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Miracles from Heaven

March 16, 2016
Miracles from Heaven

I never have been able to stand evangelical glurge pieces like Miracles from Heaven. Yes, this is a bias of mine, and I’ll be up-front about it. As far as I can tell, if you’re a fan of this sort of movies like Soul Surfer or Heaven Is for Real, you’ll probably love this one too.

This is not to say that I’m categorically opposed to Christian themes in film, or even that I’ll only consider densely metaphysical and abstruse ponderings like Malick’s Knight of Cups. I regularly point to The Way as a great example of how a movie can be accessible, overtly Christian, and truly satisfying, all at the same time. But while it can be done well, it so rarely is, and better critics than I have delved into why.

But generalities don’t explain why I found this movie, in particular, so lacking. To put it bluntly: for a story seemingly positioned to teach a moral lesson, Miracles from Heaven indulges and encourages a simplistic theology. And yes, I know about Matthew 18 saying we should “turn and become like children” in trusting God, but I also remember Paul suggesting we “put aside childish” thoughts and reasoning. That, I think, is the real schism here; I want Christian movies to encourage the audience to grow and deepen their faith, not simply to tell them what they already want to hear.

So when, before the Beam’s tribulations begin, the girls — Anna (Kylie Rogers), along with older sister Abbie (Brighton Sharbino) and younger sister Adelynn (Courtney Fansler) — all pray for things and favors, it’s understandable. They’re children, after all. Their mother, Christy (Jennifer Garner), may worry about blowing their home equity expanding the veterinary clinic their father, Kevin (Martin Henderson), runs, but they still seem fairly well-off, with a big house on a big plot of land outside Fort Worth.

Then Anna develops a chronic gastrointestinal illness, and they still all pray, well, for things and favors. Sure, they’re all centered around Anna getting better, or the family having enough resources to make it through. When these feel uncertain, Christy gets upset and has a crisis of faith. To its credit, the movie resists — though it stops short of flat-out contradicting — the carrot-and-stick morality advanced by some of the Beams’ fellow congregants. But in the end, God’s love is explicitly made manifest in terms of wish-fulfillment. Just keep the faith, it says, and you’ll get what you ask for, whether that’s an appointment with the country’s leading pediatric gastroenterologist (Eugenio Derbez) trying to be the nest Patch Adams, or a Sassy Black Lady (Queen Latifah) with kids of her own who will take the day off from waiting tables to show the adorable little white girl and her mom around Boston.

Even these “miracles” don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny, though. Yes, God may have touched the heart of Dr. Nurko’s receptionist so she’d suggest he bump Anna up on the waiting list. But what about the kid whose place she took? the added delay wasn’t quite so miraculous for their family. Sure, it’s easy to focus on the adorable little girl the story places front and center, and to let everyone else just fade away into abstraction, but a truly mature sense of morality has to take them into account. Waving it off by saying they must somehow have been less deserving brings us right back to the carrot-and-stick model from before. And when Anna’s condition is amazingly sent into remission in an accident that by rights should have been an even greater tragedy, it seems that she never really needed to take up the doctor’s time after all.

Of course, the movie doesn’t even think through that much, since it starts making the whole thesis about divine intervention a lot murkier and more complicated, and the one thing this sort of movie cannot bear is complication. It prefers, at all times, nice simple black and white answers. It offers Good Guys to cheer and Bad Guys to boo, with all but explicit directions on the screen to guide the audience.

And I’ll admit that life would be a lot simpler if it just came with such neatly pre-packaged solutions. But I remember another passage from Luke that makes this impossible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. This reciprocity is so hard to capture in stories that by their nature makes some characters leads and other characters background.

We only ever see the emergency room doctor as he relates to the Beams, so it’s easy to gasp and tut when he doesn’t automatically run every test in the hospital and analyze their results with the expertise of a specialist. The movie doesn’t show us the dozens of other patients he’s been treating on the same twelve-hour shift. It’s easy to disapprove of the father of another sick girl who politely and gently expresses his disapproval of Anna’s evangelism, and then warmly cheer his conversion experience, but how would a Christian audience feel if Anna’s roommate had wanted to teach her to say Kaddish, or Salat al-Istikharah?

Morality and the problem of evil are not and cannot be as simple as movies like Miracles from Heaven would have us believe. They rely on an audience willing to believe everything they have to say, and blinker itself against anything else. I’m sure it’s an easy, comfortable faith that’s willing to go along like that, but it’s not one I can believe in.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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