If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Recently I wrote for Acculturated about how Christian and Jewish movie audiences are casting a skeptical eye on Hollywood’s upcoming spate of Bible-based films like Noah and Exodus. They justifiably expect that Hollywood’s treatment of their faiths might be disrespectful, if not outright blasphemous. But there is one movie that – at least, based on its trailer – shows every evidence that it will score an unqualified hit with faith-based audiences and others – Heaven is for Real.
Based on the 2010 bestselling book by pastor Todd Burpo, Heaven is for Real stars Oscar-nominated Greg Kinnear, best-known for As Good as it Gets, Little Miss Sunshine, and You’ve Got Mail, as well as a ton of lesser-known off-beat flicks like Nurse Betty, Auto Focus and The Matador. Kinnear plays Burpo, whose 4-year-old son Colton stuns him and his wife Sonja (played by Kelly Reilly of Flight), with revelations of a visit to heaven in a near-death experience during emergency surgery for a burst appendix.
The movie trailer shows not a trace of condescension or ridicule for the characters, which is Hollywood’s default attitude toward believers, or at least toward Christians. The movie won’t be released until early April (and I’ll be reviewing it then), but I just finished the book, which is a very quick, engaging read.
It begins by describing a Burpo family road trip on the Fourth of July weekend 2003 from their home in Imperial, Nebraska to Sioux Falls. On that trip, Colton began casually relating unprompted and eye-opening details of a heavenly visit – about singing angels, Jesus’ appearance, deceased loved ones, and more – that tended to conform to biblical theology. The stunned parents gradually drew out more information from the 4-year-old, such as this vision during his operation:
I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone.
The parents had no answer for how Colton knew where they were while he had been under anesthesia in the operating room. Colton also shocked them with the revelation that he had met a sibling in heaven that he didn’t have on earth. The parents had never told him or his sister of Sonja’s earlier miscarriage.
This movie’s comforting message will resonate with many, as did the book, and it seems that it will give the underserved Christian audience an option it can trust at the cineplex. But it will assuredly draw criticism and ridicule from skeptics and disbelievers. It’s easy to dismiss Colton Burpo’s experience as anything from dream to hallucination to fantasy to religious indoctrination – anything but an actual visit to heaven. And in truth, healthy skepticism is a good attitude to adopt when presented with, well, any situation. Todd and Sonja Burpo themselves were skeptical and resisted sharing Colton’s message – that “heaven is for real” – for fear of the controversy and criticism from all corners that it inevitably would bring on the family.
But the fact is that all of us are ignorant of the realms beyond the narrow chinks of our caverns. To paraphrase Hamlet’s familiar lines, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in all our philosophies. Colton Burpo brought a childlike innocence to one of the most profound and mystical questions of our existence – is heaven real? Whether or not one believes his answer is real brings to mind the words of Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/11/14)