Those heavenly books

I’ve noticed it for a while and it’s been commented on by many but, for some reason, it really got to me this week. Right now, three of the 14 NYTBR nonfiction paperback bestsellers deal with visiting heaven. In fact, one has been on the nonfiction bestseller list for 132 weeks. That’s right: “nonfiction.”

The skeptic/secularist/rationalist part of me has to take note that they all deal with so called near death experiences. I don’t think there’s any question the brain probably does real funky things when its blood supply is declining. Still, given that these books were all in the top nine the last three weeks, it’s clear that heaven is hot, at least in terms of book sales.

In a December cover story, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli observed that near-death experience books have come into popularity every few years since the 1970s. But he also notes these “afterlife books” are new in two ways: “they feature visits to heaven, not just tunnels of light” and they are increasingly written by orthodox Christians. Particularly with respect to the first, you have to ask why and why now.

While he and I certainly have different views, Galli suggests this is a reaction to both the secularist and materialist aspects of our society. “Combine our yearning for something more than empty materialism with first-person testimony that suggests ‘heaven is for real’ — well you’ll soon have a publishing phenomenon on your hands,” he writes. Although an argument could well be made that secularism and materialism have long, if not always, been a part of American society, he may have a point. The culture wars of the 21st century certainly have brought secularism more to the forefront, whether as a scapegoat or otherwise. And certainly lots of Americans are thinking, “I am the 99 percent” and casting a more scornful eye at the inequalities of our materialistic society.

Father James Martin, a Jesuit, has another interesting perspective. “As more people drift away from churches, traditional answers they relied on in the past have been forgotten, so they seek answers in these books,” he told USA Today. That makes some sense given that even though many call this a “Christian nation,” it can’t only be Christians who are buying the books. Perhaps this is just a much narrower focus that at bottom is little different than the interest we’ve seen in the ideas of Buddhism and other Eastern religions over the years.

Some Christians scoff at the books being called nonfiction or the concept of “Heaven Tourism.” Blogger Tim Challies, who apparently coined that term, calls the books “pure junk, fiction in the guise of biography, paganism in the guise of Christianity.” In a post on a Bible-related blog, Brent McDonald asks, “[W]hat makes a personal non verifiable experience something to be labeled non-fiction? Certainly the vision was truly something [the author] experienced personally but does that make the contents of his vision non-fiction? Would this not make Joseph Smith’s visions incorporated in the Book of Mormon equally non-fiction?” Interestingly, they and others like them base their skepticism on their own takes on Christian belief and scripture.

I am far from being a theologian or sociologist. I’ll certainly never understand why most books are even on bestseller lists. I will even admit to understanding that publishers and those who make these lists probably fear hell breaking loose (pun intended) if they label these books fiction. But I think Susan Jacoby’s review of one of the books was right. “Only in America could a book like this be classified as nonfiction.”

Heaven is in your mind

Traffic, Title track, Heaven Is in Your Mind

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