Colton Burpo: all grown up
by Sam Kriss
It’s New Year’s Eve, 2027, and Colton Burpo, subject of the bestselling 2010 book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back along with the hit 2014 film of the same name, is sitting in a strip club in the town of Little Whistling. He’s unrecognisable, and so nobody recognises him. The town is more a glorified truck stop, a shivering huddle of low square houses, half-buried in the loose winter ice that blankets the Dakota steppes in endless miles of blank white indistinction. Every time a big rig pulls into town, its headlights scything through the indifferent falling strata of snowflakes, the building shakes down to its foundations. 2027 is the harshest winter on record: outside it’s colder than the surface of Mars, but in Colton Burpo’s private booth there’s a heavy, sticky, woozy heat. The low rumble of an eighteen wheeler outside sends a brief seismic tremor through the stripper’s cellulite and gives Colton a jolt out from his narcotic daze. It’s not enough. He beckons the girl over. “Did you know why it is that serial killers keep on killing?” he says. He slurs, his head at a crooked angle; he doesn’t look right. Electra sighs. “No,” she says. “Now why is that?” She’s heard all this before. Every grizzled drifter that passes through Little Whistling ends up going off on a rant like this one, trying to imitate the engagingly twisted dialogue of the sexy redneck psychopaths they’ve seen on TV. It’s pathetic. Blood, snow, and the road; dead hobos and crooked cops; gun-running and dope-dealing; all as dull and as flat and as empty as the plains outside. Nobody’s real any more. (Not that she can really complain. Electra’s not a real stripper: she’s working undercover, writing an exposé on the dark underside of the sex industry for a feminist magazine. So far, all she’s been able to discover is that every other girl in this establishment is doing the exact same thing. Courageous investigative journalism is the only thing keeping these places running.) “It’s not that they enjoy killing,” Colton says. “They do it because they don’t. It ain’t never enough. It never gives them that thrill they want. So they just keep trying, in new ways, over and over again. It never works.” Satisfied, he sits back and pulls a little bag of white powder out his pocket. “You want some?” Electra shakes her head. She squats a little and presents him with her ass; customers like that sort of thing. “Not there,” he says. “Lie on your back.” This is where Electra can feel things start to get weird. He shakes a few soggy clumps of coke into the pit of her collarbone and snorts them up with a gruff yelp. It stings. Colton Burpo likes the town of Little Whistling. The people seem to be God-fearing folk, and honest, even if they do tend to embellish their personal histories. They’re willing to allow this pastor’s son his eccentricities. Colton Burpo has snorted cheap blow off just about every imaginable part of a woman’s body: her ankle, her labia, her armpit, her ocular cavity. He can’t get it back. It doesn’t work.
I first encountered Colton Burpo in 2012 while tearing through a Walmart superstore in Anaheim, California. I was reaching the end of my year-long stay in the United States and starting to panic. I had to cram as much absurd Americana into my final days as possible: Vegas, Disneyland, road trips, shooting ranges. I loved Walmart. I revelled in the logo (I’d never seen so many friendly yellow anuses in my life), the enormous bags of waxy grated cheese, the rows of rifles two aisles away from babycare products, the sense of an entire world repackaged and itemised in a single vast cube, ready to supply every possible human want. Somewhere in there I found a book called Heaven is for Real – for kids. It explained, with lovingly coloured illustrations, how a four year-old boy had ascended to Heaven during an emergency appendix surgery; how he’d spoken to dead family members and petted the rainbow-coloured steed of Christ and come back knowing things that he couldn’t possibly have known. I was so taken by this piece of extravagance that I don’t think I ever even noticed that the boy in question was, spectacularly, named Colton Burpo. I never considered what it must be like to actually be him: not just to go to Heaven, but to then have to come back. I don’t doubt for a second that he saw the afterlife. But how can Colton Burpo now live in the depravity and fallenness of the world, having seen what he’s seen, knowing that suicide is a mortal sin, unable to regain his paradise until the end of his long prison sentence of an earthly existence? What acts of oddness will he turn to in his attempts to recapture a lost Heaven?
By 2045 Colton Burpo has, like so much of the world’s monied flotsam, washed up in the Sovereign Emirate of London. For a while around independence some people were suspicious of the new name, but by now Londoners have grown proud of it. Absolute monarchy is good for trade, and London has even less in common with the stuffy old monarchies of Europe than it does with the grotty hinterlands out in the British Isles. Emirates are modern and forward-thinking and business-friendly; kingdoms aren’t. It’s said that the Windsors, exiled from Buckingham and Balmoral, are now occupying a nice semi-detached house in Manchester, wherever that is. It’s also said that there are people starving to death in Yorkshire and sprawling refugee camps along the Scottish border, for all anyone cares. The skyscrapers of London receive and transmit constant streams of capital, and the tangled medieval streets around them are a net, trapping some of it in the city, even if only for a second. People too. Colton Burpo lost everything when the dollar collapsed. At the time the thing to do was to go to China, so he did; hamming up his old boy-who-went-to-Heaven routine around Shanghai and Guangzhou for audiences of enraptured evangelicals – as if it were still a beautiful story of inspiration and hope, as if it were anything other than a clawing void deep in his chest. He left after a few years. He can’t stay in one place too long: the sky presses down on him, the ground swallows him up, it’s all so hideously material. Everywhere is the same now, but London is special, because it’s more the same than anywhere else. It’s gone midnight when Colton Burpo spots his prey, but the sky is still a bright hellish orange , the low clouds glowing with reflected fire and infamy. The youth is striding out of one of the huge towers that line Brixton Road. Apart from the occasional swoosh of a surveillance orb, it’s silent here. No trees for birds; no homes, only offices. The kid is sharply dressed in business attire; his white t-shirt expertly stained, his tracksuits all but falling apart. He’s wealthy and important, but then so is everyone in London – everyone except domestic servants, and the menial workers ferried in and out of the city every day from one of the tiny surrounding fiefdoms, but it’s not as if they count. Colton has stopped trying to work out why he does what he does; all he knows is that he has to keep doing it.
Freud locates the source of the ‘oceanic’ religious feeling of universal interconnectedness in infantile prehistory, before the ego detaches from the outside world. In the immediate oral stage, the child doesn’t conceive of the mother’s breast as being a separate entity; mouth and teat form a single machinic assemblage controlling a single flow. She is the world; the world is her. It’s only when she looks at herself in the mirror and identifies with her specular image that the unified and discrete Subject is formed; after that only faint aftershocks of this originary molecularity remain. No wonder religious myths tend to place Paradise in the far-distant past. Colton Burpo knows better; he knows that Heaven is still here, just across the fragile bound of every living instant. When someone refuses to move past the oral stage they develop a neurotic fixation: they’ll become anxious and needy, or domineering and manipulative; alcoholic; unwell. It’s not uncommon. Everyone’s a neurotic. The real problems emerge if you proceed through the stages of psychosexual development in a perfectly ordinary fashion, and are then suddenly thrust back, all too briefly, into the deep dark holy oceans of immanent unity. Visiting Heaven as a four-year old boy will only give you psychosis, and the most dangerous psychotic delusions are the ones that happen to be true. Georges Bataille writes that continuous (or deindividuated) life is always accessible, at the moment of death and in the heights of erotic passion. These moments are still deeply religious in character, but in an inverted form: if you can achieve continuous life by murdering a priest in the church of San Seville, then all the better. For Colton Burpo in 2045, Bataille is tedious and conventional. Nobody likes to think that they live in an era of innocence, but we do. The decadents of the generation before 1914 didn’t think they lived in an innocent time either. Great terrors await. The present tendency towards jaded irony is held to be some kind of postmodern affliction; we forget that the twenty-first century is fourteen years old, and has just discovered sarcasm. Colton Burpo was born on the eve of the millennium; he’s as old as our present age. His psychosis is our psychosis; his future is our future.
It’s 2069, and Colton Burpo is dying. He’s lucky. Here, in this private hospice high up in the Ural mountains, the air is still clean. His last breath won’t choke him. From his window Colton can see the snowless peaks plunging down under a cold and limpid sky. The whole flat expanse of Europe is spread out before him, coquettishly cloaked in its radioactive smog. On the other side, nothing. He’s been pushed here, thrown up against the edges of the world. It’s time. He signals for a priest. For the first time in decades Colton thinks of his father. Pastor Todd Burpo, who believed everything, who spread the good news. The clean airy smell of whitewash and disinfectant in the Nebraska church; those long bright summers when Heaven seemed so real and so fresh he could see it whenever he closed his eyes, before the book and the TV appearances and the movie and everything else, before the space stations fell from the sky and the nuclear plants popped one by one. He almost expects the priest to be like those he remembers, someone in blue jeans and a polo shirt with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Instead there’s a dour Orthodox seminary student in black robes and a black felt cap. The buboes are visible all over his neck; it’s not like it matters now. The man takes Colton’s hand for a second, crosses himself, and begins to administer the last rites. “Blagosloven Bog nash vsegda-” Colton stops him. A last feeble rasp. “Once,” he says, “once when I was young – too young to understand – He showed me Heaven. I know now that I’m not going back. Ever since, He’s shown me nothing but Hell, and all its horrors. Now… I wonder what He’s going to show me next.”
(There’s a tragic misconception that in Christianity, what one does is this earthly world is only important insofar as it secures one’s position in the afterlife. In such an understanding, Heaven and individual salvation is the only proper goal in life. This is nonsense, and it has no basis in Scripture or the theological consensus, both of which are as materialist and as hostile to such transcendentalism as anything in Marx or Nietzsche. There are some within Christianity that believe in a conscious afterlife immediately following death, but at no point is this idea of personal salvation held to be any kind of telos. Far from being eternal, the intermediate state isn’t much more than a spiritual screensaver, something to occupy the soul until the bodily reincarnation of the dead promised in Matthew 22:31-32. For the thnetopsychitae, this filler heaven doesn’t even exist. They may be right: the immortality of the soul was always a Platonist Greek doctrine, not a Christian one.
Biblical writings are singularly unconcerned with the fate of the soul immediately after death; the point is always to return to the world in all its immanence after the Last Judgement. Heaven isn’t a metaphysical realm; it’s what happens here, and the New Earth or the Kingdom of Heaven must be built. With postmillenial salvation – operating on the level of the 144,000 or the numberless multitude rather than on that of the individual subject – the curse of Adam is lifted. The old order to be overturned is described precisely in Genesis 3:18-19: Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. In other words, by opposition we can see that the salient features of the Kingdom of Heaven are: the unleashing of productive forces in the clearing-away of thorns and thistles, an end to the antagonistic dialectic between the equally false categories of Nature and Man, and the abolition of alienated wage-labour. It’s in this New Earth that the dead are redeemed and justified.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call the Kingdom of Heaven the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. We do not passively wait for it. Luke 17:20-21: And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. As ever, God is impeccably Marxist.)