Heavenly visitations? Slate lifts the curtain on evangelical insider battles

Last week, a story came out about a kid whose near-death experience developed into a book about how he saw heaven while comatose later became an embarrassing mess when the child denied the whole thing.

Written by Ruth Graham of Slate, it’s a meticulously researched piece about the boy, his mom, a dad who’s evaded press interviews until now and the gullible Christian book industry. It’s long, it’s detailed and it’s rather sad.

It’s pretty unconventional in terms of religion news. How many sites would run something this detailed about a kid (or his father) who takes the Christian book industry for a ride? If you pay attention to the details, this is a sobering look at the sometimes confused state of evangelical doctrine, these days.

After describing the car accident that nearly killed the boy, the article continues:

Six years later, a book was published that would become a sensation. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven—with Kevin and Alex listed on the cover as co-authors—tells the saga of Alex’s improbable survival. But it wasn’t that medical miracle that launched the story to fame. In the book, Alex claimed he had spent time in heaven after the accident, and continued to be visited by angels and demons after he emerged from his coma two months later. He wrote that he traveled through a bright tunnel, and was greeted by five angels, and then met Jesus, who told him he would survive; later, he saw 150 “pure, white angels with fantastic wings.” Heaven has lakes and rivers and grass, the book says. God sits on a throne near a scroll that describes the End Times. The devil has three heads, with red eyes, moldy teeth, and hair made of fire.

Of course publishers jumped at this bait.

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven sold more than 1 million copies and spent months on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It was also on the leading edge of a boomlet of “heaven tourism” stories in Christian publishing, including Heaven Is for Real, a memoir about 4-year-old Colton Burpo’s experience that came out later in 2010 and was eventually adapted into a movie starring Greg Kinnear. Time magazine published a cover story in 2012 titled “Rethinking Heaven,” opening with Burpo’s story — even more detailed than Alex’s — about seeing a rainbow horse and meeting the Virgin Mary. Other such books included 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004, car accident), Flight to Heaven (2010, plane crash), To Heaven and Back (2012, kayaking accident), and Miracles From Heaven (2015, fall into a hollow tree, made into a Jennifer Garner movie). After the Malarkeys’ success, “all Christian publishers were looking for the next heaven book,” said Sandy Vander Zicht, a former editor at Zondervan, a large evangelical publisher based in Michigan.

Which is a depressing fact about about Christian publishing; a genre that is as celebrity-driven and as fad-driven as are secular imprints.

Until things came crashing back to earth. The cover of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven calls the book “a true story.” But the boy himself now says it was not true at all. Four years ago, Alex sent a letter to a conservative Christian blog dramatically renouncing the book. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” he wrote. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. … People have profited from lies, and continue to.” Alex’s retraction also became a sensation, with reporters unable to resist the sudden, hilarious perfection of his last name: Malarkey.

In a lawsuit, Alex now 21 and a quadriplegic, said that Kevin, the dad, took chance remarks from his injured son and turned them into a sensational book that was an utter lie.

Kevin Malarkey, who had been the book’s chief promoter, stopped giving interviews the day of his son’s disavowal. He has not spoken to the press in more than four years. He disappeared so completely that the Washington Post reported last year that he was dead. Until recently, on a weekend afternoon, he finally decided to tell his version of the events that rocked the Christian publishing industry and tore his own family apart.

So you’ve got to hand it to Graham that she tracked down this guy and got an interview. She also tracked down the family’s former pastor and tells us that work on the book didn’t even begin until 2009, five years after Alex’s accident. So for Alex and his mom to allege years later that they had no part in this book and that the dad concocted it all is beyond strange.

“You didn’t have to be a theological whiz to immediately see problems with these books,” said Justin Peters, a conservative independent evangelist who has been critical of the heaven genre, and who is friendly with Beth and Alex. Peters previously sat on the board of LifeWay, a publisher and (at the time) a major chain of Christian bookstores. He says he had tried unsuccessfully to convince LifeWay to stop selling heaven books and others he deemed theologically problematic.

Here’s where I wish the story had told us why these heaven books were theological black holes. The reader is left guessing here. Fortunately there’s more explanation at the very end of the piece but I would have moved it further up.

I’m curious: Why is this story is running now? Other publications have picked this story up off and on for years. It does cover new ground regarding the mess that the parents’ marriage was.

It also illustrates to Slate’s (probably) majority secular and non-churched readers what the spirituality of an evangelical Protestant family looks and feels like. That’s why she uses a long paragraph from Kevin Malarkey describing what it’s like to hear from God in prayer. Writing about this kind of stuff is dicey for reporters, as there’s no proof that God is really communicating and one can hardly ring up the pearly gates asking for a fact check.

One finishes this piece with the impression that Alex and his mother are highly paranoid and that the dad is a well-meaning ditz who frittered away the $1 million the family made on book sales. A real help is the brief interview the writer has with Aaron Malarkey, Alex’s older brother, who believes the dad’s side of the story.

I do take issue with including the popular “Jesus Calling” devotional book with the spate of heaven narratives, as the former makes no pretense of visiting the celestial realms but merely notes what the author feels God’s told her on a variety of topics in the hopes that others will likewise seek God’s personal word for them. The reason it’s a best seller is because readers feel they recognize Jesus in what she writes.

I get why Graham included it, but it’s apples and oranges here.

I’m glad that Slate is doing its best to interpret for the seculars some of the inside-baseball battles going on among evangelicals although one of the accompanying graphics the site runs is beyond odd. Like a saying posted beneath the Slate nameplate that simply says, “covered in mud and speaking in tongues.”

Is this some weird attempt at mockery?

Maybe secular readers might get off on it, but religious ones won’t. However, I’m guessing that Slate isn’t interested in reaching the latter. Am I right?

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