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Thursday, February 13, 2014


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.
1) Is it really a coincidence that Jesus and Kenny Loggins look alike?

2) This is a waste. We should all be writing this kind of pap for the ChristianDumbermentalist market. I am planning a holy war meets mixed martial arts trilogy. Christians vs Muslims and Buddhists in the Octogon. And a couple of heaven and hell epics losely based on Dante Divine comedy.

Kenny Loggin will play Virgil

Why would Jesus be wearing a sash?
I totally agree with Harry here. The real suckers are those of us whose consciences prevent us from fleecing the masses.

I gave serious thought to developing an Armageddon preparedness kit containing everything from garlic necklaces to silver bullets to holy water; sort of a Swiss army knife of superstitions preparedness.

I say that somewhat in jest, but as they say no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the average American.
NDE - I'm a don't know.

Movies - We are almost bound to know what movies are going to taste like these days. It didn't used to be so though, did it, before the internet provided chapter and verse, reviews a-go-go, comments by the dozen? It used to be that one went to the cinema, mind a blank slate, and was sometimes astonished, sometimes entertained or scared silly, sometimes wowed, sometimes left singing a tune under one's breath on the walk home.

So many movies have been made over past decades that it's inevitable we'll recognise basic themes, even before any reviews or comments are read.

Nowadays I go to the movies mainly to see the most recent performance of favourite artists, whatever the theme (unless it's crash-bang-wallop violence, or horror) knowing, almost, what to expect from the artist. As you wrote, it's the MacDonald's syndrome....or maybe like the child begging Daddy to read a favourite story..."again...please!"
As an addendum, there's a fascinating profile at Esquire about Dr. Eben Alexander Rich, the neuroscientist who wrote a book and was all the buzz on Fox News: Man of Science confirms Afterlife.

Link here:

The NDE has become an industry and people like Rich have taken full advantage--Heaven on earth, as they say :0).

Stephen: Everyone in heaven wears a sash. It's, like, a uniform.

Twi: I can suggest one movie that manages to stay unpredictable. "Red State," by Kevin Smith. You never have ANY idea where that one is going. (And it's really good, too!)
Thanks Joseph - I'll look for it next time we're at the video rental store -it sounds like one that might be popular in this neck of the red state woods. ;-(
I'm no expert on Christian theology, but I've been told by people who are that Jesus and God are simply different manifestations of the same entity. Therefore the idea that Jesus and God would sit next to each other is close to sacrilegious. What really bothers me is the conflation of theology and history. Such books as "Killing Jesus" by O'Reilly say that his religion is really history. By the way, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, at, have written extensively about sexual predators. I left a message asking their opinion of the Woody Allen case and was told that they simply did not have enough information to reach a firm conclusion. I agree with you that it is unlikely that Allen did anything to Dylan, but I think we really do lack the information to reach a firm conclusion.
Maybe it's the sash his father wore? (Scottish or Irish joke!)
I'll pass on this one, since I only go to see movies that are about WWII, Nazis, and Jews. And the War on Terror. I just like the kind of stuff that Hollywood churns out regularly. Predictable.
Who would make a movie about Christians anyway?
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