Text John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas)
It is the second Sunday in the season of Easter, and for the second week in a row, my reflection is based upon a movie. Last week it was “Transcendence.” This week it is “Heaven is for Real.”
And how could I resist? The movie opened last week to strong box office returns. It is based on a best-selling memoir that has sold close to 10 million copies in just four years. It tells the story of a small town minister, Todd Burpo, who has a crisis of faith after his four-year old son Colton reports that he visited heaven while he was on an operating room table with a burst appendix. And the sermon in which his father first mentions his son’s visions of heaven uses the same text as our Gospel reading this morning from John, the one where Thomas doubts that Jesus’ has been raised from the dead. So as I said, how could I resist?
I first heard about the book “Heaven is for Real” two and half years ago from a leader of the local Lutheran church and a fellow member of the Coronach Community Christmas Choir. He thought it might strengthen the faith of church members and bring skeptics who didn’t believe in the Bible back to faith.
This past January when I was exploring the Mill Woods neighbourhood, I spotted a used bookstore in the strip mall just south of Hillview Baptist Church where I bought a copy of “Heaven is For Real.” With the release of the movie 10 days ago, I have now read it. Not to my surprise, I didn’t like the book. But I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the movie.
Part of my enjoyment comes from the movie’s setting. It was filmed north of Winnipeg, and the countryside there reminds me of southern Saskatchewan. I have been struck these past four months by how I miss the stark beauty of the southern prairie. At the Truth and Reconciliation Event last month in Edmonton I met a minister from Saskatoon who had originally been settled along the U.S. border south of Lethbridge, and we compared notes on the dry and stark landscape there and in Borderlands, which he called “50 Shades of Brown.” Both of us had come to love this kind of prairie.
I also like the actor Greg Kinnear who plays Todd Burpo in “Heaven is for Real” and how he portrays him as a father, a husband, and a minister in a small Wesleyan Church in Nebraska. We hear two of his sermons, both of which I liked. The second is about trusting God, knowing that God is Love, and searching for glimpses of heaven on earth. It is much shorter than this reflection, and better than this one, I believe. It ends in a group hug.
The book focuses on Colton’s visions of heaven, while the movie focuses on how his reports of heaven upset his father and lead to conflict between his parents and with the governing Board of the church. Many of the visions from the book that might upset people like me are not included in the movie.
In the book, Colton has several visions that his father connects to the Book of Revelation. In one, Colton sees his father slaughtering non-believers in the battle of Armageddon. The movie is just about heaven. The book is about both heaven and hell, to its detriment I believe.
In the book, Colton is distressed by the thought that a person who has died might not have known Jesus. At his funeral, he shouts, “He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven.”
Such an outburst would lead me to worry that Colton had been spiritually abused more than it would lead me to think that Jesus had personally taught him such ideas. Unfortunately, many Christians argue that only some of us get to heaven. Those who die as non-believers are thrown into the fires of hell or are tortured and killed by Jesus at His Second Coming. The book accepts these idea as gospel truth, which makes me wish it hadn’t sold so many copies.
Colton’s reports of heaven would have interested me more if, instead of meeting Jesus wearing a jewelled crown and God sitting on an elaborate throne, he had described things quite outside church tradition. But not surprisingly, Colton’s visions match what a kid raised in a church family might have seen and heard.
The fit between Colton’s visions and what is written in the Bible might lead some to think that the Bible gives accurate information about the afterlife. If so, would it not then be God’s providence that the Bible is now found in every corner of the world, even if this happened through war and conquest?
Well, I don’t think so.
I saw another movie with a religious theme this week. “Agora” is a 2009 historical film set in Alexandria Egypt. It focuses on the astronomer and mathematician Hypatia and her eventual murder at the hands of Christian monks. It is set between the years 391 and 415 just after the Roman Empire had outlawed religions other than Christianity. The movie shows Christian fanatics burning the books in the Great Library of Alexandria, which was an irreparable loss of the writings of antiquity.
The movie reveals some of the sad history that has brought the texts of the Bible from ancient times to us today. While we are glad to have the Bible, we no longer always privilege Christian writings over those of other traditions or of science and philosophy. Nor do we idolize Christian leaders like Saint Cyril, the Alexandrian Bishop, whom the movie portrays as a murderous thug.
“Heaven is for Real” unfortunately shows no awareness of the pitfalls of religious exclusion. It shows no awareness that the huge majority of the 100 billion people who have ever lived have never even heard the word “Jesus” let alone had a chance to “have Jesus in their hearts” to use Colton’s phrase.
The book and movie strike me as the products of well-meaning people who haven’t thought long enough about the implications of their beliefs.
When we are dying and endorphins flood our brains to ease our pain, I imagine that we might have visions of angels leading us into the light and introducing us to long-dead loved ones. If we are Christian, we might see Jesus. If we are Muslim, we might see Muhammad. If we are Hindu, we might see Krishna.
While I fear the pain of dying, I don’t fear death itself, partly because I am sure that my ego will not survive my body. Books like “Heaven is For Real” might lead us to believe that our egos will last for all eternity, but I see no way how that idea could be anything other than a vision of hell.
For me, the spiritual path is one of realizing that our ego with all its addictions and anxieties is an illusion. In moments of grace, we live born-again moments of selfless love. And on the inevitable day when one lies dying, I am sure that this joyous good news fills the hearts of everyone.
To believe in resurrection, we don’t have to be like Thomas and ask to see the wounds of crucifixion on Jesus’ body. Instead, we can look to ourselves or our loved ones who have been gifted with new life after loss or disillusionment.
One of my favourite moments in the movie occurs when Todd and a church leader who have clashed over Todd’s focus on his son’s visions meet in a cemetery. Both are putting flowers on the grave of her son who had died at age 19. She asks Todd to forgive her for her attacks. In turn, he wonders if the death of her son has broken something in her just as the near death of his son has broken something in him. He says there is no need to seek forgiveness for actions that reflect our brokenness. All of us are all broken. All of us are stumbling in the dark and trying to help each other as best we can.
I haven’t remembered this scene perfectly. Someday, I will watch the film again where I can pause it to take note of this moment and others more carefully.
Not all reviewers liked the movie. It only has a 50% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes reviewing website. But I recommend it. The book? Not so much, unless one approaches it with highly critical eyes.
The commercial success of “Heaven is for Real” highlights the fears and hopes of many of us about death. But unlike Thomas and young Colton, we can’t see the marks of crucifixion on the body of Jesus to reassure us.
Instead, I pray that we will notice the wounds of ourselves and each other. I also pray that we will be raised to new life beyond our brokenness in this or any other joyous moment of God’s Amazing Grace.
Thanks be to God.