My Facebook newsfeed blew up a few weeks ago with the reposting of a near viral, four minute video. The clip contains an excerpt from a highly respected and influential church leader wherein he gives his thoughts on the massively popular movie Heaven is for Real (released April 18, 2014). HIFR, based on the #1 bestselling book of the same title, tells the story of 4 year old Colton Burpo who describes his journey to heaven during a near death experience (NDE). He claims to have been given knowledge that would have been impossible for him to know in his own lifetime. The short video clip from the national church leader mentioned above warns his congregation that they should not waste their money on such foolishness and that they need to avoid unbiblical accounts of the afterlife.
I agree that this story is full of problematic biblical and theological issues but I think there a few things to consider. Perhaps there is a better way to think about all media, and not just the bits that are overtly religious.
1. Almost ALL Movies are Religious…Almost ALL.
I understand the necessity for warning about false teaching (II Timothy 3:1-9). We need to be on guard for the ideas that fight for our attention and affection that are not true. But when we begin telling people to not see a movie (or read a book) that does not completely line up with Scripture we are not helping the church learn how to think biblically. The only thing we will accomplish with a boycott mentality is to further thicken the walls of the enclave so we are more insulated and isolated.
I would love to see the movie ticket stubs, for the past twelve months, from everyone that copied and pasted the video. I would then ask which of those movies was NOT religious. Movie theaters are the stained glass of the 21st century, they tell a story. The stories they tell are of belief. Writers, directors, producers, and actors artistically invite us into their world. They want us to see and experience what it is they believe about reality. It is extremely unwise to make the assumption that only those movies that have an overt religious theme (HIFR, Noah, Son of God, God’s Not Dead, etc.) are the only ones that we should “spiritually” pay attention to.
Interestingly, I did not see anyone that slammed HIFR take on another movie that opened the same weekend. Johnny Depp’s Transcendence shared the same opening date as HIFR. Transcendence explores the issues of consciousness, substance vs. property dualism, as well as the life after death questions. The difference is that Depp’s movie does so within the naturalistic world of cause and effect. In essence, they are claiming that the soul is nothing more than software that can be manipulated and uploaded; there is no afterlife. Is this movie any less religious than HIFR? Is THAT a biblical understanding of the soul?
2. We Should Assume Any Given Movie Will Explore a Major Worldview Issue(s).
For the sake of limited space I will define a worldview simply as the predominant set of beliefs that every person holds which directs his or her thinking and actions. In the simplest of terms every person acts ultimately on what they believe – right or wrong, consistently or inconsistently.
I teach a seminar called “What is a Worldview and Why Do We Need One?” that explores, among other things, the 9 fundamental questions a worldview answers. In the case of HIFR, the main question that is dealt with is, “what happens when I die?” Instead of burying this film in the bin labeled ‘heresy’ (where well-intentioned Christians have heaped Harry Potter, The DaVinci Code, The Golden Compass, etc), wouldn’t it be better to consider that of the millions of tickets sold, some of them are purchased by people who hold to a worldview that does not allow for an afterlife at all (scientific naturalism)? Why would they bother going to see a “religious” movie that has nothing to do with their belief system? This question is worthy of exploration.
I cannot think of one movie that has complete agreement with the Bible. Even a film like The Passion of the Christ takes poetic license. Does that mean we should not “waste” our money or time on them? No! It means we need to continue to develop the ability to think critically so we can recognize the big questions when they are posed them on film. We can learn to recognize and discuss them with others who are asking the same things.
3. HIFR Demonstrates that People are Looking for Hope.
Luc Ferry in A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (Harper Perennial 2011) argues that philosophy and religion are similar because they are both seeking salvation. According to Ferry, the difference is that religion does so with blind faith and philosophy is looking for salvation apart from God. Ferry equivocates on his definitions of what people are looking to be saved from and to, and his assertion that faith and reason are incompatible is just ridiculous. But he has a point. The Bible is not the only place where man’s ultimate hope is explored and questioned. In the 3,000+ years of recorded western literature, this type of question has been asked over and over. All people are looking for the answer. They want to know what holds all of life together. They desire to know if their lives mean something. A drowning man will cling tenaciously to the most worthless piece of flotsam if he believes it will…save him.
Should we assume that the world is being duped by “false teaching” because of the popularity and success of this film and book? There may be some truth to that, but maybe we should instead recognize the flailing of a generation that is reaching for the one thing that holds it all together, the one final piece of salvation. Thinking Christians will recognize the distress call. Instead of tightening up the circle of wagons perhaps we should be sending out more sorties from the outpost and use films like HIFR as discussion starters. We would never hand someone a copy of HIFR and tell them that book will answer all their questions. Rather, we understand questions about hope are being asked and we then direct them to hope’s true Source (John 14:6, John 3, Romans 6, Ephesians 2).