The current trend in Hollywood is to chase down projects with large but somewhat underserved fan bases. Thus, the massive success of comic book movies, a sub-genre that only a decade ago was held in a little bit of contempt. Also breaking out of its ghetto is entertainment targeted at hardcore Christian groups. While there has long been a successful cottage industry of faith-based work aimed at the Bible Belt, recent successes like “Son of God” have made huge profits for mainstream distributers.
The most recent crossover is “Heaven Is For Real,” based on a bestselling book and starring, for lack of a better phrase, “real actors.” Greg Kinnear portrays Todd Burpo, the real-life preacher whose four-year-old son claims to have met Jesus while under anesthesia. The film is directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for “Braveheart.”
Burpo is, naturally, a controversial figure. The Nebraska-based minister and garage door salesman who was behind on his bills wrote a book based on what he claims his young son said after he “died” during appendix surgery. (Doctors have denied that he ever “flatlined.”)
The slim volume with a photo of his adorable kid and childlike font on the cover swiftly became a bestseller. The comforting tale includes a description of the four-year-old seated in God’s lap and meeting Jesus, who rides a rainbow colored horse.
The film version portrays Burpo’s struggle to spread the word of his son’s experience as a battle of faith among the faithless.
Burpo, currently ubiquitous on American talk shows, is a lightning rod of righteousness to some, an exploiter of children to others. He is also now a preacher in high demand, and continues to produce ancillary works (with “Heaven” branding) based on the experience his son believes (or has has been raised to believe) that he’s had.
Whether Burpo will stay in the film industry remains to be seen, but of note are his partners in his first production. The movie, which cost $12 million to make and has earned $67 million, was produced by well known televangelist T.D. Jakes and movie mogul Joe Roth.
Roth, of Jewish heritage, is a curious figure to find behind such a pro-faith endeavor. As a child, he was a figure in Engle v. Vitale, the 1962 Supreme Court trial that outlawed prayer in American school. His parents were described in a New York Times profile as “New York communists.”
Whether or not Roth has converted to Born Again Christianity, observes Judaism, maintains a strict code of privacy pertaining to personal beliefs, or is a cynical money vampire cackling as megachurches drive to cinemas to see his latest picture remains unknown.
Considering the parallels of possible parental exploitation, one can only wonder what is in store for young Colton Burpo, the child at the center of the film, who is about to enter adolescence.