07/11/2011 09:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011

A Trip To Heaven And Back

This is a book review of "Heaven is For Real" by Todd Burpo & Lynn Vincent, Thomas Nelson, 2010

Because I believe in some sort of hereafter I couldn't help myself. I downloaded "Heaven is for Real" onto my iPad before I left for holiday in a small town in rural France along one of its historic pilgrimage trails (see Journey for Body and Soul: The St. Jacques de Compostelle Pilgrimage Trail). What better place to read about adventures with the next world, I thought.

The book, written by Todd Burpo, a Nebraskan minister, and Lynn Vincent (it is not common for a ghost writer to be identified and if so it is maybe "with", not "and" - though she also did Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue"), is an easy read: short, simple, childlike in its prose and delivery. For those who may not have heard of this book sensation, topping the New York Times non-fiction list and sparking worldwide notice, the story goes as follows.

Colton Burpo, the second of two children in the Burpo family of Imperial, Nebraska (population ~ 1800), becomes gravely ill from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix while on a family trip in the early spring of 2003. The family was having financial problems from medical bills after dad broke his leg, had kidney stones, required a mastectomy for suspicious cells (while rare, men do get breast cancer), and could hardly tend to his business. This was their first time away in some time.

Colton was almost four years old when he goes to heaven (and returns). His dad is the pastor of the Wesleyan Church in Imperial, and also a volunteer fire fighter, high school wrestling coach, and owner of an industrial garage door company to supplement the limited wages of a small town clergyman. His mom, Sonja, today with three children, is a "busy mom" as well as a certified teacher, active as a pastor's wife, and runs the operations of the garage door company. Cassie, the older sister, appears to endure all this activity with good humor, including her brother's trip to heaven and ongoing reports upon his return.

Their trip, in March 2003, was cut short because Colton required an emergency operation for a ruptured appendix which was complicated by days of abdominal infection, including an abscess that required post-operative draining. Colton, unbeknownst I gather to the surgical team, took a "three minute" trip to heaven and back during surgery. He did not leave the operating table nor reportedly cease breathing or experience cardiac arrest. In July of that same year, then fully recovered and four years old, Colton delivers his first account, on another family trip, of his adventures in heaven, which by the way is for real according to the "astounding story of his trip to heaven and back" (the book's subtitle).

I read every page of this book, and every piece of reported evidence that he must have been to heaven. The book's popularity is a window into its readers and our culture. What does it convey that explains how avidly it has been consumed? What does it say about our world?

Colton's story is a fabulous one, full of sweetness and innocence. He is the child of a deeply religious family where prayer is a staple in their lives. When he begins to report that Jesus was at the right hand of God, who had a massive throne, the authors say he "could never know {that}" yet go on to describe daily bedtime bible stories and routinely traveling with his father as he serves his religious community. Colton tells his dad that the angels have wings, but he had little wings. Wings are needed because "we flew" - all except Jesus who "went up and down like an elevator." Jesus' eyes were "so pretty" and he wore purple. No one else wore purple, according to Colton; the others wore white, with various color sashes. Jesus had a crown too and "markers" on him (red spots meant to signify stigmata). Colton later reported that Jesus has a cousin (must be John the Baptist) who is "really nice", and a horse. There are lions in heaven but they are not dangerous. And he tells his father of a battle to end all battles, with swords and bows and arrows, yet to fear not, even though you (dad) will be in that battle (and thus in heaven) because the "good guys" win. Colton also tells how he met his sister, unborn from an early miscarriage, while on his trip to heaven, though we are told his parents never told him about the miscarriage, as well as his dad's uncle "Pops" who died at 61 but appeared as a man in his 20s, since "no one is old in heaven". Burpo reports that Colton did not know about "Pops" although his photo stands on Burpo's desk. He tells his dad he saw him in "a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in another room and she was praying and talking on the phone" when he was in surgery. And they were. There are other examples, but you get the picture.

All this comes out in bits and pieces over months, and then years, each time apparently eliciting awe and reinforcement from his parents.

Colton must be one remarkable boy, deeply attuned to his family and their spiritual environment. His is an American family who despite misfortune and testing emerge on the side of light not darkness. They pray and their prayers are heard. Their community responds in their time of need. Fellow travelers share their hardship and are buoyed by the Burpos. It is a welcome anodyne to the harshness we see too much of every day, the bad news media we tune into and the tales of selfishness and division that fill our ears. Thank God for Colton Burpo.

As for Lynn Vincent and her franchise on telling blockbuster stories, spiritual and political: what will she co-author next?

I have no quarrel with the success of this book. It has touched the hearts of many people. But it asks us to suspend our critical thinking. That is what faith is about. Faith may be helped along by examples of wondrous events, as was this boy's survival, but not by fantastic stories with less than credible evidence. Had Colton's tale been called a fable then maybe I could have believed.

Read more from Dr. Lloyd Sederer at his website,