Recently a Quaker committee of which I am a member hosted a showing of the movie "Heaven is for Real." I was interested in seeing the film because it was outside of my comfort zone. To my surprise, I found it fit Roland Barthes's notion of a "writerly text:" open-ended and ambiguous--far more so than I would have expected. It really was not quite what I expected.
The plot goes as follows: a little boy named Colby, aged four, needs an emergency appendectomy, and at some point in is in danger of death. According to the movie, he never actually stops breathing, his heart never stops, his brain function never flatlines--he never actually dies, even for a moment.
|Little Colby sees heaven--maybe.|
|Little Colby fortunately survives his operation, but it does cost a bundle. While under anesthesia, he has a vision, a dream or literal experience of heaven. |
After the operation, the boy tells his father, Todd, a pastor, bits and pieces of what the youngster understands as a visit to heaven: He sat in Jesus' lap, Jesus rode a rainbow colored horse, a choir of angels sang. The father, not naive, is intrigued but at first interprets the boy as describing a dream or vision based on fragments of stories he has heard about Jesus, the Bible and heaven. When the little boy announces that Jesus has blue-green eyes, the father is convinced his son has imagined heaven: the parents have blue and green eyes and, of course, the parents think, the child is projecting mom and dad as Jesus.
|Dad, actor Greg Kinnear, comes to believe--or almost believe--his son has been to heaven. Anyway, it gets him thinking hard about belief. |
And yet. Some residue of the boy's story strikes the father as real. The story nags him, and he starts talking about it in the pulpit, to the alarm of the church's lay council. The father becomes so obsessed with the story that he starts having fights with his wife, Sonja, who will have none of it, and he goes to see a psychologist. This woman, clearly the classic castrating, dark haired, over-educated career woman and definitely not a "believer," pooh-poohs the pastor's thought that the heaven experience could be real.
|Colby tells his Dad about heaven. Interestingly, though the family has a big house, Colby shares a room with his sister. His half is blue, hers pink. I imagine the audience suspends disbelief and understands this as purely a movie construction, as I have never heard of a boy and girl sharing a half pink/half blue room, and it would be highly unusual for a boy and girl sibling to cohabit in this day and age. It also wasn't necessary in terms of plot for them to share a room--the girl essentially sleeps through the conversations the father has with Colby. |
Meanwhile, a local paper gets wind of the "boy who went to heaven" and sends out a reporter. The church council becomes even more alarmed after the story runs. Though previously a banker on the council had offered to take care of the pastor's high medical bills--more than $50,000 (apparently the church did not provide him with health insurance or anything near adequate health insurance, though this is never said, and the pastor refuses the offer of help), now the banker is part of the group that turns on the pastor and announces that he has only one more week in the pulpit. (His wife at one point wants to get a job to pay the bills, but the husband informs her that her job is to be a mother.)
So far the wife has been a doubter, just like the female psychologist and the woman on the church council leading the charge against the him. However, when the four year old tells her he has seen his dead sister in heaven, the wife breaks down: she did lose a baby to a miscarriage, even though she never knew it was a girl. The child, she reasoned, could not possibly have heard about that, so his story must be true.
|Mom becomes a believer after Colby tells her about meeting the sister Mom lost in a miscarriage. Kelly Reilly, the mom, plays another devoted wife to much more twisted man in the current season of True Detective.|
In the climatic scene of the film, the pastor, in his final sermon, gives an impassioned speech in which he states that God is love and that what we believe is important. Heaven means different things to different people, he says. It may not be Jesus on a rainbow horse to everyone, but if we truly believed in sone sort of heaven, wouldn't it change how we lived, make us more loving and secure? Isn't the point to really act as if heaven is real? What he doesn't say is that his son's vision of heaven is literally real--the title of the book and movie are not My Son's Vision of Heaven is Real, but Heaven is for Real. What the pastor really wants people to think about is NOT the 4 year old's story of riding a rainbow horse with Jesus, but what it might mean if the concept of heaven--explicitly open ended as "whatever that means to you"--is real. Could it inspire us to behave less cruelly to one another in the here and now and instead (this is my interpretation) to build a better world.
In other words, this is Barthes's open-ended, ambiguous "writerly" narrative being mis-interpreted as a closed "readerly" narrative locating a literal heaven in a little boy's experience, devoid of ambiguity.
The parishioners, led by the wife, are so moved that they come on stage in a group hug. Later, the pastor watches a show about a girl in Asia who paints her vision of heaven, and when his son sees her painting of Jesus on TV, amazingly a blue-green eyed man, he confirms it is the same Jesus he saw.
|This is what Jesus looks like to little Colby during his trip to heaven.|
The movie closes with the wife announcing she is pregnant. We never see the pastor write the best-selling book, but clearly the wheels are turning--and he does have a huge debt load hanging over him. We might question him exploiting the naive statements of a four-year to make money, but we can also understand him needing to get bills paid--and it's not his fault he lives in a country that allows grossly inflated medical costs to be normal. Of course, it could be that Todd actually literally believed his son's story, but the tenor of the story suggests he does not. To give him his due, he seems to have sincerely wanted to get people thinking about their faith lives.
The movie is set in Nebraska, and the pastor lives in a big white frame house, apparently built very recently (not a 19th-century farmhouse) surrounding by open fields, reminiscent of Field of Dreams. The cast is almost all white, but I caught at least a glimpse of a black parishioner, and a black parishioner calls 9/11 at some point. The black-skinned person who calls 9/11 presents as extremely culturally white--very short hair, clean, crisp conservative clothes, an ultra-clean-cut look that does not threaten white sensibilities in any way. The real blacks, I would say, are a Latino couple with a baby to whom the pastor's wife gives a beautiful baby dress. When the Latino woman (who looks safely legal and as if she probably heads to a night job working at the Holiday Inn) exclaims it's too nice a gift to accept, the pastor's wife assures her: "Not for YOUR baby." This is apparently meant to exhibit lack of racial prejudice, but it comes across as very condescending: even a brown baby deserves a pretty dress! I am going with the idea that the movie makers meant well.
Heaven is for Real interested me in particular because I am fascinated by the way people misread texts. This started with Jane Austen. I don't know how many times even top scholars in a field don't see what is right in front of them. (This is why I always tell my students to head back to primary sources.) I am even surprised at myself: as I go back to familiar texts I can come away with completely different takes at different times. I am thus more and more in accord with Nietzsche's thought that people read or see what they have already decided is there, not what is really in front of them.
So I am interested that people seem to misread this movie as primarily about a boy's literal trip to heaven rather than as exploration of the power of belief. Why is the boy's story so important? Why are we all so prone to misread?