Paul  Kengor

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared at thecatholicthing.org

I recently bought the book “Heaven is for Real” and saw the movie. That was unusual for me. I don’t typically do the books and movies everyone else is doing, especially the touchy-feely spiritual ones. Maybe it’s the snob in me, or, really, I just don’t like to do what the culture is doing. But this time, I made an exception.

The story is about the near-death experience of a four-year-old named Colton Burpo, a pastor’s son from Nebraska. I’ll say up front that I didn’t care much for the movie, unlike the book. The screenwriter took too many shortcuts and liberties and redirections with new characters. Most annoying was the sexualizing of the little boy’s mother, Sonja Burpo. Don’t get me wrong, she’s no Miley Cyrus or Madonna, but she’s repeatedly represented in an alluring, suggestive, sensual manner. I was almost expecting a nude scene.

The writer/director, Randall Wallace, explained Sonja’s portrayal this way: “So many people believe that Christians, and particularly the wives of ministers, would be these sexless, sweet, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths kind of people, and that was the opposite of what I thought Sonja was or should be. And Kelly [Reilly, the actress who plays Sonja] just had this sense of romance and charisma—you couldn’t take your eyes off of her.”

Really? Who are these “many people” who think of Christian women this way? Must we cater to narrow-minded secularists who imagine that the vast sea of American churches they never visit have no attractive women inside? If some 20-something “progressive” New Yorker is that insular and prejudice, too bad. Let’s not tailor to his ignorance by sexualizing the church-mom in a story about a little boy’s visit to heaven. I wonder how the real life Sonja Burpo feels about this portrayal of her.

But on the positive side, there was much about young Colton’s story that was compelling and convincing.

Generally, both the movie and book detail things that this child, even as a minister’s son, couldn’t have known ahead of time. I don’t have the space to detail all of those here. You’ll need to see for yourself. Actually, read the book first, because it details these things far better and more believably than the movie. But I will share just one especially poignant example that really touched me when I viewed the movie trailer; in fact, it prompted me to buy the book first.