In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis writes,
What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.
The experience of stepping out onto the ice isn't inherently destructive; it's necessary. Trouble comes, however, when we trust our experiences to support the weight of our faith. That's what so many have done with Colton's experience. Todd Burpo goes to great lengths to show how each piece of his son's vision recalls some portion of Scripture. But at the end of the day, the book is being marketed as a new, better map.
Rightly Discerning the Ecstatic
It's clear to see how Colton's experience has been abused and exploited. But how might it be handled positively, supportively? A brief survey of Christian mysticism shows us that ecstatic experiences are valuable, not because of the precise, objective details they reveal, but because they are subjective and personal.
It's true that many mystics intentionally sought ecstatic visions (unlike Colton or biblical figures) and in some cases downplayed the role of the church. But theologian Donald Bloesch observes that Protestants have been "too quick to deny [Christian mysticism's] universally true and abiding insights." A cautious reflection on the way some mystics understood their ecstatic experiences can help us rightfully discern those we encounter today, like Colton's.
In 1224, Francis of Assisi witnessed a figure descending from heaven. This figure appeared to be a man but also a six-winged Seraph. He was affixed to a cross with two wings extended over his head, two covering his body, and two stretched out in flight. As Francis observed the figure's radiant face, the figure smiled down at the monk. Francis was both overjoyed by the figure's beauty and grieved by his suffering on the cross.
Do you think Francis pondered over the type of wood the cross was made of? Do you think he analyzed the ethnicity of the glorious figure? No, Francis understood his ecstatic experience to mean he would be made like the crucified Christ in mind and heart. The vision left him with a renewed commitment to and love of Christ.
Three centuries later, Teresa of Avila had recurring visions for two and a half years of the risen Lord in his tomb, alive and glorified. Yet she admitted in her autobiography,
although I was extremely desirous to behold the color of his eyes, or the form of them, so that I might be able to describe them, yet I never attained to the sight of them, and I could do nothing for that end; on the contrary, I lost the vision altogether.
She concluded that the visions were meant for her personal contemplation, not to be studied like a textbook. She often found herself lost in the overwhelming sense of majesty caused by these visions and in response declared, "Thou art the Lord of the whole world, and of heaven, and of a thousand other and innumerable worlds and heavens, the creation of which is possible to Thee!"
Obviously, these mystical visions are quite unlike Colton's. But they show that the value of ecstatic experience isn't exhausted by objective analysis. The first time Colton mentions his experience, he simply says, "Dad, Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared. They made me feel better." Years later, Todd Burpo described to his congregation the personal value of Colton's "trip" to heaven: