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The Independent Critic

 Heaven is for Real: An Interview With Todd Burpo 

You may not recognize the name Todd Burpo right away, but there's a pretty good chance that you've read his book or, at the very least, you've heard the story of how the Nebraska pastor's four-year-old son Colton's near-death experience during a surgery led to an extraordinary testimony of his visit to heaven. When he awoke from that surgical procedure, Colton returned to the family home with memories and experiences that even many Christians, including for awhile Todd himself, would consider to be impossible as he was able to describe his parents' behaviors while he was on the operating table and, perhaps, even more dramatically, he was able to share dramatic testimonies about family events of which he'd never been told. "Heaven is for Real" became a best-selling book and has sold over eight million copies. "Heaven is for Real" now arrives in movie theaters on Easter and Todd Burpo, the real life father of Colton, took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to The Independent Critic.

The Independent Critic

First off, I want to thank you for your time. I'm really excited about the film and am grateful for the chance to get to talk to you and to really give the film a push. You kind of waited a little while to move into a film project for Heaven is for Real. It's not a long time, but the book came out in 2010. Was it intentional to wait a bit?

TODD BURPO

To be honest, the book hit the bestseller's list. People approached us pretty quickly.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I bet.

TODD BURPO

It was something that I was very hesitant to do. I didn't want to enter into any relationship with anyone who didn't protect the integrity of the story. That was my biggest concern. From what I understand in Hollywood, this film has really been on a fast track. From our original agreement to talk to the film being released in movie theaters it's going to be about three years. I don't have anything to compare it to, but the people at Sony who make movies all the time tell me that this has been a fast process from the start to where we see something in theaters. That's what I've been told.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What made you go the Hollywood studio route? A lot of times with this type of film, you'll see them being distributed by a faith-based distributor or a smaller indie distributor. You went with a major Hollywood distributo and one that many, I guess, would call a secular distributor.

TODD BURPO

Well, God made that choice. It came out of many hours of prayer and out of God just really saying that this is who He wanted us to work with. Personally, without all that time and prayer I wouldn't have done this. God has really spoken to me that this is really what He wanted me to do and he was going to say at the end of the day "You can trust me." The people who came with me through this project like DeVon Franklin, who's the executive at Sony, Mr. Jakes, Randall Wallace ... These are all Christian men who are working in Hollywood and who have supported this project.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It seems like Hollywood is getting more and more open to faith-based films. This film, and I think you've mentioned this before in other interviews, has a lot of cross-over appeal. The story has a lot of cross-over appeal. I think that it's going to appeal to a lot more than the usual faith-based market.

TODD BURPO

Exactly. The thing is that it's based in the real struggle of a family who almost loses a child. I think we've all had children say amazing things to us and we wonder where that came from and there's just the whole honesty that a four-year-old can't make this stuff up. That's going to be penetrating on film as people wrestle with it just like we had to. To a person of faith, it took me awhile to come around to what my son was saying to me. No one prepared me at any point in my life for something like this - "Okay, your son at four almost dies and he's going to go to heaven and this is how you talk to your son about that." You're going to see the whole reality of that struggle on film. It was a struggle for us.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I wondered about that. As Christians, a lot of times we look for that kind of a deep, rich, and meaningful spiritual experience. We want to experience Jesus and we want to have what you could really call a defining faith experience. Your son had that kind of experience at the age of four-years-old. As a father, I would think that would be astounding. You were a pastor at that time, am I correct?

TODD BURPO

Yeah. It was awkward. You really have to understand that here I am not only a dad, but also a pastor. I'm dealing with the fact that my four-year-old knows more about God than I do. 

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THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I wondered about that. As a pastor, that would have to be a really huge dilemma.

TODD BURPO

For me, at least having the knowledge I had and knowing what was in the Bible and knowing that my son didn't read those things and couldn't read those things...There's a point where it was compelling, because there's no way a kid can not only make up what he's telling about my life but also the things that he was saying that intersected with Scriptures. I didn't have to go run and check. I'd already read the Scriptures. I was hearing the same thing from my son. One of the many things I was hearing from my son as a child was "Dad, why don't adults believe the Bible?" How do you answer that to a kid?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Has he stayed this way now? He was four-years-old when everything happened. As I recall, he's fourteen-years-old now?

TODD BURPO

Yeah, he's still that precise of a kid. If you ask him "What time did you get up this morning," he'll say "I got up at 7:22." He won't say "7:30" or whatever, he's still factual and black-and-white. That's who Colton Burpo is.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How do his siblings deal with that and really deal with all of this? I mean, all of this is still a very big part of his life.

TODD BURPO

Well, he still fights with them (laughs) back and forth. I think in the book, and you'll see this in the movie, his sister says "Yeah, my brother's still no angel." He never lost his boyness because he went to heaven. You'll see that in the story and in what he remembers about heaven and what he has to say about it. You'll see that it's not only the perspective of a child, but it's the perspective of a little boy. Women get frustrated. They'll ask him "Well, what was your room like?" He'll be like "I don't care what that was like." You ask him about the Archangel Michael's flaming sword and he'll tell you all about how long that sword is, how big it is, and the size of the handle. This is a boy. You're going to get a boy's version of heaven.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

(Pause) You are one of those people that when I found out I'd be interviewing you that it didn't really require a lot of background searching and stuff like that. I really felt like "Okay, I know the facts." This is really just about curiosity. Can you kind of talk a bit about this journey that you've been on? I mean you went through this experience of almost losing your son. At some point, you clearly made this decision to start writing down the story. At some point, you've also obviously made this decision to widen the reach of the story by allowing it to be turned into a film. Can you describe that journey a little bit?

TODD BURPO

I think one of the scenes in the movie which I think is a huge thing is when Colton tells his mom about having his sister in heaven. We had a miscarriage and that was a hurt that we didn't know how to deal with and I think a lot of people don't know how to deal with it. When my son told me that he met the sister and that we had a baby that died in mom's tummy, and we'd never told him about that we experienced a major healing that day. When I was in prayer, God spoke to me and said "Remember the peace that you got from that? Is it right for you to keep that peace to yourself?" That's been one of the big miracles of our story. For all of those people who've lost children, especially unborn children like we did, the healing that they're finding from what my son experienced is similar to what we experienced and that's what has really been a big motivator for us. 

Connor Corum as Colton Burpo, Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo in "Heaven is for Real."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I have to tell you that I was one of those people who avoided the book for quite awhile. I was really cynical about the whole thing. I was like "Okay, this is a cute story with a four-year-old kid and now let's sell millions of books and get rich." But, I did read the book and you read the book and you do get a different feeling. Then, I went to your website which has this incredibly humble feeling to it. I know that I'm not the only cynical one, because I've talked to others. How did you deal with that kind of cynicism or wariness?

TODD BURPO

I think sometimes that people today, I don't know, I just think that there's just so much bad news out there that it's hard for us to believe something that's good. I was his dad and I was cynical. How embarrassing is that? That's the truth, though.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I love that you allow that to be portrayed.

TODD BURPO

I think we live in a world where we're trying to be cynical. I think God knew that's why the world needed a kid. A four-year-old doesn't have the cynicism. They're not contaminated. He just saw what he saw. I think it's the whole amazing fact that there's this child sitting down with adults and saying "Let me tell you what I saw." The Bible tells us to have a childlike faith. How much better is a child's faith and wonder than us old cynics?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How has this entire experience affected you? I mean, in terms of your ministry and your own faith journey?

TODD BURPO

I think it's that peace that I talked about. Peace is a powerful thing. When you have peace, you're bolder but you don't have to argue. There's a scene in the movie where I say to another character "You never have to apologize for a broken part that you carry." We know what it's like to not have peace and to question "God, you didn't do what I asked for here." I tell people all the time that faith is a struggle and if you keep taking those struggles to God that God does not give up on strugglers. I think that's one of the big messages of Heaven is for Real.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, what are you really hoping that people take from watching this film?

TODD BURPO

I think it's the "wow" factor that this is true. Just like you said, we come into it as a cynic. What if people walk out of that theater going "You know, I think God is real. Heaven is real, because God is real and God might care about me, too." I do believe that everything that Jesus did for Colton that he wants to do for everybody else. If we can just introduce some people to that possibility, it'll all be worth it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I sometimes have wondered if we don't just completely surpass our own little miracles that are a lot like what Colton has experienced. I think maybe that's the great thing about Colton being four-years-old when all of this occurred. He did still possess that sense of wonder and awe and openness. As we grow up, it seems like we lose that and I sometimes wonder if we don't become blinded to the miracles that do surround us and we pass by those rich, faith-defining experiences that we so desperately want to have.

TODD BURPO

I think you're correct. Kids look at animals and they look at rainbows and they have a sense of wonder about them. As adults, we look at them and think "Oh, that's normal." I think that's why grandkids are such a wonderful thing. It's our second shot at enjoying life through our grandkids.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I want to be respectful of your time. Final question. Are you happy with the film?

TODD BURPO

We sat down as a family and talked about the film. My kids saw the film. Every one of us as we went around the family table said "We need to support this." To me, as a dad, regardless of what the critics say what really matters to me is what my kids say. Those are the critics who matter to me. Not only are we happy with the quality of the film, but I've seen audiences cry and cheer. Not only is this a high quality film, but I'm happy with the message of the film and happy that my kids can watch it and say "Dad, we need to support this." So, yes, I'm really happy with this film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Once again, I thank you for your time and I wish you the best as you move closer to the film's opening. I'll be praying for you and your family as you take this next journey with Heaven is for Real.

"Heaven is for Real" opens nationwide in theaters on April 16, 2014. The film stars Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, and newcomer Connor Corum as Colton Burpo. "Heaven is for Real" is directed by Randall Wallace, an Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay for "Braveheart." For more information, visit the "Heaven is for Real" Facebook page.

Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
Copyright 2014

 

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