Friday, December 23, 2011
Book Review: Heaven is For Real
Right up front, let me say that I think Todd Burpo’s book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back is one of the most naive, superficial, and disturbing “Christian” books I’ve read for a long time.
In brief, the book purports to tell of a 4 year old’s journey to heaven during a surgical procedure for a severe ruptured appendix. Following the procedure, and over a period of months and years, Colton, Todd’s son, gradually “revealed” bits and pieces of his alleged journey to heaven. Here’s what he “discovered” and/or “experienced” on his journey:
- angels sang to him while he was in hospital
- he was sitting on Jesus’ lap while he was in heaven
- while in heaven, he saw his father praying in a small room in the hospital and his mother in a different room talking on the phone and praying
- he met John the Baptist in heaven
- Jesus has a rainbow coloured horse and wears a golden crown with a pink diamond
- he was given “homework” to do in heaven while he was being cared for by his deceased grandfather – Pop
- everyone in heaven has wings and flies around from place to place – except for Jesus who who levitates up and down like an elevator
- everyone in heaven has a light above their heads (Todd Burpo interprets this in the book as a halo)
- God is ‘really, really big’ and is so big he holds the world in his hands
- Jesus sits at the right hand of God, Gabriel sits on God’s left, and the Holy Spirit is “kind of blue” and sits somewhere in the vicinity of the other three.
- the gates of heave are made of gold and pearls
- after Colton’s return to earth, he became obsessed with rainbows because of the incredible number of colours he saw in heaven
- at times, following his return from heaven, Colton saw ‘power shot down from heaven’ while his dad was preaching
- there are swords and bows and arrows in heaven that the angels use to keep Satan out of heaven
- the weaponry described above will apparently be used in a coming battle that destroys the world – and Colton’s dad will be fighting in that battle
- the final battle will be against actual dragons and monsters while the women and children stand and watch the men fighting them
- he meets ‘a sister’ in heaven – who was lost through miscarriage by the mother years before – and which the parents claim they never spoke to Colton about
- he claimed to see Satan in heaven but wouldn’t say what he looked like
- and he described what Jesus looked like, comparing people’s ideas of Jesus in their artworks as not right, until he was shown a painting of Christ by Akiane Kramarik which he said got the picture of Jesus right
There are a number of reasons one should be highly sceptical of this book. Firstly, Colton was just 4 years old when he began to talk about his experience mostly prompted by his father – except for the first of his comments about the angels singing to him when he was having his surgery. Four year old children are renowned for making up stories and not being able, at this age, to distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, many children have imaginary friends and use their imagination constantly in making up stories while engaging in play. It would seem that the parents are still thinking like four year olds if they take what their kid says as literally true!
Secondly, why so many months and years for the story to develop – with the prompting of the parents? Surely if a child visited heaven they’d come back and be talking about it excitedly all at once – at least to start with. Haven’t we all heard children bubble over with enthusiasm after having an exciting experience? Not Colton. He doesn’t even mention it until he happens to say something about where his parents were during his operation. But given that it takes years for his whole “story” to come out, one has to wonder how much of it was constructed in response to his father’s questioning.
Thirdly, the “information” provided by Colton is so obviously consistent with an evangelical fundamentalist view that it is not hard to see it has being informed by this culture as he grew up. Colton’s father is a pastor and he admits to reading Bible stories to Colton as he grew up. He would have attended Sunday School and been exposed to all the detail he has described even if unconsciously. It’s not surprising that his description of heaven draws on that culture.
Fourthly, Colton’s father holds to a literalist reading of the biblical Book of Revelation which most people quite rightly understand to be highly symbolic and figurative. Colton describes things like swords and horses (rainbow coloured, no less, obviously similar to the children’s Rainbow Brite toy!) in heaven and his father believes they are truly in heaven because verses in Revelation confirm it! So does Colton’s father believe there is really a slain lamb/lion creature actually there too?
Fifthly, if Colton’s descriptions of God on thrones with angels using swords to keep Satan out of heaven are to be taken literally, then God has been caught in an Old Testament era time warp. Are they really suggesting that God has eternally sat on thrones, ridden horses, fought with swords against real dragons? Most biblical scholars (and most Christians) would have a much more mature view of these issues than the childish view that Colton and his parents have. But then, of course, according to this book, we are to become like little children in our faith and just accept all this stuff without question.
Finally, the idea that Colton has told them a few things that he just couldn’t have known about is highly unlikely. Church communities are renowned gossiping communities and it is much more reasonable to assume that he heard some of these things than to believe they are supernaturally revealed.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this book. But the above will do. Heaven is for Real is simplistic, superficial, and naive. The most disturbing thing about this book is that it has become so popular – which doesn’t say much for the people that swallow it whole without a second thought – even to the extent of stating that they have had their faith strengthened by it. If this is all it takes to reaffirm faith then, to my mind, that faith is pretty fickle.