Good angels or bad angels? Should a reporter ask?

It’s time to take a quick jump deep, deep into my ever-growing file of GetReligion guilt before, quite literally, hell freezes over.

A reader wrote in recently after spotting — maybe — a ghost in the following story in The Daily Herald.

Then again, maybe it was a demon.

One thing is clear: This political story offered an opportunity for a provocative, to say the least, faith-based follow-up question. This particular news feature centered on the near-death experience reported by U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, leading to this dramatic opening:

For Mark Kirk, there was no white light, no tunnel.

What Illinois’ junior U.S. senator experienced was three angels standing at the foot of his bed.

“You want to come with us?” Kirk was asked.

“No,” he told them. “I’ll hold off.”

The Highland Park Republican, who plans to return to the Senate when Congress convenes …, recounted the story in his first in-depth interview since he suffered a massive stroke nearly a year ago.

Awakening from what he says might have been a dream, a side effect of medication or a near-death experience, Kirk found himself lying in a hospital bed in Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, hooked up to monitors and tubes. He had no way of immediately knowing what had transpired in the days after he suffered an ischemic stroke on Jan. 21, 2012; that doctors had put him in a coma and performed several surgeries, temporarily removing a 4-by-8 inch portion of skull to allow his brain to swell and heal.

Now, the senator has reported that this ICU experience strengthened his faith and his “sense of purpose.”

Fair enough. Our reader simply wondered if the journalist doing the interview thought to ask, well, if these particular angels were dressed in white or red.

Yes, red.

In other words, there seems to be a journalistic assumption out there that all near-death experiences are the same and that the people who describe them will always use the same mysterious but ultimately uplifting images, time after time. The reality is more complex than that.

The Herald story, in the end, offers little or no additional commentary on the senator’s visions, choosing to focus on the political implications of his experience and the stroke’s practical effects — such as his need for a wheelchair. Thus, readers are told:

Kirk does not pretend that life is the same. But he is not angry.

“I would say that I definitely became much more religious,” Kirk said. “They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and this stroke put me into a very deep foxhole. Yet, that feeling of faith sustained me, so I have no feelings of anger or regret.”

A Bible passage from the book of Matthew in which Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount serves as a daily source of reflection, reminding Kirk to place his trust in a higher power.

Any particular text in Matthew? Any particular section of the Sermon on the Mount? Oh well, nevermind.

I do not know if a senator would open up and talk about a vision of hell, or offer more details of a heavenly vision, but it’s hard to tell if he was asked for more details.

For me, this story clicked into place next to a recent David Sessions feature at The Daily Beast that focused on the public’s fascination with cheerful NDE reports, to the exclusion of hellish visions. It really is amazing how little this side of the near-death world is explored in news coverage.

Thus, Sessions writes (backed with tons of URLS):

Most of the time, it’s the visits to heaven that are followed by visits to the New York Times bestseller list, like in the case of 4-year-old Colton Burpo in Heaven Is for Real: A Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, or Dr. Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife (which was excerpted as a Newsweek cover story). Likely because far fewer Americans believe in hell than in heaven, descents into the lake of fire make less frequent appearances on Good Morning America. But to judge by bookstore shelves and the work of a small number of researchers who study this type of thing, they happen quite regularly.

Occasionally they do break into the mainstream consciousness. In 2005 art professor Howard Storm rose to fame after claiming he had been “viciously attacked” by evil creatures in hell while unconscious before emergency surgery, an experience he described in his book My Descent Into Death. He tried to pray, which only provoked the angry creatures. “They screamed at me, ‘There is no God!’ … They spoke in the most obscene language, worse than any blasphemy said on earth.”

But hell stories circulate most prominently among various stripes of evangelical Christians who fear ending up there. The lore is particularly influential among “Pentecostal” evangelicals who place a heavy emphasis on invisible spiritual forces; stories of near-death experiences of hell play a powerful role in evangelism. Some Pentecostals like Bill Wiese, who claims to have seen 12-foot-tall “foul creatures” in hell in 1998, have built entire ministries around their experiences in the pit.

In other words, it’s clear that a willingness to talk about visions of hell may have something to do with a person’s belief in the reality of hell. You think?

Don’t be quick to judge, because there are a few unbelievers who report these experiences, as well. This chunk of the Sessions report is long, but worth the effort to read:

The appeal of these hellish visions isn’t confined to religious believers, though those many claim to have been there often use familiar religious language to describe their subsequent conversions. It is hell, in fact, that is sometimes credited with inspiring the modern study of near-death experiences. In 1943, during World War II, George Ritchie was pronounced dead at an Army hospital, only to wake up nine minutes later. Ritchie went on to become a psychiatrist and write several books about those nine minutes, in which he claimed to tour the devastation of hell in the company of Jesus Christ.

“Everywhere spirits were locked in what looked like fights to the death, writhing, punching, gouging,” he wrote in Return From Tomorrow, originally published in 1978. “Even more hideous than the bites and kicks they exchanged, were the sexual abuses many were performing in feverish pantomime. Perversions I had never dreamed of were being vainly attempted all around us.”

Ritchie’s story inspired Raymond Moody, who coined the term “near-death experience” and published the runaway 1975 bestseller Life After Life. By the late 1970s, several researchers in psychology and psychiatry had begun studying near-death experiences in clinical settings and charting similarities between them.

“Roughly one out of every three people who come close to death will have transcendental experiences,” Kenneth Ring, one of the researchers, told the The New York Times in 1988. “I found that it doesn’t matter how you almost die, with respect to the kind of experience you have when you come close to death—whether it’s in an accident, an operation, or a suicide attempt. Experiences didn’t vary whether you were religious or not.”

No matter what you think of these reports, what we have here is — potentially — another door into a discussion of a topic of great interest to readers, which is life after death.

So there is that question again: Would it have been acceptable journalistic behavior to have asked the senator for more details? If the answer is “no,” then why not?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Steve in NYC

    “Any particular massage in Matthew?” Is that ‘passage’ or ‘message’? Pretty sure it is not ‘massage’.

  • tmatt

    STEVE:

    What a riot of a typo! Thanks.

    I went with a WAY safer wording.

  • chris

    I think the denizens of hell would be called devils. I saw nothing confusing about an offhand reference to angels.

  • sari

    Yes, it would have been acceptable -and- preferable to ask the senator for a more complete description of his experience.

  • dalea

    More detail would be welcome, and, yes, this would make a great interview topic. Surprisng that the senator has not realized what a source of free publicity this story is.

    I would also view the three angels as the Fates or Nornes. Stories of this type are common among Neo-Pagans; the Nornes ask if you want your thread cut now or later. What struck me is not that they were angels but that there were three of them.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “Good angels or bad angels? Should a reporter ask?” Perhaps a more fundamental question to ask is, will a reporter KNOW to ask? Will a reporter know that — at least in Christian theology — demons are fallen angels? (That’s why, chris, this could be confusing.) If one doesn’t know, one doesn’t know what to ask.

    • sari

      I don’t think it requires a lot of knowledge to ask for a physical description (visual, aural, tactile, etc.) and some sort of explanation or interpretation from the subject being interviewed. For instance, what about the figures at the foot of his bed convinced the senator that they were angels? What were his expectations prior to his experience? Why does he think he was given the choice to stay or leave? If one wanted to be particularly obnoxious, one could also enquire as to his and his family’s mental health history :>)

      None of these questions require knowledge of any particular belief system, and all allow the subject to express himself in his own words free of journalistic interference.

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        You’re right on that, sari.

  • chris

    I have the Catholic education and PhD in medieval literature to know where devils come from, thank you, but in a general interest publication it would never occur to me to think of fallen angels if only the word angel is used. Newspapers are not written for theologians – armchair or otherwise. The bit about the Beatitudes, on the other hand, definitely could use explanation.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Sorry, chris, didn’t realize your education.

  • Brian Westley

    No matter what you think of these reports, what we have here is — potentially — another door into a discussion of a topic of great interest to readers, which is life after death.

    I’ll go with the mundane “dream or side effect of medication”.


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