storytelling. I think the creative people knew that keeping as much of Colton’s experiences mystical was a positive. They didn’t want to show too much. The producers though, with their churchy agenda, needed to always explain everything and make sure there was no room for doubt as to what really was going on. What I am saying is that the movie explains too much, instead of letting things sometimes just hang there.
Overall I would give the film a C+ because it was slightly above average, enjoyable, and overall positive. It is the kind of movie you can take your whole family to and not have to worry about language, nudity, or violence. It was much better, than say, Iron Man 3 or American Hustle. Another plus for the movie is that it will spark conversation. That is always good.
Part Two: The movie as a theological/ecclesiastical vehicle
I believe in Heaven because Jesus said so in the Bible. I don’t need the movie to affirm it, however, that is major theological contribution of this film. It affirms the biblical belief in Heaven as place where Jesus is and that Heaven is possible because of Jesus. I like that part. The book does a much better job of processing Todd Burpo’s belief in the Bible with his son’s experiences. But books always do, because we don’t just have the narrative, we have the explanation. The movie misses some of that theological nuance.
If you came into the movie already believing in Heaven, you probably left with some level of warmth in your heart. If you came into the movie with doubt and skepticism, you might leave questioning those assumptions.
The movie does other theological things too. They let the dialogue of Kinnear and Reilly ezpress doubt and frustration about God and the nature of faith. Kinnear is very believable as an overly emotional bi-vocational preacher who doesn’t think about biblical exposition as much as moves from one emotional moment to the next. I’ve met a lot of pastors like that. The people in this film and the events in this film are more emotional than theological.
Church life is portrayed somewhat accurately. Although a lot of church personalities and issues are compressed into only a couple of people and covered fairly quickly. When Kinnear’s character is called before the board and his job is in jeopardy, I felt a certain pang because I know good people who have gone through great crisis only to be turned out on their ear by their church. Honestly, because I’ve seen inside the velvet rope, that part of the film had the most emotional impact for me.
I would not point to the movie as a theological exposition as much as it is an exposition of the Burpos’ life and experiences as well as an exposition of many people’s grappling with the nature of faith and the afterlife. Here it is important to keep this key thing in mind–whether it is about the movie Noah, Heaven is For Real, or any other film we must never rely on Hollywood for our theological insight. Hollywood is built to put butts in the theater. Our theology is built to change lives for eternity.
One more theological thing–because it is Hollywood, there is a very universalist bent to it. By that I mean, the assumption seems to me in the film that everybody goes to Heaven. That is not part of my belief system.
Part Three: Credibility
So much of this movie boils to whether you believe the kid or not? It is that simple. I just can’t believe that the dad intentionally made it up, but I also have hard time taking my gospel cues from a 4 year old. I am so thankful that I have the Bible as my guide and can look at a film like this objectively, knowing that ultimately our personal experiences are not what I rely on. I rely on the promises of God. It is possible that an overzealous dad took a few off handed comments from his son and lead him on, we all know that is possible.
I would like the story to be true, though. If it is true; then what is the key value for it? It is nothing more than what we used to call ‘testimony’ in the old days. Simply someone sharing, albeit with a large audience, what God has done in their life. I put it in the same category as someone who tells me that they dreamed about Jesus and he told them to do something specific. It happens all the time.
If it is not true, well, then that is not our problem. It is Todd Burpo’s.