A non-journalistic flight to heaven and back

In the past week of so, I have received a number of requests for a GetReligion news critique of the Newsweek cover story that ran under the grabber headline: “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.” The problem, of course, is that this cover story by Dr. Eben Alexander is a perfect example of a larger trend, which is the flight of America’s major news magazines away from actual news coverage and into the world of first-person, advocacy, experiential writing.

Please note that this particular feature focuses on a subject that remains highly newsworthy, even after decades of books and chatter about evidence that near-death experiences can in some way be documented and/or investigated. This trend has affected popular culture, pop religion, journalism, etc., etc.

Clearly, millions of Americans are intrigued with this subject, while others merely groan, curse or shake their heads.

I have been reading up on this topic for a quarter of a century or so and, if this subject interests you, please surf around a bit in the contents of this Google search. Pay special attention to references to the stricken “looking down” from above their bodies and retaining information about objects they could not possibly have seen with their own eyes.

So there is news content here. There are voices on both sides of these debates with information and arguments to share. There are theologians and religious/cultural historians who will gladly debate the implications of the experiences that resuscitated people claim to have had during NDE events.

But do not look for this material in the Newsweek cover story. This is a non-journalistic feature that raises all kinds of questions that journalists could investigate — if they have the will to do so.

Instead, readers are given prose such as the following:

Although I still had little language function, at least as we think of it on earth, I began wordlessly putting questions to this wind, and to the divine being that I sensed at work behind or within it.

Where is this place?

Who am I?

Why am I here?

Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate — hotter than fire and wetter than water — and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.

I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. The orb was a kind of “interpreter” between me and this vast presence surrounding me. It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb, and the orb (which I sensed was somehow connected with, or even identical to, the woman on the butterfly wing) was guiding me through it.

Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself. “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness …”

This is interesting material to quote in a serious cover story on this topic. However, this passage is — in effect — drawn from the “fact paragraph” material in this report. It’s contents cannot be discussed by others or debated. There are no sidebar articles accompanying this feature written by skeptics — secular or religious (such as this reaction piece, predictably, by Sam Harris).

And in the end, what does all of this mean? Well, Dr. Alexander is not shy:

Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.

But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.

This new picture of reality will take a long time to put together. It won’t be finished in my time, or even, I suspect, my sons’ either. In fact, reality is too vast, too complex, and too irreducibly mysterious for a full picture of it ever to be absolutely complete. But in essence, it will show the universe as evolving, multi-dimensional, and known down to its every last atom by a God who cares for us even more deeply and fiercely than any parent ever loved their child.

How does one critique this kind of material as journalism?

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  • EssEm

    Newsweek. The Chick Flick of magazines.

  • Jerry

    You wrote: “How does one critique this kind of material as journalism?”

    How about using a variant of the Reuter’s guide http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php/Other_Common_Story_Forms#Witness


    A Witness story is a first-person account by a Reuters journalist of an experience… Many of our staff experience extraordinary and unusual things in the course of their reporting… In our own lives we undergo hardships, trials or good fortune. These things are all the stuff of Witness stories. They are individual accounts of experiences and are an opportunity for the writer to express personality, feeling and engagement. They are not vehicles for opinion, prejudice or partisanship. Reuters standards of impartiality and accuracy apply… They are … accompanied by an Advisory giving some background on the author and his or her story. They should be illustrated by an image of the author and ideally by pictures appropriate to the subject matter…

    Of course this particular story is not by a journalist, but it is a first person account and I think fits reasonably well into that category. It can be critiqued in the same way as a Reuters had in mind for a witness story.

    Since there’s no proof about his story, you can find noted people to say the expected things about his account. For you who have investigated this area so extensively, that would not be anything new. I very much doubt you’d find anything new about what Sam Harris or a theologian might write.

    You could argue, reasonably, that the theology of NDE’s would be relevant to someone who has not explored this area. And I would agree that Newsweek should have put in a paragraph or two with pointers to other discussions.

    And you mentioned that there is news here and there is:

    But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.

    I’m not sure how easily that could have been checked, but I would like to have seen some proof.

  • Jettboy

    Like the first comment, this is Newsweek. Its weak on news.

  • An article written by the witness about his experience is not the same as a report written by someone else about the witness and his experience. I don’t think the article written in the first person like this can be critiqued from a journalistic perspective because it really is something else.

    However, as you mention, it does make for an interesting journalistic feature, and perhaps GR could pick a report or two about the article to discuss. There are many things that warrant investigation.

    For me, as a theologian, I take especial interest in the characterization of the author’s realization about the relationship between the soul and the body as a new idea. A journalistic report could point out that the idea, in fact, it is at least as old as Aristotle, can be found inchoate in the Hebrew Scriptures, and forms a very important dimension of Christian anthropology, at least in the Catholic tradition, from the very beginning. For instance, the author’s description of being infused directly with knowledge fits very well with Aquinas’ description of how souls in heaven know things directly from God, for which he draws on Aristotelian metaphysics and the biblical account of the creation of man as it relates to the human person. It just seems new. And I want to mention that I genuinely appreciate the feeling of newness in the author’s perspective – I don’t want to belittle that.