Heaven is All-American

Rev. Todd Burpo visits the dying, is a volunteer firefighter, coaches high school wrestling and also installs garage doors, but Todd is up to his eyeballs in bills and there’s no relief in sight, especially with his family’s recent medical expenses. Why would someone who actually trained to be a servant of the Lord and who’s giving a bazillion percent to his community, family and God have to scrape so hard just to get by? And why would he have kidney stones, a broken leg and finally, why would his 4-year-old son Colton get a burst appendix?

Heaven is for Real, which earned $21.5 million in its first weekend, isn’t about young visionary Colton or angels or even God. It’s about Rev. Burpo’s ongoing exisential crisis. He’s living in an America he didn’t anticipate where he’d have to hustle all day and still be in debt; be the pastor of a church and get paid pennies for it; and not have health insurance.

Todd should, by all rights, be a kindly full-time pastor with health insurance. When Colton, his son, is in the OR getting an emergency appendectomy, true-blue Todd has a why, God, why? breakdown in the hospital’s nondenominational chapel.

So much is blue in this movie: the sky, the clothes, the stucco wall that Todd stands in front of at the Crossroads Wesleyan Church—and Colton’s big blue eyes. Heaven is, of course, blue. This is what they mean by ‘All-American,’ I think, looking at Colton, who is the very picture of aww-inducing little boy-hood: a blue-eyed, Protestant who lives somewhere that is, for the most part, landlocked. What about the rest of us?, I wonder. But even being “All-American” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anymore (if it ever was.) Such is the discontent of Pastor Burpo. When Colton begins to burble about things he saw in heaven while on the operating table, Todd gets rather agitated. Everyone else seems to not care or shrugs off Colton’s fancies as being a product of the potent combination of a 4-year-old’s sense of unreality combined with a 4-year-old’s ability to hear things adults think he doesn’t. Todd gets weirder and weirder as his obsession with Colton’s visions increases; it’s like some kind of Protestant Vertigo in Nebraska around the edges.

Which might have been an interesting story except that it’s such a thin gruel stretched out over an impossible ocean of time. “Jesus rides a horse” and “Jesus looks like Kenny Loggins” really isn’t mind-blowing stuff. And Colton’s mom has had it up to here with Todd and his rantings until Colton says that he saw his miscarried sister in heaven and how on earth could he have known about that? Dunno, maybe because he lives in the same house as you 24 hours a day?

I found myself identifying with Cassie, Colton’s older sister, who suffers the most in this tale. First of all, she has to share a room with Colton, which doesn’t make sense given the apparent size of the (railroad-track adjacent) farmhouse in which they live. Sure, it’s great for Colton, but who would want to share a room with a younger brother? Gross, I said to myself on Cassie’s behalf.

Then, when Cassie is at school feeling pretty awesome with her little crew of friends, away from her father’s sweaty, wild-eyed freakout over stupid Colton’s daydreams, she’s mocked by boys for having a brother who has visions of heaven and hauls off and hits two of them in the face. Those of you who think those boys were mere stand-ins for her parents and little brother, raise your hands. Thought so. And when Colton drops the “baby who died in Mommy’s tummy is alive and well and living in Heaven” news to their mom, Cassie is sitting at the kitchen table with headphones on, rocking out and ignoring all of it.

Jokes aside, Heaven is for Real made me uneasy—although Pastor Burpo in real life spun the straw of Colton’s scanty “visions” into a fair amount of gold, what about the rest of the “hard working Americans” in Imperial, Nebraska? What about us all? We just have cool it down here, work really hard for little to no reward, and wait for an icky greeting-card-bland heaven? Not being a Protestant, perhaps I don’t understand the allure of this movie, but “inspiring” isn’t the adjective that springs to mind. That would be “soul-crushing.”