Patheos chose Mary Neal’s new book To Heaven and Back for a book club, launched last weekend . It is the story of her near death experience. Near death experience has been a topic of interest of mine for years so I was eager to read the book. Dr. Neal’s account of being drowned on a kayaking accident in Chile is moving, and in her own words, changed her profoundly. It is rare to read a near death account where someone was not changed profoundly. But the way that change is described, or the meaning one makes from it, differs widely.
When I began seminary in 2000, I was interested to note that each paper assigned asked us to first describe our “social location.” I hadn’t been in grad school since I was 25 and the “social location” language hadn’t found its way into my field, psychology, so I was clueless. Turns out it meant giving a description of where one stands with regard to the society, the community and groups, that one is a part of because these cultural factors shape your interpretation. This is one of the gifts of postmodernism . . . we make sense of the world through a lens that is both personally and culturally conditioned.
Dr. Neal’s social location with regard to her religion is apparent in her language from the start. God is supernatural and intervenes to save. Pray and something will happen, often very soon, (though the “something” may not be what you ask for because God knows better.) She elucidates her social location best in the Question and Answer section of the book: “Before my near-death experience, I was a Christian and believed that the Bible was the absolute and historically accurate Word of God.”
This statement helps us to see the lens through which Dr. Neal’s interpreted her amazing experience. She was raised in the Christian tradition and belongs to the subset of that tradition that, in the United States at least, is called fundamentalist. All this to say that when Dr. Neal concludes, again in the Q & A section that, “God is real, that He has a plan for each of us, and that there really is life after death,” she is giving us an interpretation of her experience based on her own and her religious group’s view of reality. I am quite certain that a Hindu having the same experience would not write this book. For that matter, neither would I.
Seeing that our experiences, ordinary and non-ordinary, are generally understood through our interpretive lenses is key. Sadly, many of us are so embedded in those lenses that we simply can’t see them. A fellow seminary student comes to mind. After hearing the lecture on social location and Biblical interpretation, she raised her hand and said, “I see that all of your interpretations are culturally conditioned, but mine is true.”
Dr. Neal’s experience is amazing and she explains beautifully how profoundly she was changed. It isn’t, however, “true.”