I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that Alex Malarkey’s story was all made up. And yet, that’s the news this week. Here is the NPR lead:
“Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy’s story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said this week that the story was all made up.”
Alex, now a teen, was not only injured in that crash but was left quadriplegic. The book was co-authored by Alex and his father. Since then, parents Kevin and Beth Malarkey have separated; the children live with their mother.
The Washington Post notes that the Alex Malarkey account–like the Colton Burpo story in Heaven is for Real, which was published four months to the day later in 2010—became part of a popular genre of “heavenly tourism” controversial among orthodox Christians. That has certainly been the case with Beth Malarkey, a devout evangelical Christian who has spoken out against the book featuring her son because it is not biblically accurate. Alex is totally dependent on his mother as his caretaker. She reports that he has received no proceeds from the book, though it is impossible to tell whether she considers that a virtue because the money is tainted or a complaint about absence of support for a catastrophically disabled son. She says he has tried to set the record straight, that he knows the book is biblically in error.
This past week, Alex’s open letter to Christian bookstores occasioned the news story. He said:
“I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible.* People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.…Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”
* He was six at the time of his NDE.
Surely I cannot be the only reader who sees backstory lying thick on the ground in this situation! And yet the media seems either blind or oblivious, reporting his change of story as a clear case of “truth-telling at last.” Full disclosure: I have not read the book, but admit that the quotes I have seen do not sound authentically like the voice of a young boy. Yet I have heard so many children’s NDE accounts that I believe there was something there, back in the beginning, which drew Alex to tell his father about…what?.
It was almost exactly one year ago (January 30, 2014) that I wrote about Colton Burpo’s NDE as described in Heaven is for Real. He was three at the time of his NDE, and in the seven years between then and the publication of the book, his eager conservative-pastor-dad kept questioning him and adding more and more details to his first simple story. As I said then about Colton:
He said angels sang to him, and he sat on Jesus’ lap .
But… by the time the sincere but hardly impartial father stopped asking questions, and the boy stopped adding details in response to those questions, seven years had passed and … the relative simplicity of the few original details had grown as the boy grew, into an elaborated account of Christian exclusivity and holy warfare that puts Revelation imagery into the hands of human warriors resembling Marvel comic book heroes.
What is a child with an NDE to do? Can we get parents out of the picture and listen to the kids?
The absence of understanding pours in from all sides. There is the Grace to You website, where Phil Johnson back in 2012 posted “The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine.” (Beth Malarkey recommends the article and linked to it on her blog.) Johnson mentions a half-dozen dozen or so well-known NDE autobiographies and inveighs:
No true evangelical ought to be tempted to give such tales any credence whatsoever, no matter how popular they become. One major, obvious problem is that these books don’t even agree with one another. They give contradictory descriptions of heaven and thus cannot possibly have any cumulative long-term effect other than the sowing of confusion and doubt.…But the larger issue is one no authentic believer should miss: the whole premise behind every one of these books is contrary to everything Scripture teaches about heaven. (Emphasis in original.)
The article goes on to quote from an upcoming book, that NDEs “are either figments of the human imagination (dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worst cases, deliberate lies), or else they are products of demonic deception.”
Unfortunately, the Progressive Christian perspective, though more informative, has been no more helpful to the young experiencers. In the online Religious Dispatches, Ithaca College Associate Professor Rachel Wagner has written a comprehensive piece looking at the resistance the public and religious press showed at the early suggestion there might be questions about The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. (Despite my caveats, I recommend reading her article.)
The successful marketing of such books reveals our craving for reassurances about what lies beyond death, but it can also raise problems for scripturally strict readers of the Bible like Alex’s mother, Beth Malarkey…
This modern-day controversy seems to spark some of the same tensions that inflamed the early church, with a markedly twenty-first century marketing spin. The early church fathers were disdainful of those …who claimed they could have spiritual inspiration through experience alone, and in so doing, supplement scripture. If we look at the earliest years of the Christian tradition, we can find both Jewish and Christian extra-canonical accountings of trips to heaven – and yet most of these traditions didn’t make it into received canon.
In the early centuries of Christianity we can also find a powerful experiential tradition in the Gnostics, who didn’t claim to visit heaven, but who did claim that their own spiritual insights could outweigh the opinion of institutional authorities and scripture.
Today, we have a pop-version of the same debates. Alex and Beth see new inspiration as dangerous. As Alex puts it, “I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”
Todd Burpo and Kevin Malarkey, on the other hand, would have us allow new otherworldly visions to guide us—and would have us buy their heavenly storytelling as a means of expressing our extra-biblical convictions.
You see what is missing in all these commentaries? Two little boys, now young men in their teens.
Perhaps Kevin Malarkey has elaborated his son’s experience well beyond what Alex now considers truthful. Perhaps Todd Burpo’s theological naivete is a bit forced. The question remains: what of the genuine kernels of NDE remaining in the boys’ memories? What can they believe about themselves and that now-distant experience, and what (and whom) can they trust to talk about it?
Conversations about theology swirl, conversations about marketing hype are all over the place, conversations about the historicity of visionary experience may be welcomed. But two boys have been left without support, without assurances, with simply nothing but their own devices and available vocabulary to sort out an experience that can send adults into shock and even PTSD. They have been given notoriety but no insight, no way of understanding their experience except at the crudest literal level, no way of sorting out what it means about themselves that they are considered the objects of demonic deception or angelic praise. Their stories get attention, but the children do not.
There must be a better way to do this.