New York Times - March 11, 2011
Celestial Sales for Boy’s Tale of Heaven
By JULIE BOSMAN
Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Neb., was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix.
He woke up with an astonishing story: He had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus, who had eyes that “were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle,” Colton, now 11 years old, recalled.
Colton’s father, Todd, has turned the boy’s experience into a 163-page book, “Heaven Is for Real,” which has become a sleeper paperback hit of the winter, dominating best-seller lists and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
Thomas Nelson, the book’s publisher, said it had broken company sales records. The publisher, based in Nashville, began with an initial print run of 40,000 copies. Since the book came out in November, it has gone back to press 22 times, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. On the New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction last Sunday, “Heaven Is for Real” was No. 1. The book remains in the top spot this coming Sunday.
Much of the book’s success has been fueled by word of mouth, since it did not begin with the usual best-seller channels: there has been no elaborate book tour, big-name publisher or brand-name author. But it has gained traction with a few well-placed appearances on the morning show “Fox & Friends,” “The 700 Club” and CNN.
The book has sold just as strongly in national chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble as it has in Christian specialty shops, said Matt Baugher, the vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson. Mass merchants like Wal-Mart have pushed the book heavily in their stores, and large orders from churches and ministry groups are growing steadily.
“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived. “This was a very down-to-earth, conservative, quote-unquote normal Midwestern family. We became fully convinced that this story was valid. And also that it was a great story that would just take off.”
The book was an instant hit in Barnes & Noble outlets and was near the top of the best-seller list on its bn.com. The chain’s religion buyer was an early advocate for the book, ordering copies for every store, said Patricia Bostelman, the vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble.
“When you buy the religion subject, you are presented with many stories about heaven, personal experiences about near-death and the afterlife,” Ms. Bostelman said, noting that several other books with “heaven” in the title have sold well recently. “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.”
Todd Burpo wrote the book with Lynn Vincent, who collaborated with Sarah Palin on “Going Rogue.” Mr. Burpo, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, a farming community in southwest Nebraska, said in an interview that he had shouldered some criticism over it.
“People say we just did this to make money, and it’s not the truth,” Mr. Burpo said, referring to anonymous online comments about the book. “We were expecting nothing. We were just hoping the publisher would break even.” (He said he planned to give away much of the royalty income and spend some of it on home improvements.)
At first, he and his wife, Sonja, were not sure if they could believe their son’s story, which came out slowly, months and years after his sudden illness and operation in 2003. The details persuaded them, Mr. Burpo said. Colton told his parents that he had met his younger sister in heaven, describing her as a dark-haired girl who resembled his older sister, Cassie. When the Burpos questioned him, he asked his mother, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” While his wife had suffered a miscarriage years before, Mr. Burpo said, they had not told Colton about it. “There’s just no way he could have known,” Mr. Burpo said.
And the Burpos said that Colton painstakingly described images that he said he saw in heaven — like the bloody wounds on Jesus’ palms — that he had not been shown before.
Eventually the Burpos decided to tell their story beyond their town. Mr. Burpo, in his Sunday sermons, had already introduced some anecdotes to his congregation. Through a pastor friend, they met Joel Kneedler, an agent with Alive Communications, a Christian literary agency in Colorado Springs. Mr. Kneedler sold the book to Thomas Nelson, a publisher known for Christian titles like “40 Days With Jesus” by Sarah Young. The advance was in the low five figures.
The book’s list price is $16.99, but that is discounted to $9.34 on amazon.com.
At the outlets of Barbara’s Bookstore, an independent chain mostly in the Chicago area, the book is No. 1 on the store’s nonfiction best-seller list. Interest in it began to perk up around mid-February, said Greg Sato, a store manager.
“Of the nonfiction books lately that seems to be the one that people are asking about the most,” Mr. Sato said. “I have pegged it in the same vein as ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ or ‘The Shack.’ Like an Oprah book, but a little more religious or spiritual.”
Colton, who appears as a blond, round-faced little boy on the cover of the book, now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football.
Telling his story matter-of-factly, Colton said he was pleased that people were finding the story inspirational.
“People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts,” he said. “I’m happy for that.”
Pharyngula - Science Blogs March 21, 2011
The Credulity of Americans is Unquenchable
by Juno Walker
An evangelical pastor and his wife are making money off their 11 year-old son's book about his near-death experience. If you think I sound cynical, you're correct; unfortunately, it seems there are far too few Americans who share my skepticism.
But first, a little background about the story: the son, Colton, was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Upon coming to, the boy recounted how "he had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus." He said he even noticed that Jesus' eyes were a sparkly blue. (Now, keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, and while it's not impossible for him to have blue eyes, the boy's description more closely mirrors the typical Anglophilic portrayal of a long-haired, pasty-white Jesus with a goatee. Also keep in mind that Colton was only about 4 years-old when he had his "vision." Do you think the images of Jesus he had seen up to that point would portray Jesus as a typical Jew of his day, or as an Anglo-Saxon hippie with blue eyes?)
Colton's 163-page book has sold astonishingly well: there are currently more than 1.5 million copies in print, and it is on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks now. Clearly many Americans have a strong need for this type of feel-good rubbish.
What's not clear is whether he actually had a near-death experience, per se - I haven't read the book (I refuse to spend money on it), and this article in the NYT isn't clear; it merely says that he woke up from surgery and claimed he had died. Colton's parents believe him, of course. They believe him so much that they published this book for him. And although Colton's father says he was simply hoping for the publisher to break even, and that he plans on giving away most of the royalties, he is in fact keeping some of the money for "home improvements." Well, there's a nice plus. But as a Christian - and as a pastor - wouldn't that money be better spent for the poor, the homeless, the sick, or other Christian goals?
Now, every parent wants to believe their kid. No parent wants to intentionally belittle and condescend to their child. And, given the parents' religious faith, it's easy to see how they are inclined to credulity.
But isn't it more likely that something else is at work here? I mean, when you become a Christian, you make a commitment to a set of beliefs, a dogma, and the nature of a dogma is that you can't doubt it and believe it at the same time. For example, a Christian can't claim to be a Christian and doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead. That's the essence of being a Christian - at least from an evangelical point of view. And the typical believer can't venture too far into the exegetical disputes over literal versus metaphorical interpretations; the theological ground there is too shaky - the fate of his eternal soul depends on it!
So the temptation to believe what would otherwise be met with a healthy skepticism and gentle patronization (e.g., if Colton woke up and said he died and met Alexander the Great), is so strong as to blind one from the more obvious explanation. The parents, of course, claim that Colton made reference to things that "there's just no way he could have known." The example they give is that the mother had had a miscarriage but never told Colton about it; but Colton had referenced it directly. This is a common refrain among those who have had near-death experiences.
But we know that our brains absorb a lot more stimuli via our senses than our "conscious minds" can register. I don't intend to get into a discussion of consciousness - other than to say that no one really knows how to explain it yet - but there is literature out there documenting research and experiments related to human perception and human memory - but all too few people read this stuff.
And for all you parents out there - how many times have you been surprised at something your child has repeated to you that you were convinced they never could have known? How many times have you heard them parrot something that you swore they couldn't hear or couldn't understand?
What's particularly sad is the effect this experience will have on Colton himself, as well as the effect his book will have on other credulous families with children. For his part, Colton, 7 years later, "now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football." That seems innocuous enough; but listen to what he says about his book: ""People are getting blessed, and they're going to have healing from their hurts...I'm happy for that."
He's happy that people will believe a delusion as long as it makes them feel better. We are breeding generations of children who will gladly accept a lie instead of truth, so long as it makes them feel good. But one day, at some point in their lives, they will have no recourse to any real resilience in times of real crisis; they're used to digesting the superficial bromides and platitudes our culture relishes. They won't be able to digest a truly harrowing physical or psychological experience.
And don't get me started on the further dampening of scientific curiosity and thinking this type of anecdote permits - and almost encourages.
And you know that if Colton were born a Buddhist, he would have seen the Buddha; if he were born a Muslim, he would have seen Muhammad; and if he were born a Hindu, he would have seen Krishna - or any of the other myriad deities in the Indian pantheon.
Stories like this one, especially when presented uncritically in a venue such as The New York Times, makes me truly pessimistic about the future of humankind.
This article was found at:
Banking on Heaven: Polygamy in the Heartland of the American West [DVD]
Family Radio apocalyptic cult says the Bible guarantees Jesus will return on May 21, 2011