I remember going to the store to look for one thing and always seeing this bright, yellow, silly-looking book jumping out at me: Heaven in for Real by Todd Burpo. It was actually on one of my long, hidden lists of books I wanted to read. I only wanted to read it because I knew of people who were wanting to read it as well, and I wanted to know what everyone was raving (both positively and negatively) about so much. I finally grabbed one of several copies from the library and found myself done with the thin book in no time.
First, I’ll explain the premise in brief: a dad sits down to write this book with an author after a few years of hearing his small son tell stories about heaven. Little Colton became incredibly ill and, according to the book, was a miracle of survival. Over time, he starts revealing more and more about an out-of-body experience, telling bits about heaven that sound like scripture he wouldn’t have been able to know by 3 yet told in the way a child tells things he doesn’t quite understand but has seen (“rainbows” to explain the jewels all over the kingdom, “red markers” on Jesus’s hands which would be his wounds, etc.).
When I first starting reading this book, all I did was scoff at it. It seemed so stupid to me. The book was mostly about the dad and his family’s financial struggles and connection with his church. Every time Colton revealed something he had seen, I just dismissed them with things like “well it took him 2 years to say it” or “his dad is a preacher, he could have heard that from anywhere” or “maybe he just wants attention” or “maybe this dad is a total phony” or “his dad prompted him to answer the correct way” or “how convenient, that he didn’t write down the names of the kids Colton had met in heaven”………..
I’ll admit, I still have my doubts. But there was one point during the book when some switch just flipped inside of me. Things started to feel a little weird to me when Colton became very strongly expressive about Jesus and how Jesus just loves everyone. I kind felt this melting feeling and began to realize I have never doubted Jesus’s existence or that he made sacrifices for what he believed in, I only doubted who is actually is/was. To hear that someone so tied to worldly martyrdom would still be worshipping the innocence of children (which I value highly, too), it made me feel even better about standing up for goodness. In that moment, I decided I really love Jesus, whether he is the son of a god or if he’s just a guy. He is, if nothing else, a perfect role model, isn’t he? With Colton’s description, I formed a very comforting image of Jesus in my head.
Then Colton starts talking about his dad’s grandpa. I was a little dumbfounded when Colton seemed to legitimately recall his long-dead ancestor and even more impressed when Colton only recognized pictures of the man when he was in his prime. He claims that, in Heaven, “no one is old and no one wears glasses” which is a cute kiddie way of saying we are in the best of health. Yet I was still bouncing it back and forth, the idea that Colton could have overheard his dad talking, that he could have somehow imagined everything,… except for the visual recognition part, if that really happened as it was told.
But it gets weirder. Colton’s mother had had a miscarriage, yet Colton hadn’t been told. Sure, he could have overheard about “losing the baby” or something. But for him to come out and say he met his sister in heaven that he didn’t know he had, and to describe him as looking like his mother unlike the other children who are like their father – those things just seemed to real to me. I find it hard to believe that a young child could process those kinds of concepts unless he had some incredible dream that streamed those thoughts together with no assistance other than his own intelligence.
Yet the moment that I suddenly found doubt in everything I had come to believe came when Colton began identifying problems with paintings of Jesus. The day then came when Colton was shown one image, one that I have since looked up and which looks exactly like I had pictured in my mind what Jesus is like since Colton’s description… Colton, for the first time in years, found nothing wrong with the painting and said that it was “right”. Little did he supposedly know that the painting was made by young Akiane who claims to have had a similar experience, seeing visions of heaven. I was like, what?
(Enter: Mixed feelings. Feelings that there can’t not be heaven mixed with feelings that maybe this is all a scam. But how can such a young girl paint so well? Were her parents really atheists? So much confusion…)
Regardless of what all of this really means to me, the book made something very clear to me: You can love Jesus and be religious and be “Christian” without being Christian at all. That’s not saying that there isn’t one singular answer about the existence of a god and that you shouldn’t accept a god that controls your life and is the reason why life exists, it’s more like I began to see the family-ness of religion. Too often it gets a bad rap and people who aren’t religious like to pin evilness to those who are because those people stand up for their beliefs. Reading this book made me realize that religion is not meant to shut people out or hurt them, it’s more like fulfilling a duty to a god and to each other. It’s using “community” as a vehicle for discovery, self-improvement, reflection – with or without religion being the inspiration.
I suddenly realized that all of those people who ever tried to help me follow my grandma’s footsteps or who feared for a non-Christian in my family or who wanted to “spread the word” were really, the whole time, doing nothing but trying to help. I’ve seen enough non-Christians react to this help to know that they see it as sabotage, unaccepting, backwards, closed-minded…but, in reality, I think there is some hypocrisy in that interpretation. This book made me realize that people who whole-heartedly believe in something feel like that they have the key to all the doors you need to open and here they are trying to hand you those keys. It’s like they know something already that you don’t know but they’re helping lead you to it. It’s not such an evil thing after all, if done kindly.
So, although I’m still not 100% sure where I stand with the book, I did order a used copy of it to keep as a reminder of how it made me think – and I want now to spend a moment on the mixed reviews I have read regarding Heaven is for Real. These reviews are seriously split down the middle, between adamant Christians celebrating how god has touched the family and the son and aggressive atheists denouncing Todd Burpo and calling the whole thing a scam. Well, isn’t it only pleasing when we hear only what we choose to hear?
To the Christians in love with the book, I wonder if they ever raise any doubts? To the atheists who detest it, do they seriously read it with nothing but cold-hearted conviction? It would be like a Christian reading an atheist book, insulting its ignorance while the atheists revels in its accuracy. That’s why I prefer to sift through everything and, regardless of spiritual context, take away some sort of meaning that I can use to better myself.
For all of the people who complained about the Burpo family being like the Flanders family in the Simpsons, well how is that such a bad thing? I don’t think it is at all. A little funny and strange that people could be so happy all the time, but I wish the world was full of more Flanders. There were also complaints about the author being the same author as Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and how it was like Palin, too bubbly and sugar-coating or ignoring the bad stuff. Again, what is so wrong with that? (Although, I have to say I disagree with Burpo when he says, on page 84, that you might as well tell God what you’re thinking since he already knows what you’re thinking [when you’re angry, for example]. Yes, but what about filtering it to show him your control and respect? That passage stuck out oddly to me…)
Regardless, I think the point of the book is something I can really agree with: that a child is innocent and pure due to “lack of guile” (74). That’s why Colton’s Jesus loves the children, why Colton is so idolized in the story for his unfiltered thoughts, why this telling of heaven is so powerful – because it is meant to be pure visions retold by a guileless human. So, if nothing else, that and my new appreciation for the concern of others is what I will take away from this book – and perhaps much more.