With all due respect, I disagree with my colleague, R.J. Moeller, who recently encouraged the Acculturated readership to go see the movie, Heaven is For Real, if at all possible. The film fell woefully short in value of the time and money my mother and I spent to see it in the theater last weekend. In my opinion, it is an utter disappointment for anyone interested in a substantive dialogue about Christianity and the afterlife.
Please understand: I am no skeptic. I had high hopes for this movie. I consider myself a Christian first and an intellectual second. Admittedly, these identities come into conflict—often. But that is the beauty of this world, as we know it. In my opinion, spirituality and science can never entirely coexist. The tension between the two is really the sweet spot: There’s too much risk in dogmatic thinking in either direction, and it’s also no fun without any risk at all.
Indeed, I argued in a post several months back: “The wonder of life is in its algorithm for risk.” We can never be too sure of ourselves, lest we stop trying. I am reminded of the Irish folklore regarding rainbows. I’ve tweeted before: We should be grateful for the leprechauns, for—on account of their mischief—we might one day find our own pot of gold.
Without meaning to sound too harsh, I found that Heaven Is For Real fell flat to the point of seeming intellectually lazy. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading another colleague’s account of the storyline for context.) There were several scenes that stand out as particularly uninspired:
1) Softball game: Pastor Todd Burpo breaks his leg early on in the movie during a community softball game. It appears that the screenwriter’s intent was to illustrate hardship. I can personally attest to this type of hardship: I broke my fibula two years ago, and it was a terribly debilitating experience that only recently gave way to normal functioning. My brother-in-law recently broke his arm and half the bones in his hand; it was equally devastating, if not more so. Todd’s big break, however, had no bearing on the rest of the movie. It led to back spasms in the middle of a sermon, but otherwise seemed immaterial in the storyline. It was an enormous missed opportunity. Maybe Todd was strong enough to withstand the mental rigor, or perhaps the break was minimally interfering. But a more intellectual approach would have interwoven more clearly the theme of brokenness in the movie’s message. Physical incapacity of any kind is a test of the human spirit. It would have been nice to consider the meaning of the adversity it represented.
2) Psychologist: Soon after Todd’s son experiences a near-death encounter with Jesus in heaven, Todd decides to enlist the support of a psychologist at a nearby university. Three problems with this interaction: 1) The psychologist was non-religious, a fact that Todd seemed unprepared to process—and quickly dismissed as no problem; 2) Todd’s son was not present at the meeting, nor was there any suggestion that the son be interviewed at any point; and 3) The psychologist—effectively the only representative of the scientific or intellectual community featured in the film—offered no compelling argument for her opinion that the boy’s encounter was entirely psychological. The exchange did very little to push the story forward, nor did it contain any element of suspense. It would have been helpful for audiences to witness a character that represented the genuine pushback that Christians often receive from academics and intellectuals. The flatness of the psychologist’s character left the audiences in a state of smugness. To add another meaningless element, the psychologist returned to the storyline at the end of the movie during Todd’s relatively impassioned and intellectually rigorous sermon. The camera quickly panned to her presence in a pew at the back of the church. She had no reaction, positive or negative, and that was the extent of her involvement in the final scene. There was no transfixion in her temperament and likewise, no transformation. Another disappointing missed opportunity.
3) Church board meeting: At one point, Todd has to come to terms with the fact that the community feels very uncomfortable with his decision to discuss his son’s otherworldly experience in his sermons. He is confronted by the church board, which includes two close friends with whom he shares a strong personal bond. The board members express their concern for Todd’s mental state, and they come across as cold and disingenuous in the process. In a rather contrived effort to create suspense, the two friends (who happen to be the only active participants in the conversation) decide to give Todd one more chance to make his sermon count. He acquiesces without showing much spine in the process, as though his identity and family’s welfare weren’t entirely tied up in the decision. It was a poor excuse to create drama and again, a missed opportunity to reveal the very important message. The theme of ambivalence—feeling torn between two very divergent goals—might have been better developed here.
This is not to mention the sexual tension that characterized Todd’s relationship with his wife, which bordered on awkward. Or his wife’s dismissal of her son’s near-death experience and aggressive overreaction to Todd’s concern, which bordered on violent (breaking glasses and plates in the kitchen). Or the community’s juvenile reaction to the events—everyone from the journalist who held a notepad up in the middle of a sermon to the kids on the playground who taunted Todd’s daughter (resulting in her knocking them out with two swift punches) to the fellow firefighters who taunted Todd in the local diner. It was all a bit much. It was too hokey, frankly, for me to take the message seriously.
Call me a party pooper. Call me a skeptic if you want. But I’m pretty convinced this movie did more harm than good in the sense of honest, intellectual debate between Christians and their critics. It’s a shame. We can’t rest in our smugness and expect the message to resonate. We need to try harder next time. If only to continue our search for the pot of gold that may or may not ever be found.