by Matt Sheedy
Heaven Is For Real is the fourth religion-themed film to appear in mainstream cinemas in 2014. Emerging in the still-frothy wake of Son of God, Noah and God’s Not Dead, it earned 22.5 million on its opening weekend, placing second to Capitan America: The Winter Soldier, and over 91 million to date worldwide. At the time of this writing, the book version of Heaven Is For Real (2010) holds the number one spot on the New York Times bestsellers list in the category of “paperback nonfiction” and has also reached top spot in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly, as well as in numerous Christian publications. This, it would appear, is not your typical “Christian drama film.”
The first thing that caught my attention about Heaven Is For Real is the logical proposition contained within the title. As with God’s Not Dead, we are instantly cued to the confessional nature of these films, which function discursively as counter-arguments by affirming the existence of God and heaven respectively. In this sense, they signify a reaction against real and perceived cultural enemies and present modern-day narratives of triumph over uncertainty.
By contrast, Son of God and Noah re-imagine biblical narratives in big (and bigger) budget fashion and attempt to appeal to a broader audience given the “historical” nature of their subject matter (i.e., as long-standing cultural narratives) and the (comparatively) less sectarian identities of their characters.
What I find most interesting in all of these films is not their “religious” content per se, but in looking at the ways in which cultural norms, values and preferences intertwine with biblical narratives in order to gain legitimacy for particular group identities, while at the same time appealing to outsiders in the interest of winning converts (to either a group or a particular theological interpretation) and cashing in at the box office.
In Noah, for example, (see my review here) modern ideals such as vegetarianism and ecology are projected onto the biblical narrative, which director Darren Aronofsky has referred to as the “first cautionary tale.” Regardless of whether the book of Genesis can be plausibly read in this way, there is no denying that contemporary values are being attributed to this ancient text. While this is perfectly fine as an act of storytelling and as a political and theological argument, it does not reflect the type of critical (scholarly) work of grappling with how biblical stories were understood and contested in and around the time they were written, nor their countless iterations over many centuries. Like all biblical stories re-presented for a popular audience, one task for scholars of religion is to tease out the ways that contemporary cultures attempt to align their own norms, values and preferences with ancient authority and in this way re-produce those narratives as a model for contemporary life.
While God’s Not Dead (see my review here) gained popularity online as an urban legend within American evangelical circles before its cinematic production, (e.g., see “Dropped Chalk” and “Malice of Absence”) Heaven Is For Real achieved mainstream success prior to its film adaption, which is perhaps why it was able to attract Hollywood actors like Greg Kinear in the lead role, along with director Randall Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for Braveheart (1995) and Pearl Harbor (2001) and has directed such previous films as The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and We Were Soldiers (2002).
Whereas God’s Not Dead takes place in an urban, cosmopolitan setting (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and depicts a young, Christian student challenging an atheist philosophy professor at a secular university, Heaven Is For Real is set in rural, heartland USA, (filmed just outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I’m currently living) where the challenge comes from within the community itself. While the former takes on a variety of perceived cultural enemies—Muslims, atheists, the “liberal media”—and sets up a series of “straw men” arguments to secure their defeat, the latter presents a “real life” miracle-narrative, based on the secondhand memoir of co-author Todd Burpo on his son’s “visit to heaven” and the subsequent challenges that he (pastor Todd) faced in telling this story to his congregation at Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska. Both films feature token black and Latino characters, while Heaven Is For Real goes so far as to affirm the existence of a white Jesus with bluish-green eyes and upholds the ideal of a strong, masculine Christianity.
After surviving a near-death experience in hospital, (then) four-year old Colton Burpo begins to recount to his father and, eventually, to his mother, his experience in heaven, which gains credibility for them after he reveals details that he couldn’t otherwise have known about, such as the physical appearance of his great grandfather and his mother’s miscarriage before he was born.
The story reaches its central conflict when pastor Todd decides to tell his congregation about his son’s experience in heaven, raising doubts within the community not only about Colton’s claims, but also about the sanity of their pastor and even the existence of heaven. Indeed, both the book and film have sparked a number of internal debates within certain evangelical communities over the biblical veracity of Colton’s story, in particular his claim that he pet Jesus’ multi-colored horse while in heaven. For some evangelicals his story has been deemed illegitimate because of such scriptural inaccuracies and is thus perceived as a threat to their identity. As one insider put it:
Readers not only get a twisted, unbiblical picture of heaven; they also imbibe a subjective, superstitious, shallow brand of spirituality.
Such debates over Biblicism hinge not only on questions of fidelity to scripture and prohibitions against describing God (Exodus 20:4-5) or heaven, (John 3:13) but also on insiders claims to the boundaries between superstition and reality. For example, another reviewer offers a quasi-scientific explanation about “drug-induced conditions of mind” in attempt to explain Colton’s visions, while at the same time suggesting that “Spirit entities, whose goal is to undermine the Word of God” might also be at play. These and related arguments should be of interest to scholars looking to determine how things like scriptural authority and the boundaries between “faith” and “reason” figure in contemporary American evangelicalism.
While these types of insiders narratives provide easy fodder for self-identified secular and atheist commentators, while also shaping the boundaries of their own identities, what I found most interesting about the film version of Heaven Is For Real (I am yet to read the book) is how it appeals less to Colton’s actual claims about heaven and more to what they represent.
While Pastor Todd is initially met with doubt from within his own congregation and derision from the broader community, he eventually wins them over, though not because they come to agree with his son’s claims, (these problems are left to the side) but because of his ability to come through his test of faith with certainty and conviction and translate its meaning in an edifying fashion—Jesus and heaven are not to be feared but are the embodiment of peace and love, where everyone is young and in a state of eternal bliss.
This more generic representation of Jesus and heaven has clearly appealed to many Christian viewers. As one reviewer writes:
Thanks to Colton’s simple narrative, young people can easily grasp and join the conversation about the important parallels to Scripture found in his experience.
But most of all, Heaven Is For Real is a comforting Noah’s Ark for Christians flooded with the enormous tide of anti-faith sentiment. What happened to Colton, real or otherwise, is held up as an air-tight faith message.
The reality of the experience and the interpretation of it as miraculous is a big part of faith literature that keeps the faithful excited and enthusiastic about God and the many miracles of life at His hands.
This sentiment is echoed by co-producer Joe Roth, who takes it one step further by suggesting that the film’s underlying idea of hope is meant to appeal to a non-Christian audience. This marketing strategy was also on display when the producers of Noah attempted to land a meeting and endorsement from Pope Francis in order to appeal to the lucrative Christian demographic.
The playful image that accompanies this post was included not only to stand out and catch the eye on social media, but is also meant to highlight what I take to be a fundamental aspect of the film’s success—that is, its ability to confront a significant challenge to certain Christian identities by presenting a modern day story of “proof” in the miraculous without really interrogating these claims at all–multi-colored horse or a cat riding a unicorn, it doesn’t matter. While the “miracle” ostensibly to serves to grant legitimacy to the underlying premise, the sleight of hand in the film that side-steps Colton’s actual claims ultimately succeeds (for some, at least) by presenting a palatable, pan-Christian narrative about the person of Jesus and the meaning of salvation, (heaven is peace, Jesus is love)–a notion that, evidently, many self-professed Christians can reconcile with their own identities.
Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.