Just read this NY Times story about a suprise bestseller that would make me want to slit my wrists if I hadn’t seen this sort of thing so many times before. When he was three years old, Colton Burpo’s appendix burst and he was rushed to the emergency room. When he woke up, he told his parents about the things he’d seen when he was in heaven. Though initially skeptical, they were blown away by the specificity and detail of his account (he’d seen wounds on Jesus’s palms that no one had told him about; he met the spirit of a sister his mother had miscarried). Eventually, and with the help of Lynn Vincent (Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter), the father, who happens to be a minister, committed his son’s story to paper and Thomas Nelson published it. After appearances on the 700 Club, Fox and Friends, and CNN, Heaven is for Real hit the bestseller list and now it has more than a million and a half copies in print. “’People say we just did this to make money, and it’s not the truth,’ Mr. Burpo said, referring to anonymous online comments about the book. ‘We were expecting nothing. We were just hoping the publisher would break even.'”
I’m already regretting my headline–Todd and Sonja Burpos (did I mention that the mother is a children’s minister?) might not have done it for the money. Who’s to say that they didn’t just want to bear witness to what they sincerely believe is a miracle? But Thomas Nelson did. Though the Times says there was “no big name publisher” involved they are overlooking the fact that Thomas Nelson is the largest Christian publisher in the world. There’s no way they hired Lynn Vincent on a whim.
The Burpos, lord knows, didn’t invent this genre. Back in the rabbinic era, Merkabah mystics ascended to heaven while meditating on Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne. Transcribers were stationed next to them, so they could take down everything they reported when they came out of their trances. More recently, in 2004, a minister named Don Piper was killed in a car wreck and revived. His book 90 Minutes in Heaven sold four million copies, if you can believe its publisher’s hype. There was a sequel too, called Heaven is Real (a familiar-sounding title, come to think of it).
I found out about what turned out to be my first job in publishing (ghost-writing personalized rejection letters for a name literary agent) when someone I knew from college who was already working there showed me a letter he’d written to a would-be author who’d penned an eyewitness account of heaven. He thought it was ridiculous but who’s to say he didn’t pass on a major bestseller? The biggest bestseller of all time contains some pretty far-out heavenly visions; so does the Koran.
It’s nice that the New York Times is covering the kinds of books that Sarah Palin’s real Americans buy for a change, but reading the article, you get the feeling that Julie Bosman has never set foot in a CBA bookstore before.