Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo, Sonja Burpo, Lynn Vincent, Colton Burpo (Thomas Nelson, 2010)
by Mary Valle
Perhaps all you really need to know about this book is that it is for sale at my local discount supermarket, the un-mellifluously named Industrial Food Product Outlet, a place I only visit when it’s absolutely necessary, if I need some generic famotidine for the dog (sensitive stomach!), long fireplace matches, or pineapple juice for making Huli-Huli Tofu (Trader Joe’s doesn’t have it and it’s way too expensive at Whole Foods). The IFPO, or the ‘Po as they’ve tried to rebrand themselves, is one of the circles of hell; naturally it has a swivel-mounted book rack of “inspirational” tomes. ‘Cause we humans didn’t build florescent-lighted boxes of doom or synthesize plastic-wrapped carcinogenic food products or make a world where you have to burn petroleum just to get to said ‘Po. Oh no. It’s all part of God’s plan.
The cover of Heaven is for Real depicts a small boy, smiling, in a flattop and an extremely ill-fitting short-sleeved white shirt, baggy yellow sweater vest, and dark, baggy pants. I can feel the squeaky acrylic of the small boy’s vest just by looking at the photo. It’s probably already in a landfill. (When did we stop wearing clothes that fit in this country? It’s depressing. We’ve just given up in so many ways.) He has a creepy photoshopped shadow. The terrible font and terrible graphic design and terrible colors all tell me something: this book isn’t for you, Mary Valle. A little dot which usually says something about Oprah tells us the author of a book called 90 Minutes in Heaven thinks this is a book I “should read.” At 163 pages, including an epilogue, “timeline of events” and “about the authors” pages, it’s certainly a short read. How and why did Todd Burpo need to bring a coauthor on board for this? He was the editor of his college newspaper, after all. (We’ll find that out later.)
This book, now on the New York Times best-seller list for 39 weeks, is billed as “A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.” It is not that at all. It’s mostly about Colton’s Father Here on Earth, Todd Burpo, whom I will commend for lifting the Pinto and getting his family out of the terrible straights of being average low-income Americans. This book is going to do a lot of good for the Burpos, so good on ya, Todd.
When the story begins, Pastor Burpo and his wife, Sonja, both work several jobs. Todd, whose small pastor’s salary doesn’t cover it, also owns an overhead garage door business. Sonja, despite being a licensed teacher, works as an office manager and is also the administrator of the garage door company. Life doesn’t seem to be going all that well in Imperial, Nebraska, where a string of injuries and illnesses almost bankrupts the Burpo family. Todd writes “I could almost hear sucking sounds when statements came in the mail.”
Then it’s just a stream of horrible, very bad things: a broken leg, Todd has a mastectomy (not “the manliest surgery in the world”) and little Colton falls ill while the family is on vacation.
As I read into this book, I just kept thinking: This is Sarah Palin’s America! Shit’s gone to hell, yet you have to be really cheerful about it. A couple of college graduates have to work multiple jobs just to stay afloat, and when the medical bills pile up strangers have to step in (the Burpos receive donations from all over the country). Which is nice, but what would be nicer still would be not going borderline bankrupt and having to collectively work four or five jobs and still not have insurance. But the worst part about it is that they have to be cheerful about all of it. It’s nice to have community, to have someone bring you casseroles when you’re old, but to have to depend on the kindness of strangers for $25,000 in medical bills? Makes me itchy just thinking about it. But the Lord will provide–or not, ‘cause you’re usually too busy sucking dicks or crashing in seedy motels or surviving the streets to write an “inspirational” book.
The Burpos make me ask: when does God get the credit, and when does he get the blame? If something goes right, even in the face of something going terribly wrong, God gets patted on the back. After Todd’s humiliating, womanish mastectomy reveals no cancer, he decides that God had “loved” him with “a little miracle.” I mean, really! Why would God, for starters, give Todd the impetus to become a pastor, then not provide him with a decent salary? Why would God scare the bejesus out of him and make him undergo a mastectomy and then be all “Nope! Just testing ya!” If I thought that such things were under the control of an interfering God I’d be kind of mad, really.
So after all this, the family decides to go on a deserved vacation. They visit an insect exhibit called the Crawl-A-See-Um. The book’s seriously overwrought descriptions of what amounted to a routine kid’s amusement made me think of Palin’s eerie lack of knowledge of common things like “newspapers” and “books.” I imagine a trip to the Crawl-A-See-Um would knock Sarah’s socks off, too! And whaddaya know? Turns out Todd’s coauthor, Lynn Vincent, also wrote Palin’s Going Rogue. That explains the precisely Palinesque state fairs and hour-long drives to Wal-Mart and aw-shucks-we’re-all-just-Christians-helpin’-other-Christians tone. (Vincent’s a professional Jesus-loving, reality-denying writer of bestsellers. Which is apparently an excellent and profitable niche, so hats off to you, Milady.)
Just after the “real American” vacation fun, Colton becomes ill and is misdiagnosed at the local hospital, where his burst appendix goes undetected. Only after transferring to a larger hospital (but almost not making it because of a snowstorm; the congregation’s prayers cleared it up in time) is Colton’s life saved.
Months later, the family is in an SUV outside Arby’s, just about to tuck into their “roast beef sandwiches” and “potato cakes” (nice detail work, Lynn!) when Colton lets fly with some memories he had of his time in heaven. Many Keanu-style “Whoahs” and big looks of “surprise” are exchanged between the Burpos. Turns out that Colton, although he didn’t actually die, took a little trip to heaven during his operation. And Todd has Proof. Things like: Colton knew that his mom was talking on the phone and his dad was praying in another room during his surgery; Colton met his miscarried sister, who, to Sonja’s delight, has dark hair like her, unlike all her living children who are clones of Todd. Colton also met Todd’s “Pop” as a young man, attended Jesus’ Sunday school, observed some of the ongoing war between God and Satan (“you either get a sword or a bow and arrow”), and learned about the colors in a rainbow and a bunch of other stuff that can only be verified in Revelations.
Look, I’m a Catholic. I don’t really know about Revelations. Have I read the Bible cover-to-cover? Never. Not once. That’s what priests are for. Have I read Sixty Saints for Girls? Umpteen times. That is some damn good reading. But speaking of saints, where is the Star of the Sea in this picture? Where is the Queen of Heaven, I wondered? Later in the book Todd offers that a lot of their Catholic friends–how many do they have, really– are wondering that exact same thing!
Colton saw Mary kneeling in front of Jesus, and at other times, standing next to him. “‘She still loves him like a mom,’” reports Colton. I found myself shaking my head at this. Oh hell no, Colton. She is not prostrate before Jesus. The Pole Star? The Gate of Heaven? The Ravisher of Hearts? The Ark of the Covenant? The Co-Redemptrix? I don’t think so. The Mystical Rose sits on her own throne, you feel me, kid? She wears a crown of stars. There is no ongoing war with the Devil ‘cause guess what? Mary has crushed him under her dainty foot, effortlessly. Deal with that, little man.
Which all makes me think that Colton’s heaven probably doesn’t have any of the saints I look forward to meeting. I have big plans to armor up and ride steeds with Joan of Arc, jam with Jeannine Deckers, make serigraphs with Sister Corita, and just crack up with Teresa of Avila as we devour partridge with our bare hands. I don’t really care about meeting my grandparents or other dead relatives I never even met in life. If I had a miscarried sibling I couldn’t possibly give a care about making his or her acquaintance. I already have enough real-life siblings, for the Lamb of God’s sake. There’s bigger game in heaven, Colton! Much bigger!
So, whose Heaven is Heaven? Does it depend on the eye of the beholder? ‘Cause I really don’t want to go to Colton’s heaven. If his Protestant heaven is the real heaven that is for real, do I have to “accept Jesus as my personal Savior” to get in? And, if so, can I wait until the last minute to do so?
When Todd makes a big deal about Colton seeing Jesus’ wounds–there’s not “any way” that Colton could have known about that, because, unlike Catholic kids, Protestant kids aren’t exposed to images of Jesus on the cross–my stomach began to hurt.
I had to turn to a Protestant expert for advice. That expert is Pastor Dan Schultz, a minister in the Church of Christ and a blogger at Religion Dispatches. I asked him a few questions via email, which he graciously and thoroughly answered.
MV: What makes Wesleyans like the Burpos Wesleyans, in a nutshell? The only Wesleyans I have ever known were snotty liberal-arts college jokers in Middletown, CT, a milieu about as far from Christianity as you can possibly imagine.
Pastor Dan: In a nutshell, Wesleyans are Wesleyans because they follow the teachings of John Wesley, the main force behind Methodism. I’m not as familiar with the denomination as I am with others, but it looks like they’re basically fundamentalist Methodists, but with a congregational polity, rather than an episcopal one. So they put a strong emphasis on scripture, conversion, and good works.
MV (to self): This is still too confusing for my brain. Catholicism is pretty easy compared to this. You can try to be good, or not, but the most important thing is that you confess on your deathbed. It’s known as Pascal’s Wager. Basically, God knows you’re a fuck-up ‘cause he made you, all he really wants you to do is try not to be a total asshole and check in with a priest before you kick off just to make sure all your Ts are crossed, so to speak. Catholic theologians, I’m sure, will disagree with me. But that’s my takeaway message.
MV: Do Protestants have their version of Pascal’s Wager — that is, the plan to confess on your deathbed ’cause why not? It won’t hurt if there is no God, and if there is: right this way through the gates of St. Peter! Can Protestants yell “I ACCEPT JESUS AS MY PERSONAL SAVIOR” as they’re going down or nod as someone asks them and seal their fate, that’s what I want to know. Would Catholics, in this scheme, have to accept Jesus accordingly to gain entrance?
Dan: Virtually all Christians believe that we are saved in the act of baptism–that Christ extends his mercy and grace in that moment in a way that can’t be undone. Evangelicals tend to look for what they call the “baptism of the heart,” i.e., inward conversion that is reflected in the outward expression of a personal relationship with Jesus. While they might say “it’s never too late” to be converted, ordinarily they prefer that that happen before the deathbed. Some Evangelicals would indeed say that Catholics (everyone in fact) need to confess verbally that Jesus is Lord and Savior before they can be saved, but that’s a relatively small slice of the population. Oddly enough, they tend to be former Catholics. In any case, the Catholic church’s response to this is that Catholics claim Jesus as Lord and Savior in baptism and confirmation, so piss off, fundies. That’s pretty much what mainline Protestants such as myself believe as well.
MV (to self): Baptized and confirmed? Check and check. Phew. I guess I won’t have to accept Jesus as my Personal Savior at the last minute. Ha. In your face, Mr. Son of God. Go ahead. Weep tears of blood. I’m still gonna be in your heaven so deal with it. I shall annoy you for all eternity!
MV: Pastor Burpo says that Colton indicated that Jesus had red marks in the right places, but that Colton wouldn’t have known about that because Protestant children aren’t exposed to images of Jesus on the cross. But surely he would have heard about the Crucifixion (EASTER!) or possibly seen a movie or seen that somewhere? How is it even possible that he hasn’t? Am I totally off-base?
Dan: Yes, it seems likely that the kid’s reflecting what he’s seen somewhere.
MV: Colton meets his miscarried sister in heaven. Do all miscarried children get to heaven? And aborted kids as well? If that’s the case…well…(whispers) maybe abortion isn’t such a bum deal after all?
Dan: God’s love surpasses all understanding. I don’t spend a moment worrying about such things, and neither should you.
MV (to self): But I do! I can’t help it. This could be a Great Comfort to all those who worry about poor aborted fetuses. Maybe abortees are, in fact, getting a better deal? It’s a cruel world sometimes.
MV: What about the saints? ‘Cause I have big plans to have lots of fun with my holy heroines. Are they there, too? Dan, is it just me or is this Protestantism a little bit lady-deficient?
Dan: Yes, probably.
MV: Do Wesleyans even recognize the saints?
Dan: I’m sure not. If you pressed a Wesleyan pastor, you might get him to come up with the Catholic teaching that saints aren’t magical, just role models and people you can ask for help. But depending on how conservative they are, they might say as well that saints are idolatrous.
MV: (Church Lady voice) Is that so? Are there separate heavens or is heaven merely a reflection of what you want it to be? ‘Cause I don’t want to go to Colton’s heaven. He’s seen earlier in the book waging great battles with his superhero action figures and then — guess what? — God’s still duking it out with Satan when Colton gets there. He tells his Dad he’s going to have to get a sword but don’t worry, he’ll win.
Dan: See 4. above.
MV: Why did God create Satan and give him his own kingdom, anyway? That’s just a general question. I understand the metaphor, but if you think about it literally, it’s like being all “You are a terrible kid but guess what? Here’s your own car, credit card, and lawyer to get you out of whatever trouble you’ll get into! I’m going to look the other way now! I have no control over the situation!”
Dan: The standard fundamentalist answer to this is that Satan rebelled against God and now manages a renegade operation. While scripture implies that God does give Satan the keys at various points, such as when he afflicts Job, those are fairly literary moments, not ones that I think should be taken literally. Personally, I don’t believe in Satan. We have enough to worry about without him.
Heaven is for Real did nothing to sway me from my own particular beliefs about Heaven. What it did was totally convince me I am not a Protestant. And possibly not even a Christian, being as I’m not all that into Jesus. Especially if he looks like Kenny Loggins, as Colton says he does. I am now sure, however, that I have the keys to the kingdom. Thanks, Pastor Dan! When the time comes, the Pearly Gates will swing wide open. It has been guaranteed. Start roasting partridges now, Teresa! Mama, I’m comin’ home!
Mary Valle is a freelance writer living in Baltimore. She is contributing editor at Killing the Buddha and a contributor to Believer Beware: First-person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith. Her poems and drawings can be found at Instant Poetry