New York critics, heaven and a very busy religion week

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OK, think of all of the stereotypes that you have heard about elite critics in New York City, those powerful mainstream-media scribes who are said to have the power to determine what is good and what is bad at the highest levels of American culture.

Do you have that picture in your mind? Now, don’t discuss the details — because what would be dangerous.

Actually, you don’t need to say anything because of editors of The New York Daily News just WENT THERE at the top of an interesting feature-ette about the movie “Heaven Is for Real” and, to a lesser degree, the current wave of God movies at your local multiplex.

Yes, I remember that I cranked out a post the other day that mocked a Los Angeles Times piece on the whole “Hollywood wants to sell tickets to Christians!” trend. This piece has a bit more focus and a sense that this is not really a trend, but part of a longer story about Hollywood trying to “get” people who embrace traditional forms of faith.

But first, about that daring opening:

The movie is about heaven. The primary audience is devout Christians. And the only screening for New York critics is on Monday — when many will be marking the first night of Passover.

Yes, a “devout” Christian alert. Actually, this movie is getting some harsh reviews from defenders of conservative, “devout” Christian orthodoxy (more so than the original book).

But keep reading. As you can see, that “devout” thing is not the key religion stereotype in that lede.

But throwing out the normal marketing playbook is part of the strategy with “Heaven Is for Real,” a Hollywood film based on the best-selling story about a boy who claims to have met Jesus during a brief visit to the hereafter. TriStar Pictures, a division of Sony, said, if necessary, it would set up another screening for local critics on Tuesday. But that, of course, is also Passover.

In any event, Joe Roth, one of the film’s producers, said he isn’t aiming his movie at big-city tastemakers anyway.

Which, of course, means that big-city tastemakers are almost all, well, you know, the kind of people who are busy on Passover. As opposed, you know, to the kind of people who are headed into sanctuaries during the second half of this very busy religion week.

Well, this Eastern Orthodox scribe is part of a community that spent about seven hours in church yesterday and and is headed back today on Good Friday (great Dante meditation here by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher) for multiple doses of liturgy. And then tomorrow is Holy Saturday (a day, in Eastern Christianity, that actually deserves more news coverage than it gets) followed, in the earliest hours of Sunday, by the great feast of Pascha.

I say all of that to note that, if I vanish from from the blog in the next day or two, you know where I am. The same goes for Father George Conger, of course, who is an Anglican priest.

So what is the Daily News crew actually saying about this movie? What’s the big idea? As it turns out, there is a big idea here and it’s a valid news hook.

The key man is not Roth, but director and co-writer Randall Wallace (and I would add that the work of star Greg Kinnear is crucial).

The key theme in this story is that some real Hollywood level talents are attempting to make a real movie that is not aimed at Hollywood. This is not one of those do-it-yourself evangelical flicks. Still, the goal of this movie is, it appears, to turn that famous New Yorker cover inside out (you know, that cartoon with no church steeples in it).

… (For) now, Sony is concentrating its efforts on the so-called “flyover” states between supposedly less-religious New York and Los Angeles. The studio has given out free passes throughout the South, and director and co-writer Randall Wallace was dispatched to Mississippi for a special screening.

Wallace, who attended a seminary and later earned an Oscar nomination for the “Braveheart” screenplay, said Sony’s goal with the film is to “bridge that gap between mainstream filmmaking and the Christian community.”

Bravo for the “Braveheart” reference. That movie did pretty well at the box office.

The key, however, is the book on which the launched this movie — which sold 8 million copies? But how was it reviewed in the New York press?

It was a publishing juggernaut that Hollywood couldn’t ignore. But how do you market a movie about heaven that bills itself as “based on a true story”? This isn’t Julia Roberts crusading for clean water in “Erin Brockovich” or Russell Crowe revealing the secrets of the tobacco companies in “The Insider.” It’s the story of a kid who claims he went to heaven. And heaven, in this movie, is “real.”

Wallace knows what to say when asked about the marketing challenge. He likens his film’s spirituality to “Field of Dreams” and “The Sixth Sense,” films that blurred the line between known and unknown. The difference, of course, is that neither movie makes an overt claim that heaven exists. And come to think of it, neither had Jesus in a supporting role.

“I was skeptical of the book, but then I read it and I found it riveting,” says Wallace. “And the question, about what happens when we die, is universal.”

Anyway, this short feature does a pretty good job of taking the Hollywood and New York angle seriously. Bravo.

But what about the content of the movie itself? What does the movie say about, well, heaven? How are the flyover critics, the one’s in pulpits and seminaries, responding? That deserved a few paragraphs, at the very least.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • helen

    So sorry for the critics!
    I have the same problem, many Wednesday nights,
    and this week, Thurs., Fri., and Sat.

  • Darren Blair

    How this “flyover” critic responds:

    Regardless of what one feels about the theological issues raised, at the core of the film is a man trying to keep his family together and rediscover his faith in the face of overwhelming hardship. It’s just as much about Pastor Burpo’s efforts to make sense of the world around him and trust that his child is telling the truth as it is about anything supernatural.

    Anyone willing to dismiss it just off of the religion angle is cheating themselves out of a good character drama that asks some IMHO intelligent questions about faith, family, and trust.

    edit – if anyone’s wondering, I’m with the Copperas Cove Leader-Press newspaper.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I agree there should be more, much more coverage about Eastern Christianity. How about a story on what it is like for an Orthodox Christian to celebrate Holy Week in Iran or Iraq orTurkey. Or a Coptic Christian in Egypt. Do they have government set rules to follow??? Do they have to stifle their faith to keep their lives???

  • Julia B

    “I say all of that to note that, if I vanish from from the blog in the next day or two, you know where I am. The same goes for Father George Conger, of course, who is an Anglican priest.”

    This Catholic choir member is going to be pretty busy the next couple of days, too. Much busier than at Christmas time.


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