First published in November 2010, Heaven is for Real is now on its 61st week on the New York Times Best Seller List. As with many “faith” stories, reviews of the book are mixed. When Burpo’s son Colton was almost four, he had a near death experience in the hospital and later told his family that he had been in heaven for that time, with Jesus. He described some things that seemed to tally with Biblical accounts of heaven, and some things that the Bible does not mention, such as Jesus having a multi-colored horse. Todd Burpo, a minister, relates how matter-of-factly Colton surprised him and his wife with these pronouncements about what happened to him. Like other children that age, Colton is not trying to tell any story, he only shares details or convictions that seem to be triggered by what he’s watching or what is happening around him – whether it be a television show or a funeral at their church.
Some of the information that Colton shares is about events his parents say they did not tell him about, like the fact that he had a baby sister who had died before being born. He told them that she came up to him in heaven and kept hugging him. And he said that his father’s grandfather introduced himself to Colton while he was there. What was striking to his father was that none of the pictures he had of his grandfather were of him as a young man, but Colton knew who it was when Todd had an early picture sent to him. Perhaps Colton was guessing who this unidentified man was supposed to be. Some readers have suggested that since Colton’s dad Todd is a minister that Colton had absorbed many ideas of the things that he said happened to him. The story is told as though Colton just came out with these “revelations” bit by bit, and that his parents were careful not to react too strongly to his statements.
What we are left with is the impact of the impression his experience had on Colton. How he keeps telling everyone how much Jesus loves children (until his family almost says, okay, we GET it) and how concerned he is about whether a dying parishioner really does love Jesus or not. And what about the little girl in heaven who kept hugging him? About a year later, when Colton is being baby-sat, he starts crying and saying he misses his sister. Why does he think of her then? His mother has just had a baby, giving him a younger brother – maybe with his parents gone, he was lying there and remembered her and suddenly felt –really experienced – the distance between them. Many times children “know” something, but it takes a certain time and place for them to realize it.
Perhaps when Colton grows up, he’ll let us know that he kind of made the book up. But I tend to doubt it. Even though the family (and their church) has had a windfall from the book’s popularity, it’s hard to see the story as being man-made. It’s a slight, airy book, just wafting through your consciousness and not disturbing much of anything, unless you spend some time thinking about it. And that’s probably the secret of its success.
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