The unfortunate, but sadly predictable news broke in recent days that the “heavenly tourism” book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, which has reportedly sold over one million copies, is in fact a fraud. Alex Malarkey, the young boy whose supposed heavenly experience was recorded in the book co-written by his father, Kevin Malarkey, has put out a letter to LifeWay and other Christian book distributors and publishers declaring that: “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.”
Scandal is now swirling around the Baptist-run publishing and retail organization, as questions are being raised regarding whether LifeWay knew whether or not Malarkey’s book was a fraud before this public revelation. In this post I do not wish to pin blame for, as I see it, this incident is a symptom of a far greater and more concerning problem with American Christianity as a whole. The blatant deception exercised in the conception of this book and the manipulative financial profiting from gimmicky literature is a logical end-point of the Christian commercial culture which American Christians far too eagerly embrace.
What do I mean by a Christian commercial culture? Broadly speaking, it consists of the evangelical Christian subculture, made up of media, books, music, and film produced by exclusively “Christian” companies and distributors designed with explicitly Christian target audiences in mind. The Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry is possibly the best example of this subculture. Artists produce “Christian” music for a specifically Christian audience. Played for mainstream audiences through “inspiring” Christian stations like KLove, it provides a supposedly safe market for Christians to invest in without having to worry about degrading secular music. Christians, then, are reduced to a marketing demographic, a simple commercial target whose tastes, likes and dislikes are catered to for economic success. (I’d encourage anyone who doubts this assessment to read this interesting article detailing WRCM, which is now part of KLove, and their target audience member “Becky”)
Of course, this applies to Christian literature as well, and creates an environment where Christian audiences are pandered to for their business, but when monetary success is the primary goal, morality falls to the wayside. Manipulation is the key to marketing. Thus, a feel-good story about a young boy who died, went to heaven, and came back is pushed through as a beautiful “true story” not necessarily because the publishers believe it, or see its view of the after-life as consistent with their Scriptural doctrine, but because it sells. Hence, a false story is sold as true in Christian bookstores (bookstores who claim a Messiah who declared Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life) to unwitting and unsuspecting consumers.
This leads me to my primary complaint with the Christian commercial culture. While I understand the appeal of having specifically Christian stores and distributors, which provide a convenient place for purchasing tools and materials relating to the faith, the unfortunate reality is that anything sold or produced with a “Christian” label at a “Christian” store attempts to claim the full endorsement of Christianity. In LifeWay’s instance, all items sold bear the endorsement of the Baptist denomination as being in accordance with Baptist theology, which holds Scripture and the person of Christ as the highest authorities. Thus, the materials LifeWay sells should be put under close and careful scrutiny as to both their theological and factual merit. But are these books/albums/films truly representative of Christianity as Christ conceived it? Clearly, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven did not meet the most basic and fundamental of Christian principles: that of truth (John instructs, in 1 John 3:18 HCSB, that “we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action”). Obviously, LifeWay either made an egregious human error and failed to discern the falsehood inherent in the book, thus unintentionally deceiving those purchasing the book in good faith, or they willfully and knowingly allowed such deceit to happen because they knew such deception would sell. Either way, it is shameful and concerning behavior.
Christians often deride secular society’s “escapist” tendencies in entertainment, failing to realize that the Christian commercial culture provides them with the very same thing. Christians can go into a Christian bookstore, they assume, and not have to worry about discernment. They can turn on the Christian radio station in comfortable knowledge that the lyrics are Christ-honoring and truthful. They can go to a Christian movie and let the positive affirmation wash over them, knowing full well they can easily agree with whatever the story puts before them to believe because it’s “Christian”. Why do they feel this comfort? Because they are given what they want, and they trust a company whose vision is “providing Biblical solutions for Life”. But those running the Christian commercial culture are business-minded, and they know that in order to succeed they must give customers what they want, but what they want (here, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven) and what they need (the truth, here being the fact that Malarkey’s book is a lie) are diametrically opposed.
American Christians must realize the extent to which their faith has been hijacked by corporate thinking, and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven may be just the type of warning call to wake us up. Simply because the Christian subculture claims something is Christian does not mean that it is consistent with truth. This business mentality applied to the Church is a toxic mixture, turning believers to unthinking self-gratification. It is this mentality that leads our churches to measure their success by attendance and branding rather than by how well they are caring for orphans and widows, leads the flock to buy songs like Building 429’s “Where I Belong” (a most likely unintentional but still subversive denial of God’s Creation) and prompts Christians to loudly denounce a challenging Hollywood exploration of Gospel themes (Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) in favor of a poorly made but smoothly Christian commercial culture affirming apologetics film (God’s Not Dead).
When considering how to react to the news of LifeWay’s witting or unwitting deception, we would be wise to heed Paul’s words to Timothy: “Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according their own desires will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:2-5 HCSB)
Let us indeed pray for discernment, that we can examine ourselves and see how often our own selfish desires pervert how we perceive and, more importantly, what we accept as truth.