To Heaven and Back!

On Life After Death

by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, with a foreword by Caroline Myss
Celestial Arts, 85 pp., $11.99 (paper)

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

by Carl Jung, edited by Aniela Jaffé and translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston
Vintage, 430 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Sony Pictures
Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo and Connor Corum as his son Colton in Heaven Is for Real, the film adaptation of Burpo’s memoir about his son’s near-death experience

I’ve never had a near-death experience and don’t know anyone who has, but according to a poll that’s quoted throughout the NDE literature, at least 5 percent of Americans have returned from one and told the tale. That may be a small percentage, but it’s a lot of people—given today’s population, over 15,000,000. Other estimates are lower, but they’re still huge. And most of these people seem to be writing books.

The current front-runner is the omnipresent Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo “with” Lynn Vincent—and don’t underestimate that “with”: Lynn Vincent has been, among other things, the ghostwriter for Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, and she knows what she’s doing. (I imagine that after dealing with Palin, dealing with Colton Burpo—who, before he turned four, almost died of a ruptured appendix, went to heaven, and came back with a detailed report—must have been a piece of cake.) Actually, she’s not little Colton’s collaborator, she’s his dad’s: it’s Todd, Colton’s father, who tells the story.

Todd Burpo is the pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, population approximately two thousand. He also owns a company that installs garage doors, and is a wrestling coach for junior high and high school students and a volunteer with the Imperial fire department. His wife, Sonja, works as an office manager, has a master’s in library and information science, and is a certified teacher. When Colton, their second child, suffers his burst appendix—his condition had been misdiagnosed—the family undergoes an agonizing period of suspense during the time he’s close to death before making a full recovery. Lynn Vincent jerks every tear in recounting this frightening story—“Daddy! Don’t let them take meeee!”—but has room for touches of humor, too. At a crucial moment: “That night might be the only time in recorded history that eighty people [Todd’s parishioners] gathered and prayed for someone to pass gas!” (“Within an hour, the…prayer was answered!”)

Colton’s remarkable story is really two stories. One is his account of what he sees when, under anesthesia, he looks down from the hospital room ceiling and observes the doctors working on his body, his Mommy praying and talking on the telephone in one room, and his Daddy praying in another. When, days later, he casually mentions this to his father, “Colton’s words rocked me to the core…. How could he have known?” Actually, this kind of out-of-body experience—in which the presumably unconscious person still has the faculties of sight, hearing, and memory—turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon.

The other story is what Colton experienced in heaven while he was being operated on, a story that emerges only four months later when, under Todd’s gentle questioning, Colton’s parents learn…

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