Back in the 1970s when the unlikely duo of exploitation filmmaker Ron Ormond and Baptist minister Estus W. Pirkle came together to produce “soul winning” movies such as The Burning Hell and If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, the best the pair could hope for was to get their films screened in the social halls and sanctuaries of small rural churches as a warm up act for the weekly altar call.
Four decades later, things have changed. Most say it began with the surprise box office success of Facing The Giants, the 2006 faith-based sports film produced by two former Georgia pastors which came out of nowhere and grossed $10 million on a $100,000 budget. That’s the kind of profit margin that draws even the attention of a normally secular Hollywood, which is why we now see a major studio such as Sony Pictures distributing films such as War Room, the latest effort from those same two former pastors. And it’s paying off. Just last week, War Room unseated the seemingly indestructible rap biopic Straight Out Of Compton to become the number one movie in the nation. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say the Christian film has long since left the church basements behind.
So it’s no surprise to find that this week sees the release of another high profile faith-based film, 90 Minutes In Heaven, based on the bestselling book of the same name by Protestant minister Don Piper. Starring a former Jedi knight (Hayden Christensen) as Piper and a one-time Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) as his wife Eva, 90 Minutes In Heaven relates the tale of Piper’s death in a car crash in 1989, his subsequent revival an hour and a half later, and the effects his claim to have seen Heaven had on his and his family’s life.
Sort of. In truth, the movie only gets around to directly addressing Piper’s visit to the pearly gates late in the film’s running time. Incorporating elements from Eva Piper’s own book, A Walk Through The Dark, the majority of the story is taken up by Don’s tortuous recovery and Eva’s struggle to make ends meet while he goes through it. In that way, the film becomes less of a dissertation on the reality of Heaven and more of a drama about a family in crisis and how their faith plays a part in helping them get through it.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When Facing The Giants was released, even some Christian reviewers criticized the film for its blatant sermonizing. Lisa Swain, Interim Chair of Biola University’s Mass Communication Department, was quoted as saying, “We get a lot of prayer scenes, a lot of lingering looks, a lot of swelling music. And it’s just superficial. There’s no subtext whatsoever… We get so caught up in wanting people to see Christ, we forget that they also have to see us. And by seeing our struggles, then they will see Christ. You don’t show Christ by showing them grace first. You have to show them the wound first.”
Now, whether or not director/writer Michael Polish was aware of Ms. Swain’s sentiments, her words act almost as a sort of playbook which the movie more or less follows. We do see Eva praying over the unconscious Don, but it’s the kind of brief “God, what are we going to do” type of petition any overwhelmed person might make. There’s little time for lingering looks as Don spends most of the movie in bed moaning in pain while Eva tries to pay the bills, even going so far as to hire an accident attorney (played by the always enjoyable Dwight Yoakam) whose number she gets off a billboard outside of a McDonald’s restaurant. And as for the swelling music… well, okay, it’s there, but they save most of it for the Heaven scenes.
Speaking of which, as this is being written for a Catholic publication, I suppose it’s time to address the spiritual elephant in the room, which is Don Piper’s claim to have seen Heaven (or at least the entry into it) during the period he was clinically declared dead. As with a surprising number of things, the Church has no direct teaching on the subject of what is commonly referred to as “near death experiences.” What it does have, though, is a few things to say about public and private revelations.
Basically, public revelation is the teachings of Christ and the apostles as found in Scripture and Tradition, and that type of revelation ended when the last apostle died. Anything found in public revelation, or the teachings resulting from a deepening understanding of it, is required to be believed. Private revelation is a bit different. It encapsulates any other message received from God by individuals, including such things as Marian apparitions and Saintly visions. There is no requirement to place any belief in private revelations, but as long the messages they contain are consistent with public revelation and they are found useful for spiritual growth, it’s okay for an individual to make them a part of their personal devotions.
Obviously, it’s within the category of private revelation which Piper’s vision of Heaven falls, so the question becomes, does it meet the criteria for use in personal devotion? Well, as presented in the movie, there’s not much more depicted other than some pretty clouds, a big gate, and a whole lot of folks showering Piper with love. It’s true that on Piper’s website he views his experience as confirming the standard Protestant stance on Purgatory (which is that there ain’t no such thing), but none of that talk shows up in the film. With regards to what’s onscreen, it’s all rather benign, so Catholics should be able to comfortably take or leave the veracity of Piper’s vision as they see fit.
Which leaves us with the almost as important question for a movie review, does it all make for a compelling story? As with so many other films, it may come down to individual expectation. Since the film doesn’t dwell too much on Piper’s actual vision, those hoping for an exploration of near death experiences may come away somewhat disappointed. But for those looking for a family drama in which the characters actually have religion as part of their lives, 90 Minutes In Heaven just might fill the bill nicely.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ivesspends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.