BURPO, TODD with LYNN VINCENT. Heaven is for Real. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-8499-4615-8. Pp. 163. $16.99.
In 2003, Todd Burpo's three-year-old son Colton underwent life-saving surgery after his appendix burst and, during the years following this operation, went on describe his experience in heaven, where angels sang to him and he sat in Jesus's lap. The purpose of the book is to show to the world that, as the title states, heaven is real. I may be the only agnostic/atheist in the world who has now read this book. I had a hard time reading it with an open mind, if only because Lynn Vincent co-wrote Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue.
It goes without saying that this is an unrelentingly conservative tale, infused with the nostalgia for old-fashioned America that can be both quaint and dangerous. Imperial, Nebraska, where the Burpos reside, has "only two thousand souls and zero traffic lights, it's the kind of town with more churches than banks, where farmers stream straight off the fields into the family-owned cafe at lunchtime, wearing Wolverine work boots, John Deere ball caps, and a pair of pliers for fence-mending hanging off their hips". Imperial is also 97.88% white. There are no lesbian couples. Gay men make up .2% of the population. The most common employment for women is that of secretary.
When Todd Burpo was faced with the possibility that he may have breast cancer, his reaction was that of shame, rather than fear ("a masectomy isn't exactly the manliest surgery in the world" and "I'm a guy. Guys do something"). When he learns that he doesn't have cancer, he claims "God had loved me with a little miracle". As it turns out, his tissue sample had originally shown hyperplasia, commonly associated with benign tumors, not cancer. Similarly, when his son was suffering mysterious and frightening ailments, Burpo writes "The doctors would bring back test results, test results, test results. But no answers, only useless observations". What one learns early on in the book is that medicine and science are mostly irrelevant, or, at best, ineffectual. When the Burpos transferred their son to a larger medical facility in order to get more concrete answers, the doctor was out to lunch, even though they had called ahead. This does seem like unacceptable behavior, but now because one doctor put off the Burpos for the sake of a sandwich, all medical men and men of science are deemed amoral. Colton does pull through, not thanks to the surgery, but thanks to the prayer chain at the church where Todd Burpo is the pastor. Even though the Burpos can't afford their son's medical bill, they still have to pay their weekly donation to the church ("God had just given our son back; there was no one were not going to give back to God"). According to the newly-healed, three-year-old Colton, "Jesus used Dr. O'Holleran to help fix me...You need to pay him". Dr. O'Holleran didn't fix Colton; Jesus and God did.
Several months later, Colton mentioned that he had actually seen Jesus when he had been operated on. What Colton Burpo experienced was a combination of a near-death-experience (or NDE) and an out-of-body-experience (or OBE). These are not, in fact, uncommon, and the symptoms are actually identical to what some people experience during other, non-life-threatening phenomena, such as seizures or G-LOC syndrome (acceleration-induced loss of consciousness). These symptoms include seeing bright lights, experiencing a floating sensation, imagining oneself in a beautiful place, euphoria, and interactions with both living and deceased friends and family. The psychologist Kenneth Ring mentions in Evelyn Elsaesser Valerin's book On the Other Side of Life, "There basically isn't a different between the experiences of believers and people who are skeptical about religion. The difference is primarily in the interpretation of the experience, but the essence of the NDE seems to be much the same for both" (88). Nor is the number of NDEs of religious versus non-religious people significantly different. NDEs are not exclusive to believers.
What I should mention before I go into Colton's NDE is that the Burpo household is a deeply religious one. Todd Burpo is the pastor of the Crossroad Wesleyan Church in Imperial. Both he and his wife got their Bachelors at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Every night they read their children a Bible story and listen to their children say their prayers. They tell their children what to pray for "not only to build their faith, but also because praying for others is a way to develop a heart for needs outside your own". It only seems natural that Colton would have a religious NDE, especially as one learns how few choices his parents have presented him. When he begins to describe Jesus to his father, the possibility that what he saw might reflect what he was familiar with does not come up. According to four-year-old Colton, Jesus has a horse, but he only tells his father this after he had "spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at it".
According to Colton Burpo, "[Jesus's] clothes were white, but it was purple from here to here". I believe that Colton could have described any color of clothes; his father would find supporting proof for it in the Bible or the Scriptures. "In Scripture, purple is the color of kings. A verse from the gospel of Mark flashed through my mind: 'His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them'". What Burpo failed to find out is that many children have seen Jesus during their own NDEs. One girl said she saw "Jesus wearing a red hat and having a round belly like Santa Claus" (M.L. Morse and P. Perry, Transformed by the Light). Another boy said "Jesus had a black flowing cape...'I remember his hands, they were soft, but they didn't bleed like the picture on the wall". (Cherie Sutherland, "'Trailing the Clouds of Glory': The Near-Death Experiences of Western Children and Teens" from Handbook of Near-Death Experiences). Of course, not all NDEs involve Jesus. Examples mentioned in Penny Sartori's Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients include those of Chinese victims of an earthquake in Tang Shan, who described "feelings of peace and euphoria," but no "'Being of Light,' religious figures or being taken to another realm." Similarly, "In Thai NDEs, the most prevalent component was the presence of Yamatoots; messengers of Yama, the God of Death, whose purpose was to take the person to Yama's office, in the depths of hell, to be judged or to inform them of their impending death". If Colton had seen Jesus wearing a black cape, or in the form of Santa Clause, wouldn't his father have found a way to align his son's experience with Scripture? When Colton tells his father he was in heaven for three minutes, his father "marveled at his answer". But what if he had said a second, an hour, or a hundred years? Wouldn't any amount of time have been equally marvelous?
Over the yeas following Colton's NDE, every time he and his family stumbled across an image of Jesus, they would ask him "What about this one? Is that what Jesus looked like?" Because none corresponded with Colton's Jesus, they eventually start asking him "What's wrong with this one?" In 2006, the Burpos were introduced to the story of Akiane Kramarik, a twelve-year-old girl who began seeing Jesus when she was four-year-old. Her mother was an atheist (although what her father or her grandparents are is conveniently left out) and her home had no television. Her visions of Jesus, assumedly, were unprecedented. Of course, this is based on the assumption that a child, growing up in Idaho no less, would not have had any access to religious imagery outside of her parents' home or television, an assumption that is grossly misleading. Nevertheless, Akiane began painting what she saw in her visions, notably paintings of Jesus. Todd found one of these paintings while he was surfing the internet in the basement. His son was upstairs and Todd decided to call him down and to witness his reaction. Colton stared at the painting and said, "Dad, that one's right."
There was a horse named Clever Hans who was believed to be able to do arithmetic but in 1907 the psychologist Oskar Pfungst proved that Clever Hans was not, in fact, good at arithmetic. He was good at reading body language, responding to his trainer's physical cues, cues that the trainer himself was unaware of giving. It is because of the Clever Hans effect that Colton would have a greater chance of recognizing Akiane's painting of Jesus as opposed to any other. For one thing, he was seeing this painting under entirely different circumstances than the others: with the others, he and his parents would randomly come across a painting of Jesus in a Christian bookstore or elsewhere and they would casually quiz him. In this case, he was at home, on a different floor than his father, who indicated urgency when he called his son down to see Akiane's painting. On top of this, Todd Burpo was introduced to Akiane's story through a friend who said that Akiane and Colton had similar experiences with Jesus. Lastly, Akiane and Colton are contemporaries, ages 12 and 7 respectively, from the same area of the same country, if not the same state. Their idea of Jesus looking the way he does (shorter haircut, a trimmed beard, of almost mixed race), is not coincidental, nor should it be inconsequential.
NDEs are universal phenomena that have become more common as medical science brings more and more people back from the brink of death. These experiences are deeply embedded in one's religious and cultural beliefs. It is a grave mistake to use an NDE as proof of anything other than the power of the human brain in times of crises.