I live in a new neighborhood carved out of the Michigan woods. My husband and I fell in love with the winding road that led through pines into hardwoods, a road that now connects about twenty new houses to the highway. As the first residents of this new community, we had the opportunity to reach out to all the new homeowners, and all of them proved to be as interested in establishing a strong community as we are. Thanks to enthusiastic responses to various suggestions, we now have an annual summer barbeque and monthly rotating backyard picnics. We also have a book club, Girl’s Night Out, euchre games and many other types of informal socializing.
The book club meets at 7 p.m. once each month. The hosting rotates among the six members–Sandy, Kim, Mary, Hope, Karen, and me. We usually begin with drinks, sit at a dining room table, eat hors d’oeuvres and desserts and tell where we did or did not connect with the book, whether we trust the author’s voice, and what we think we learned from reading the book.
In the past year our group discussed Night by Elie Wiesel, Little Heathens, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, One Drop by Bliss Broyard, Boom by Tom Brokaw, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. Last night the book club met at my house, and the book under discussion was
Baptist minister Don Piper is the “I” of the story, but he freely admits that he needed his co-author, Cecil Murphey, to shape the tale.
Don Piper boils down his story this way: “I died on January 18, 1989. . . . Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven. While I was in heaven, a Baptist preacher came on the accident scene. Even though he knew I was dead, he rushed to my lifeless body and prayed for me. Despite the scoffing of the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) , he refused to stop praying. At least ninety minutes after the EMTs pronounced me dead, God answered that man’s prayers. I returned to earth.”
None of the members of the book club are Baptists, so I was curious about how such an overtly religious book would be received. The first responses were positive. The book got high marks for readability, pacing, and dramatic narrative. No one questioned the validity of the story.
Overall, however, the assessment of the book came down to the assessment of the voice, the character of Don Piper, the man who tells the story. Here the group became much more critical. The book seemed to be written the confirm the truth of theological claims rather than to share the transformation of a life. Piper goes out of his way to distance himself, for example, from other narratives of death survival He doesn’t go into the light, he wants us to know, he goes straight to Christian heaven.
When his description follows familiar biblical narratives (yes, he walked on streets of gold and saw the pearly gates), it may be comforting to fellow believers, but it is not compelling reading. However, when he tries to describe the ineffable without the aid of the Bible, he is much more convincing. I loved his description of heavenly music: “I can only describe it as a holy swoosh of wings. But I’d have to magnify that thousands of times to explain the effect of the sound in heaven. It was the most beautiful and pleasant sound I’ve ever heard, and it didn’t stop.
It was like a song that goes on forever. I felt awestruck, wanting only to listen. I didn’t just hear music. It seemed as if I were a part of the music–and it played in and through my body. I stood still, and yet I felt embraced by the sounds. . . .My heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced.”
We book clubbers wanted to see not only the glories of heaven, but also tenderness, joy, and larger vision as a result of a visit to heaven. Piper’s pain in his crushed body understandably took precedence over what might have been more of an immediate transformation. His recovery, especially his ability to walk, is the second miracle in the story, again brought about by the prayers and support of loved ones. One person we wanted to know a lot more about was his wife Eva. She is a very flat character, and, surely, she must have a story of her own! Piper continued as a minister and is using this story for evangelical purposes. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies!
In the end, we gave this book 2 stars out of 4 and had a wonderful conversation about our own spiritual experiences, heaven, hell, miracles and religious backgrounds. The book may not have been a great one, but we had a great time talking about it.
Coincidently, most of the members of the book club stayed on to watch Barack Obama accept the nomination of the Democratic party for president.
It occurs to me that evaluating memoir and judging political candidates is a similar kind of process. How much have you suffered and what have you done with that suffering, is one of the questions we ask the protagonists of any story, including potential president protagonists. The women of the Stratford Woods book club, listening to Barack Obama, were not just listening to one man tell his incredible story. No, we were listening to the song of transformed pain of all who have suffered, which is all of us. And we were inspired to become better people here on earth. We were part of the music, and, for us, it was a foretaste–90 minutes worth–of heaven.