Dancing Past the Dark http://www.dancingpastthedark.com distressing near-death experiences Fri, 27 Feb 2015 15:41:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What is the purpose of life? http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/purpose-life/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/purpose-life/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 15:40:21 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1455 Toma is a reader of this blog who keeps asking unanswerable questions…to which I do my best to provide responses. Just the other day he wrote, “What is the purpose of life?” and I answered, “I’ll have to think about whether that even feels do-able.”

Frankly, I thought coming up with a reasonable response was unlikely to be do-able at all. But that was before Oliver Sacks learned he has terminal cancer. 

Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. He is best known to the public for his intellect, humor, and wide-ranging curiosity about how the mind works, which has led to his best-selling books featuring case studies of people with neurological disorders. The dozen or more titles include Musicophilia, Awakenings, Hallucinations, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Time magazine calls him “ one of the leading public intellectuals of the last half-century.”

In keeping with all of those attributes, Sacks learned of his terminal cancer and wrote a brief essay about his prognosis for the New York Times. He concludes:

…I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

 And there, I think, is a worthwhile answer to the question of purpose. The purpose of our existence is being, in the same way the ancient name of the Hebrew God—YHWH, or Yahweh—has something to do with the verb “to be.” Because we are the creatures we are, for us being involves awareness, cognition, consciousness. We are aware that we are.

Perhaps evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley was right, back in 1957, writing, “As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future.” Is that truly our function, to be the consciousness of the universe? Or perhaps that is simply another example of human self-absorption and grandiosity. Other animals notice—some far better than we—the details of their physical environment. But the fact remains that we are the only creatures on this planet able to reason and communicate in ways that extend beyond our immediate environment and our physical lifetimes, able to speculate about how it all works and the “why” of our being here. And there is that word again: being.

Is this the ‘right’ answer to the question of the purpose of life—that our purpose is to be and to notice? Obviously, I have no way of knowing. In terms of satisfaction, though, it seems hard to do better than this from Oliver Sacks:

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”




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The “Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine”…and dilemma http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/burpo-malarkey-doctrine-dilemma/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/burpo-malarkey-doctrine-dilemma/#comments Fri, 23 Jan 2015 00:51:35 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1450 I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that Alex Malarkey’s story was all made up. And yet, that’s the news this week. Here is the NPR lead:

“Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy’s story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said this week that the story was all made up.”

Alex, now a teen, was not only injured in that crash but was left quadriplegic. The book was co-authored by Alex and his father.  Since then, parents Kevin and Beth Malarkey have separated; the children live with their mother.

The Washington Post notes that the Alex Malarkey account–like the Colton Burpo story in Heaven is for Real, which was published four months to the day later in 2010—became part of a popular genre of “heavenly tourism” controversial among orthodox Christians. That has certainly been the case with Beth Malarkey, a devout evangelical Christian who has spoken out against the book featuring her son because it is not biblically accurate.  Alex is totally dependent on his mother as his caretaker. She reports that he has received no proceeds from the book, though it is impossible to tell whether she considers that a virtue because the money is tainted or a complaint about absence of support for a catastrophically disabled son. She says he has tried to set the record straight, that he knows the book is biblically in error.

This past week, Alex’s open letter to Christian bookstores occasioned the news story. He said:

“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. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.…Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”

* He was six at the time of his NDE.

Surely I cannot be the only reader who sees backstory lying thick on the ground in this situation! And yet the media seems either blind or oblivious, reporting his change of story as a clear case of “truth-telling at last.” Full disclosure: I have not read the book, but admit that the quotes I have seen do not sound authentically like the voice of a young boy. Yet I have heard so many children’s NDE accounts that I believe there was something there, back in the beginning, which drew Alex to tell his father about…what?.

It was almost exactly one year ago (January 30, 2014) that I wrote about Colton Burpo’s NDE as described in Heaven is for Real. He was three at the time of his NDE, and in the seven years between then and the publication of the book, his eager conservative-pastor-dad kept questioning him and adding more and more details to his first simple story.  As I said then about Colton:

He said angels sang to him, and he sat on Jesus’ lap .

But… by the time the sincere but hardly impartial father stopped asking questions, and the boy stopped adding details in response to those questions, seven years had passed and … the relative simplicity of the few original details had grown as the boy grew, into an elaborated account of Christian exclusivity and holy warfare that puts Revelation imagery into the hands of human warriors resembling Marvel comic book heroes.

What is a child with an NDE to do? Can we get parents out of the picture and listen to the kids?

The absence of understanding pours in from all sides. There is the Grace to You website, where Phil Johnson back in 2012 posted “The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine.” (Beth Malarkey recommends the article and linked to it on her blog.) Johnson mentions a half-dozen dozen or so well-known NDE autobiographies and inveighs:

No true evangelical ought to be tempted to give such tales any credence whatsoever, no matter how popular they become. One major, obvious problem is that these books don’t even agree with one another. They give contradictory descriptions of heaven and thus cannot possibly have any cumulative long-term effect other than the sowing of confusion and doubt.…But the larger issue is one no authentic believer should miss: the whole premise behind every one of these books is contrary to everything Scripture teaches about heaven. (Emphasis in original.)

The article goes on to quote from an upcoming book, that NDEs “are either figments of the human imagination (dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worst cases, deliberate lies), or else they are products of demonic deception.”

Unfortunately, the Progressive Christian perspective, though more informative, has been no more helpful to the young experiencers. In the online Religious Dispatches,  Ithaca College Associate Professor Rachel Wagner has written a comprehensive piece looking at the resistance the public and religious press showed at the early suggestion there might be questions about The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. (Despite my caveats, I recommend reading her article.)

The successful marketing of such books reveals our craving for reassurances about what lies beyond death, but it can also raise problems for scripturally strict readers of the Bible like Alex’s mother, Beth Malarkey…

This modern-day controversy seems to spark some of the same tensions that inflamed the early church, with a markedly twenty-first century marketing spin. The early church fathers were disdainful of those …who claimed they could have spiritual inspiration through experience alone, and in so doing, supplement scripture. If we look at the earliest years of the Christian tradition, we can find both Jewish and Christian extra-canonical accountings of trips to heaven – and yet most of these traditions didn’t make it into received canon.

In the early centuries of Christianity we can also find a powerful experiential tradition in the Gnostics, who didn’t claim to visit heaven, but who did claim that their own spiritual insights could outweigh the opinion of institutional authorities and scripture.

Today, we have a pop-version of the same debates. Alex and Beth see new inspiration as dangerous. As Alex puts it, “I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”

Todd Burpo and Kevin Malarkey, on the other hand, would have us allow new otherworldly visions to guide us—and would have us buy their heavenly storytelling as a means of expressing our extra-biblical convictions.

You see what is missing in all these commentaries? Two little boys, now young men in their teens.

Perhaps Kevin Malarkey has elaborated his son’s experience well beyond what Alex now considers truthful. Perhaps Todd Burpo’s theological naivete is a bit forced. The question remains: what of the genuine kernels of NDE remaining in the boys’ memories? What can they believe about themselves and that now-distant experience, and what (and whom) can they trust to talk about it?

Conversations about theology swirl, conversations about marketing hype are all over the place, conversations about the historicity of visionary experience may be welcomed. But two boys have been left without support, without assurances, with simply nothing but their own devices and available vocabulary to sort out an experience that can send adults into shock and even PTSD. They have been given notoriety but no insight, no way of understanding their experience except at the crudest literal level, no way of sorting out what it means about themselves that they are considered the objects of demonic deception or angelic praise. Their stories get attention, but the children do not.

There must be a better way to do this.










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“Are you afraid of death?”, Part 3 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/afraid-death-part-3/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/afraid-death-part-3/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 17:57:17 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1441 Months have gone by since my last post. Months, since I confidently promised a conclusion to my answer to Tomas’s question, “Are you afraid of death”? It’s been months.

People wonder (with reason) whether anyone who has had a distressing NDE will be terribly afraid of death. Because the usual response is an uncompromising  “yes,” I was really, seriously trying to figure out my answer. In the first responding post I talked about my realization that there are ways in which we are all afraid, because we’re hardwired to repel death. In the second part I went over why I am not afraid of the hell that most people mean when they ask the question, “Are you afraid of death?” Part three was to be my personal answer. I said it would have something to do with Carl Jung. But it’s been months. Why? 

Am I afraid of death? I don’t know.

The not-knowing dumped me into a royal case of writer’s block, which had begun to feel permanent. However, perhaps astrological lineups have changed; for whatever reason, today I seem ready to tackle an answer.

Why I think I may be not afraid of death

There is more, now, to my feelings about death than the panicky horror that filled the years closer to my distressing NDE. My understandings about practically everything are far more sophisticated. (Thirty-two years with IANDS will do that. So will an additional five decades of living, with a dedicated attention to Figuring Things Out.)

So, let’s talk about five out of many differences between then and now. I am relating them in terms of people who have made deep imprints, not because they’re the only people to influence my ideas (quite a few of whom are now poking at my thoughts, trying to get equal time); but because their input has marked significant discoveries that made a difference.

Discovering near-death: Jayne Smith, Maggie Callanan,

Among the earliest beautiful near-death experiences I heard, back in the early ‘80s, was that of Jayne Smith. What an introduction to the field!   Of countless other pleasant-to-glorious  NDEs,  hers remains significant, in part because its optimism and serenity reflect the person herself.  [Full disclosure:  Jayne and I have been close friends ever since.] Such affirming NDEs seem to me foundational in building  a sense of trust in the universe, especially for people with a difficult NDE in their mind.

Along with NDEs, the concept that people approaching death might have any awareness of it was a brand new idea to me and just about everyone when hospice nurse Maggie Callanan co-authored  Final Gifts. “Nearing death awareness” was the term she coined for a shift toward metaphoric thinking as dying clients began to talk about making travel arrangements, moving, new telephone numbers, reunions, and party planning.  (Bewildered family members often tried to discourage such “crazy ideas.”) Although there might be a sense of anxiety about being ready on time, most of the dying did not seem afraid of the rendezvous itself; they simply had something to do, somewhere to go. The whole idea opened new ways of thinking about what dying might be like. Final Gifts has been a gift for countless families, and for me. A huge bonus for me came in the long, long hours of telephone conversations in the months preceding the book’s publication as Maggie was exploring near-death experience and I was exploring…well, everything. What I remember most is the amount of laughter in our conversations.

Discovering energy: Joyce Hawkes, Marian Wurster

I had no idea I was a bioelectric energy field. Likewise, I knew nothing about healing. But someone introduced me to dowsing with metal coat hangers, and then through one of those mysterious happenings which occur when we’re ready for change, my unprepared self was invited to participate in a large healing service. At the conclusion of the ritual, I was approached by my mentor, healer Marian Wurster, who wrapped me in a hug that became … like standing over Old Faithful when the geyser erupts. The sensation was of being shot upwards on an instantaneous tower of blazing white light, like riding the outside of a Canaveral rocket, like being a tourist propelled into the stratosphere or into the special effects of a sci-fi blockbuster. I had discovered energy.

Not long after, on the opposite side of the continent, I was sitting in the living room of biophysicist and healer Joyce Hawkes. I had just been introduced to her Filipino healer houseguest when a client arrived unexpectedly, a young man on crutches, coming to Joyce as his last option before having a foot amputated as the result of an auto accident injury. The foot and ankle were heavily scarred, grey-white and cold (yes, I touched them); he could put no weight on the foot. He sat on a kitchen chair in the center of the room, with the Filipino  healer kneeling at his foot and Joyce standing behind him. I was an observer from the couch. For perhaps forty-five minutes there was total silence, while the two healers moved their hands a few inches from the ankle and head, as if brushing away cobwebs. They never touched him. Then a testing, and another ten minutes or so of more brushing gestures. And by the end of the session, when the young man walked across the room without crutches, his scarred foot and ankle were warm and pink. When he had left, I gasped, “What did you do?” Joyce smiled and said, “We were praying.” And the Filipino healer said softly, “Oh, it wasn’t much. Only to move a bit of tissue.”

Something is definitely going on. There is more to the world than what the materialist view tells us.

Discovering consciousness: Carl Jung, and Stanislav Grof

The Wikipedia entry for “Collective Unconscious” includes two of my favorite quotes from Carl Jung. The first is from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious:

“…in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche …there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

And from Man and His Symbols, Jung speaks of archetypes:

“…what Freud called ‘archaic remnants’ – mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind.”

Archetypes are not experiences themselves but templates for mythological motifs in experiences recurring across cultures, across time. How else to explain the presence of Yin/Yang symbols unrecognized in the NDE of a young New England Congregationalist?

And then there was psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, whose decades of research with psychedelic states of consciousness demonstrated convincingly the experiential universality of those archetypal patterns. There they were—the monsters and demons, the angels and gargoyles of NDEs both heavenly and hellish, the heights of human emotional and spiritual experience and their depths. There were all possible types of experience, not as the physical after-death realities described theologically, but truly existing as potential states of human consciousness. Not eternal, not punishment, not damnation; meaningful but simply (though not simplistically!) experiential.

In other words, hell can be thought of as not external, not “out there” but as originating in the deepest levels of our psyche.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.

Discovering the sacred: Morris Owen Evans, Matthew Fox, John Shelby Spong

Almost exactly one century ago, in 1915, the University of Chicago published the monumental International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. You can read it still, online. Its managing editor was my paternal grandfather, the Welsh clergyman and scholar, Morris Owen Evans, D.D., PhD. A force to reckon with, he died barely six months before my birth. To the extent that I have any belief in reincarnation, I am suspicious.

From toddlerhood, I have been pursuing the sacred. Together, we have evolved from the raw Calvinism of the vacation Bible school of the Christian Missionary Alliance Tabernacle across the street from our liberal Congregational parsonage, through the increasingly less stringent doctrinal years of United Church in Christ (UCC), to the Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministry and Spirituality I earned from the Roman Catholic University of St. Joseph so that I could find out about mysticism.

There was Matthew Fox and his Creation Spirituality, pointing out that God had said about Creation, “That’s good!”, replacing Original Sin with Original Blessing.

And then came the Episcopal Bishop (now retired) John Shelby Spong, considered by some to be the “Anglican Antichrist,” but to others of us the shepherd of a new and deeper spirituality:

With Spong, I say, “But the fact is I can no more abandon the literal patterns than I could fly to the moon. I just go beyond them.”

He says, “Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue.”

He says, “…death is ultimately a dimension of life through which we journey into timelessness.”

I have been discovering, as the United Church of Christ says, that “God is still speaking,” in ways that make 21st century sense.

Discovering dying: Mildred Pile Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt

My mother valued responsibility, integrity, civic good works, and good manners. And music, always music. She prayed from her devotional daily. The girl from the tiny southwestern Kansas town of Protection grew up working alongside her dad, the local newspaper editor, in the paper’s shop. She graduated from high school and announced to her startled parents that she was leaving the next morning for a job with a Chatauqua circuit. (Chautauqua road shows traveled from town to town, as vaudeville did; before radio, they were like an early 20th century PBS.) For almost ten Chautauqua seasons she played the piano, sang, did interpretive readings, directed youth programs, acted in plays, and drove endless miles through all (then) forty-eight states. She put herself through college that way, and eventually became the quintessential pastor’s wife in a series of Congregational /UCC churches in New York State, running Sunday schools and youth programs, directing church plays, singing in the choir, keeping the peace in a parsonage of husband and four daughters. In addition, for twenty-five years she commuted into New York City to work full-time as an administrative assistant at UCC national headquarters. Shortly before her death at 87, frail and confused after surgery for a subdural hematoma, she woke from a nap and told me in great mystification about having just had a wonderful experience. She had seen a group of people in a beautiful field across a stream, all of them happy and working together. It was perfect, she said.  “The loveliest person” had come to her, and Mom asked if they had a job for her. “Not yet, Mildred,” said the loveliest person, “but we will.” All of my mother’s anxieties melted away, and for a day or two, nursing home staff were stopping by her doorway to see a smile so radiant  my sisters and I still cannot describe it adequately. Within a few days she was gone.

My mother held Eleanor Roosevelt in awe, as did much of the world. The icon of my growing up, she wrote: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

My mother died. Eleanor Roosevelt died. If they did it, I can, too.

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Two reviews: Glimpsing Heaven http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/two-reviews-glimpsing-heaven/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/two-reviews-glimpsing-heaven/#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 16:31:21 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1435 Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death

by Judy Bachrach
National Geographic Society

The first word: Review by Nancy Evans Bush

It takes a gifted author to produce a fresh, interesting look at NDEs at this stage in the game. Fortunately for readers, Judy Bachrach brings years of experience as a top-flight journalist to the assignment, and in Glimpses of Heaven: The Stories and Science of  Life After Death she has done just that. Some paths she follows are well-worn, but in her hands they take on new and absorbing perspectives.

Three points:

  • What makes the book easily worth recommending is that it is so well researched without being ponderous; while some other works display more data, this one provides a stable platform of trustworthy essentials along with rarely reported insights of major researchers.
  • What makes the book special is that Bachrach has structured it around her own life experience as a skeptical journalist who undertakes hospice volunteering as a way to deal with her own severe death anxiety while her mother is succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • And what makes the book a joy is its effortless readability and absorbing personal insights. The result is both a first-class primer on near-death and related issues as well as a thoughtful and believable reflection for others in the clutch of apprehension about death and dying. It would make a splendid gift—excellent and accessible information for explorers and a good, updated read for NDE veterans who think they’ve heard it all. Highly recommended.

The Last Word: Review by Henry Brand (“RabbitDawg”) *

I don’t know if you’re familiar with an influential Black Power poet from the early 1970′s named Gil Scott-Heron, but he was famous during his day for his poem/song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Today it would be considered soft jazz rap, and I kinda like it, but Scott-Heron’s point is what’s pertinent to this review. The gist of his message is, when social paradigms are changed, they are changed from within. The gatekeepers are ultimately ignored.

I firmly believe that a revolution in the public’s perception of spirituality and the paranormal (among other things) is happening right before our eyes (the SPR Wiki project is one of the cogs in that social change machine). Responsible, professional journalism will be the driving force that will make it happen. Books and websites by scientists are good, but it takes talented writing to bring the message home.

All of this is my roundabout way of bringing your attention to yet another at-first-I-was-a-skeptic-but-now-that-I-have-researched-the-topic-I-am-a-believer book by a pedigreed journalist.

Here’s the kicker—it’s published by National Geographic. And it’s paranormal friendly. Admittedly, National Geographic isn’t a prestigious peer reviewed organ like Nature, JAMA, or the British Medical Journal, but it does command a great degree of intellectual respect in certain quarters, and it normally tends to have a materialist verve. The book Glimpsing Heaven has a standard cover showing doors opening into the sky (why do they keep doing that?), and the title sounds like so many other books; but author Judy Bachrach is no slouch, as you can see by her creds at the Amazon link. I have not yet finished reading the book, but I am hooked.

I firmly believe that a revolution in the public’s perception of spirituality and the paranormal …is happening right before our eyes

Bachrach avoids the term near-death experience as much as possible because she considers it inaccurate. The experiencers were actually temporarily dead. Rather, she uses phrases like death experiencers or death travelers. For those of us comfortable with the NDE phrase, this can be a little jarring at first, but I get her point.

The real difference here is how well she drills down with her research interviews.

For example, we’re all familiar with the now deceased Pam Reynolds story. Ms. Bachrach takes it deeper. She interviews family and friends and walks away with a richer picture. Did you know that Pam Reynolds suffered a stroke shortly after her stand-down surgery was completed? She recovered nicely. Her psychic and healing abilities were legendary among those close to her, but she never wanted to make it publicly known. This ability was both humorous in hindsight, yet tragic in other ways. Her daughters remember teenagehood as an affectionate nightmare because they always had to tell the truth, Mom knew what they were thinking anyway. If they tried to sneak out of the house at night, Reynolds would wake up and catch them. They were frequently embarrassed when their Mother would spontaneously embrace a stranger in public, whisper something in the stranger’s ear, and then both of them would start crying. Empathy on steroids.

On the other hand, Pam Reynolds didn’t venture far from home unless she had to. She was distressed by the darkness of the thoughts she could read going through the minds of so many passers-by. She wasn’t clinically depressed—in fact she was usually cheerful—but she was also fragile, forever changed by what she called her “transcendent encounter with The Knowing.”

Then there was the time when one of her daughters friends lost her purse, Pam inexplicably “knew”it could be found in another girls hall closet underneath some coats. Or the time Pam visited a teenage boy in a hospital while he was in a coma and whispered, “I don’t know about you, but I want to call the pizza dude and get some slices, because I hate the food here.” The boy woke up, smiled, and recovered.

This link is to the US Amazon site, where there are significantly more reviews. [Just under 100, most of them rated 4 and 5 stars.] The UK version isn’t available for Kindle yet, and there the book only has one three star review. (The reviewer is bitchin’ because Ms. Bachrach failed to talk about Muslims and didn’t attempt to offer solutions to current world problems. Sigh)

It may take another generation, maybe two, but I doubt it will take much longer for the general public to become more comfortable and outspoken about their paranormal and spiritual experiences, despite Dawkins and Randi. Journalists, at least successful ones, are in touch with the beat of the street. I like to compare the information explosion happening right now with the internet and e-publishing with the invention of the printing press. [Openness about the paranormal] might be getting off to a shaky start, but as folks discover that they aren’t alone, they will seek out more information and the company of like-minded others to share their experiences and thoughts with, and change will happen. I bet the farm on it.

Okay, I don’t own a farm, But if I did, I would.

[Responding to a reader's comment, he adds:]

The most intriguing aspect of the book (to me) was how Bachrach digs into the personal effects in the experiencer’s lives, post-NDE.

Nancy Evans-Bush’s thoughts about confronting God more directly when her next trip to The Beyond comes around (she had a deeply distressing NDE) was both poignant and humorous. I always thought that lightning-struck NDEer Anthony Cicoria (who is famous in NDE circles for his NDE-themed piano concerto) was blessed with his abilities because of his transcendent experience, after perhaps a few lessons. No. His NDE gave him an obsession with music, but it took many, many lessons for him to develop his skills.

The point is, without New Age puffery or clinical distancing, Bachrach presents a level headed, yet engaging investigation. And I believe her when she emphasizes that what she discovered in her investigation changed her skeptical mind.

Expect to see more articles and books like this in the future from other mainstream sources. You can bet that National Geographic didn’t decide to publish this book without careful consideration of how it could affect their credibility as an organization. Yet the dispassionate facts were clearly laid out, so they took the plunge.

I’m convinced that online journalism and electronic publishing are what’s going to turn the tide on reductionist materialism doctrinal dominance. There is a hunger out there for spiritual straightforwardness and truth. The printing press brought us the Age of Enlightenment, didn’t it?

# # #

* Abundant thanks to Robert McLuhan and his blog Paranormālia for sharing this insightful review. And thanks to RabbitDawg for giving this writer a boot back into the world.

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The “Are you afraid of death?” question, Part 2 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/afraid-death-question-part-2/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/afraid-death-question-part-2/#comments Sun, 01 Jun 2014 21:51:26 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1424 Tomas and some others asked me, “Are you afraid of death?”

The opening of my response (last week’s post, the one below this one): “Some yes.”

This week: “Most no”

What does that mean, “Most no?”

Bear with me, please, because I’m thinking on paper here. I think what “Most no” means is that I’m probably not afraid of what most people are afraid of when we think of death. At least in Western societies, most people are afraid of hell, or at least of punishment. That is what at least 1,700 years of theology have led to.

The conventional hell

Now, I am not about to detail that whole situation in a single blog post. I have already posted about it and written a long article, “Untangling Hellish Visions,” to which I refer you. It is under Articles at this website. I’m also working on a shorter version that you can more easily tuck into your mind and carry with you. Look for it a few days after this is posted.

The bottom line is that hell has not always looked the way it does in the common imagination today; Augustine/Dante’s Inferno hell is not a fact of the universe. Further, for anyone thinking there is some religious imperative to that hell, there is nothing biblical about it, though it came to be the predominant Christian view, the one still giving people horrors and creeps. (There have always been minority views, but the Augustine/ Dante hell won the politico-religious/special effects contest.)

What is the character of your God?

So let me just say that what this means is that there is no evidence, other than legend and some overwrought theology, of a place in the universe where people who have behaved wickedly or who believe the wrong things about God will be thrown into eternal, unending, forever physical torment without recourse. Nada.

Returning readers will know I say this as a practicing, in-church-every-Sunday Christian—though not a traditional one.  But this hell business matters even for non-religious people because Western culture has developed over two thousand years around the Judeo-Christian tradition and has embedded those images and concepts into its psyche. Our cultural world is absolutely saturated, from sermons to video games, with the notion of looming hell put forward by Augustine (4th century) and Dante’s Inferno (14th century). Other than atheists thinking heaven/hell must indicate psychosis, and skeptics certain of oblivion, we have no broadly accepted alternative to what happens after death than heaven/hell.  So what are we to think?

If not hell, what?

If there is no hell, what are distressing NDEs? What is their point, if not a warning?  Here is where my thinking may seem to take some odd turns, but stick with me. I pretty much know where I’m going, though not how to get there in a straight line.

It was New Testament scholar and former Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan who asked what has been for me a central question: “What is the character of your god?”

My god. Your god. Religious or secular, you have one, even if it’s golf or American Idol or Fox News or your Constitutional right to own an automatic weapon. Or Doctors Without Borders, or hospice, or teaching third grade. You have one. Maybe it’s even God. The point is, whatever I believe about the character of whatever I take as my god shapes my life. Yours shapes you, too.

Last week, I had lunch in rural North Carolina, down in fundamentalist country, in a little backroad country grill with a great cook, in a seedy, half-stocked convenience store with a big-screen TV blaring a sci-fi horror flick on AMC. It was all conflict—screaming, grunting, the crashings of guys bursting down a door, each arm occupied by a blasting automatic weapon. Lots of automatic weapons, lots of blasting. Exploding. Screaming. It was like that the whole time. I couldn’t help wondering what it must do to that cook, to be submerged in that all day, every day. Even if she pays no attention, it’s in the air. What is the character of that god? Little kids go in there. What do they think about how the world works?

Right now, the god of the entire world looks very much like fear, even terror. And the character of fear is that it’s suspicious. Everyone is feeling threatened by something, or by everything; it’s become a madness. Gun shops thrive. Conspiracies and threats everywhere, spying and secrets. Differences are scary, children are being tried as adult criminals, the US has more and more people in prison per square inch of the population, young girls are kidnapped by the hundreds because they are being taught to think things their captors don’t want to know about. We want someone to come in and kick butt. (A yearning for Messiah is nothing new.)

We see the fear all around, the hyper-vigilant watch of suspicion that Someone is coming to take our choices, our  property, our minds, our children, our rightness, our rights, even including our right to be armed against any person who comes to our door, anyone who crosses us or looks at us funny. The Inferno version of hell tells us that our justice is God’s justice, tells us we’re okay as long as we think the same way, as long as we’re inside the right lines. The character of this god is that he’d fit right into that diner movie, because he is just itching to blast all the bad guys, the unbelievers and misfits, into a hideous hell that lasts forever—keepin’ the rest of us safe, baby.

This is god in violation of the Geneva Conventions and Jesus’ teachings, yet countless people uphold this interpretation.


The thing is, for all my objection to and disbelief in the Augustine/Dante hell and its depiction of the character of God, I don’t think rejecting it gets us off scot-free. I am quite certain (though without proof) that with or without physical lakes of fire and a pitiless deity, there are consequences to our choices.

One of my favorite people is Bernie Siegel, MD, the cancer surgeon and best-selling author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles. We were the speakers at a weekend workshop once. He was the rock star, and I was the opener; but after hearing my first talk,  he began his by saying, “Nancy and I give the same speech; we just use different words.” (I’m sure it’s a stock line, but it was a great boost. Gotta love that!)

So of course he speaks my language. In one of his online articles, Bernie makes a point much like Crossan’s, just using different words. He says to God,

“Thanks, now I see I am to imitate God and use You for a role model…Oh, I’m to act like a Satellite dish, remote control and TV screen. I get it. I am to choose the channel I tune into and use my mind like a remote to select the proper channel, which is broadcasting your message, and use my body to demonstrate it like a TV screen reveals the program.”

What is the character of the channel, of the program we choose to shape us? Does it make a difference in what happens at the end of our earth stay? I have no more information than you, but it seems to me it should make some difference. It’s a matter of the culture we inhabit, and where that can take us.


Another key quote for me is Einstein’s observation to the effect that the most important question humanity can ask is, “Is the universe friendly?”

Ah. We would like to know.

There is reason to believe so. We have oxygen. And water. The Intelligent Design folks have a whole lot of cosmological data showing that Earth is perfectly designed for such as we. Foodstuffs grow, and blood clots.

But then there are tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, viruses and bacteria, spiders with toxic bites, and some savagely cruel insects, and cancer and ALS. And babies born with no brains, or with painful fatal conditions. (Wouldn’t painful or fatal be enough?) And, of course, there are distressing NDEs. Friendly?

The wishfully-thought God who is all love and no discipline or shadow has nothing to say to this.

In my thinking, the universe is perhaps dispassionate rather than friendly. God, too, because Things Happen. They just do, and we can rail against that or accept it. But then there’s this: that although there are reasons to disbelieve the medieval torture of hell, and although there are deeply distressing and sometimes even horrifying near-death experiences, the universe—or God—is friendly enough that it gave us Carl Jung.

According to Carl Gustav Jung, hell represents, among every culture, the disturbing aspect of the collective unconscious.

To be continued…

By now you may see the pattern that will answer the question.

There are some aspects of death, mostly instinctual, that continue to bother me.

However, I am not afraid of the conventional, medieval hell because I join with a good many theologians in dismissing it entirely as unworthy of the God in whom I believe.

My thinking has been and continues to be shaped by the character not only of that God, but by the people I meet and read, of whom I have just mentioned four. Jung is saved for the next post.

There are other influences and experiences affecting my thoughts about death, which we will get to next time, in what I expect will be the conclusion of this thread.


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