Eternal paradise is all well and good, but the notion of spending the afterlife floating on clouds while wearing white gowns, halos and playing the harp doesn't thrill people like it used to. Even organized Christianity, a wide swath of society not known for picking up on shifting cultural cues, are keen to this fact. Book studies, Bible studies and a general re-prioritizing of the promises of the afterlife versus the value of focusing upon the here and now have come about, apparently rejiggering deep-set notions of heaven within the church. The new Christian-baiting studio release Heaven Is for Real
, starring Greg Kinnear as a small town pastor grappling with what the realities of heaven might be, attempts to key in on this.
Meanwhile, Christian films still suck. At least, that's what everyone thinks, a perception quite largely brought upon themselves. I don't know any Christians who are excited to see Heaven Is for Real. And considering that Christians are its one and only target audience, this could be perceived as a problem. But, never mind that Heaven Is for Real is in fact not at all worth seeing - people are seeing films of this ilk. Recent surprisingly decent box office totals prove it, as several other recent Christian movies to have done surprisingly well. (God's Not Dead, Son of God, Soul Surfer, etc.) And just to be clear, by "Christian movies", I mean the kind of pedantic, faith-driven, based-on-a-true-story wholesomely bland comfort food for the flock, designed to be "inspirational","uplifting", and maybe momentarily convicting in that way a good sermon is. It's enough to make us lament out loud, "God help us, this is still what happens when Christians pick up movie cameras??" (For the record, it's not necessarily. The documentary Blood Brother, is just one off-the-radar example of a competent film of Christian conviction; it stands as one of the best of 2013.)
After 100-plus years of the trepidatious, antagonistic dance between cinema and institutional Christianity, the church has been intuitive enough to understand the appeal and powerful potential of narrative movies. Some churches have cultivated a cottage industry, churning out morally upright visual tracts, many of which star Kirk Cameron. Not that there's anything wrong with making movies to appeal to specific people groups - it's long been Hollywood's true bread and butter, even as the most massive of mass appeal is the grand goal. This is just one way that the movies and religious practice resemble one another.
But this brand of Christian cinema, as perpetually stunted as it is, fails to truly engage its core audience, opting instead for "preaching to the choir". If tough questions are asked, they'll be answered by the end. If the film is like Heaven Is for Real, they will be answered by the film's title. Then, for the climax of the film, they'll be unpacked from a church pulpit for good measure. (Ironically, Heaven likely runs the risk of being labeled too etherial, too indefinite for some staunch fundamentalists.)
For all its talk of heaven, the movie is in actuality about depicting a comfortable, familiar and agreeable version of reality - in this case, a sprawling midwestern flyover utopia made up of salt of the earth congregants who exist on the same spiritual page (including Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale). And although a question about the validity of heaven is kicked around for much of the film's running time, it's never really about that question. The challenges of good cinema are forsaken in the interest of the challenges of the church. But Heaven Is for Real is, technically speaking, a movie...
Except, it's not. For the reasons detailed so far, and more, Heaven
is a series of events placed in a particular place and time, eventually gathering moss with the fallout of one event. That event is a lucid near-death experience of a cherubic four year old boy, Colton (Conner Corum). During an intense (and out of left field) surgery sequence, Colton nearly dies (but doesn't), visits heaven, meets Jesus (who looks like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips), and comes back privy to all kinds of familial knowledge and private moments that could only be the result of the supernatural. ("I saw you yelling at God by yourself in that empty hospital chapel", he tells his dad, detailing a scene from only moments earlier in the film.) Colton innocently details moments he wasn't around to witness, and recalls a very specific Great Beyond. His father, pastor Todd Burpo (a real guy who wrote the book that this is based upon, and is played with an impressive professional commitment by Kinnear) is compelled to share his son's testimony publicly, even though he himself for some reason is struggling with it. The resulting uproar causes a schism in their church, and some sort of non-specific crisis of faith within Todd.
And this, among its many weaknesses, is the grand failing of Heaven Is for Real: On the yardstick of dramatic journey within the story, this character's arc moves him only about a half inch. He goes from being a devoted Christian family man and pastor to being a devoted Christian family man and pastor who believes his son saw heaven. For good measure, he repeats the account a lot, retelling the story to his wife (Kelly Reilly), then his buddy, then to the entire church in his sermon. For sure, having the patience of a saint may come in handy in making it through this film.
Screenwriter and Director Randall Wallace (who long ago got an Oscar nomination for writing Braveheart) never for a moment allows us to doubt that this angelic little tyke might be making it all up or hallucinating. Not once is it expressed or shown that Colten has an active imagination, which would cast reasonable doubt to his story, and maybe a lair of dramatic tension to the whole boring thing. But imagination isn't exactly a lauded virtue in this idealized world.
Like so many Christian films before it, Heaven Is for Real is "Based upon a true story". Sigh, sigh, exhausted sigh. After all this time of having the device of cinema - an apparatus that is capable, via the wonder of the moving image and persistence of vision, of allowing us to communicate the mysteries of our God-given psyches and our dreams, filmmakers of faith continuously refuse the potential that movie making offers, instead clinging to a maudlin something that trepidatious audiences of faith (those people skittish about venturing into a movie theater to watch a screen that very well may've housed the images of who-knows-what only a week prior) might find palatable, recognizable, safe. A perplexing fear of fantasy and the fantastic runs deep in this alarmingly strong segment of the faithful, so much so that every story told MUST bear that reassuring qualifier that it is, in fact, true. (Meanwhile, major Hollywood studios sidestep this people group altogether in adapting goldmine film versions of fantasy by Christian writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis - the Lord of the Rings films and the Narnia films, respectively.) They may profess that all truth is God's truth, whatever genre it arrives in, but they refuse to break out of the confines of "Based upon a true story".
Although Heaven Is for Real is unquestionably one of the worst films of 2014 so far, let's be thankful for its small mercies. For one thing, the film does display a modicum of courageousness in the way it visually and thematically grapples with the supernatural. For standard film audiences used to Noah, its etherial depiction of Colton's vision of Heaven won't likely register. But for the sheltered target demographic, those wispy clouds and flying angels might look awfully weird, maybe even dangerously speculative. Somehow, they got into this movie anyway.
Also, it's unafraid of showing a Christian marriage that has a sexiness about it. Amid moments of crisis and doubt, the couple find time to seduce each other, go out on a date - her wearing an eye-opening dress - and to flirt, a lot. Again, this may not exactly qualify as hot under the collar for mainstream audiences, but if this mild loosening up in the marriage department proves to be Heaven Is for Real's primary contribution to mainline conservative Christian culture, it can be considered a welcome baby step.