The Arrested Development quote “There’s always money in the banana stand!” is ridiculous. Viewers, like Michael Bluth, don’t believe much profit can come from selling frozen bananas in an ocean-side stand. But little do we know that George Sr. lined the walls with $250k and this phrase, while unbelievable on the surface, is actually true.

In a similar turn, the phrase “There’s money in faith-based movies!” seems unbelievable but is often true. Last year, I Can Only Imagine (the story behind the hit song about heaven) earned nearly $84 million at the domestic box office. To put it in perspective, this is very close to what Oscar-winner BlacKkKlansman earned worldwide ($92.5 million). For another example, Wrinkle in Time earned $133 million worldwide, but on a budget of $103 millions its profit margin was 40% that of Imagine. In short, the faith-based audience comprises a large, dependable swath of America and films catered to this audience often gross more than either Disney or Oscar-winning movies.

This was certainly the case for Heaven is for Real. Based on a true story, this book-turned-movie follows a small-town preacher as he wrestles with his son’s near-death-experience. The movie made over $101 million worldwide, and marks the fourth most lucrative project of Greg Kinnear’s career. In fact, Randall Wallace, who mostly does war movies, directed both Heaven is for Real and We Were Soldiers aka the fifth most lucrative project of Greg’s career. I’ll say it again, “There’s ca$h money in faith-based movies…and war movies which share much the same audience!”

Heaven is for Real (2014)

The movie tells the story of Todd Burpo (played by Greg Kinnear), a part-time minister in Imperial, Nebraska who makes ends meet by running an overhead garage door business, coaching wrestling, and firefighting. His wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) stays home and cares for their two kids, Cassie (age 7) and Colton (age 4). The Burpos have a rough 2002, marked by financial and physical woes. Todd shatters his leg at a church softball game, later passes kidney stones, and can’t afford the hospital bills. But these woes are merely a prelude to what lies ahead (…or above?).

Kinnear and Reilly as Todd & Sonja Burpo. Reilly does an admirable job of suppressing her Bristish accent, until she has to sing “Come Thou Fount.” Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

In early 2003, Colton’s appendix bursts. Ignored as the flu for several days, Colton’s condition worsens until he’s rushed to the hospital. Surgeons quickly operate, but Colton clings to death and has a near-death-experience (NDE). In it, he travels to heaven where he hears the angels sing and sees Jesus ride a majestic horse of all colors. Colton meets deceased relatives, such as his great-grandfather and a sister lost to miscarriage.

Colton survives and tells his dad of his heavenly vision. Todd is completely shook by it. He struggles to preach and spends his time researching NDEs, talking to reporters, and learning more of Colton’s vision. This puts significant strain on his church and family. The elders meet and decide to search for a new pastor. Sonja barely suppresses her frustration with Todd and isn’t sure she believes Colton. Classmates ridicule Cassie (the sister).

Todd and Colton staying up late, talking shop. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Then things neatly work out, as they are wont to do in faith-based movies. Sonja learns of Colton’s meeting with his deceased sister lost to miscarriage and believes him. The chief elder isn’t mad at Todd, just that his son came back from death while hers did not (her son died at war). Todd reconciles Colton’s NDE with his faith and preaches a dynamite sermon. An atheist professor is even in the audience, and the whole church agrees “Todd’s back.”

Admittedly, this movie started out rough. A children’s choir sings “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” a possibly well-intentioned but racist song that lists all the colors of children (“red, brown, yellow, black and white”). The church later opts to sing “Amazing Grace” while Todd is in paralyzing agony on-stage from kidney stones and maybe-probably-definitely needs immediate medical help. And the graphics of Colton’s heavenly vision are really, really bad.

But the movie’s early-going had its funny moments too. The Burpos shout along to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in the car, but the angels refuse to sing it for Colton. The preachers that fill in for Todd include an over-eager seminary student and a prison chaplain, “used to preaching to a captive audience.”

I also admired the time the movie took to show the town’s reactions. It’s inexplicable that Todd set no boundaries to separate his pastoral duties from struggling with Colton’s NDE (he legit had an open whole-church Q&A about it in lieu of a sermon), so the community rightly treated him as crazy. I sympathized with both Sonja’s frustration and the church’s initial moves to distance itself, and fully believe these tensions ran their course irl. I don’t believe it all ended as neatly and wholesomely as in the movie.

As a Christian, I also struggle to understand how Todd and Colton’s experiences add to a Biblical vision of heaven. I fully believe that Jesus will look majestic riding a horse, independent of the subjective vision described by a four-year-old and turned into book and movie deals. To speak to issues of how accurately Heaven is for Real portrays heaven and pastors, I recruited one of my college roommates (JJ). He is now an incredible pastor in the midwest who I greatly respect. Here are his (mostly) unedited thoughts.

Reflections of Pastor JJ

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I came in like a sour old grump, scouring for inaccuracies, but I enjoyed the film to a point. A few points that come from the film.

  • Apparently in heaven, everyone is young, but still looks like they do on earth.
  • In heaven you have a supernatural knowledge of earthly events, like what people are doing in various rooms of the hospital, even if you weren’t there.
  • There are angels flying around singing. But they won’t sing secular music.
  • Miscarriages grow up in heaven.
  • Heaven looks like this world but cleaner.
  • Jesus’ eyes are blue or green.

Couple things. First, the resurrected bodies. I’m torn on this account. I understand the desire for a theology that says our heavenly bodies will not have blemishes, we will all be young and attractive, and all that… but there are pieces of scripture that fight that. Two big examples: First, Jesus still has scars, and literal holes in his side after the resurrection. His resurrected body was not him as a child. Second, in Revelations 5:6 we find “I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slain.” The lamb is often understood as a reference to Jesus, standing in front of the throne of heaven, STILL looking as if he had been slain. It’s not concrete, but there’s a chance that the scars of this life being magically disappeared may not be a priority for our resurrected bodies in heaven. Perhaps it’s not that our disabilities or scars will be gone, but rather that we will be perfected such that we do not see them as scars or disabilities.

Second, the supernatural knowledge of earthly events. The sense of heaven I have found in scripture is that in heaven we will be so obsessed with the glory of God in front of us – it will be so incredible, we won’t even notice anything else. To imagine that a child in the presence of God would spend all of his time, not glorifying God or praising God or even noticing God, but instead is watching the happenings of earth from a sort of next level ceiling dimension – it’s almost disappointing. I get where that comes from – we love the idea that our relatives or whatever are “Watching over us from heaven.” But that’s not what scriptures shows us. We leave this earth behind and enter into the glorious presence of God – which, honestly, sounds way better than watching the earth like a heavenly movie theater.

Akiane Kramarik’s ‘Prince of Peace,’ her painting of her vision of Jesus at the age of 4. Colton ‘swears’ he saw the same Jesus. Photo Credit: Akiane Kramarik, Art Akiane LLC.

What Jesus Looked Like

The earlier pieces were mostly musings and moments where I squinted and went, “eh…. Maybe.” But this one actually made me grumpy. Jesus does not have blue eyes. The westernization and Europeanization of Jesus’ face denies the reality of the incarnation. While we cannot be sure because scripture doesn’t give us much in the way of details of physical appearance – Jesus VERY LIKELY DID NOT have blue-green eyes. They sort of muted this particular angle by pointing out that the parents have blue and green eyes, so the boy may be projecting his beloved authorities figures features onto his understanding of Jesus. But still, it was bad. That was the moment in the film that made me roll my eyes the hardest.

Pleasantly Surprised

I came into the movie ready to rip apart any theological/biblical inaccuracies on their portrayal of heaven – but I was actually very pleasantly distracted by another element of the film you don’t see in many movies: the behind the scenes look at the day-to-day life of pastor. Of course there were the Hollywood flubs: like a gorgeous and ginormous house (wow, beautiful!), the over-simplifying of the church leadership structure, the little bit too perfect portrayal of the super-human pastor/garage door guy/visitation expert/perfect preacher/fireman/baseball jockey/too many things and such – but other than the basic Hollywood nonsense – there were elements I really appreciated. Greg Kinnear did a great job with pieces of it.

Examples:

  1. To see his wife leading the choir (IN THEIR HOME, a troublesome but all too common blurring of boundaries and painfully stereotypical pastors’ wife expectation),
  2. Bringing his kid on a visitation trip (another boundary issue, but one I personally have experienced coming along with my Dad to nursing home services and the like),
  3. The stress of money and juggling bi-vocational ministry (although that was largely spoiled by cutting to another shot of the incredibly beautiful home – I’ve spent my life in parsonages all over Eastern Michigan, and ain’t none of them come close to that!).

The reality of being on call 24/7 is unhealthy, but VERY common and I was pleasantly surprised to see at least a version of that in the film.

[Thank you JJ! Back to Nathan]

Father Greg

This post has become a magnificent long-form article, so I’ll wrap up with some brief thoughts on Greg’s performance. I haven’t watched a Christian movie for a very long time. The last one I saw was Genesis Code, because it’s free on Amazon Prime and I walked through the movie’s set to lab for a month (which is NOT an endorsement!). So, setting my acting bar at Logan Bartholomew in Genesis Code and the Love Comes Softly series–or even Kirk Cameron and Dennis Quaid in anything–Greg crushes it. A capable actor with decent range, he’s much better than the low-to-mid-level actors typically recruited for Christian movies.

Objectively, though, how was he as a preacher? Greg admits to having always wanted to play a man of the cloth, but the smaller parts of his performance were greater than the whole. Greg’s version of a preacher felt like it wasn’t assembled from scratch, but rather from elements of his other on-screen characters. His energetic competitiveness from Bad News Bears carried over to the church softball field. His smoothie-making dorkiness from Baby Mama translated into his interactions with his son, including a skittishness around tarantulas and howling at the moon.

Greg as Todd’s obsession with his son’s NDE threatens to de-rail his family and church.
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Most central to this role, Greg imbued his preacher with the uncertainty and desperation he’s shown to varying degrees in Matador, Salvation Boulevard, Thin Ice and others. Greg’s so good at desperate, and this emotion in a more muted sense defined his role here. As Colton revealed more of his heavenly vision, Greg fell further down the rabbit hole wrestling with uncertainty and growing desperation for answers.

Greg added a soft, sympathetic touch to quiet one-on-one scenes with congregants, such as a graveside scene with a mourning mother, but this preacherly presence was absent at home where his NDE research only alienated his wife. In sum, Father Greg felt like an assembly of traits from some of Greg’s very good other-movie parts. A large reason for this could also be the script, which defined its preacher by feel-good bedside story sermons and an obsession with NDEs.

If Greg’s performance was judged on a faith-film curve, it would break the Kinnear Meter.

Next-up: Unknown, a straight-to-video thriller that is Memento but with a group of guys having amnesia instead of just Guy Pearce. Awesome!

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