Friday’s New York Times contained a discussion by Maud Newton of a publishing phenomenon, Pastor Todd Burpo’s bestelling book (written with Lynn Vincent), Heaven is for Real.
I wrote about this book thirteen months ago. It recounts how Todd’s son Colton, four years old at the time, suffered a burst appendix, and how his “near death experience” involved visiting heaven—for real!—and seeing things like his dead relatives, God sitting on a big throne (of course), and Jesus riding a huge horse. Colton supposedly also learned things that he could not have known in real life, like the fact that his mother had a miscarriage. (You can read a chapter of the book here.)
In my earlier discussion of the book, I listed young Colton (now twelve) as the main author, with his father, mother and Lynn Vincent as co-authors. Curiously, in the latest version of the book neither Colton nor his mother are listed as authors.
Anyway, Newton elaborates:
. . . over the months following his recovery did his parents hear his whole story: that while in surgery, he went to heaven and met Jesus, who assigned him homework; he also encountered angels, a rainbow-hued horse, John the Baptist, God the father, the Holy Spirit, a sister his mother miscarried (unknown to Colton) before he was born and his great-grandfather, Pop, as a young man. Everyone in heaven had wings; Colton’s were smaller than most. He learned that the righteous, including his father, would fight in a coming last battle.
“Heaven Is for Real” was published in late 2010, became a word-of-mouth best seller and has spent 59 (nonconsecutive) weeks as the No. 1 nonfiction paperback on The New York Times’s best-seller list. Recently the publisher, Thomas Nelson, spun off a children’s picture book, now also a best seller, with illustrations verified by Colton. And sometime in 2014, courtesy of DeVon Franklin, vice president of production at Columbia Pictures, who considers his faith “a professional asset,” a movie version should be released in theaters.
Newton gives further “evidence” for Colton’s entry into heaven (he knew several things he couldn’t have known otherwise), recounts her own indoctrination with faith as a girl, and describes some post-book developments, in which Colton seems to have become a bit of a religious jerk:
Not long after his celestial journey, Colton interrupted one of Todd’s funeral services, pointing at the coffin, nearly shouting: “Did that man have Jesus?! . . . He had to! He had to! . . . He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!” [JAC: Can you imagine how the mourners felt?] The success of “Heaven Is for Real” has as much to do with the undercurrent of blame in these asides as it does with the feel-good, I-met-Jesus story.
Newton then uses the book to lay blame on both evangelical religion and on science, which has tried to explain near-death experiences—NDEs—as a combination of psychology and physiology:
These explanations, however respectful, won’t persuade a believer that her visions are imaginary, just as “Heaven Is for Real” will never convert an atheist. Whichever side of this divide you sit on, you’re unlikely to seek rapprochement with the other. In our à la carte media world, most of us seek only to reinforce what we already think, and it’s zealots who drive the discourse. Pat Robertson depicts natural disasters as God’s punishment for homosexuality; Richard Dawkins seems almost reasonable by comparison, arguing that religion begets persecution, that teaching children to believe in God is abuse and that science is the only principled way to order existence. Yet as Marilynne Robinson has observed, Hitler embarked upon the Holocaust in the name of science; the fact that eugenics was bad science doesn’t negate that fact. No matter how much we learn, the vision science offers — of ourselves and of the universe — will always be incomplete and consequently imperfect. Stories of gods, angels and rainbow horses will persist in the gaps.
(n.b. I’ve just finished Marilynne Robinson’s book, Absence of Mind, and it’s dreadful. It’s not only very poorly written—in contrast, Robinson was nominated for a Pulitzer for her fiction—but it’s almost incoherent in its attack on “scientism”.)
It’s ridiculous to invoke Hitler’s eugenics to cast aspersions on scientific analysis of religious experiences. First of all, there are serious arguments about how much of Nazi eugenics was really drawn from contemporary genetics—as opposed to the “selective breeding” that had been practiced for centuries without any knowledge of genetics beyond “like begets like”. Further, even if the Nazis had drawn on genetics when extirpating mental defectives, Jews, and gypsies, how is that an indictment of science itself? And the Nazis could fabricate plenty of other excuses to exterminate Jews.
The blame here lay not on genetics and science in general, but on people who misused science in the service of warped ideologies. I’m not sure what Newton means by saying that “the fact that eugenics was bad science doesn’t negate that fact” (the “fact” being that “Hitler embarked on the Holocaust in the name of science”); but it sure looks as if she’s casting aspersions on science itself simply because it was misused. That’s a common tactic used by theologians to justify faith (“both have been misused!”).
And does science really seek to “reinforce what we already think”? If that were true, science wouldn’t progress. (In contrast, faith does seek to reinforce what the faithful already think, which explains why, while theological doctrine may change, it doesn’t progress.) Indeed, science seeks to test, or even to overturn, what we already think. Think of all the excitement attending the now-dubious finding of faster-than-light neutrinos.
Too, it may well be that science some day will explain NDEs as a combination of one’s psychology, religious or other beliefs, and physiological changes accompanying on a medical crisis. Newton doesn’t consider whether the interstices for angels and rainbows may be growing insupportably small.
Finally, note how Dawkins is implicitly characterized as a “zealot” for his criticisms of faith.
This essay is an example of how one person—Newton—tries to place herself in the “reasonable middle” between science and faith. This becomes clear at the end of her piece:
As for me, in matters of the soul, I’m a devout agnostic. What astounds me, what has always astounded me, is not that so many people are so certain of their beliefs but that they excoriate people who don’t share them. As a child, I repented for my doubt. Now I embrace it. Religious dogma is not verifiable; science is fallible. Uncertainty is the only belief system I feel sure of.
Yes, I am so certain that evolution is true that I do excoriate—or try to educate—people who don’t share my acceptance. In her desire to occupy the “reasonable middle” (P. Z. would call it “halfway to crazy town”), Newton seems oblivious to the fact that the evidence for God and heaven is far less certain, indeed nonexistent, than the evidence for most scientific propositions. Is Newton an “agnostic” about taking antibiotics when she has a bacterial infection? Does she fly in airplanes or use a computer? Is she agnostic about the existence of dinosaurs in the past?
Of course science is fallible: none of us pretend that we possess the absolute and final truth, and scientific consensus has been wrong (most scientists once poo-pooed continental drift). Yet science is nearly infallible about many things: water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom per molecule, evolution happened, the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and objects attract each other gravitationally with a strength inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them and directly proportional to the product of their masses. I doubt that Maud Newton is as “uncertain” about these issues as she is about the existence of heaven or souls.
This list of books also purchased on Amazon by those who bought Heaven is for Real appeared at the end of Newton’s story yesterday, but seems to have disappeared today. It reinforces the lessons from Todd Burpo’s best-seller: there’s an enormous appetite for books reassuring people that there is indeed a chance that they’ll be with Jesus after they die. Most of the books below reinforce the desire of the faithful to fool themselves:
“The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” by Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey (2010) [JAC: the authors' names are appropriate].
“90 Minutes In Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life,” by Don Piper with Cecil Murphey (2004)
“Flight to Heaven: A Pilot’s True Story,” by Capt. Dale Black with Ken Gire (2010)
“The Five People You Meet In Heaven,” by Mitch Albom (2003)
“Through My Eyes: A Quarterback’s Journey,” by Tim Tebow with Nathan Whitaker (2011)
“Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever,” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (2011)
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E. L. James (2012)