My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for June (I): Heaven Film and Book is Really Manipulative, Patronizing and Protestant

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I'm puzzled by a new film based on a 2010 book called, "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back" by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. First, I don't understand how a fictional story has been classified and ranked as a bestselling "non-fiction" book? More disturbing, I find it offensive that the book portrays heaven of Christians, by Christians and for Christians. Please help me understand what to believe about all of this?

Heavenly Jew in Hackensack

Dear Heavenly,

I'm critical of the book you mention because its story is so obviously manipulative and because the premise of its narrative is so patronizingly Protestant.

For those unfamiliar, the book recounts, "the true story of a four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who experienced heaven during emergency surgery. He talks about looking down to 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 …"

This book builds on a familiar narrative about the soul and death that is common in the belief systems of Western religions. That story proposes that every living person is made up of a body and a soul which is the life-force that animates the body. When a person dies, that life-force no longer inhabits the body. It does not cease to exist. It goes to another domain. Since death by definition is irreversible, that domain is a mystery to us.

No matter that it is unknowable. Many have speculated about whether a heaven or a hell exists and if so, what it/they look(s) like. This book that you refer to purports to settle the speculations only about heaven, with nothing to say about hell. It presents us with an account of an innocent young boy whose soul departs his body, goes to heaven, and comes back to inhabit his body and to report to us what he found in the next world.

So yes, this book's framework account is legitimately non-fiction in parts because it tells us about a "true" story about a little boy who did undergo emergency surgery and had a near death experience. And because the book, and now film, both allege to report what the boy said to his parents after his operation, that can be classified as a non-fiction chronicle of a boy's conversations with adults.

Then, by a manipulative literary sleight of hand, the tale weaves into the framework of bare facts a wildly imaginative fundamentalist Christian account of heavenly ascent by an ostensibly guileless little boy. It mingles wholly imaginary details of what the boy says he saw in heaven into the factual background of his hospital procedures.

You need to know that this type of tale is nothing new. Jewish, Christian and Islamic mystics and religious visionaries have provided us in the past with reports of heavenly ascents, mainly achieved in ecstatic states of meditation or other events. The Jewish Hekhalot literature, for instance, describes mystical rises into heaven accompanied by divine visions, including in them ways to summon and control angels and to find in heaven some new knowledge of the Torah.

Our religious traditions have a variety of idealized stories of heaven. But you seem not to care much for the conclusion that a Christian heaven is "for Real" and that the Burpo boy was there and back.

Neither do I, partly because I had a near death experience which does not confirm the boy's story.

In 2006 my heart stopped at the beginning of a routine angioplasty procedure in a hospital catheterization lab. I fell unconscious while the cardiology practitioners were inserting a catheter into an artery near my leg. By the doctors' criteria, I was clinically dead for two minutes.

Did I go to heaven? Do I have a report about what wonders I saw there? Did I have any out-of-body experience? No, I had none of the above. My experience contradicts Colin Burpo's. With the help of his father who is a minister, he recollected a whole lot of "facts" about the spiritual experiences of his soul as it travelled outside his body and made a visit to a Christian heaven.

Unlike Colton, my soul did not see bright lights suggesting the divine presence of a God. My soul did not soar to heaven or float around outside of my body. My soul did not meet my dead relatives or greet any great religious personages of any faiths or persuasions.

In spite of my own non-ascent, if you do insist, I can weave for you a narrative of a Jewish heavenly experience. There are multiple possibilities based on the strands of Jewish religious traditions.

The great medieval rabbi Maimonides presents us with a visualization of Gan Eden, a heavenly depiction based on the Talmud that has always seemed attractive to me.

"In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, no material substance. There are only souls of the righteous without bodies -- like the ministering angels... The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8)."

In some Talmudic views, the Garden of Eden is the eternal destination for the righteous. In that realm of joy and peace the Talmud in some instances describes golden banquet tables (Talmud, Taanit 25a), stools of gold (Talmud, Ketubot 77b), lavish feasts (Talmud, Baba Batra 75a), celebrations of the Sabbath, basking in sunshine and engaging in sex (Talmud, Berakhot 57b).

In other views (which Maimonides seems to prefer) Talmudic rabbis declare that in Gan Eden there will be no eating, drinking, procreation or commerce, no envy, hatred or rivalry. The righteous will sit in Gan Eden with crowns on their heads, and bask in the light of the Shekhinah (Talmud, Berakhot 17a).

Every religion has its own meaningful storylines that are used to educate its adherents and promulgate its beliefs. The (unarticulated) deal in our pluralistic American culture has been that each religion agrees to tell its stories to its own members and to stop there.

The Burpo book cleverly sidesteps an understood status quo that encourages plural religions to coexist calmly in our complex society. Your unease was caused by the loud unsolicited declarations of faith that come forth in this book and movie. Those proclamations are tantamount to acts of proselytization – to active attempts to convert others to one's faith. They ought to make you uncomfortable or even angry.

Using a cute boy's medical emergency to preach fundamentalist Christianity to the populace at large is a tacky activity that you appear to recognize for what it is, to question its validity and to properly reject it.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com

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