Taking Contests of Faith Out of the Playground — “Heaven is for Real”

Heaven Kinnear Reilly

I remember when I was a kid. At recess, the boys would chase the girls around the playground, and then the girls would chase the boys around, and then we’d start all over again. Anyone who was visibly different – by race or religion or handicap – would get a hard time from the bullies, and the rest of us would often fall in line because, after all, the title ‘bully’ isn’t given without reason.

Heaven is for Real is the story of Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), who nearly loses his son Colton (Connor Corum) from a burst appendix. When Colton recovers, he tells his father about having an out-of-body experience in which he visits Heaven.

Before this, we get a glimpse of Todd’s family life – he’s a small-town pastor who’s successfully drawn in new congregants. Nonetheless, his family is facing financial disaster. He works an extra job as a repairman, but times are tough.

The crux of the movie is Colton’s vision of Heaven. Despite being a pastor, Todd has a difficult time accepting it as real. His wife’s doubts are even greater, but Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is the rock of the family and has to act the part. Director Randall Wallace, most famous for writing the screenplay for Braveheart, does show us bits and pieces of Colton’s vision. This might seem unwise, but the specificity of Colton’s vision is what becomes so controversial. Congregants challenge the details – Colton’s heart never stopped, so how can he have a near-death experience – as if there’s a rulebook on this sort of thing.

Kelly Reilly

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Everyone keeps telling Todd their personal interpretation of religion should be his, too. It gives him no time to heal, only to react. Heaven is for Real rarely preaches – it’s far more interested in telling a story. That’s what makes it a successful movie. Todd and Sonja’s journey of faith demands others be less self-centered about their own.

Heaven is for Real is a gorgeously shot film. Its outdoor locations highlight the vast, still beauty of the Midwest. Kinnear and Reilly are what make it all work. There’s a decent amount of overacting in this, especially at the hospital – all of Wallace’s films suffer from a lack of dramatic restraint – but Kinnear and Reilly are able to constantly re-invest the viewer in their struggles.

The movie only veers into proselytizing once – when Todd visits a psychiatrist who is non-religious. She acts like no board-certified psychiatrist ever would, shooting down his faith the minute he walks in the door rather than listening to him and asking questions. It’s a clunky, inaccurate moment in a film that otherwise takes a higher road than picking fights with non-believers.

Lately, some faith-based movies and certain science shows have picked those fights – them versus us. Science or religion. We’ve even held celebrity debates that are watched by millions of online viewers, as if the contest is some sort of sport. We’re inches away from season ticket sales and peanut vendors.

Greg K 2

You know, the Star Trek series of TV shows is often credited for getting more young men and women interested in scientific careers than any other piece of creative art. Like Heaven is for Real, it is incredibly earnest and occasionally cheesy. There’s an episode in which Captain Kirk, cheesiest of them all, describes a novelist whose works change humanity’s future. He says our three most important words become “Let me help,” held in even higher esteem than “I love you.” Wanting to help is the reason many go into the sciences. In his last sermon in Heaven is for Real, Todd boils down the essence of belief to a simple concept. It “lets you know you’re not alone.”

“Let me help. You’re not alone.” I think those two sentiments go together pretty well. I remember when I was a kid, after all. Anyone who was visibly different would get a hard time from the bullies. I wish I’d stood up to them more often. Science or religion? Both sides have their bullies, leading chases around the playground after the other one.

Heaven is for Real reminds us that faith isn’t owned by anyone – it’s personal for each of us, and that’s OK. Disagreement shouldn’t lead to fights that do nothing but distract us. It’s not kindergarten. We’re not in recess anymore.

Greg Kinnear

Heaven is for Real is rated PG for medical situations.

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