There really is such a thing as American exceptionalism: we are more gullible than the public in the rest of the developed world. Sitting pretty at No.1 on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list is a secondhand memoir, Heaven Is For Real , describing a four-year-old boy’s visit--when he nearly died from a burst appendix--to a heaven complete with clouds, winged inhabitants, and a baby sister his parents had lost to a miscarriage. Only in America could a book like this be classified as nonfiction.
The account of ColtonBurpo’s visit to heaven was written by his father, Todd, an evangelical pastor in Nebraska, and Lynn Vincent, who collaborated on another work of so-called nonfiction, Sarah Palin’s immortal Going Rogue. Of course, none of these good Christian folks produced this nonsense about a little boy in heaven for financial gain. Only atheists write books for money.
To summarize the young ColtonBurpo’s (he is now 11) “nonfiction” experience, he visited heaven while he was under anesthesia and encountered a great many vivid colors, Jesus displaying the stigmata, various creatures with wings of different sizes, and his unborn baby sister (who looked very much like his born older sister). His parents, appearing on the Today show with their son (who admitted that his memories of heaven weren’t as clear as they used to be) said they were skeptical at first but lost their skepticism as their child described more details of his experience in the months after his operation.
These were details, his father said, that the boy could not possibly have known had he not really visited heaven, because he had never been shown a picture of the wounded Jesus. Right. It’s understandable that the son of an evangelical pastor must have seen absolutely no prior images of the crucified Jesus or heard anything about heaven as a place with puffy clouds and winged creatures.
More than 1.5 million copies of this book are in print--enough to keep the Christian publisher, Thomas Nelson, solvent for quite a few years to come. The book is selling like angel food hotcakes in non-Christian as well as Christian bookstores. I particularly love the comment of Barnes & Noble’s vice president for marketing, Patricia Bostelman.
“When you buy the religion subject,” Bostelman said, “you are presented with many stories about heaven, personal experiences about near-death and the afterlife. “But what was unusual about this book was that it was the story of a little boy. It deactivated some of the cynicism that can go along with adults capitalizing on their experiences.”
This is an adult woman with an influential job. The little boy wasn’t the one capitalizing on his fantasies (not experiences, Ms. Bostelman). The boy’s father, his Christian literary agent, Christian publisher, and Sarah Palin’s collaborator were the ones doing the capitalizing.
No doubt the boy’s memories are as vivid and sincere as the memories of all of those preschoolers, coached by adults and “recovered memory” therapists in the 1980s, who claimed that they had been sexually abused en masse in nursery schools by teachers practicing Satanic rituals.
This book, and its commercial success, remind us again of the effectiveness of religious indoctrination early in life. They recall the truth of the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Can there possibly be any child raised by devout Christian parents who does not, well before kindergarten, have images of winged beings and puffy clouds embedded in his or her brain? Small children believe in Santa Claus for the same reason--because their parents, whom they love, teach them to believe in Santa. The difference is that, at an appropriate age, parents admit that the Santa story isn’t true. They never admit, however, that heaven is the same sort of story.
What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. (The book is way down in the ranks on Amazon.com in the United Kingdom.) The Americans buying the book are the same people fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. They are probably the same people who think they can reduce the government deficit without either paying higher taxes or cutting the military budget, Social Security and Medicare benefits. In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be. At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.