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‘Heaven Is For Real’ tests the strength of faith

“Heaven Is For Real” (2014). Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Nancy Sorel, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt. Director: Randall Wallace. Screenplay: Chris Parker and Randall Wallace. Book: Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Web site. Trailer.

How truly steadfast are we when it comes to our beliefs? And what are the implications for those of us who harbor doubts about what we claim to believe? Under such circumstances, our faith is sure to be put to the test, a notion explored in the new divinely inspired, fact-based drama, “Heaven Is For Real.”

Life in rural Imperial, Nebraska is good but challenging for the Burpo family. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), the likable pastor of a local church, wears many hats to serve his community and provide for his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), and two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). Todd generally approaches his challenges joyfully, but he nonetheless struggles to cope with his share of financial issues, nagging health ailments and the daily routine of raising a family. Still, whenever he needs a jolt of encouragement, he always has his faith to fall back on to see him through.

That faith gets seriously put to the test when Colton becomes deathly ill from a ruptured appendix. With his son’s life hanging in the balance and doctors scrambling to save him, Todd, Sonja and members of the congregation pray fervently for the young boy’s well-being. Those efforts pay off, too, when Colton pulls through successfully. But, in the course of making his recovery, Colton is party to a miraculous event – a near death experience during which he visits heaven, meeting both a chorus of angels and Jesus (Mike Mohrhardt). And, while Colton regards his experience rather matter-of-factly, his account of that event sends shockwaves through his family and his dad’s parish.

Even though Colton is unfazed by what he went through, the same can’t be said for those around him. Todd struggles to understand what his son experienced, but his doubts frequently get the better of him. Those misgivings are routinely reinforced by the skepticism of others, like Sonja, who attribute Colton’s story to his overactive imagination. So, to vanquish those doubts and counter the contentions of the naysayers, Todd searches high and low for answers, consulting a range of sources, including everything from scripture to the counsel of a psychiatrist (Nancy Sorel). But, when satisfactory answers aren’t forthcoming, Todd finds it increasingly difficult to attend to the needs of his family and his congregation, raising concerns among his relations, friends and church board members, most notably Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church) and Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale). Suddenly, someone who’s accustomed to providing others with guidance and comfort is unable to find any consolation of his own.

Only when Todd consults the source of his doubts is he able to alleviate them. When Colton recounts his experience and provides details about it that he couldn’t possibly know any other way than by actually having gone through it, Todd’s apprehensions dissipate. And, not long thereafter, so do the doubts of others. All it takes is a little faith, a quality that’s reborn in others thanks to the simple but sincere testimony of an innocent young soul.

As should be apparent from the foregoing, faith in one’s beliefs is the central theme of this picture, a notion crucial to one’s devotion to virtually any philosophical system, whether it’s an established religion like Christianity or an alternative metaphysical discipline like conscious creation. In either case, the beliefs held by the followers of these doctrines, as well as the faith they place in them, determine what they ultimately get out of them, for better or worse. Those whose beliefs and faith are unshakable generally benefit most from these disciplines, while those who harbor doubts frequently struggle to reconcile their internal conflicts and reap the rewards offered by these teachings.

The roles of faith and beliefs are especially critical in this story’s context, since they relate directly to some of the most fundamental foundational considerations of Christian theology – the belief in an afterlife and the ability to ascend to it. The key question for many of those in this film is, just how “real” are those considerations? Is the afterlife something that we can experience, return from and recount? Or is it an unfathomable enigma that none of us will truly be able to know about until we make our final (and permanent) exit from physical existence? In short, is it something that we must purely take on faith until we die, or is tangible evidence of it available to us while we’re still incarnate?

It’s rather ironic that the film depicts people of faith having such serious doubts about their own beliefs. Perhaps that’s because the difficulties they’ve experienced in life have made them skeptical of a belief system they claim to so devotedly embrace, and, to a certain extent, that’s understandable. How can they trust the word of a supposedly loving God when that divine entity has also seemingly subjected them to heartache and suffering? Can they freely accept what they’ve been told without reservation, or must they keep their guard up just in case? What’s more, how seriously should they take one of God’s messengers (in this case, Colton) when it comes to the imparting of celestial insights, even if such information appears to be sent sincerely through someone with no apparent agenda or deception in the delivery of those communications?

This is another area where faith and beliefs are particularly significant and, once again, in virtually any philosophical, theological or metaphysical discipline. Indeed, how realistic is it for those of us accustomed to the tangible world of physicality to truly trust abstractions that are so patently vague and inherently intangible? This is why it’s so important to understand and recognize the underlying belief-driven meanings of the elements that manifest in our existence. Rather than automatically doubting the messages of a divinely sent courier, for example, we should instead look to see how accurately those heavenly dispatches align with the beliefs we hold. If they match up, we should feel comfortable putting stock in those convictions, providing us with validation of what we claim to hold dear.

Those of us who practice conscious creation realize that this principle applies to all of the manifestations that are part of our lives, be it in the context of “big issues” (like determining whether there’s an afterlife) or that of lesser questions (such as deciding which green grocer or dry cleaner to patronize). The materializations that appear in our lives provide evidence of the intents underlying their creation, and the more proficient we become in recognizing the relevance and validity of those manifestations, the more we can trust ourselves – and our beliefs – in bringing forth what we ultimately experience.

Perhaps some of the doubt in this story stems from would-be believers trying to comprehend the nature (and very existence) of a state of being far different from what they’re typically accustomed to. If all we’re familiar with is physical reality, then how can we truly appreciate something so seemingly “foreign” as heaven? To answer that question, we can again turn to conscious creation, which maintains that we’re all multidimensional beings capable of experiencing myriad forms of existence, including physical and nonphysical, earthly and celestial, and all manner of other possibilities we likely can’t even begin to conceive of. If one were to view Colton’s experience in this light, it likely wouldn’t seem so strange, because it reflects that principle of multidimensionality.

Those who embrace a conventional view of the nature of reality may find the foregoing notion a bit difficult to accept. However, is this limited outlook accurate? After all, does it not say in the Bible itself that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2)? If this isn’t an explanation for our inherent multidimensionality, I don’t know what is. And this statement again illustrates the importance of recognizing the relevance of the manifestations of our existence – even those that take the form of the written word – in providing clues about the true nature of our beliefs and how they work to shape the reality we experience.

Even though “Heaven Is For Real” manages to raise the foregoing issues, unfortunately it fails to address them thoroughly or effectively. Despite the film’s considerable potential, it frequently falls short of the mark, largely due to a poorly written script and an unfocused approach in presenting its material. For instance, just as the picture seems to be heading down a particularly insightful path, it suddenly and inexplicably veers off in another direction whose nexus is questionable at best (especially in the picture’s first half-hour). This happens repeatedly, making for a meandering narrative that’s often difficult to follow, let alone comprehend.

The film clearly works best when relating Colton’s story, but, regrettably, the picture doesn’t devote nearly enough screen time to it. Instead, the movie focuses more on Todd’s trials and tribulations and the struggles of his family and friends, plotlines that, while moderately interesting, aren’t nearly as compelling as that of the story’s central character. If the film had placed its emphasis on what really matters most, it would have succeeded much more effectively, not only as an entertainment vehicle, but also as a means for conveying spiritual and metaphysical inspiration.

Even though this film is based on actual events, as noted earlier, it’s somewhat surprising to see the level of doubt that its characters harbor. In fact, in my opinion, that aspect of the story receives a disproportionate amount of attention, which dilutes the impact of the narrative’s primary message. Indeed, it’s hard to fathom how and why so many so-called believers have such a difficult time embracing manifestations of their faith’s core contentions when they come face to face with them. And, as arguably understandable as those struggles may be, they don’t make for terribly interesting filmmaking, at least compared to what could (and should) have been the principal focus of this picture.

What’s more, given the considerable attention that has been devoted to the subject of near death experiences in the mass media and other forums in recent years, there’s precious little about them here that’s particularly new or revelatory (despite their effective on-screen treatment). Perhaps my knowledge of the subject matter reflects a personal bias in this regard, but I’m hard-pressed to see anything especially earth shattering here. If the filmmakers’ intent was to shed light on this phenomenon to those unfamiliar with it, then one could argue that they’ve succeeded, but those who are more well-versed in the material will likely view its treatment as a simplistic, lightweight exploration that could be characterized as a course in NDE 101.

Purely as a piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t particularly ambitious or innovative, either. Its acting and production values are mediocre at best, their quality level about on par with that of a typical made-for-TV movie. To its credit, however, the film’s depiction of Colton’s near death experience is quite good overall, and, thankfully, the picture generally resists the temptation to indulge in schmaltzy sentimentality or heavy-handed sermonizing. But those strengths aren’t enough to save this underperforming title from its many other inherent shortcomings.

The bottom line in all this is, is heaven real? While most of us would probably answer in the affirmative, it all ultimately depends on what we believe and how intently we cling to it. Of course, it always helps to have confirmation of our assumptions, and we’d serve ourselves well to recognize their proof when it makes itself apparent. All we need do is pay attention – and have a little faith.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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