‘Religious fiction’: Isn’t that redundant?

Apparently authors can usually choose whether to call their books fiction or nonfiction.

I think I speak for many atheists who browse the religion section of bookstores, notice a portion of books set aside for religious fiction, and say to myself, “Isn’t that redundant?”

Apparently authors can usually choose whether to call their books fiction or nonfiction. But we don’t always know the author’s true identity, as with most of the books contained in the Bible. We recognize that some of the biblical writers made up stories as motivation for people to believe or act in certain ways. Some composed nice poetry, some described events that likely occurred, and some wrote “just so” stories to explain what they didn’t understand. I would classify nearly the entire Bible as fiction, especially the God stories. But since many believe the Bible to be factual, bookstores won’t risk community outrage by filing it under “religious fiction.”

I could write a nonfiction book about how I was abducted by aliens who took me on their spacecraft, showed me my past lives, and described my next life. I could write the same book and call it fiction. Were I to write such a book, I would reluctantly file it under fiction even though a gullible public would undoubtedly buy more of the nonfictional version.

This brings me to “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” a book that climbed to the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2010, and will soon become a movie. On Amazon.com it has nearly 4,000 five-star reviews.

The book describes four-year-old Colton Burpo’s account of his visit to heaven as he almost died on an operating table. The book was written by his father, a pastor, and with Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent. The most compelling “evidence” for Colton’s heavenly experience is that he met a sister (from his mother’s miscarriage) who his parents had never told him about. Do all fetuses go to heaven? Colton’s sister in heaven looked a lot like his sister on earth.

Colton also met God, Jesus, and John the Baptist in heaven. God is a really big man. How big is he? He’s big enough to hold the whole world in his hands, confirming the Sunday school song. Colton sat on Jesus’s lap and observed his stigmata and sparkling blue eyes. Colton met his great-grandfather, who had wings. Colton had many more adventures in heaven during the brief time he was under anesthesia on earth. Kind of coincidental that Colton’s stories about heaven mimic stories told to children by Christian adults.

Last week I wrote about a Fox TV interview of Reza Aslan centered on why he, a Muslim, should feel entitled to write about Christianity. I said it was fair to bring up an author’s background, but that the focus should be on evidence presented. In a very different kind of Fox TV interview with Colton Burpo and his father, Gretchen Carlson appeared to have no doubts about Colton’s visit to “heaven” and what he discovered there. Carlson was especially thrilled to learn from Colton that there are no old people in heaven because they live there as young versions of themselves.

To give Carlson the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she was uncomfortable challenging an 11-year-old about what he claims to remember when he was four. I empathize, because I try to avoid theological disputes with believing children. During public debates I enjoy a Q&A with the audience, but I dislike it when a youngster, next to a beaming parent, stands and recites a passage from the Bible to confidently show me that I’m going to hell unless I mend my evil ways. In that situation, I don’t tell the youngster what I’m thinking—that I hope he matures enough to discard the childish beliefs instilled in him by his parents.

I’m not surprised at Colton’s beliefs, ingrained from infancy by his pastor father, though I don’t know how much of the pastor’s faith in Colton’s visit to heaven might be inspired by the subsequent fame and fortune. What most disturbs me about the success of the book and likely success of the movie are the countless people who feel such a need for and knowledge of an afterlife that they are willing to believe almost anything—even when it came from a four-year-old who probably still believed in Santa Claus.

Perhaps I can best describe my attitude with a biblical passage, from 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” I couldn’t say it better than Paul.

Image courtesy of Marius Benta.

Herb Silverman
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  • jonesm2

    It’s going to be tough to win a 10K race in heaven if there are no old people there! Bummer! I was hoping to extend my running career into the afterlife and maybe win a race or two. Of the wings will help some. Maybe I can ask for mine to be on my feet.

  • mirth29

    Funny, I always move a copy of the Bible to the religious fiction section. They are usually not very far apart. Further illustrating the very thin and arbitrary line that defines religious fiction.

  • Hildy J

    Religions promise an afterlife because they are so useless at making real life any better. Despite the promises in the bible and other religions’ sacred books, most prayers which as god to change reality – to cure a disease, to stop a hurricane, whatever – go unanswered. Instead people are promised that the next life will be better.

    Believers tend to view this afterlife in their own wish fulfillment terms. Children and elderly see heaven filled with young people, pet lovers expect their dead pets to show up, people assume they will be able to continue their hobbies or recreational activities, et cetera. It’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s sad.

    How much better it would be to accept reality and make the most of it. Reality may not be ideal but it’s here and now and it can be pretty amazing.

  • h5r2

    What is surprising is that so many adults believe the wish fulfillment of a four year old.

  • pelicanwatchcb1

    Sixty-odd years ago, a little tyke of an evangelist named Marjoe Gortner became an international sensation, preaching hell-fire sermons, marrying people and filling arenas with the gullible who came to hear his sermons before he was big enough to look over the top of a pulpit. And of course, racking up lots of lucre for his vile and pathological parents. As an adult, he renounced his childhood misadventures, and revealed how his parents beat and abused him to force him to perform. And he produced and directed a documentary film revealing how evangelistic charlatans operate to gull the gullible out of their hard- earned money. Perhaps some day, young Colton will come clean on his family scam and tell the truth about the “Heaven Is For Real” fraud..

  • di89

    James Martin has a great riff on this…you know it’s Mary because she’s wearing blue and carrying a rosary. How can she possibly pray it? “Hail Me?”

    I would not say that anyone’s experience of a religious feeling or image proves it’s true, but the fact that it looks to some degree how one would expect doesn’t prove it false either. Religious tradition has always recognized that religious experiences involve imagery that the person can understand. So it’s not surprising that a kid would have a kid’s image of heaven.

  • h5r2

    If you say all beliefs are equally valid (or invalid) then apparently you don’t accept any scientific discoveries. A 6000 year old universe is not as valid as a universe that existed for billions of years.

  • tombukowski

    Hey, it’s America. Anything for a buck.

  • edwills

    You say that religious experiences involve imagery that the person can understand. That’s true with any fictional story. I’m more likely to believe something is true, rather than something I imagine, if there is some evidence for its truth. Just because this kid imagines what his parents taught him has nothing to do with its being true. W need to distinguish fact from fantasy.

  • BoscoAlfredo

    Near Death Experiences have been studied and documented for decades now by scientists and doctors, etc. There is a lot of evidence to support validity of NDE’s. People who experience NDE’s often assume that the entities(s) they encounter are their saviors; Jesus, Muhammed, Krishna, etc. Their assumptions do not necessarily mean that their experience was all a dream or not real at all.

  • h5r2

    These experiences may have seemed real to those who wanted to meet their expected saviors. These contradictory experiences of an afterlife can’t all be true, but they can all be false.

  • tonykdarcy

    Is heaven like Hilbert’s Hotel, – full of an infinite number of rooms ? Or is it restricted to the 144,000 rooms as prescribed in the Bible ?

    Not much chance for me either way ! I’m bound for the fiery lake ! Says he quaking in his boots !

  • Hildy J

    Christians believe all gods are false (except for the god of the bible).
    Hindus believe all gods are false (except for the gods of the vedas).
    I believe both are correct (except for their exceptions).

    I’m willing to change my mind but it’s going to take more than a kid’s dream for evidence.

  • Hildy J

    I bet Honey Boo Boo’s heaven has mounds of lard instead of clouds. It makes as much sense as any other description of any believer’s view of any religion’s heaven that I’ve ever come across.

  • leibowde84

    It has been physically proven that the universe is older than 6000 years. That is fact … not belief.

  • Dave Brown 709

    RE: “I don’t see why one person’s belief about ultimate reality should trump another persons…”

    Hmm… If one person believes in Santa Claus and one does not, are their respective beliefs equally valid, or does one trump the other?

  • h5r2

    It’s not a fact if your only “science” book is the Bible.

  • veginpost

    I feel it is a very touchy subject dealing with children whose parents are encouraging them to pursue debate with adults in order to make the parent’s point. I think the path of wisdom is not to confront the child just as Herb has supported in his article but am inclined by the same wisdom not to let the parent off the hook without some sort of response. The parent is brainwashing the child then using the child for his/her own purpose knowing that the person they are targeting is placed in a difficult position. To me this is no more than mental cruelty and abusive of the child involved and even though it wouldn’t rise to the level of a legal matter the parent is incredibly unethical and should be reprimanded publicly.

  • veginpost

    Yes but don’t you just love it when someone is cure by modern medicine and credit God with the cure. I never fail to credit the doctors, hospitals, nurses, and medical science when appropriate to my health. I don’t blame an imaginary god for my sickness and certainly won’t credit one with my cure. Unfortunately even some in the medical profession play the God card giving credit for their ability to help their patients to the guiding hand of the heavenly father.

  • Mark Nowitzky

    It might be easier to move the “religious fiction” sign. Put it right on top of the “religion” sign.

  • persiflage

    Conflating science with faith only makes sense to deeply invested believers – otherwise, science would take the speculations of theology a lot more seriously.

    As a previous poster stated, all of Chrisitanity rests on the resurrection……..which has little or nothing to do with cosmology, and everything to do with denying the laws of the physical/biological universe at the earthly level.

  • h5r2

    Take any book of fiction and you will find some scientifically accurate statements , or at least find an interpretation for which you can claim scientific accuracy. And so it is with the Bible. Any book with less than 1% scientific accuracy, though, would not be a good guideline for science. And what predictive value is in the Bible? We know with scientific certainty when the next eclipse will be. The Bible views an eclipse as a sign of God’s displeasure. What does the Bible predict scientifically?

  • drmwlau

    He did NOT say “all beliefs are equally valid”. He said “beliefs concerning ultimate reality.”

  • itsthedax

    Why is it that no one ever seems to “come back” from a “near death experience” with an account of visiting hell? How come they always seem to visit heaven?

  • edwills

    Why is it that nobody who has ever really been dead has come back from anywhere, to tell us about it?