Friday, January 16, 2015

The Boy Who Didn’t Come Back from Heaven

Heaven ([bad] artist's representation)
Not actually visible from
seat 37A
Because he never got there in the first place. I should start this will full disclosure: I don’t believe in an afterlife, and certainly there hasn’t been any proof of one, even though people have written books about their (supposed) near-death experiences, including The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. I saw the item on Raw Story last night, though about writing, tried sketching out an illustration of the Pearly Gates (hampered by my minimal artistic skills) and moved on to other things.

This morning, I see that the story is at the top of the news. Breaking News: Boy didn’t make trip to heaven. So, what the hell (so to speak). Because I noticed something that others do not seem to have noticed.


First, let’s talk about the thing that nobody notices: heaven. The first time I looked at the Hebrew text of Genesis, I noticed there was an M hanging on the back of the word that (typically) gets translated as “heaven.”
.בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
HaShamayim. The -m ending signifies that it’s a a plural. When I saw this, my first question was “how often is the word used as a plural in the Hebrew Bible?” The answer was: always. Well, maybe the Christian Bible influenced the translation, was my next thought, but a bit of Internet poking revealed that the Greek word that gets translated “heaven” is a plural too. So, if we want to translate it as a singular “heaven,” we really need an answer why the biblical authors used a plural. Are we missing some great understanding of religious belief of people of the past? (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the boy. Right now, I’m still dealing with heaven.)

Nah. Richard Elliott Friedman in his The Bible with Sources Revealed translates that passage this way:
In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth
Skies. I’ve been in the skies. Several times. I’ve been above the earth at heights that would have seemed impossible to people two thousand years ago (or even probably five hundred years ago). What’s the standard image of heaven, beloved by cartoonists? A place sitting on top of the clouds. I’ve been above the clouds (so have lots of people), and we can no longer site God’s home there. We’ve been there, seen it, and not seen any home in the skies.

Of course, the story of The Boy Who Came Back from the Skies lacks a certain cachet. No one is likely to plunk down their cash for the thrilling story of a boy who took a trip on a transcontinental trip. “Kid, if the flight was the best part of your family’s trip to Paris, I feel sorry for you.” Nor do people (typically) claim that they saw God when traveling on an airplane. (Some claim that they saw the devil, but no, that was just a flight attendant.) We’ve move God somewhere else, another plane of existence that we can’t simply travel upward to (despite the clear view in earlier periods that it was just that: up, quite a bit).

In The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, we get the story of Alex Malarky (that his family name means “nonsense” is both a cheap shot and irresistible), who was seriously injured in an automobile accident, went into a coma and came out of it to write a book with his father about his experience (in heaven). Raw Story gets one fact wrong, describing Malarky as a “10-year-old author.” Actually, he’s sixteen. He was six when he was in the accident, ten when he co-wrote the book with his father, Kevin Malarky.

Raw Story based their reporting on a piece at Pulpit and Pen. Both quote Beth Malarky, Alex’s mother. Beth takes care of her paralyzed son and is divorced. Here’s what she says on her blog:
The ones making money from the book are NOT the ones staying up through the night
Is Malarky claiming that the whole thing would be fine if her son was raking in the cash from this? She says that she could
make financial statements public that would prove that he has not received monies from the book nor have a majority of his needs been funded by it
Aww, it’s a question of cash, isn’t it? How terribly touching. Yeah, she’s couching it as it being made up, and not scriptural and all, but there’s this tone of “where’s my payoff” in her statements. I can’t help but think that Ms. Malarky would be fine with her son’s piece of fiction (co-authored by her ex-husband) if the cash were coming to her. As always, Mammon is a very jealous god. There might be questions of truth. There might be questions of religion. There are certainly questions of cold hard cash.

I should note that I feel sorry for Alex Malarky. He's got a tough life ahead of him and I'm sure the proceeds from the book would help. Still, I'm amazed that anyone swallowed his tale.

Update: As my blog title is a Poe reference, I should point out that some people thought Poe's tale of a man put under hypnosis at the point of death, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," were once thought to be a true account.
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