After 23 weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list, a book about a boy’s visit to heaven sits at #1. Published in November, Heaven is For Real has been a breakout, word-of-mouth publishing smash hit. This phenomenon surely says that, despite our embrace of science and technology, we all hunger for heaven. In the book, Jesus talks to four-year-old Colton Burpo, son of a Plains pastor, who leaves his body while on the operating table.
I’ve read the book (or heard it, via Audible.com) and I’ve thought about how it does and does not speak to me.
The book is “by” Colton’s father, Todd Burpo, pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in the little town of Imperial, Nebraska. Burpo wrote the book “with” Lynn Vincent, the same hired gun who worked with Sarah Palin on Going Rogue. The writing is simple, direct, and credible. Every time Colton says something amazing about his trip to heaven, which lasted three earth minutes but seemed endless, Burpo or Vincent writes words like, “Sonja and I looked at each other and my heart raced.” Every revelation is emphasized this way, as if a big finger were pointing out its import from the margins of the page. The pace of the book is pell-mell, the tone breathless with awe, the language as direct and forceful as a BS session at the feedlot.
Hearing the text read by Dean Gallagher in audio format emphasizes the narrative’s gee-whiz innocence. Gallagher speaks in a broad Plains accent, and I expected him to break out into a string of shuckses, goshes, and gollys at any moment. I am not poking fun at Plains people from my ivory New England tower. I am from Minnesota, and to its colors true I shall ever be.
There are many reasons one could be skeptical about Heaven is For Real. When Colton’s appendix burst and he almost died (though he never flatlined) in the OR, the Burpos were in dire financial straits. The pastor, who supplemented his meager church income by running an overhead garage door business, had been injured on the job and suffered a string of surgeries himself prior to his son’s trip to heaven. The book tells us plenty about Burpo budget problems, and we learn the meaning of a “10th bill.” (In small communities like Imperial, local stores sell on credit. These bills are due on the 10th of each month, and missing these payments can mean humiliation that missing a mortgage or car payment won’t bring.)
The details of Colton’s visit with God, Jesus, the Angels, and even the Virgin Mary (she was there at the foot of the Throne) are so vivid and so scriptural that they could well seem scripted, at least to the skeptic. My own skepticism peaked in the chapter when Colton tells Todd that he sees Jesus sending down bolts of power (the Holy Spirit) on his pastor father whenever Dad is in the pulpit. That struck me as a pretty convenient endorsement for a struggling Plains churchman. I don’t suppose the Burpo finances have suffered any since the release of the book and its stream of royalties.
But in the end, I was as convinced as I need to be. There are many corroborative details in the story. (Colton met his other sister in heaven, though he had never known about his mother’s miscarriage. Colton met his great grandfather in heaven, though “Pop” died before Colton was born. The boy never matched Pop’s heavenly appearance with any earthly photos until he was shown a picture of Pop as a young man. Conclusion: “Everyone’s young in heaven.”) Bottom line: I will look you in the eye and say, I think Colton Burpo went to heaven, and I think heaven is every bit as beautiful as he and the Book of Revelation describe it.
It’s just that I found myself wondering, what’s the big deal about heaven? What about earth?
My thinking about the afterlife boils down to this: I believe in God, a God so good that whatever awaits me in death must be at least as beautiful as what I find here in life. Because of my confidence about these matters, I did not become a Catholic as an insurance policy against the hereafter. I became a Catholic because doing so enriches my life today. I don’t worry about death and heaven. I have enough worries in life and Massachusetts.
The success of Heaven says to me that we earthbound humans are needy. Despite our complacent materialism and cultural relativism, we need God and we need him here, now. Rather than know that a young boy went to heaven, I would rather know that heaven came down to earth. And I do know that. It’s what the Catholic Church teaches. It’s what the Catholic Church is, the protracted Presence of our Lord, who came among us and stays among us. That is for real.