Apr/May 2012

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Making sense of Colton Burpo's heavenly vision.

Kerry Howley

Thomas De Quincey’s “The English Mail-Coach,” an essay that begins as a jaunty paean to the English postal sys- tem and ends in drug-fueled nightmare, appeared, in 1849, in Blackwood’s Magazine. That is to say, a reader picking up the general-interest journal would have plunged into what appeared to be a winking disquisition on mail-coaches only to come, many pages later, to a subheading titled “Dream-Fugue: Founded on the Preceding Theme of Sudden Death,” at which point he would be firmly planted in an opium addict’s waking fever. The mail-coaches of his youth warranted lengthy description, wrote De Quincey, because they “had so large a share in developing the anarchies” of his dreams. Some familiarity with his lived world, in other words, will be necessary for the reader to understand the dream logic that followed. The dream, the journey to the edge of consciousness, was very much the point.

Associative dream logic is not the dominant mode of the modern American essay. We don’t, in this century, have a Thomas De Quincey, or a William Blake, or even a William Burroughs. What we do have is Colton Burpo.

• • •

In February of 2003, Colton Burpo, the nearly four-year-old son of an evangelical pastor and a schoolteacher, was diagnosed with a stomach flu. When he failed to recover, Colton’s parents took him back to a clinic in Imperial, Nebraska, where an X-ray of Colton’s torso showed “three dark masses.” The family doctor—the same one who had given the stomach-flu diagnosis—ruled out appendicitis. He advised them to wait, which they did. Colton’s father, accustomed to dealing with terminally ill church members, watched his son’s color whiten to a pallor he found terrifyingly familiar. “He doesn’t seem to be responding to the medication,” the doctor offered. “I don’t know. . . . I wish the surgeon was here.” Days later, the parents finally drove their mortally ill son to a hospital in North Platte, Nebraska, where the doctor who had promised to see them was out to lunch. Later, the doctor reported that Colton had a ruptured appendix, was “not in good shape,” and would require surgery immediately.

On the wings of criminally incompetent medical care, then, young Colton Burpo flew to heaven. He recovered, slowly and rather gruesomely, given the long-standing need to drain his open surgical wound, and only months after what seems to have been a genuinely traumatic corporeal experience did he start logging reports from heaven. One thing he discovered early on, he tells his father in an Arby’s parking lot, is that the angels won’t take any musical requests. He wanted “We Will Rock You”; they went with “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” Later we learn that Jesus had nice eyes but, troublingly, made Colton do homework. There were wings, sashes, thrones. The Son of God moved “up and down like an elevator.” He rode a rainbow horse.

• • •

De Quincey believed that the cultivation of dreams freed us from the perceptive straitjackets of time and space. “The dreaming organ,” he wrote, “compose the magnificent apparatus which forces the infinite into the chambers of a human brain.” Through dreaming, we might also come to know the whole of our sensory experience, which in a state of normal consciousness was almost entirely hidden. Of the unveiling power of dreams he said: “Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious hand-writings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain. . . . But by the hour of death, but by fever, but by the searchings of opium, all these can revive in strength.”

• • •

I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Thomas Nelson, $17) is the most popular work of nonfiction in the United States, so I will merely point out that it is enjoying its sixty-fourth week on the New York Times best-seller list. As of this writing, it is listed as first in paperback nonfiction and first in e-book nonfiction. While near-death experience telling is a tried-and-true publishing formula (the cover of Heaven Is for Real features a blurb from Don Piper, author of 90 Minutes in Heaven, which is eighty-seven more than Colton claims to have had), few books of this type reach beyond the usual religious audiences. “What was unusual about this book,” the vice president of marketing at Barnes & Noble told the New York Times, “was that it was the story of a little boy.”

• • •

Though De Quincey believed his dreams to be particularly splendid, he also thought the art of dreamcraft was available to any man who lived a certain kind of life. To exercise the dreaming organ, one had to cultivate solitude, to carve out a studied distance from the human world. He was aware that, in nineteenth-century England, this was becoming increasingly difficult. He also knew that his dreams were not born entirely of aloneness, and that one could do more than bide one’s solitary, watchful time to press oneself into an alternate state.

“Supposing a reader . . . to have put this question: But how came you to dream more splendidly than others?” he asked himself. “The answer would have been—‘Because I took excessive quantities of opium.’”

• • •

Heaven Is for Real, which is narrated by Colton’s father, Todd, makes repeated appeals to the wisdom of innocence. Colton is reliable because he is straightforward. “Maybe we sophisticated grown-ups have tried to make things more complicated than they are,” Todd observes. “Maybe we are too educated, too ‘smart.’” It is difficult to read this book and conclude that this is the problem.

• • •

Consider the pathos of young Colton’s situation. Over time, he begins to talk about a psychological experience he had under extreme bodily stress; he begins to tell a story about his experience. Because he believes his parents believe the Bible stories they have told him all his life, he has no idea how desperate they will be for evidence that these stories are true. With every new revelation—that he saw his dead grandfather, that he met an older sister who died in miscarriage—he watches his parents either gasp or burst into tears.

Thrust into a world of insecure adults starving for evidentiary testimony, he finds himself in a position of divine authority. In a particularly deranged part of the book, his parents push pictures of Jesus at him, asking, is this what he looked like? This? But Colton, now basking in his elevated status as the only family member with access to the divine, rejects every picture as unequal to the splendor of his vision. Now he knows that they can’t know. Drunk on power, he becomes so annoying on the subject of God’s preference for children—he really, really loves them—that his father tells him to stop. Soon he begins to see the entire world as an expression of his will, every natural wonder a manifestation of his power. A rainbow appears. The family is delighted. “I prayed for that yesterday,” says Colton.

• • •

Thomas De Quincey, “Suspiria de Profundis”: “And it has often struck me with amazement, that the two things which God made most beautiful among his works, namely, infancy and pure religion, should, by the folly of man (in yoking them together on erroneous principles), neutralize each other’s beauty, or even form a combination positively hateful.”

• • •

The dream turns, inevitably, dark. The child tyrant presses upon his prophetic vision. Now he has seen Satan. Now the angels have swords. There is to be a war. “Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people.” His father says he’ll fight when apocalyptic conditions force him to do so. “Yeah,” says Colton, “you will.”

• • •

In the Washington Post, a grim Susan Jacoby, author of the grim-sounding book The Age of American Unreason, calls Heaven Is for Real “nonsense” fit for credulous dullards. “Only in America,” she writes, “could a book like this be classified as ‘nonfiction.’” But I do not find Colton Burpo’s rainbow dream-horse to be any less verifiable, or for that matter believable, than Thomas De Quincey’s apocalyptic mail-coach-pulling dream-horse. The plumbing of the darkest corners of consciousness is a task essayists have historically accepted—fact-checkers be damned—and to cede such territory entirely to novelists due to some theological disagreement with the Burpo family seems, at the very least, hasty.

Those who share Jacoby’s declinist tendencies could do better to note that such exploration, once taken up by the greatest prose stylists of the age, has here been given over to a four-year-old boy. It’s also striking that his very inability to give voice to what he saw—his incompetence with the language—is taken as evidence for the legitimacy of his report.

When Colton has mastered the heaven circuit, he finally alights upon a painting that meets his standards for the portrayal of Jesus. This Jesus has blue eyes, a beard, short hair. “That one’s right,” he says during a CNN segment. The painting was by someone named Akiane, whose dispatches from heaven had made it to Oprah, who was published (Akiane: Her Life, Her Art, Her Poetry), and who was, at the time, just shy of twelve years old.

As the now and future divine oracle of the Western Nebraskan Wilds, then, Colton Burpo joins a handful of other children who have risen up to claim a communion with the infinite. But Heaven Is for Real is not a book about these children. Heaven Is for Real is about a group of adults who believe passionately in the power of “the dreaming organ,” but do not believe the power is theirs to claim. Their own reveries stop short of mystic communion; they must rely on the whimsical authority of power-mad children. Grown-ups pack churches where Todd tells of his son’s seraphic virtue. A trembling woman approaches Colton’s father. “I lost a baby,” she says, weeping. “She was stillborn. Would your son know if my baby’s in heaven?”