This afternoon, I went to the movies and saw Heaven Is for Real, a film about the a 4-year old's "near death" experience of heaven and its impact on his family and his local Church community. The film is based on a book about an actual case. I know nothing about such "near death" experiences. I have read none of the literature. (Nor have I read the book on which the movie is based.)
In my ignorance, I may be wrong; but my uneducated guess is that such phenomena represent in a secularized society something like what mystics and other visionaries have historically experienced in their purported visions of heaven (and/or hell). The special experiences of mystics and visionaries occur in a context of faith - that of the visionary and that of the community to which the visions are communicated. Contemporary claims of "near death" experiences may be less explicitly rooted in faith and are being shared with a much more skeptical society. So their meaning and function may be more varied and more open to diverse interpretations.
The story is that Reverend Todd Burpo's son, Colton, while near death and being operated on for a ruptured appendix, has an experience of heaven in which he meets Jesus and some relatives he'd never met (his great-grandfather, and also his miscarried sister, whose existence he had never before been aware of). The movie explores the impact of the boy's revelations on his father, his mother, and their local Church community. Whatever else may be said on the subject, the film is certainly well made, and the acting is superb - especially Connor Corum as young Colton Burpo, who does a fantastic job of playing an otherwise ordinary, normal kid, who has an extraordinary experience, but somehow still remains "normal."
What I found especially striking about the film is how it portrays the surface ordinariness of people's lives. (Of course, as in most ordinary lives, there is the burden of pain and suffering just below the surface - an earlier miscarriage in the case of the Burpos, a Marine son's death in the case of Church member and friend Nancy Rawlings). Apparently Todd is a popular pastor, but he is underpaid as a minister. Like Saint Paul, he has to make his own living in his rural, small-town Nebraska community, and he is having a hard time of it. In addition to multiple jobs, he is also very involved in the life of his community - not just as a pastor but as a volunteer fireman, for example. The movie goes on for quite a while before Colton's illness, portraying the joys and stresses of the Burpo family's ordinary activities and the events that go on in their small-town, rural community. These include getting injured in a local softball game and a case of kidney stones - all before the son's sudden sickness.
After Colton's recovery, ordinary life appears to resume. Only gradually does Colton reveal the details of his experience. There is something very authentic in the almost matter-of-fact, un-strategized way Colton mentions first one detail, then another. He is, of course, only four; and the innocent, unassuming way he shares his revelations certainly adds to their credibility.
Of course, everyone - including Todd himself - is troubled by the revelations and would at first prefer some other explanation for what has happened. The story seems less about how first Colton's parents, then others, come to believe, than it is about the effect that their encounter with Colton's experience has on them.
What is being presented is less a story of an extraordinary vision than it is an account of how the extraordinary can penetrate the ordinary, and how the painful wounds which burden ordinary life can be healed by the extraordinary's intrusion into the ordinary. It is not so much about getting a glimpse of heaven as it is about allowing the reality of heaven to make a difference in daily life.
What a powerful message for Easter time!