Several months ago, I wrote a blog article that got some traction, entitled “What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking”. In that article, I listed five things that I thought the church needs to do to give our filmmakers the freedom to make movies that can actually make a dent in the greater culture – which Christian-made films typically fail to do, for a multitude of reasons.
I’m in a bit of a conundrum about Heaven is for Real, the “faith-based” film I watched tonight. Going into it, I didn’t know much about the story, except that it was based on the best-selling book by the same name. My assumption was that this was another film produced by Christians for Christians, and that it would fit my five points perfectly. But research has shown that I was wrong.
Yes, there were Christians involved in the making of the film – megapastor T.D. Jakes is one of the producers, and screenwriter and director Randall Wallace (screenwriter for Braveheart, director for Secretariat) has spoken openly about his Christian faith in interviews – but the film was not made by faith-based production companies (unlike Son of God and God’s not Dead), and so it sort of balances on the edge of the point of my article.
Still, I think it’s valuable to take the time to look at the film, and to see how it did on my five points – and to see what we Christians can learn from this Christian film that was not wholly made by Christians.
As the opening credits roll, we see that that Heaven is for Real is based on a true story that happened to the Burpo family of Imperial, Nebraska in the early 2000’s. Todd Burpo (nicely played by Greg Kinnear) is a typical midwestern everyman who installs and repairs garage doors, coaches the high school wrestling team, volunteers with the local fire department, and pastors a small church. Todd and his wife Sonja (British actress Kelly Reilly) are in a loving relationship and have two young children, Cassie and Connor.
Over the course of the first act, we learn that the Burpo family has a pretty good life, filled with supportive friends in a quintessential small-town atmosphere (including a nicely understated performance by Thomas Haden Church). The family has ups and downs (broken bones, kidney stones, financial difficulties), but these challenges serve to bring the family closer together rather than pulling them apart.
The movie switches gears when, after a family getaway to Denver, four year old Connor falls ill. Todd and Sonja try to treat him at home until it becomes obvious that the illness is more serious than they thought, and so they rush him to the hospital. When they arrive, the doctors discover that he has had a burst appendix, and take him to the OR for emergency surgery. As the boy’s life hangs in the balance, Sonja gets on her cell phone and starts calling her friends for prayer, and Todd goes to the hospital chapel to pray, where he explodes at God for possibly taking away his son.
The boy recovers, and then Todd discovers that his son didn’t just sleep through his surgery, but apparently went on a little trip to heaven. Over the course of the film, Connor tells Todd what he and Sonja were doing while he was being treated, describes seeing and hearing angels sing, recounts spending time with Jesus (and Jesus’s horse), and relates meeting with various family members that he couldn’t have known.
This revelation shakes Todd to the core as he struggles to understand what his son has experienced and he is confronted with the actual reality of the heaven about which he has spent his life preaching.
Because of Todd’s openness about Connor’s experience, he is mocked by townsfolk, nearly loses his position at the church, and finds a wedge driven into his relationship with his wife.
What I liked about the film.
1. It was extremely well acted. Greg Kinnear, specifically, does a fantastic job leading us down the road of Todd Burpo’s crisis of faith. Kelly Reilly did a great job (loved her in Flight). Thomas Haden Church was underused, but is a joy to watch.
[A note to all the wealthy Christians who read this blog – this is the caliber of actor we should be helping our directors afford! Actors don’t have to actually be Christian actors to effectively play Christian roles. In fact, if they are professionals, they will enjoy the challenge of playing well-written characters of any background, and the Christians on the shoot might actually be able to share their faith in the process. So start writing those checks!]
2. The movie had one of the most realistic and complementary portrayals of a Christian couple of any movie I’ve seen. This is a pastor and his wife who are quite often hot for each other, and they aren’t afraid of showing affection. This is a couple that also loses patience and argue when they are upset with each other, demonstrating that yes, pastors and pastor’s wives are people, too.
3. The film was technically as good as any film out there. I was a bit concerned at first that the film would look like a made-for-tv film, but the cinematographer quickly took away that fear. It was a beautifully shot film.
Now, to the five points of my original article, the five things the Body of Christ can do to help filmmakers who are Christians make better films.
1. Allow the artist to take risks
Heaven is for Real is an extremely safe story based on an extremely safe novel. Ironically, this movie failed to take a very specific risk – and this is where the secular producer’s influence was so keenly felt – by not having a more clear Gospel presentation. This is ironic to me because I certainly don’t advocate that a Gospel presentation is absolutely necessary for a film made by Christians. In fact, the problem with most faith-based films is that they often shoehorn the Gospel into the storyline, and the end result feels forced. Heaven is for Real is a film that could have used a bit more clarity in the subject of heaven and how one gets there, and it could have been seamlessly added considering the subject matter. For heaven’s sake, the climax of the movie was a sermon preached to a packed church about heaven where the name of Jesus is mentioned, and Todd doesn’t even explain the Christian understanding of how one gets there!
But I don’t blame Todd Burpo for this. I blame T.D. Jakes. If I were pastor/producer T.D. Jakes, I would have insisted on it. Certainly, the film is not a Billy Graham Crusade production, but making a film about heaven where the unchurched audience isn’t even told how to get there is irresponsible.
One last thing about presenting the Gospel in film. This isn’t something that has to be heavy-handed and shoehorned and forced, like we Christians so often do in the films we make. One of my favorite examples of this being done successfully is in the 1997 film, Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg.
2. Challenge the audience
Heaven is for Real succeeded at this, for the most part. If you consider the faith-based audience, I believe they were challenged as they were presented with the story of a child who claimed to have seen heaven. The film (and the book before it ) generated a healthy amount of controversy among Christians (as have several of the other books that tell stories of people seeing heaven), since many Christians believe that God has given us all the revelation we need in the 66 books of the Bible (73 for Catholics), and that we aren’t to add to what we’ve been given. Others believe that God still speaks, and can and will give such revelations as He sees fit, and they may have been challenged by the realistic portrayal of a pastor who didn’t accept the revelations blindly.
The non-Christian audience was perhaps challenged as they were given a pretty clear picture of heaven presented by a four-year-old boy who couldn’t have known the things he claimed to know. While most non-Christians might enjoy the film as a modern fairy tale, some may have been challenged and intrigued by the picture of heaven which Connor paints.
But I still would have liked that audience to have been challenged more clearly with a clear Gospel message.
3. Art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit, and while they might cross paths from time to time, they are different animals
This was one of those rare moments where the two did cross paths, and it was done well. I believe this worked because Randall Wallace and Greg Kinnear gave us such a well-rounded picture of a tent-making pastor that we accepted his place in the pulpit as a natural place.
4. Ask questions, but don’t feel like you need to provide all the answers
In the case of Heaven is for Real, the question was – did Connor really experience this visit to heaven? Thankfully, the filmmakers never try to answer the question definitively. The bigger question is connected to Todd Burpo and his own struggles with the his faith and his understanding of Connor’s vision. Yes, the movie had a resolution, but it was not as tidy as it could have been. We’re left still wondering what exactly happened to the boy, but we’re also left with the confidence that the Burpo family is going to be alright. The ribbon is tied, but it’s not a completely perfectly tied bow.
5. Tell good stories
In this case, Heaven is for Real succeeded. It’s a fascinating story, made even more fascinating by the claims of truth made by the real Todd Burpo and the filmmakers. But the good story is made even better by a well-directed screenplay, a stellar cast, and fantastic cinematography (Nebraska is a beautiful state). It was fantastic to make the film a crisis of faith for Todd, and while watching, I could easily put myself into his shoes, wondering how I would have dealt with such an experience.
In conclusion, Heaven is for Real is not without problems. Heck, the supposedly true story behind the movie is not without problems. But as a movie aimed at the faith-based audiences, the film is well-made, and can provoke some interesting discussions about the nature of heaven, and what we can know about it.
And most importantly, it can open discussions on how we are able to go there!
Heaven is for Real: 4/5 Golden Groundhogs