Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heaven Is For Realz, Yo!

Judging a Book...

I can't wait for the movie!I first saw the Todd Burpo book Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back on display several months ago at my favorite rink-a-dink bookstore. I thought the manager was just promoting some dumb little book he liked, so I picked it up, looked at the goofy kid on the cover, read the description on the back, snorted, and put it away.

If the book had just been what I initially thought it was -- some cutesy religious family story that no one was reading -- I would have left it alone. It wasn't written for me. I could (contrary to popular wisdom) tell everything I needed to know about it from the book cover and other trappings. Nearly every blurb is from some pastor or friend. The picture of the little boy who made the "trip to Heaven and back" is of a little buzz-cutted four-year-old, one whom you can easily imagine growing up to be a preacher who bases his ministry on this one event, an event he'd eventually have to be reminded about, since it all happened before he could retain much of his memory. (Mentally replace his sweater vest with a preacher suit and stick a Bible in his hand.) The abstract on the back of the book gives you all the relevant "evidence" that they're basing this trip to Heaven on, and it concludes with the sentence "Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child." Yeah, no it won't.

Within days of my seeing the book for the first time, I started seeing it everywhere. As it turns out, it had shot up to the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list pretty quickly after its publication, and it's still there at number one as I write this. So apparently people are reading this thing, and apparently it's a big deal. There's even a children's version of the book now.

I usually enjoy attacking stupid things that gain popularity and make tons of money, but I still felt a reluctance to attack this book. For one, it would mean I would have to read it. But even after I overcame that hurdle, there remained a reluctance to attack. It felt like attacking innocence itself. Then I realized that this was the problem: the innocence of a four-year-old boy had trickled up, not only to his father and family, but also to these hundreds of thousands of readers who were buying -- and "buying" -- this silly little book. (I borrowed my copy from the library, just so you know.) Innocence is charming in a child, but ignorance in an adult is less so, and widespread ignorance is intolerable. Besides, anyone publishing is opening themselves to argument, so -- finally -- I felt justified in doing my small part: throwing my tiny pebble at this Goliath of a book.

I'll minimize my attack on the abysmal writing. The guy's a pastor, not a professional writer, and -- to make matters worse -- he's gotten Lynn Vincent, the co-writer of Sarah Palin's memoir Going Rogue, to help him. In addition to the banal sentences, there's plenty of page filler (a "sub-plot" of the kid playing with his Spider-Man doll, for example, pops up every fifth page or so) as well as non-sequiturs, mind-numbing repetition, and emphasis on childhood bodily functions and kiddie words ("upchucking," "tinkling," "passing gas," and drinking stuff that is "yuh-keeeee!"). I'll stick with the claims the book makes: that this kid went to Heaven, that the kid could provide specific descriptions of what Heaven was like, and that there is proof that all of it is true. Also, I'm not necessarily saying that something like Heaven doesn't exist. But I am saying that, if it does, Colton Burpo hasn't been there.

At the beginning of the book is a quotation from "Jesus of Nazareth" (as opposed to, I suppose, Jesus of Tamaulipas, Mexico): "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," which is meant to be the ultimate argument against grumpy adults like me. The well is properly poisoned, and there's nothing I can say against this argument that will satisfy anyone who thinks that Jesus meant, with that statement, that we should all become as stupid as little kids. The best that I can do is counter with another scripture (from Paul of Tarsus): "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."

Who Are These People?

These two haunt my dreams now, asking me, 'Why do you make fun of our innocence?'I do want to make something clear from the start: I don't, as some have suggested, think that Todd Burpo intended to exploit his kid or that he wrote the book for the money. Who knew it would make anything? Besides, I can tell from the writing that he genuinely believes what he's saying and wants to get the message (such as it is) across. Instead, I'm afraid that Todd Burpo is merely a simpleton.

I tried to think of a more polite (and perhaps more accurate) word, but simpleton will do. He seems like a nice guy, a dad who cares about his children and his wife. He's the pastor of a Wesleyan church and seems to have the sort of compassion, good-natured humor, and love for people that such a job requires. He's a contemporary enough guy; he hasn't isolated his family from the world for the sake of his faith. I think I would like him well enough in real life. He and his wife do say sexist things throughout (he wants to be "a husband strong for his wife" and he suggests that, unlike women, "guy's do something," while she says that "Girls hug. When we're happy, we hug"), but that's about the worst you can say about their characters (based on what he's given us anyway).

But he's just so gullible, irrational, simple-minded, frustratingly illogical... which is where the "innocence of a child" defense wants to show up and immediately cancel me out, except that Todd fancies himself a rationalist, and of course the entire book is written as "proof" of Heaven (as if the Word of God isn't enough for him). At one point, Todd tells the story of how something bad happened the last time the family went on a trip, so now he's reluctant to leave the house. He writes, "As a pastor, I'm not a believer in superstition" (provide your own commentary here), so he leaves the house, noting that "Reason won out." When referring to the childlike humility needed to get into Heaven, Todd writes, "It is the opposite of ignorance--it is intellectual honesty: to be willing to accept reality and call things what they are even when it is hard." I'm not sure there's a more ironic line in the book.

So this is how Todd Burpo establishes himself, as a person who values the "reality" as seen by a child (think for a moment of your version of reality when you were in preschool) -- a reality that he desperately wants to believe -- over the truly hard facts of the way the world actually is.

We learn several enlightening things about Todd Burpo's family and their way of thinking and behaving before the Heaven story even begins, things that explain how these fantasies came to be. For example, when Todd's doctor discovers some tissue in his body that suggests potential breast cancer, and when the tissue eventually goes back to normal, and when the doctor says he has no explanation for why (which is something doctors admit all the time, since their job is mostly to jostle nature in the right direction), Todd says, "I knew. God had loved me with a little miracle." Which means, I suppose, that God isn't very good at preventative medicine.

His wife, Sonja, had a miscarriage with their first pregnancy, so Todd says this about Colton: "For Sonja, this boy was an even more special gift directly from the hand of a loving, heavenly Father." Which means -- what -- that, for the miscarriage, God was busy with something else, too busy to personally deliver it? He also describes Colton this way: "This little blond-haired, blue-eyed fireball was a heavenly blessing, a healing gift after the baby we had lost." Later, we learn that the baby wasn't simply lost; it was taken. When Colton has an emergency appendectomy and nearly dies, Todd screams at God: "What are you doing, God? Are you going to take this child too?"

In every case, storytelling becomes Todd's "answer" for things that have no answer, and the answer changes depending on Todd's mood. God didn't give him the bad tissue, but he cured it. God gave Colton as an "even more special" consolation prize to compensate for taking the other baby. During the surgery, it seems that God is going to take Colton, but we later learn that he cures him. How does Todd know all these things? This seems to be the true miracle, that Todd can read the mind of God, not some trip to Heaven. One imagines God off somewhere thinking, "Look, pal, I had nothing to do with any of this. There are an infinite number of things that can go wrong during a pregnancy, as I'm sure your medical doctor told you. And I'm glad the second pregnancy worked out, but I can't take credit for that either. As for your son's appendix: hey, blame the sloppiness of evolution for leaving that thing in there when your body doesn't actually need it anymore."

Todd and Sonja, throughout, have a love/hate (and sometimes just hate) relationship with medicine. They never hesitate to go to doctors, but they never fully trust them either. It's fine, of course, to not put complete faith in your doctor, to realize you have some decisive power, to hope that the body will heal itself, and the rest of it. But their lack of trust sometimes suggests that they think the doctors are purposefully screwing around with them. One doctor thought that the problem wasn't Colton's appendix when it in fact was, which is of course frustrating and would make anyone understandably angry, but it shouldn't result in the God vs. Medicine vibe that we get throughout this book. When Colton does eventually recover, Todd paints the doctor as being "speechless," as if treating a patient successfully is something he doesn't see every day. Todd's version of reality dictates that his son is special because he has a special relationship with God, unlike the other heathen patients who pass through the hospital's halls.

Colton himself has a slightly different attitude toward medicine. When the Burpos are having trouble paying doctor bills, Colton walks in and says, "Jesus used Dr. O'Holleran to help fix me. You need to pay him." At least the four-year-old knows that the doctor had something to do with saving his life. Todd and Sonja, on the other hand, start a "prayer chain" with their church, getting them to "bang on the gates of Heaven," begging God to save their little boy. Once again, we might picture God walking slowly out to his gates in a bathrobe, telling everyone to go home, that the doctors have it under control and he's not directly involved in this situation: "I created the world, remember, and this is my day of rest. So leave me alone, please. These fingernails aren't going to pare themselves."

I think this artificial drama between the Burpos and God is part of what makes the book a bestseller. When Colton is in the emergency room and seems like he's dying, Todd continues (as above) screaming at God: "Where are you? Is this how you treat your pastors?! Is it even worth it to serve you?" This is the kind of stuff that I imagine lovers of this book sop up with a biscuit. The old "Angry at God" trope. "Oh, no! Don't say that! God always knows best! Please beg forgiveness immediately!" Once I watched a very special episode of Highway to Heaven where the angel Jonathan (played by Michael Landon) screamed at God in a similar way. I got so upset that I (true story) prayed that night for Jonathan and asked God to forgive him. I looked up when that episode aired, and I'm embarrassed to say I was thirteen years old--way too old to be praying for fictional television characters. I wasn't a dumb kid, but I was a very religious one, and so my mind was molded in a similar way that Todd Burpo's was, and that his son's was. You can maybe blame my thirteen-year-old self and adult Todd for our foolish actions, but poor son-of-a-pastor, three-year-old Colton didn't stand a chance.

Here's a representative story of the mentality and behavior of young Colton Burpo. Todd was preparing a funeral service when Colton asked him what was going on. When Todd told him that a man had died, "Instantly, Colton's demeanor changed. His face fell into serious lines, and he stared fiercely into my eyes. 'Did the man have Jesus in his heart?' " After Todd answers him, saying "I'm not sure," Colton screams, "He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he can't get into Heaven!" Later, at the funeral's pre-service, Colton asks about the casket and learns that the dead man is inside. Immediately, Colton "slammed his fist on his thighs, then pointed one finger at the casket and said in a near shout, 'Did that man have Jesus?!' Then: " 'He had to! He had to!' Colton went on. 'He can't get into heaven if he didn't have Jesus in his heart!' " Then: "Sonja grabbed Colton by the shoulders and tried to shush him. But he was not shushable. Now nearly in tears, Colton twisted in her arms and yelled at me, 'He had to know Jesus, Dad!' " At this point, his mother had to struggle to escort a scene-causing Colton out of the building.

Now, if you ask me, that's fucked up. And not fucked up as the book would suggest, which is "Colton has been to Heaven and this fucked up event is further proof of that," but just plain fucked up. This is not normal behavior... unless you are raised in an environment in which what he was screaming is believed 100% to be true. How else would you expect a preschooler to behave when confronted with the idea that someone right in front of him may be going to Hell instead of Heaven? Todd was right when he said that children are "willing to accept reality and call things what they are even when it is hard," but unfortunately the "reality" he was accepting was handed to him by his father and was now being hypocritically "shushed." Colton was desperately concerned for that man's (and possibly his own) eternal destiny, because -- to him -- it was real.

An even scarier story from the book occurs when Colton keeps, over and over, running dangerously into the street without looking. Todd explains to Colton that he can get hit by a car and die if he does that, and Colton says, "Oh, good! That means I get to go back to heaven!" Todd says to him, "You're missing the point"... but is he? It seems to me that he has the point exactly. You die: you go to Heaven -- which he's presumably already done -- and it's a great place, better than this stink-hole called Earth. So why is he now being asked to wait on Earth for threescore and ten? Todd asks the reader, "How do you scare some sense into a child who doesn't fear death?" Why should he fear death? Why should anyone fear death who believes he is going to Heaven? Why does Todd want to scare "sense" into him, when the "sense" he's been taught all along is exactly this? Even crazy Hamlet had more sane thoughts about the afterlife than this family. Todd can finally only offer Colton a selfish request: "This time, I get to heaven first. I'm the dad; you're the kid. Parents go first!" But really this should have been the moment when Todd sat little Colton down and said, "Look, son, enough of this Heaven shit. We've encouraged you long enough. Now you're just being dangerous and stupid."

But he would never say that. Not because he believes, but because -- like Fox Mulder -- he wants to believe. One gets the feeling that Todd Burpo is a pastor who has undergone a crisis of faith. He's like Harvey Keitel's preacher character in From Dusk Till Dawn who says, "Every person who chooses the service of God as his life's work has something in common. I don't care if you're a preacher, a priest, a nun, a rabbi, or a Buddhist monk. Many, many times during your life you will look at your reflection in a mirror and ask yourself: 'Am I a fool?' " Except that Keitel's character decides not to devote his life to God anymore. Burpo, on the other hand, desperately clings to his son's childish story, somehow curing his crisis with the most uninspired vision of Heaven I've ever heard. All of this would be forgiveable, except that now Todd is making us read a crappy book about it.

Sometimes, Todd seems smart enough to know better than what he's writing. At one point he says that he "knew that statistics show that most people who profess faith in Christ do so at a young age." He notes this to make the point that his children's ministry is worth paying attention to, but it should have made him realize the nature of belief as it relates to children. When my nephew was very young, I told him that one of my mother's Hummels was actually my brother "Johnny" who was turned into a figurine for being bad. And he believed me! I'm pretty sure I told him the truth eventually, but he would have kept on believing me for the rest of his life if most everyone else around him supported my story and if there was an entire system to back up what I had said. The Hummel Church. This is the problem with maintaining a childish mind: the ease at which you'll fall for anything and -- perhaps more importantly -- the desire to do so.

The "Proof" That Heaven Is for Real

So did Colton supposedly die or what? No. Todd "knows" that you can't go to Heaven unless you die, and he knows that Colton never died during the operation (he believes the doctors on that one), so he tells Colton this news, and Colton says, "Well, okay then, I died. But just for a little bit" (three minutes specifically, Colton claims). Todd eventually "reasons" that Colton must have had an experience similar to St. Paul being called up to Heaven, or of "John the apostle" who wrote the Revelation. (Sorry, Todd, but John of Patmos wrote Revelation, not John the apostle, and it was a dream, not a visitation, and why am I having to tell this to a pastor?) So Todd writes, "I realized that Colton, in telling me he had died 'for a little bit,' had only been trying to match up his pastor-dad’s assertion with what he knew to be the facts of his own experience." Close! What actually happened was that Colton, in telling you that he had died (and everything else he told you) had only been trying to match up his pastor-dad's assertion of reality. You know: "Whatever you wanna hear to keep the game going." Because this is a game Colton is playing: a game he takes seriously and "believes" in some significant way, which is how children play games.

So let's finally hear what convinces this father that his son has been to Heaven. Here it is. Colton tells his parents that he had an out-of-body experience at the hospital during which he sees his father praying in a little room and his mother on the phone, which is what they were reportedly doing during the operation. That's it.

One can imagine any number of ways in which Colton would "know" this information. The most obvious: hearing them talk about it later. Where his parents waited during the surgery doesn't sound like the stuff of conversation, until you realize that the "little room" was the place where Todd was raging at God and Sonja's phone call initiated the "prayer chain," so these events would have been rehearsed aloud by this couple quite a bit, one imagines. Also, and this is important, the first "I've been to Heaven" conversation didn't take place until four months after the surgery. (Colton is three during the operation and four for the first conversation.) Telling his parents an amazing thing immediately after surgery is one thing; telling them four months after he'd heard his parents endlessly talk about the day he almost died is... well, it's the faulty premise of this book.

So perhaps he overheard them or perhaps he imagined a likely scenario: his mother on the phone, his father in some room. (And who knows what Colton actually said, since Todd isn't exactly a reliable storyteller.) Or, hell, perhaps Colton did have an out-of-body experience and saw his parents (I'm an open-minded guy, after all), but that doesn't prove that little Colton went to Heaven. So realize the following: 1. This out-of-body report is the only "proof" that Colton offers for a long time (there are a few more that I'll get to later) and it's somehow enough to make his parents accept all the nonsense that I'm about to tell you. 2. The report didn't happen until months after the fact. 3. Colton was a three-year-old who was raised around religious talk all his life. 4. The Burpos are a little nutty and certainly unreliable.

Oh, and the most shocking info of all: 5. Todd and Sonja gathered all the information about Colton's trip to Heaven over the course of not moments, not days, but years after Colton first told them about it. Years of asking this kid questions, putting suggestions into his head, playing the game, giving him the attention children crave, making him want to kill himself to see Jesus again, etc. Why did it take years? Why didn't Todd, if he really believed his son, sit down with a notebook and ask everything right away, while it was fresh on the little boy's mind? Perhaps God finally had a new message to share with humanity. Instead, over and over Todd writes about how his mind was boggled by Colton's "information" about Heaven, repeatedly writing "This was all the information I could handle that this point" or "I had enough information to chew on" or some equivalent, always putting off the questions until later. This is a pastor of a church, mind you: someone who supposedly studies and teaches God every day of his life, but his four-year-old's preschool imaginings about the Almighty is too much for him to handle? What in hell is this man's psychological damage?

So What's Heaven Like?

Who knows what Todd's psychological damage is, or why he really teased out this information from his son year after stupid year, but out of this mystery the cycle of the book is set up: 1. Todd and/or Sonja ask little Colton a question about Heaven. 2. Colton answers in the way you'd imagine a kid might. 3. Todd and/or Sonja go bug-eyed. 4. This is more than Todd can handle, so he stops the conversation (usually followed by Colton skipping away nonchalantly, making everyone even more bug-eyed).

The very first question was simply about the hospital, four months after the event. 1. Do you remember the hospital? 2. "That's where the angels sang to me." 3. Inside the SUV (naturally), "time froze." "Did he just say what I think he said?" 4. Todd pulls off to an Arby's parking lot and shuts off the engine.

The very first, mind you. A four-year-old boy says something about angels and it's "stop the presses" for the Burpos. No semi-proofs are even necessary yet.

More from the same conversation:

1. What did the angels sing? 2. Songs from Sunday school. 3. Wow, his answer was "quick and matter-of-fact, without a hint of hesitation."

1. What did the angels look like? 2. One looked like grandpa. Jesus had them sing to me. 3. "I glanced at Sonja again and saw that her mouth had dropped open."

1. Jesus? 2. Yeah, I sat in his lap. 3. "If there are Stop buttons on conversations, that was one of them right there. Astonished and speechless, Sonja and I looked at each other and passed another silent telegram: Okay, we really need to talk about this." 4. They all go into the Arby's.

Later, after the necessary proofs, it takes just as little to impress:

1. Did Jesus say anything about Todd becoming a pastor? 2. "Oh, yes! Jesus said he went to Daddy and told him he wanted Daddy to be a pastor and Daddy said yes, and Jesus was really happy." 3. "I just about fell out of my chair."

And so on and so on for pages and pages and pages until you want to strangle them or yourself.

Sometimes Colton says things that have nothing to do with Heaven, nothing supernatural at all, and it baffles his parents. Observe: " 'Daddy, you know I almost died.' Fear gripped me. Where did he hear that?" Imagine if your parents had behaved this way: "Mom and Dad, will you buy me a G.I. Joe figure?" "G.I. Joe? We never told him those even exist! Who is this miracle child with answers that come straight from God's lips?"

Here is a typical and telling scene of the kinds of conversations Todd and his son would have over those long years. Colton tells his dad that Jesus has a cousin (a typical kid thing to say). Todd confirms that, yes, John the Baptist is the cousin, then thinks "Don't offer information. Just let him talk...," a "rule" that Todd never follows throughout the book. Next Colton sees a plastic horse in his toy pile and says, "Did you know Jesus has a horse?" At this point, most readers should realize that Colton is just being Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects, making up things about whatever his eyes fall upon. In true four-year-old fashion, the horse was a "rainbow horse." Any other father would hear "Jesus has a rainbow horse" and decide that this was just too dumb to pursue any further. Todd, however, "had to take a break" (whew!) and call his wife.

Where does he get this stuff?Todd wonders how Colton "knows" all this stuff, when it's pretty clear that he's just talking about stuff he colored in Sunday school class (and Todd even references Colton's Sunday school a few times as a possible source of information, so what gives?). We learn next that Jesus has brown hair, pretty eyes, and a purple sash with white clothes, which should have made Todd wonder, "Why is someone who lives in Heaven wearing an outfit that was worn in the Near East 2000 years ago?" He also wore a "gold thing on his head" with a pink "diamond thing" in the middle of it, which Todd assures us "matched Scripture in every detail."

I done liked to flipped out, y'all!When Colton tells his dad that he saw Jesus' wounds, he points to the palm of his hands to show where they were. Todd says, "We know where the nails were driven when Jesus was crucified, but you don’t spend a lot of time going over those gruesome facts with toddlers and preschoolers." Well, first of all, apparently Todd doesn't know where the nails were, since nails would have ripped right through Jesus' hands, making him fall off the cross, if they had been driven through the palms. This is why people who were crucified were pierced at the wrists. Second, what preschooler in America, even if he isn't from a religious family, hasn't seen a million pictures of a bloody Jesus? Todd says, "Catholic kids grow up with that image, but Protestant kids, especially young ones, just grow up with a general concept: 'Jesus died on the cross.' "

Statements from Todd like the one above make me wonder why I'm bothering to write this long thing. I imagine most readers would read an ignorant statement like that and come to the necessary conclusion: that Todd Burpo doesn't know what he's talking about, is unreliable, will jimmy whatever his kid tells him to fit with the belief he prefers to have, etc. But apparently readers aren't doing that, so here comes some more long writing...

Unfortunately, I have to talk about the most pathetic moment in the book, which is when Colton tells his mother that he saw her miscarriage in Heaven. The miscarriage happened before they even knew what sex it was, but Colton could provide her with that info: it was a girl. What did she look like? She looked like Colton's older sister, only smaller with dark hair. Upon hearing this series of nonsensical assertions about a pregnancy that didn't work out, the mother doesn't make Colton shut up, doesn't make him stop mocking her still-painful memory. Instead, Sonja cries and says, "Our baby is okay. Our baby is okay," believing in her son's game as much as Todd does (and for presumably similar reasons). This isn't a scene I have fun writing about, but it is a new frontier in the family's delusion. So the fetus or embryo or whatever it was grows up to be a little girl in Heaven? We don't get to learn here the ins and outs of aging in Heaven, but we do know that Colton's would-be other sister doesn't have a name in Heaven since the parents didn't decide on one. (One wanted Kelsey while the other wanted Caitlin. What, I ask, is the fucking difference? Their other two kids, by the way, are Cassie and Colby.) So now we are forced to read about the two parents seriously joking with each other about getting to name their miscarried "baby": "I'm going to beat you to heaven and name her first!" Todd writes. Hilarious! Maybe one of the parents will run out in traffic to do so.

The Holy Spirit really likes that Eiffel 65 song.So what else do we learn about Heaven? How about something lighter? Well, we learn that Colton did homework there (what else? write what you know, kid) and Jesus was his teacher (who else? he's certainly not too busy for such things). Jesus really really loves children (wonder why Colton emphasizes this?). Everybody's got wings, for some reason, and everyone flies with these wings, except Jesus who goes up and down "like an elevator" (ascension style). Colton also tries to tell his dad that everyone has halos, but Todd is so dense that he doesn't even realize that his son is giving him yet another stereotypical coloring book description, spending three pages trying to figure out what it could mean scripturally when Colton tells him, "All the people have a light above their head." Also, the Holy Spirit is blue, and apparently there are old-fashioned wars going on in Heaven.

That's right: "The angels carry swords so they can keep Satan out of heaven." Colton also tells his dad that he saw Todd fighting there. So apparently Colton saw the past (the war with Satan), the future (Todd fighting in Armageddon), and the present (Jesus' homeroom) all at once. Todd wonders about this funky time difference in Heaven before moving on to a "more pressing concern," which is... what kind of monsters he will be fighting.

Because apparently Todd has now completely regressed to a four-year-old's mentality. Rather than being curious about the nature of time itself as seen from God's perspective, he wants to know first about cool monsters, then wonders what kind of weapon he'll be using to fight the devil army. Todd was hoping for a tank or a missile launcher, but instead "you either get a sword or a bow and arrow, but I don't remember which." In other words, one of the weapons Colton had seen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the movie they were watching that prompted this whole "war" conversation.

(Side note: There is something disgusting to me in the following line that I can't quite analyze: "When [Aslan] came back to life and killed the White Witch, Colton leaped to his feet and pumped his fist. He likes it when the good guys win." Help me out with that one if you can.)

It would make more sense (relatively speaking, of course) if there were tanks or missile launchers in Heaven or in the future when Armageddon will occur. But, no, Heaven and Heaven-related events are stuck in the Biblical days when it comes to clothes and furniture and weapons and who knows what else. It's like Heaven is M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Time has moved on everywhere else, but Heaven has chosen to remain in the historical bubble of two thousand years ago for no good reason. Luckily, Colton has opened his father's eyes, because Todd writes, "When you’re thinking 'heaven,' you’re thinking crystal streams and streets of gold, not angels and demons crossing swords." Todd here assumes that grown adults are thinking "crystal streams and streets of gold," as if that's a perfectly normal literal conception of Heaven for anyone over ten years of age. (He also, apparently, hasn't read his John Milton.)

And speaking of Satan, when Todd asks his son if he'd seen the Dark One, of course Colton had. But seeing Satan apparently affected Colton badly, and he didn't want to talk about it. But don't worry: when he's a teenager, he'll obsess about Satan completely. I can see teen Colton now, trying to talk to Lucifer with a Ouija board. Then Todd can get all of his answers, one letter at a time!

Need More Proof?

I said earlier that most of the above was believed one hundred percent by Todd simply because of one "proof" -- that a disembodied Colton apparently saw him and Sonja while he was undergoing surgery -- and that there were a few more of these "proofs" that came much later in the book. By my count, there are three more: three things that seem almost close to maybe but not quite being something that perhaps could resemble proof for someone who doesn't think about it for too long. Here they are, for your edification:

Bonus Proof 1: At one point, Colton says that he saw God sitting on his "really big" throne and that Jesus was sitting next to him. Todd takes the opportunity to "test" Colton by asking which side Jesus sat on. This kind of testing opportunity would have presented itself over and over, but Todd -- as he admits himself -- doesn't do it and that this is a "rare case." Colton gets the answer "right," at least according to Hebrews, when he says that Jesus was on the right. A 50/50 shot. (Gabriel, by the way, is on the left, according to Colton.) But of course God's throne comes up many times in the Bible. The Acts calls Heaven itself a throne, with Earth being the Lord's footstool. The Revelation suggests that there are twenty-four other thrones surrounding it, with four magical creatures sitting in front. The point is that Colton would have gotten the answer right no matter what he said, because Todd would have forced a scripture to fit it, which is what almost always happens in this book. Besides, the idea of God sitting on a literal throne seems... what, stupid? Thrones are, of course, symbolic emblems of power, even for earthly kings, not recliners where you spend your day. (Colton also reports that someone in Heaven brought out a little chair for Colton. Cute.) Oh, and -- hey -- if Colton is getting all this special attention in Heaven from God himself, where are all the millions and millions of dead people supposedly living in Heaven? One could answer that Heaven operates on a spiritual level and those kinds of natural questions are foolish, but -- if this is the case -- then how can we reconcile that to the absurd literalism being promoted throughout the book?

Bonus Proof 2: Colton claims to have seen his dead great-grandfather, who they call "Pop," in Heaven. When shown a picture of Pop as a young man, Colton recognizes him in the picture, but not his grandmother, who he currently knows. This is because (according to Colton) no one is old in Heaven, so (according to Todd) Pop would have looked like his young man self. His grandmother, on the other hand, he only knows as an old lady on earth, so he didn't recognize her youthful picture. By this point, of course, Colton and Todd are just playing the "I've been to Heaven" game I've been writing about, which usually involves Todd calling Colton in the room to ask him a Heaven-related question and Colton pretending he hadn't been listening to everything he and Sonja were saying (not that this "Pop" story is especially convincing to begin with).

Bonus Proof 3: Whenever the family would see a picture of Jesus, they'd ask Colton if that's what he looked like and Colton always said no, that something wasn't quite right. Fun game. But one day they showed him the painting of Jesus by Akiane Kramarik, the young girl who was all over television a few years back saying she was inspired by God to paint. This painting is the one he said got it right, with blue eyes and 1980s hair. I think the point is that two children have the same vision? I'm not even sure why I'm giving this the benefit of the fake-proof label, but -- like the "Pop" episode -- this one was also preceeded by Todd calling Colton away from whatever he was doing to come look at this important Heaven-related thing, the cue to play the game.

Ladies...

Heaven Can Wait

So, in conclusion, this family has become slightly obsessed with Heaven. Even Colton's answer for why Jesus had to be crucified is centered around this obsession: "Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad." Yes, but how does Jesus' death even open this door? Who is the sacrifice for? God? The Devil? Why wait thousands of years after the Fall to do it? And what about... "Shhhh! Peace! Be still! Colton said Jesus died on the cross so we could go see his dad in Heaven. Isn't that enough for you people?"

To truly conclude, even though I've been making jokes throughout to keep my sanity, this was not a fun piece to write. When I wrote a response to C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, it was a pleasure. It was like arguing with an old, intelligent friend (and agreeing with him often). Writing this response and being this intimate with the world and words of the Burpos was sticky and gross. The literalness, the bad writing, the false logic, the repetition, the ignorance that surpasseth all understanding... I thought about incorporating the children's version of this book (which I haven't read) and maybe some info from news interviews, but then I decided I didn't want anything else to do with this book. Reading it was bad enough, having to take notes to write this piece just made me angry, and writing and revising made me feel that I was wasting my time. (I'm guessing I spent more time on this piece than Burpo/Vincent spent on the book itself.) Like a bad pop song or a shitty reality show that you enjoy hating for a while, eventually the novelty wears off and all that remains is garbage water.

There are plenty of works out there about visiting Heaven that I might recommend to those thousands reading this dumb yellow book. The Bible itself isn't a bad start (though Jesus seems to suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is inside us, so no fun there). Emanuel Swedenborg wrote an odd piece of genius called Heaven and Hell (which Blake uses for fodder in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). The Apocalypse of Paul is interesting and excellent. Dante's vision of Paradise from the Divine Comedy is certainly nothing to sniff at. Even Albert Brooks's Defending Your Life provides a view of the afterlife that's both entertaining and edifying for the earth-bound. Really, folks. There's real stuff out there. Anything but this.

4 comments:

Ali said...

You are awesome. I just stumbled across your blog a few days ago, and I've already read most of your posts. Keep them coming!

Rusty Spell said...

Thanks, Ali. I try to do as many as I can, which is not as many as I'd like.

Debbie Funderburg said...

Thank you for posting this. I was watching an interview by an 11 year old Colton. I thought his description of Jesus sounded like a painting. I typed in the description clicked images and found your blog. I work at a beauty salon. I talk about current events, books and movies all day 5 days a week. I do not have your ability with words or your intellect but, I will do my best to pass this on.

Rusty Spell said...

Thanks, Debbie!