Sunday, 22 January 2012
Heaven Is For Real
If you've been following along, on this blog, by now you've likely picked up on the fact that I am a fairly avid reader. It occurred to me, the other day, that over the past few years, in particular, I have read dozens of books that are probably worth commenting on at some point or another. So, beginning now, I'd like to mix in the occasional book review. Really, I have no formal system in mind so I will simply write, about this book or that book, as the mood strikes me.
With that said, for this post I'd like to offer some thoughts on (the #1 New York Times Bestseller) "Heaven Is For Real"...
This book tells the story of four year old Colton Burpo, now 12, from the perspective of his father Todd (a Christian minister). Long story short, the family claims that Colton went to heaven, during a near death experience on the operating table (his appendix burst). According to the timeline given, at the back of the book, Colton was actually three when he had these experiences (but four by the time he began talking about them).
Let's get straight to what I think is the best of the hard "evidence"; the book claims that...
a) Colton met his great grandfather, "Pop", who had died 30 years earlier (and later supposedly recognized a picture of Pop, as a young man, since "no one is old in heaven").
b) Colton knew what his parents were doing, including where they were, while he was unconscious on the operating table.
c) Colton talked to his sister, a child that miscarried years earlier (and that he purportedly knew nothing about).
Now, as we'll see, these weren't the only things that Colton did during his short time (three minutes) in heaven. Not by a long shot. But, never fear, Colton had plenty of time to squeeze it all in since (as chapter fourteen reminds us) "a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day", on heaven's timetable.
Initially, Colton speaks "only" of sitting on Jesus' lap, in the hospital, while the angels were singing to him. From the prologue...
"'Well, they sang 'Jesus Loves Me' and 'Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,'' he said earnestly. 'I asked them to sing 'We Will, We Will Rock You', but they wouldn't sing that.'"
Later on, Colton's parents begin to suspect that he had much more than an out of body experience (as if that weren't enough to process). How exactly he got from the hospital room, with Jesus and the angels, to heaven itself is never explained. I mean, did they fly? Did Jesus snap his fingers, teleporting everyone instantly from one location to the other? The reader is left to wonder.
Listen as Todd Burpo describes the very moment he realized his son had actually been to heaven...
"Just as I was processing the implications of my son's statement---that he had met John the Baptist--Colton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at. 'Hey Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?' 'A horse?' 'Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There's lots of colors.' Lots of colors? What was he talking about? 'Where are there lots of colors, Colton?' 'In heaven, Dad. That's where all the rainbow colors are.' That set my head spinning. Suddenly I realized that up until that point, I'd been toying with the idea that maybe Colton had had some sort of divine visitation. Maybe Jesus and the angels had appeared to him in the hospital...Now it was dawning on me that not only was my son saying he had left his body; he was saying he had left the hospital!"
For a short time this creates some cognitive dissonance in Todd since, after all, Colton didn't actually die on the operating table. So, how could he go to heaven if he didn't die?...
"Then I remembered that the Bible talks in several places about people who had seen heaven without dying. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about a Christian he knew personally who was taken to heaven..."
One of the more intriguing revelations comes in chapter 13...
"This statement marked the beginning of a period that I wished we had written down. During this conversation and for the next year or so, Colton could name a lot of the kids he said were in heaven with him. He doesn't remember their names now, though, and neither do Sonja nor I."
How unfortunate (and convenient).
As the book continues Colton reveals a number of other juicy nuggets, about heaven, such as the fact that Jesus is the only one who doesn't have wings. Apparently, he just goes "up and down like an elevator". Oh, and everyone there has "a light above their head". Colton also got to literally see Jesus shooting down power, to his Dad, during sermon time in church. How cool is that?!
But things get even weirder as the book rolls on. According to chapter 25, "the angels carry swords so they can keep Satan out of heaven". Listen, as Todd comments on his son's most recent revelation...
"But how did a six year old know that? Yes, Colton had had two more years of Sunday school by then, but I knew for a fact that our curriculum didn't include lessons on Satan's living arrangements."
"'Hey Colton, I bet you asked if you could have a sword, didn't you?' I said. At that, Colton's smile melted into a dejected frown, and his shoulders slumped toward the floor. 'Yeah, I did. But Jesus wouldn't let me have one. He said I'd be too dangerous.' I chuckled a little, wondering if Jesus meant Colton would be a danger to himself or others."
And a few minutes later...
"'Hey Colton', I said. 'Did you see Satan?' 'Yeah, I did,' he said solemnly. 'What did he look like?' At this, Colton's body went rigid, he grimaced, and his eyes narrowed to a squint."
And I highly recommend you buckle your seatbelt, because things get even more bizarre in chapter 26. Listen, as Colton tells his Dad all about "the coming war"...
"'There's going to be a war, and it's going to destroy this world. Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people. I saw it.' I thought of the battle described in the book of Revelation, and my heartbeat skipped up a notch. 'How did you see that?' 'In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch. So I stood back and watched.' Strangely, his voice was sort of cheerful, as though he were talking about a good movie he'd seen. 'But the men, they have to fight. And Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.'"
And later in the chapter...
"'Yeah, Dad but it's okay,' he said reassuringly. 'Jesus wins. He throws Satan into hell. I saw it.'"
Alright, I think you get the idea. Let's re-cap...the angels sang (at least two) songs to Colton while he was sitting on Jesus' lap, still in the hospital. At some (unspecified) point afterward, Colton and company went to heaven (instantly?), at which time Colton had more conversations with Jesus, John the Baptist, his great grandfather, his sister, and possibly others. Then, Jesus gives Colton several super cool demonstrations, including one of him zapping down power to his Dad during church services, as well as a (movie like) preview of the final battle between good and evil. For the big finale Jesus tops it all off by showing Colton what it will be like when Satan is thrown into Hell once and for all.
Oh, and did I mention that God is "really, really big" and that Colton also saw the thrones that God, Jesus, and the angel Gabriel actually sit on? In between all of this, Jesus also managed to relay several messages to Colton, most notably that "he had to be good" and that "Jesus really loves the little children".
I hope you'll forgive me for that (rather lengthy) summary, but, I felt it was important to set the stage, as fully as possible, before giving my personal opinions on "Heaven Is For Real". Frankly, it's always difficult to critique books like this. I very much want to respect people's personal stories and, really, who am I to tell the Burpo's what did or didn't happen to Colton? I don't even know these people. Having said that, by way of disclaimer, I'd now like to offer a few speculative thoughts on why I personally did not find this story convincing.
First off, I couldn't help but notice that neither Todd or Sonja ever question the veracity of anything that Colton says about his supernatural experiences. Ever. It seems they became fully convinced of the story's legitimacy, right from the get go, because of details that Colton supposedly revealed during that very first conversation about it (the one re: Jesus and the angels in his hospital room). It's as if they give Colton a free pass, after this point, and believe literally everything he tells them over the next several years. Everything. This struck me as somewhat odd since, as a parent myself, I know that kids tend to mix truth and falsehood together in a way that adults typically don't. So, frequently there are nuggets of truth to what a child is saying, but that doesn't automatically entail that every word of it is 100% accurate. This is where parents need to step in, with discernment, to gently help the given child sort out fact from fiction.
Secondly, while Todd makes it very clear that he was careful not to plant ideas in Colton's head, it never seems to occur to him that Colton may be embellishing the story in order to please his parents. Now, I'm not suggesting here that Colton is lying, intentionally, but kids have a way of picking up on the fact that parents are especially interested in a particular topic. And often they continue on, with that topic, because of how the parents are reacting to it, and this tends to lead (even inadvertently) to embellishment. In my own experience, as a parent, this is especially true prior to the age of about 7 or 8, after which time it tends to naturally ease up a bit, as the child matures. But, by this age, Colton would have been several years into the re-telling, having received affirmation over and over again (through both verbal and non verbal cues) that his experience was real. Any window, for self reflection and analytical thought, on Colton's part (ie. that perhaps he overheard more than he realized, and/or that he had a dream, and/or that perhaps he knew some of these things from church or Christian books etc. etc.), would long since have passed. In other words, I think that Colton now believes that he really went to heaven. But, remember, he was 3 years old when this happened. How likely would you be, to completely trust your memory (much less interpretation) of most anything that happened when you were 3 years old?
Lastly, this book seemed to lose credibility as the story went on. Many of the really rad parts, about what happened in heaven, seem to only have been revealed by Colton years after the fact. Now, Todd would likely claim that this is because he didn't want to push Colton too hard, but actually it seems, from the book, that Colton was typically very eager to talk about it whenever the subject was broached.
In short, my tentative conclusion is that Colton's parents are, in all likelihood, simply more credulous than they ought to be. As one of the reviewers on Amazon has put it, they probably owe Colton an apology; for believing every word of what he has told them. They are, after all, his parents, and it's up to them to help Colton learn to think carefully.
So my question to the Burpo's would be this...has Colton said anything, about heaven, over the past 9 years, that you don't believe? Anything at all? If the answer is "no", this should ring alarm bells. Some (ok, all) of this stuff is pretty fantastic, and it would seem that the story pretty much rises and falls together, becoming increasingly more implausible as multiple new layers are added, by Colton, year after year after year.
I should mention that I've also watched numerous videos, of both Colton and his Dad, discussing this experience (just google it and you'll find plenty). And, I don't mean this to sound like nitpicking, but, I have to say that I find Colton even less credible in person than I do in print. It comes off to me as if he is just parroting the same answers over and over. And he uses an awful lot of biblical phrasing and terminology when he is "remembering" things...let's just say it's quite easy to tell this kid spends a great deal of time in church.
Some will no doubt accuse the Burpo's of manufacturing the whole affair. Let me state, plainly, that I do not believe this to be the case. I believe that they believe it.
But one also has to wonder, if this were in fact real, than what's the point? Is God hoping this story will convince the skeptics? Then surely he would've revealed something to Colton (about future events, perhaps?) that might have a hope and a prayer of accomplishing these ends. As it happens, "Heaven Is For Real" has just enough in it to be interesting (thus the bestselling status) but not nearly enough to be convincing to anyone with a sufficiently critical eye.