Beliefwatch: Heavenly

It isn't every day that a Christian book--that is, a book written by a Christian author for a Christian audience and marketed by a Christian publisher--crosses over into the secular market and makes any kind of appearance on best-seller lists or gets noticed by the mainstream press. Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" had been on The New York Times list for almost a year before The Economist discovered him with its November 2003 profile.

A few months ago a thin book that has been in print for nearly three years arrived in the top 10 of The New York Times paperback nonfiction list. Last week it rested at No. 6. "90 Minutes in Heaven" is an extraordinary story. Written by a Southern Baptist minister named Don Piper and a coauthor, "90 Minutes" is a firsthand account of Piper's devastating 1989 car wreck (his red Escort was, essentially, run over by an 18-wheeler), his trip to heaven--and his miraculous return to earth and life, thanks to the prayers of a fellow pastor. The trip to heaven--though vivid and full of joyous greetings and singing--is not the heart of the book. Instead, the story's power is in the aftermath: Piper, literally broken in pieces, has to come to grips with the fact that his life and body are forever changed. Thirty-four operations later, he still cannot walk with ease. With the help of God, friends and family, Piper comes to understand that he was put on earth to tell others about his celestial trip and his suffering. "I've been beaten up, but I'm not beaten," he says. "My focus now is ministering to the down-and-out, the hurting."

Before you turn the page, be assured that the story itself is as moving as any hard-luck story anywhere. And issues of credulity aside, the book's success--with barely a publicity budget or a marketing campaign--is a testament to Piper's faith in his own vision. He is on the road 250 days a year, telling people what he saw. He talks at churches big and small and also, increasingly, to secular groups: he recently accepted an invitation from the Nebraska Concrete Paving Association. His revelations are hardly unique--God answers prayers, Jesus is the way to heaven--but he has turned himself into a living example of finding meaning through suffering. People, it seems, want to listen. There are 1.4 million copies of "90 Minutes" in print. Recently, Piper found a new publisher: in August he will release "Heaven Is Real," a practical guide for overcoming loss.