Coming soon to theaters: A film version of the New York Times megabestseller Heaven is For Real
, a "near death experience" story slanted toward the Christian market. The book was written by one Todd Burpo, a name to reckon with if ever I heard one.
The purpose of this post (at least the first part of this post) is not to slam the concept of NDEs. My purpose here is to discuss something else: The sheer predictability
of most pop cultural artifacts in the modern world.
Consider the following experiment. Here's a still from the movie:
Find someone over the age of 25 who has an IQ that exceeds his or her body temperature. Have that person look at the image. Explain that the still comes from a movie called Heaven is For Real
. Then ask:
"Based on nothing more than that title and that picture, is it not possible for you to predict absolutely everything that will happen in this movie?"
Even someone who knows nothing about the book can probably guess what the music will be like, what the acting will be like, what the cinematography will be like, when the plot will twist and how the characters will arc. All of it. Every single frame, every single pixel. You know it already
Some wag once said that the higher classes read books because they hope to be surprised, while the lower classes read to have their biases confirmed. That axiom isn't as useful as it once was, because fewer people read books these days, and I'm not comfortable framing the matter in terms of class. Nevertheless, the basic idea still holds: Some people go to the movies because they want to be astonished, while many others prefer movies that promise a two-hour vacation in an astonishment-free zone.
It's like going to McDonalds. Part of the attraction is that you already
know exactly what the burgers taste like.
Okay, let's talk about NDEs.
But only for a bit, because -- as you know -- I'm chary of all claims involving the supernatural.
Although I've not read the book, I've heard that it's the allegedly true story of a pastor's kid who comes back to life and talks about his confab with Jesus. The book has annoyed many NDE researchers because the public will now consider their field of study an adjunct to fundamentalist theology.
Why do NDEs occur? Skeptics say that, during times of trauma, the big movie projector in your brain starts showing some really screwy films, and that's all there is to it. Others say that the images have an external cause. Personally, I don't know with certainty what causes NDEs. (And neither does anyone else -- including you
. So stop pretending otherwise.)
But I do know this: The phenomenon occurs across cultures
. American fundies always tend to forget that they are but one small sector of the 6 billion-plus humans ambling about this planet.
So wouldn't it be a lot more impressive if a Jesus sighting occurred to, say, a Hindu or a Buddhist who happened to experience an NDE?
I mean, cah-MON. A pastor's kid who briefly "dies" and sees Jesus
. That's kind of a yawn, innit? I'd be much more interested if a Jain
came back from the dead and announced to his bros: "Guess what? I saw Jesus while I was out! And he said that Mahavira was all wet. Looks like we've been doing this religion thing all wrong! Who'd a thunk it?"
(Forgive the looseness of my translation. I'm not sure what the Tamil or Pakrit equivalents of "Who'd a thunk it?" would be.)
Oddly enough, non-Christians who have NDEs never have the kind
of NDEs that would play to the biases of fundamentalist Christians in the American south. Funny how that works out.
By the way, the heaven described in Heaven is For Real
seems hilariously predictable, puerile and parochial
Colson picked from a pictorial line-up a Jesus looking more like Kenny Loggins and less like a Middle Eastern man from 2,000 years ago...
...Dress code is pretty simple. White robe, bare feet and a sash. Furniture in heaven is sparse. Two thrones and that is it. One for Jesus, and a massive mountainous one for the big guy. Makes you wonder where are all the mansions Jesus promised?
I think Burpo should have dressed up his heaven with American flags, pictures of Ronald Reagan, huge teevee screens playing endless football games, and all the Miller you can drink. That
afterlife would have gone over even better in our primeval red states.