The movie Heaven Is for Real—based on the book by the same name—tells the story of minister Todd Burpo and his four-year-old son Colton. The main plot revolves around Colton’s near-death experience and his claims that while undergoing surgery he visited heaven and sat on Jesus’ lap. Burpo struggles to define what happened to Colton for himself as well as for the community of faith to which he ministers.
Then & Now
Religious historians take on the present
American evangelicals and mainliners often seem worlds apart when it comes to engagement with social issues. Take prisons as a case in point. The rhetoric diverges along the lines that one might expect: mainliners rail against the American mass incarceration system, the new Jim Crow that locks away minorities and the poor and is sustained by in-prison private labor and for-profit facilities. They want to fight this sinful system through activism (protests and petitions), academia (lectures and scholarly books), and artistic endeavors (photo essays and poetry). Evangelicals seek inmate conversion.
Long before Sarah Palin met CPAC and the Duck Dynasty clan discovered A&E, George Gallup Jr. famously declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Subsequent commentators often pluralized “evangelical.” They might have done the same for “year,” too. In many years hence—1980, say, or 2004—it was 1976 all over again, to judge from the headlines. Those election years highlighted the Christian Right, a force that was not on Gallup’s radar screen back when Jimmy Carter was the prototypical evangelical in public life. The years of the evangelicals were not only about campaign politics, however.
As Easter approaches, raising the dead is at the forefront of my mind. But I think of a different vision of resurrected dead, zombies. The popular monsters reanimate as gruesome bodies; their essential natures, spirits, or souls are absent. Zombies are a reckoning of the horror of the dead coming back to life.
The Sportsman Channel touts its newest series, Amazing America with Sarah Palin, in a three-minute video making the rounds on social media. The video, a recording by “the most patriotic band in America,” Madison Rising, contains rousing lyrics, while a variety of activities flash by in rapid succession: men fighting fires, men shooting guns, women shooting guns, men running with bulls, men riding down zip lines, cars racing, and Sarah Palin on a dogsled pulled by pink-booted sled dogs.
How does a college kid produce a Youtube sensation about Jesus that received 27 million hits? And become a New York Times bestselling author with Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough before his 25th birthday? Jeff Bethke’s breakthrough video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” resonates with millennial evangelicals.
States are backsliding one by one in allowing marijuana legalization, the president is comparing the drug to alcohol, and Christian Right stalwart Pat Robertson reversed his harsh views on weed—what’s an evangelical to do in these high times? Are evangelicals undergoing a sea change in their thought about marijuana usage? Maybe. Or maybe not.
The Times of Israel reported in early March on a controversy involving Jewish residents of East Jerusalem upset about how loudly a nearby mosque was broadcasting the adhan, or Islamic call to prayer. Amidst all of the problems confronting Israeli and Palestinian society, one might be forgiven for having missed this story. It was only a dispute about noise, after all. Yet this was hardly an isolated event.
Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a black Mormon pioneer, was known to some Latter-day Saints historians in the latter part of the 20th century but was hardly a household name. Linda King Newell and Valerie Tippets Avery wrote the first well-researched article about Jane in LDS Church publication The Ensign. Subsequent Mormon authors focused on the early years of Jane’s life, particularly on founder Joseph Smith accepting her and her family into his home.
Son of God is a dud. Just don’t tell that to the film’s producers, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. They found evidence of divine favor in the “truly miraculous” support they received from Catholic and evangelical leaders. It brought in $26.5 million its first weekend. Burnett and Downey’s marketing approach makes good business sense and has plenty of precedent.