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Monday, May 20, 2013

NDEs: Convincing or Ridiculous? What Do You Think?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Who are we?  Where did we come from?  What happens after we die?  These are some of the greatest, most important questions human beings have ever asked.  And, yet, they remain the largest mysteries we'll ever encounter.  Because all of us wonder why we're on Earth, how we came to be here and what happens when our lives end, it makes sense that so many people find Near Death Experiences (NDEs) so very fascinating.  Many books, television shows, magazine articles, movies, etc. have been created in order to examine what people claim to have experienced when they "died."  Even to a skeptic like me, these glimpses into the world beyond can be utterly fascinating.  
Considering the religious fervor that existed at the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded, it is, perhaps, not too surprising that many early Saints had NDEs.  These were carefully recorded in letters, journals and oral histories passed down from generation to generation.  Marlene Bateman Sullivan has collected 50 of these stories in her new book, Gaze Into Heaven: Near Death Experiences in Early Church History.  She presents the accounts in the recipients' own words, using scriptures and quotes by LDS Church leaders to give additional insight into the topics under discussion.  What emerges is an interesting picture of NDEs from a uniquely Mormon perspective.  

Even though I firmly believe in life after death, I have trouble taking NDEs very seriously.  After all, any kind of dream or vision is open to interpretation.  And who knows what outside factors may have been in play during the person's "experience"—after all, during a low blood sugar episode several years ago, I became totally and completely convinced my husband was trying to kidnap me and smuggle me aboard his alien spaceship.  So, why should I believe a stranger's account of his alleged visit to Heaven, especially if the details feel "off" to me?

Given how I feel about NDEs, I really tried to approach Gaze Into Heaven with an open mind.  And, I have to say that, overall, I did find the book interesting.  Not convincing, necessarily, but thought-provoking.  The biggest problem with the book, for me, was Sullivan's subjective presentation of the material—she spoke about all the NDEs as if they were the iron-clad truth.  A more objective approach, one that trusted the reader to come to his own conclusions, would have made the book a much more palatable read for me.  Also, Sullivan never answered the biggest question I have about NDEs among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, both in the early days of the church and now—how do they differ from those experienced by non-members?  I'm still really curious about that ...

So, while I didn't always agree with the conclusions Sullivan drew about NDEs, I did agree with this one, which neatly sums up my feelings on the subject:  "...[NDEs] are not meant to 'prove' that the Church is true.  Rather, they are meant to open our eyes to the fact that life will continue, that our sojourn on earth is momentary, and that we ought to refocus our priorities and spend our time productively, with an eye toward the next life" (220).

My husband, who enjoys reading about and learning from NDEs, thinks I'm a terrible cynic on this point.  How about you?  Do you find them inspiring or ridiculous?  Do you think there's anything to be learned from them?  What's your opinion?  I'd truly love to know.

(Readalikes:  I don't normally read books about NDEs, but my husband recommends What's on the Other Side? by Brent L. Top [an LDS professor's perspective on death]; Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, M.D. [an atheist neurosurgeon's NDE]; and Embraced By the Light by Betty J. Eadie [one non-LDS woman's NDE])

Grade:  C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for subject matter most suitable for older middle graders, teens and adults

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Gaze Into Heaven from the generous Marlene Bateman Sullivan via her publisher, Cedar Fort.  
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