Last week Michel Hyatt tweeted that the Thomas Nelson book “Heaven is for Real” was the top selling book for three weeks in a row on Amazon. The editors describe the books as “the true story of the four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enters heaven. He survives and begins talking about being able to look down and see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear.”
I expressed some skepticism and concern over the book to Michael Hyatt and he graciously sent me a complimentary copy. I scanned the book and was immediately impressed with the quality of the writing and how perfectly plotted the book was. No matter what questions I might have about the story I can’t deny the power with which it was told.
It would be easy to write a screed about stories like “Heaven Is Real”, “23 Minutes in Hell”, or “30 Minutes in Hell.” The stories, by their very nature, are unverifiable. I could also point to the profit motive behind books like this. However, there’s a few problems with writing a post like that. First, I cannot prove with certainty that these folk are not telling the truth. Secondly, I have to admit that books like these should be published. Christianity, gratefully, is a big tent that accommodates ideas and beliefs bigger than my traditions, doctrines, and comfort levels. Christian publishing does not exist to cater to my brand of thought. Third, I have to admit that I’m bothered by these books, in part, out of jealousy; books in this genre outsell the books I’ve written. I’d be a liar to think that this doesn’t color my attitude toward the book.
So what would happen if I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture? “Heaven is For Real” is the number one selling book in America. The narrative in this book is resonating with tens of thousands of people which makes it an important cultural artifact. Let’s apply Andy Crouch’s “5 Questions” to understand the significance of this book:
1. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” assume about the world?
We like in a culture that that is anxious about the afterlife. 9-11 and the “War on Terror” have made us more aware of our mortality. We wonder if there is purpose in this world and we are more apt to look to the next life for answers and an emotional anchor. The book assumes that people consider personal experiences as valuable source of authority in understanding the supernatural and that people are less content to rely on traditional sources of authority, such as the local church.
2. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” assume about how the world should be?
These books point to a discontentment with life as we experience it. We experience, pain, suffering, death, and separation from loved ones. We are searching for hope that these are temporary experiences. Books that focus on Hell capture a desire to see injustices in this life corrected and punished.
3. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” make possible?
People gain contemporary vehicles to test the veracity of their sacred scriptures or to draw conclusions about the afterlife independent of their scriptures.
4. What do books like “Heaven is for Real” make impossible? Or at least a whole lot more difficult?
I’m struggling here. Need some help from you readers!
5. What new culture is created in response to books like “Heaven is for Real”?
Books like “Heaven is for Real” reinforces our culture of looking to experiences to verify our faith. It also provides fodder for the culture of “attack bloggers” who police the Internet for atrocities to correct.
Time to wear your sociologist hat. How would you answer these five questions?