If you've noticed, I tend to avoid book reviews. For one thing, there's the obligatory summary or plot outline which often can evoke a yawn from me about as quickly as if I were cracking open one of my exciting accounting reference books. Still, something was different about this simple book entitled Heaven is for Real, A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo (and with Lynn Vincent).
I have to admit, though, that my wife actually picked this book up first. I glanced at it, returned it to its Costco display table, only to retrieve the title again a moment later. Something piqued my interest after reading just a paragraph, or so. For one thing, it's written in an unusually simple, unvarnished style that is quickly engaging. It's not a book you're likely to read for literary value, but, that said, it's much better written than a lot in the "pop" spiritual market--The Shack, par exemple. In fact, as someone who was raised in the Nazarene denomination before our family of four (as well as my in-laws) crossed the Tiber to the Catholic Church, it reminds me a little of the missionary books that were distributed at church when I was growing up: a very simple, decidedly unselfconscious style.
So, I can't disappoint my readers with a long summarization of the story (because I don't want to), but I will say that the young boy recounts an out of body experience following a close call on the operating table due to his appendix breaking open. Colton Burpo shares his experience later with his astonished parents, and the book really focuses on the parents' processing and questioning of their son over the years to come. The details that Colton conveys are startling and perhaps hard for an adult to accept. For instance, his insistence of everyone, except Jesus, having angelic wings in heaven was particularly troubling because it seemed to imply that we become angels--which I don't believe is true.
Still, the angel issue is similar to other details in that I suggest that we're seeing the images of heaven through the lens of a child's mind. If we accept the account as true, which I do by and large, then we need to recognize that heaven would have probably looked different to an adult on a similar journey. This is how this child processed the information, which begins to make other small details less troublesome--to me, anyway.
The most startling passage of the book may be when Colton asks his mother if his sister died in his mother's tummy. The innocent question reveals that Colton met his unborn sister (of whom his parents had never spoken with him) on his celestial visit: deeply encouraging news for his family. I was also deeply impressed by the way the little boy describes the nature of time in heaven. It's been something of an area of interest to me for years, and I think the boy unknowingly described that "eternal present" remarkably well.
I've been reading many reviews of this title over the past few days, and it's interesting how varied the perspectives are. Atheist writer Susan Jacoby penned a particularly weak attack of the book in her own online review. It really didn't offer any original or persuasive insights, but just blasted the book as appealing to the "immature American mind." Since I think it takes more faith to be an atheist than a believer in a higher power, though, I wasn't impressed.
Some evangelical reviews, such as the one written by Tim Challies, seem really torn as to how to respond to the book. In the end, it's as if this rather unfriendly reviewer is telling God, that "no, you can't do this." It's us dictating to the Creator what He may or may not do with regards to His creation; I wasn't persuaded by his arguments opposing the book. Much closer to the mark, I think, are the more thoughtful reviews--like the one written by Scott Lencke.
I think it's important to approach all accounts of miracles with a healthy degree of skepticism, but this account rings true for me. (Of course, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, God turns water to wine each year in the vineyard, and we fail to recognize this kind of natural wonder for the miracle that it truly is.) As an example of personal revelation, we're, of course, not bound to believe, but we do need to realize that God may do whatever He wishes when it comes to His creation. He's not bound by natural laws. I would concur with some of the comments by reviewers such as Tim Challies in that we should be careful of our faith being affected too much by sensational accounts--even the true ones. Our faith should lie deeper and stronger than our passing feelings.
Lastly, some have argued that Colton's experience contradicts their interpretation of the book of Revelation. I would suggest that Revelation contains multiple levels of meanings--for many generations of believers. A particularly strong commentary on this book is Revelation, A Divine Message of Hope by Father Bruce Vawter.
In short, I found this book to be a heartwarming account of a child's journey to God and back again. As I wrote some years ago in "Mysterious Tools," the heart of God definitely holds a special place for children. We should all strive for more of a child-like faith in our own spiritual journey.