In November 2004, Alex Malarkey, a six-year-old boy, was involved in a road accident and became a quadriplegic. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was later published in July 2010, detailing an apparently supernatural experience the young boy had where he caught a glimpse of heaven.
Alex’s father, Kevin, was the signatory to the title but other family members, allegedly, do not recognise what is being said in the book.
Now, a lawsuit has been filed by Alex Malarkey against the publisher, Tyndale House. It states that "the core of the story is entirely false". He claims Tyndale House made "millions of dollars" while giving him nothing.
Knowing a number of the senior managers at the organisation, I would be extremely surprised if they had gone into this solely as a means of earning more and more dollars. But the rights and wrongs of this sad case aside, we should remember the biggest story is the fact that a family has been ripped apart by this episode. For whatever reason, publishing this book has caused the family to be pulled apart in this way. Now the law is being used by Alex to ensure that nothing of this type occurs again.
This episode should give all of us in Christian retailing pause for thought. We need to take a long hard look at how Christian books are published and distributed into the wider market.
I have been in publishing for a long time. There have been just a few titles that have worried me. And I know they have worried others in the trade as well. There are interesting questions about discernment in the Christian publishing world. Generally, Christian publishers have a ‘spiritual-business’ ethos. Those who work in Christian publishing have no interest in propagating falsehoods. But it's interesting to note how oftentimes, the same titles which those in the trade are worried about are those which sell in their droves! This is especially true of what has been dubbed the 'heaven tourism' genre, of which The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven is a part.
This is all very complex. Publishers are trying to do as much as they can regarding the spiritual aspect of the book, and also at the same time trying to see whether they can sell as many titles as possible into that same market. It sounds fine, but unless you are involved in publishing, then you may not necessarily see it for all that it truly is, both in terms of the content and of the culture. It’s extraordinary, in the last decade, just how much things have changed.
Commissioning editors are influential in the selection of titles that they put forward for publication. The longer an editor has been in post, and the more efficient they have been in the past, then their publisher will inevitably take their view as being right for the current market. If they are not up-to-date with the market, then the book will inevitably suffer. If they come to the market recognising that the book will sell, but that its content may not be as good as before, then that is something of a problem in that market.
So should commissioning editors be more thorough when checking to see if a story is true? Perhaps, but how thorough is it really possible to be? These are difficult questions to answer and they're hard to deal with at the time when a particular title is going through the presses. It’s easy enough to see it when the title has been published and has been in the market for a while, but by then, it’s too late.
Perhaps, as Christians, we have been a bit gullible when it comes to some of these modern-day journeys of visits to Heaven. Episodes like this have left me asking serious questions about 'heaven tourism' books. Should we simply avoid these stories completely? Would it be better for us not to look at so many books of this type? Maybe. But on the other hand, might we lose something that God is showing us in terms of heaven? There are no easy answers to these questions.
Eddie Olliffe is a bookseller and distributor with over 35 years of experience