Sunday, October 02, 2011

Heaven as told by a four-year old

I read this book at the insistence of a loving relative in the aftermath of the passing of my father. I suppose she thought it would be consoling to hear how a four-year boy had a near death medical experience and had a divine encounter. The child vividly describes heaven in details that seem to me to be largely Scripturally and doctrinally sound.

First of all, and this is just my personal aversion, I can't deal well at this point with gruesome medical details, which dominate the first 40 pages or so of the short book. That is my own sensitivity and it is tender territory for me. So many of the details reminded me of my own father's suffering, but my father did not have the happy ending this boy did of total recovery that would outshine the shadow of death he was under. So instead of finding it consoling, I found it painful to relive some of those terrible details of suffering.

In fact I put down the book for three months and read other things, but finally came back to it as I intended to finish and return the book before I returned to visit my aunt who leant it to me. In concluding the book, I did find it much more uplifting when I got past the medical drama and delved into the messages of heaven this toddler was delivering up to his parents and the world. I began the book as a skeptic, but by the end I do believe this child had a rare divine encounter of the eternal. Many of the details were fascinating to read, and sweetly told from a child's perspective. I was touched by how his message helped others to heal. His experiences of encountering his older sister and great-grandfather in heaven provided much healing to his mother and grandmother, and others as well.

As sweetly moving as this story is, I found the writing-quality to be very poor. I understand that the main author is a simple man, a minister and owner of a garage-door business, who never had aspirations to be a published author. However, it is co-authored by Lynn Vincent, a published author of several titles, and so one would rightly expect better. The writing comes across as childish. Details are included that seem rather irrelevant, and details that hint at powerful and interesting side-stories are mentioned briefly. The hinting at the author's father's bipolar disorder, the car-crash that ended his grandfather's life that seemed like a suicide, and the small-town life of rural Nebraska are details that intrigued me, but were sadly underdeveloped.

The poor writing I was able to get past, but I am afraid that it won't translate to more sophisticated readers, such as the New York cognoscenti. I am afraid I would have a tough time trying to convince my intellectual friends to take this book seriously. However the book is a New York Times bestseller in the one year it has been out and a hardcover edition is coming out in November. I am guessing that most readers are coming from the middle of the country, and that this book has an evangelical bent to it, but is most likely to be read by people who are already Christian and believe in an after-life.

What did intrigue me was the non-Protestant details that this son-of-a-minister included in his experience of heaven: an emphasis on the wounds of Christ, Mary's presence beside Jesus, the communion of saints, etc. But some of these details I think were overlooked by the father. For example Mary is only mentioned in the epilogue, and the father/author seems surprised by the communion of saints and his son's description of Christ's wounds, but doesn't do much more than note them.

One detail that disturbed me was when the child becomes fixated on a dead man in a casket who was not a member of the church, and he insistently asks, "Did he have Jesus in his heart?" with a trembling and anxiety that shook him to the core. One can see the fundamentalist belief played out, that the only way to heaven is through faith in Christ, and all others are damned. It seems to upset the boy that someone might be excluded from the eternal paradise, and indeed it disturbs me too. Not that I think heaven is guaranteed for all, but that faith in Christ is something we can't fully control. Faith is a great gift and the surest means to being eternally united in God's love, but it is something that we can't fully control. Faith is a gift and often a product of one's circumstances in life, to whom and what culture one is born into, and so we cannot presume that God's mercy will not be extended to those who have sought God in their life, but for whatever reasons did not have faith in the triune God.

To summarize, I think the boy's experiences are real and the story moving, and by the numbers of the books sold, his story is clearly touching people's lives, but only certain types of people. I would not recommend this book to someone who isn't already Christian or who can't stand poor writing and a few theological errors.

I am reading another book on life after death that I am finding more helpful and will review shortly upon finishing.

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