I recently picked up a copy of the New York Times bestseller Heaven Is for Real (Thomas Nelson, $16.99), in which Nebraska cleric Todd Burpo recounts his preschool son’s life-threatening peritonitis and subsequent surgeries, an ordeal during which young Colton allegedly enjoyed an audience with the God of Christian revelation.
Sensing an opportunity to hone my inveterate skepticism and critique the theistic worldview, I plunged into the book with a combination of morbid curiosity and mischievous glee. And, of course, there was always a chance that this presumably heartfelt memoir would inspire me to re-examine my own axiomatically fallible notions of how the universe works. You never know.
Even before I cracked the spine, my inner Voltaire was placed on alert. The front cover discloses that Mr. Burpo composed Heaven Is for Real in collaboration with Lynn Vincent, the professional journalist responsible for Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life. Now. Deep breath. Sarah Palin. My initial thought: if Palin is allowed to accuse President Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” am I allowed to accuse Lynn Vincent of palling around with pathological liars?
I quickly realized that the question is irrelevant. Heaven Is for Real, I decided, must stand or fall on its own internal logic and intrinsic merits, not on the résumé of Burpo’s holy ghostwriter.
JESUS-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK
The author’s—and Ms. Vincent’s—credibility goes off the rails as early as Chapter Two, when Burpo recounts his own medical tribulation: a 2002 mastectomy following what turned out to be a misdiagnosis of male breast cancer. Speaking of his initial needle biopsy, Burpo says, “The results that came back shocked me: hyperplasia. Translation: the precursor to breast cancer.” But that simply isn’t true. In the words of Dr. Susan Love, author of the famous Breast Book, “A diagnosis of hyperplasia does not put you at any increased risk for developing breast cancer.”
A few sentences later, we learn that the biblical Book of Job (a character with whom Burpo intensely identifies) is all about a man “who was struck with a series of increasingly bizarre symptoms.” Only it isn’t. Job’s misfortunes are not “symptoms”—they’re not Augustinian indices of inherent depravity—but rather God-induced traumas and afflictions. What’s going on here? I wondered. Undoubtedly Burpo and Vincent have a personal relationship with Jesus, but what sort of personal relationship do they have with the far less congenial universe of facts?
Shortly before the midpoint, in Chapter Eleven, Heaven Is for Real turns ugly and stays that way. Not long after his son’s release from the hospital, Pastor Burpo is asked to preside over the funeral of a man who “wasn’t a member of our congregation.” When Colton gets wind of this, he blurts out, ”He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven!” Bewildered by his son’s tirade—our pastor hasn’t yet tumbled to the fact that Jesus recently dandled the boy on his knee—Burpo tries to comfort him, saying, “I talked to some of the family members, and they told me he did.” The kid doesn’t buy it. “He had to! He had to! ... He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”
At this juncture I found myself hoping that the late Fred Rogers, a minister I can respect, would come fluttering down from the clouds and declare, “Now wait a minute, Colton—do you have any idea what you’re saying? Jesus is not in the business of consigning non-Christians to hell. Jesus likes all decent people just the way they are.” But if any such intervention occurred, Burpo and Vincent declined to record it.
In Chapter Twelve we finally get to heaven, which is evidently a kind of ongoing Sunday School pageant staged by Julie Taymor, complete with winged grandparents and haloed angels. What makes Colton’s journey so implausible is not the parochialism of it all, but the contrived incredulity with which Dad greets each new revelation from his son. Every time our sixty-pound prophet wafts out yet another theological insight or scriptural paraphrase, Burpo maddeningly insists that the gem in question couldn’t possibly trace to Colton’s upbringing, but only to a close encounter of the infinite kind.
That is an extremely silly argument. My twin grandsons are being raised in a household that delights in musical comedy. When they started spontaneously warbling the lyrics to “Make ’Em Laugh” at age two, miming the concomitant choreography, my daughter and son-in-law never once imagined that their kids had been magically transported across time and space to a Hollywood sound stage during the filming of Singin’ in the Rain.
Although Burpo and Vincent lace their text with ostensibly killer details, few of them withstand scrutiny. Consider the matter of Colton noticing “markers” on Jesus’ palms—which, of course, turn out to be the wounds he suffered during his execution. Alas, this cannot be the case. The Roman method of crucifixion involved driving a nail into the wrist (between the two sturdy bones—the radius and the ulna—that extend through the forearm from the elbow to the carpals) and into the wood beyond. A nail through the palm would have quickly torn through the adjacent flesh.
Even the most pious scholars acknowledge this historical fact, noting that the occurrence of Jesus’ perforated “hands” in John 20:25 and 27 represents a poor translation. Colton’s account would be more convincing if Jesus had said something like, “You’re probably wondering about my misplaced wounds. Well, laddie buck, in my case the Romans deviated from their normal practice, and God, being God, saw to it that I didn’t go flopping off the cross.”
Then there’s the business of Colton’s meeting his unborn sister in heaven—Burpo’s wife evidently suffered a miscarriage in 1998—and missing her terribly after he returns to planet Earth. For evangelicals this is doubtless an appealing episode, but it contradicts Colton’s subsequent disclosure that, once a dead Christian attains eternity, his essence is transplanted into a perpetually youthful, but eminently recognizable, adult body. In the case of the canceled sister, however, the rules were apparently suspended, and the fetus was required to mature in tandem with Colton, so they could enjoy a tearful quasi-reunion during his near-death experience.
In the final chapters, Burpo and Vincent completely lose it, abandoning all pretense to plausibility, and the whole thing turns into an infomercial for the bloody Book of Revelation—a text that, true to form, the authors inaccurately ascribe to “the apostle John.” Arrows are nocked. Swords come out. (All God’s angels pack heat, lest the Devil and his demons breach the pearly gates.) Standing to one side with the women and other children, Colton is accorded a sneak preview of Armageddon. “There’s going to be a war and it’s going to destroy the world,” he subsequently reports to his father. “Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people ... And, Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”
And who are the “bad people” in this Tim LaHaye wet dream? The little sock puppet doesn’t say, and I’m just as glad. I wouldn’t want to hear his answer.
SAINT PAUL’S FOLLY
By the evidence of Heaven Is for Real, Burpo and his coauthor boast between them the intellectual curiosity of a charcoal briquette. Take, for example, the radical disjuncture between Colton’s dispatches and the venerable Christian notion of Judgment Day. By Colton’s account, heaven is happening right now, on a plane parallel to our world. And yet, for millions of Christians, salvation is something that occurs only in an indeterminate future, after time has run its course—a doctrine routinely stamped with the imprimatur of First Corinthians 15:5: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” For whatever reason, Colton’s father makes nothing of the astonishing news that, concerning the nontrivial matter of personal redemption, Saint Paul got it wrong and Bil Keane’s The Family Circus gets it right.
Burpo is equally unmoved when it develops that Colton left Jehovah’s throne room in possession of a radically deviant version of Christianity. As every schoolboy knows and every schoolgirl understands, throughout its formative years the gentile Church was obliged to deal with the rogue theology of Bishop Arius, who held that, though surely divine, Jesus exists on a lower plane than the King of the Universe, having been created by God much as a father begets a son or daughter. At the first Council of Nicaea, Arianism was roundly repudiated, and yet in Heaven Is for Real it makes a triumphant return—an astonishing development on which Burpo and Vincent mysteriously decline to remark.
A few examples will suffice. When Colton’s mother asks him whether his miscarried sister was adopted by Jesus, he replies, “No, Mommy. His Dad did.” Recalling the holy throne room, Colton remarks, “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s!” Articulating the essence of his chat with the Nazarene, Colton explains, “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.” For reasons I cannot fathom, Burpo and Vincent evidently failed to notice that Colton went to heaven a Methodist and came back a heretic.
From the first page to the last, the authors of Heaven Is for Real fail to raise the most obvious questions concerning Colton’s mini-rapture. Why doesn’t Jesus vouchsafe these eschatological day trips to children more benighted than Colton—kids growing up in a Buddhist households, say, or youngsters afflicted with atheist parents, or preschoolers in Tehran? Why was Colton Burpo and only Colton Burpo elected to be the New York Times messiah? And how is it that Jesus happens to be such a four-square fundamentalist, continually implying to his pint-sized visitor that smart money rides on biblical literalism, when generations of honorable—and frequently believing—scholars have flushed out scores of contradictions and inaccuracies in scripture?
The reader searches in vain for a single moment in Colton’s excursion that partakes of the noble, the puzzling, the irreducible, the uplifting, or the unexpected. If only Burpo and Vincent had summoned the courage to have Colton say something like “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really upchuck when rich people have to pay proportionally higher taxes?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus is simply crazy about Darwin’s theory of natural selection?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really care when a man’s wee-wee takes an inordinate interest in another man’s wee-wee?” Throughout my reading experience, I kept hearing the sound of Lynn Vincent biting her tongue. Oh, how desperately she must have wanted to make her mouthpiece report that Jesus detests universal health care, gun control, gay marriage, gay anything else, environmental regulations, the Democratic party, and the separation of church and state. Somehow she resisted this temptation, which I suppose speaks well of the woman, or at least of her professional acumen. Thank God for small favors.
LIES, HALF-LIES, AND REDEMPTION
To state my case succinctly, Heaven Is for Real is a hoax. Whether by accident or design, Burpo, Vincent, and young Colton have given us as ignoble and cynical a memoir as might be imagined, right up there with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the oeuvre of Carlos Castaneda.
Having made that harsh accusation, I suppose I should now recuse myself from the conversation. After all, the book in question was manifestly not written for atheists like myself. It was concocted by devout believers for devout believers. The author of Towing Jehovah must be the last person Burpo and Vincent imagined picking up Heaven Is for Real and—in his own impertinent fashion—taking it seriously.
And yet I’m not quite ready to leave Todd, Lynn, and Colton to their folie à trois. I like to believe that Burpo-debunking blog-posts like mine will open up a space in which all of us—the trio in question, their many critics, their countless admirers—might find some sort of mutual and ecumenical redemption. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but it seems to me that, for all my disgruntlement, I’m not the one building barriers here. That’s Burpo and Vincent’s game. I’m not the person erecting ramparts of hellfire and Manichaean dualism and apocalyptic fantasy. That’s all coming from master Colton, aided by his injudicious father and Sarah Palin’s ventriloquist. I didn’t write this violent, obscene, and mendacious book. They did.
Somehow, some way, I want to reach out to these souls. I want to take them by the lapels and insist, lovingly but firmly, that it’s a bad thing, an ungodly thing, for Christians to deceive other Christians, even in the name of a presumed greater good. I want to tell them that, if the observable counts for anything, then Homo sapiens is not really on a package tour to eternity—in fact, we’re already where we belong: fellow citizens of planet Earth, bound together by shared genetic ligaments, reveling in the gift of life and our common status as risen apes. And given this condition, our first order of business must be, if such a thing is possible, to cut the crap.
One of my favorite moments in movie history occurs when Claude Rains as the diplomat Dryden turns to Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence and says, “If we’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”
Like my hero Voltaire, I’m a meliorist, perhaps even an optimist. I like to think that, sooner or later, the creators of Heaven Is for Real will seize the moral high ground. “We deeply regret our actions,” Todd, Lynn, and Colton will tell the world. “We embellished, we exaggerated, we made stuff up, we left stuff out, we fibbed prolifically—indeed, we perpetrated an egregious and unconscionable swindle. In Jesus’ name, we pray that we might do better in the years that remain to us.”
Yes, quite so, such is my fractured faith in humanity, such is my confidence that Todd, Lynn, and Colton are far better people than their book, I can actually imagine them stepping forward one day with a promise to begin telling the truth.
But first they will have to remember where they put it.