(below: Russell Crowe – Maximus – asks the famous, “Are you not entertained!?” question in the movie Gladiator)
I’d been hearing about this book for awhile, and I had also noted that it was number one on the Non-Fiction best seller list a couple weeks ago (#2 this week). I ‘dismissed’ it and didn’t particularly want to read it. Then a friend read it and loved it and, when I expressed my default approach of skepticism, said, “just read it.” I rarely refuse a friend’s request to read a book (as I hope someday they may return the favor – or already have in some cases) so I did. Briefly, the book details the story of a family whose little boy, Colton, undergoes an emergency appendectomy just shy of his fourth birthday. In the months and years afterward, however, he begins to share ‘stories’ of an ‘out of body'(?) experience during surgery which leads his family to believe he actually visited heaven during this time.
First let me just say I’m delighted that Colton’s health crisis had a happy ending. He seems like a caring, compassionate boy. Indeed I found the first 1/3 or so of this book to be pretty good. Who cannot empathize when seeing an author’s loved one suffering or in pain and watching him as he tries to do everything he can to help him. My hopes were with the family the whole way in that I wanted Colton to get well and be out of danger. There are some disturbing aspects of this part of the book too, though, including an initial misdiagnosis by a local doctor (that seems inexcusable in light of the fact that the Burpos explicitly told him of a family history of appendicitis) and an egregious decision by the Burpos to drive three hours (!) with a clearly very, very sick boy instead of a local emergency room (where they feared they’d have to wait for three hours anyway). But Colton survives in spite of these potentially deadly mistakes being made. Even though there was no “suspense” for me regarding the outcome since I knew the premise of the book, these early chapters were quite gripping.
But the book loses me quickly after that. Predictably, credit to Colton’s recovery is assigned to Burpo’s friends praying for him, and even to his father’s own angry prayers to God during a time of crisis. Credit is NOT given to the medical professionals who worked hard to save Colton. Their years of training and medical school work is seemingly not appreciated. Indeed, when the medical bills come in, Burpo makes it VERY clear that, faced with more bills than they could pay, they would definitely still write their monthly tithe check (because, “God gave me my son back.”). I realize this is not an uncommon approach, but I feel it is disrespectful to those PEOPLE who have a hand in patients’ recoveries.
At almost every turn, Burpo makes disproportionate leaps of faith whenever Colton says something about his experience. One of my ‘favorites’ is when he tries to get Colton to tell him which side (right or left) of God’s throne Jesus stands on. Burpo eagerly awaits an answer thinking, this is it; this will be the final confirmation that his experience was real (if Colton gets it right). Now there’s some pretty rigorous scrutiny for you – a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right even if someone guesses randomly(!!) Sadly, this is the low level of skepticism with which all of Colton’s remarks are regarded. To me, Colton’s dad hears what he wants to hear and in the context of a predetermined belief he has.
Another example: “There’s just no way he could’ve known.” (about his mom’s prior miscarriage) Really? NO way? Here’s one possible way. Maybe Colton ay some point overheard his parents talking about the miscarriage when they were unaware of him being, say, outside their bedroom door. Maybe he heard his mom and dad talking and his mom crying late at night and goes to investigate. He hears the word “miscarriage” and knows this word somehow causes his mom to be sad. Suppose the next time at Sunday school he asks innocently, “What’s a miscarriage?” and a well-intentioned adult tries to explain it to him. Unlikely? Absolutely. But is it more likely something like that happened or that he undergoes a true supernatural journey where he sees (and not coincidentally, I presume) Jesus and other characters he’s heard about by being immersed in the world of faith in which he is raised?
I find off-putting as well the inclusion of the “true picture” of Jesus in the appendix of the book. Ever since Colton’s revelations – sorry, I couldn’t think of a better word – it seems that, whenever a depiction of Jesus is presented to his parents, it has become a standard routine for them to ask him, ‘Is this what he looks like?’ and there is always some detail wrong. Wrong, that is, until he sees a drawing done by another child who claims to have had a similar experience. Case closed, I guess. Burpo’s treats this as another “confirmation” that Colton’s experience was literally real. As far as I am concerned, if heaven IS for real, it’s not real “just because” of stories like this one… It’s the same old story of “extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence,” and I don’t think it’s been provided here.
There are reportedly more than 1.5 million copies of this book in print now. A related article from the New York Times can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/books/heaven-is-for-real-is-publishing-phenomenon.html
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