Last week, one of the largest chains of Christian bookstores announced that it will no longer carry “heaven visitation resources,” the deliciously batty genre that includes the best-sellers Heaven Is for Real and To Heaven and Back. LifeWay Christian Resources said in a statement that they stopped ordering “experiential testimonies about heaven” last summer, and have now removed remaining products from its stores and website. Theologically speaking it’s a sensible and belated move, one that has likely taken so long because of the immense amount of money these books bring in.
The obvious quandary for Christian publishers and booksellers is that these books are as profitable as they are problematic. LifeWay’s decision was made public last week in response to an inquiry from Baptist Press about the 2004 book 90 Minutes in Heaven, the account of a Baptist pastor who says he visited heaven after being in a car accident. That book is said to have sold 6.5 million copies, and a movie version starring Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth is due out this fall. (Wild guess: It’ll be 90 minutes in hell.) The movie version of Heaven Is for Real made $100 million last year at the box office. Overall, U.S. publishers' net revenues from Christian books was an estimated $1.3 billion in 2013, according to the the Book Industry Study Group.
LifeWay operates 185 stores nationwide, and is an influential player in the profitable world of Christian publishing. The chain is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, whose 2014 resolution on “the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the afterlife” led to the decision. That document specifically condemns movies and books that try to “describe heaven from a subjective, experiential source, mainly via personal testimonies that cannot be corroborated,” and notes that many “contain details that are antithetical to Scripture.”
All true! But finding flaws in these books is a bit like shooting Jesus fish in a barrel. It should not take a committee to figure out that a 4-year-old’s story of seeing Jesus riding on a “rainbow horse”—as recounted in Heaven Is for Real—is nonsense, let alone not non-fiction.
LifeWay didn’t mention specific titles, but the genre also includes books like The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, recanted by the boy in question in January. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” Alex Malarkey confessed of his account of visiting heaven as a 6-year-old in a coma. “The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.” The Christian publisher Tyndale consequently took the best-selling book out of print.
But it’s not only Malarkey’s malarkey that has become untenable for LifeWay. The genre as a whole has come under fire from mainstream evangelical leaders. For the Christian publishing industry, the books’ persistence is an illustration of the often messy line between theological purity and market viability.
Friday afternoon I stopped into a bustling LifeWay store across the street from Southern Baptist Convention’s headquarters in downtown Nashville. A bookseller confirmed that the books were no longer available, though she reassured me she could order them online for me. The store still sells books like Angels: Who They Are and How They Help, as well as Jesus Calling, a controversial devotional written by a woman who claims to have transcribed new messages from God. The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, but Christian bookstores still need to sell more than one book to survive.