Near-death experiences: Is ‘Heaven Is For Real’ for real?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

How well do you think [the current "Heaven Is For Real" movie] addresses communicating out-of-body spiritual experiences?

AND ART ASKS:

[Regarding the "countless books" on near-death experiences such as "Heaven Is For Real"]: Is there any legitimate connection between these and Christian views of the next life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Since maybe a few folks out there haven’t bought this bestselling book, or seen the movie, or read about the book or the movie, here’s a summary:

In 2003 Colton Burpo, not yet age 4, underwent emergency surgery for a burst appendix and had a close brush with death. At various times afterward he told parents Todd and Sonja about experiencing his soul taken to heaven while his body was on the operating table. He reported information the family said he couldn’t have known otherwise, most notably meeting a second sister in the afterlife though he’d never been told about Sonja’s miscarriage.

Years later father Todd, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in rural Imperial, Nebraska, wrote this hugely popular book. Eventually Hollywood came calling.

Now, for some background information on this phenomenon. Burpo’s book sales pale compared with the various books written by the secular Raymond Moody, an M.D. and Ph.D. who coined the term “near death experience.”

In “Life After Life” (1975) he compiled more than 100 accounts of people who suffered “clinical death” and revived. Many shared such perceptions as moving through a tunnel, glorious light and feelings of great peace. Such matters had received little public notice till then, but subsequent polls indicated millions of Americans have reported “out of body” experiences.

Moody later explored reincarnation, including awareness of his own past lives while under hypnosis. That belief breaks from Judaism and Christianity and fits Eastern religions (though minus beliefs, less popular in the West, about the law of karma and reincarnation into sub-human species). Moody helped establish one of several centers that collect and analyze near-death accounts.

While the Burpo book typifies the theme’s common-folks appeal, elite near-deathers help counter assumptions that people telling such stories are unusually imaginative or suggestible and maybe a bit off.

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Épater le bourgeois catholique

Stories about religion seem to do odd things to otherwise sensible reporters. Some news articles ignore the religious element of a story, or they suspend judgment (and belief) and accept without question or examination the claims of religions.

In my most recent GetReligion podcast with host Todd Wilken of Lutheran Public Radio I argued the fracas at Harvard University over a Black Mass was a fake story. By saying it was fake, I do not mean that it did not happen. Rather the press went along for the ride in a story about Satanic claims that set off a massive over reaction by the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

What we had was a student club seeking to shock bourgeois Catholic sensitivities with a faux outrage — and the leadership of the Catholic Church responded by using a bazooka to swat a fly.

How did this happen? Because reporters did not do their job and ask the hard questions at the start of the controversy. Once the hysteria began, it was too late to do anything. What we had was a Catholic version of the Terry Jones Koran burning story — this time with people involved in planning the event making conflicting claims about whether this rite would take place with a consecrated host.

After the story broke I posted an essay at GetReligion entitled “Why should the devil have all the best press?” that discussed the then planned Harvard Black Mass along with the annual academic conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum on exorcism. I argued that the newspapers should have asked some hard questions of Harvard and the Satanists who were supposed to be putting on the Black Mass.

Questions like: “Is this a real religion or are you recreating a scene from a 19th Century French horror novel and calling that a religion?” Or, “When you say you are Satanists what do you mean by that? Are you devil worshipers? Followers of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan?”

Which leads to the question is the ’60s Satanism of LaVey a bona fida religion or a scam?

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Shock: Russian Orthodoxy gives drag queen thumbs down

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Dear GetReligion readers:

Some of you wrote to say that you wanted to know what I thought of the whole Conchita Wurst episode, referring to the drag queen — the term used in mainstream media reports — who won the recent Eurovision Song Contest. In particular, a few of you want to know what I thought of the coverage of the fact that Russian Orthodox Church leaders have condemned this minor earthquake in popular culture.

People, people, are you surprised that Eastern Orthodox Christian bishops do not think highly of modern trends in sexuality? Remember the case of the Russian bishop who had a church torn down because its priest — apparently he had been drinking — performed a same-sex union rite at its altar? The priest was defrocked and, if I recall correctly, the local bishop had the rubble from the building burned and workers then salted the ground? (I’m trying to find a URL for that old story.)

I am also not surprised that recent statements by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy have received some mainstream media attention, in the wake of events in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics, the media superstar status of the Pussy Riot activists, etc., etc. I mean, how often do you get to put “Russian,” “Orthodox,” “Patriarchate” and “drag queen” into the same news story or even in one spectacular headline?

Here at GetReligion, of course, we are more interested in the news coverage of the event than we are with the event itself. The link several people have shared is for a story by Sophia Kishkovsky, carried by Religion News Service. Readers may also know her byline from work published by The New York Times. Here is a key chunk of it:

The Eurovision contest draws well over 100 million viewers annually, and the contest has become a point of national pride in Russia, which began competing in the 1990s.

“The process of the legalization of that to which the Bible refers to as nothing less than an abomination is already long not news in the contemporary world,” Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church’s information department, told the Interfax news agency. “Unfortunately, the legal and cultural spheres are moving in a parallel direction, to which the results of this competition bear witness.”

Legoyda said the result of the competition was “yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture.”

No surprises there. It was good that the story noted that the church simply saw this as another example of a larger trend. It does not appear that bishops rushed to pound out a “Conchita Wurst” document. This rather blogging-style report — which is drawn from press statements and previous media reports — does have more than its share of vague attribution clauses, as in:

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Newspaper reporter critiqued by GetReligion fires back

First off, my apologies for that click bait.

Megan Finnerty, a Page 1 reporter for the Arizona Republic, didn’t really fire back at my recent negative review of her pre-Easter story on “Tips for Jesus.”

In fact, the thoughtful email that she sent me with the subject line “Read your critique of my story” was kinder than my snarky critique, titled “What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?”

With Megan’s permission, I thought I’d share a bit of what she had to say, in hopes of providing a behind-the-scenes perspective on GetReligion’s focus, which is the mass media’s coverage of religion news. Before reading her comments, though, be sure to peruse the original post, if you haven’t already. If you don’t, the rest of this won’t make sense.

OK, everybody back?

Here is Megan’s response (edited slightly for publication, with her approval):

I read your thoughts on my TipsForJesus story.

I’m totally not emailing you to defend my work. I’m emailing you because I want to be better and do smarter, more thorough, sensitive work. So I send this note to you in the spirit of learning from someone who does this kind of work — writes about Christianity — all the time. So below, I’m going to walk you through my logic and processes so you can see how I got where I was going. And if you see some big glaring gap in logic or mistake in processes, or just room for improvement, I am open to your ideas.

I LOVED your idea of including how Jesus responded to extravagance. When I read it in your critique, I remembered it, but sadly, none of the religious I interviewed for the story mentioned that piece of scripture.

I interviewed a religion writer (who didn’t make the quote cut because he didn’t say anything super-vital…), a pastor (who I quoted) and a deacon (who I did not quote because he didn’t say anything that hadn’t been better said by others…)

I agree with you, my story would’ve been more complete, and more interesting had I included that Scripture passage.

But I felt like the rest of your critique of my story is that A. I put the pastor at the end and B. I didn’t only interview Christians or biblical scholars. I mean, story organization is always a matter of taste, but I put the pastor at the end so as to make his ending quote land with more force. He was a wonderful interview.

As for not interviewing more Christians, or not asking if TipsForJesus is “Christian” as opposed to just “moral,” those are interesting ideas. To be honest, it NEVER occurred to me to ask if it was “Christian” behavior.

I just thought about how every faith tradition celebrates charity, so I sort of saw this behavior as Christian, sure, but also, if he had named the Instagram account TipsForAllah, or TipsForGod, it wouldn’t really impact the answer to that question — the answer would be yes, charity is positively viewed by all major world religions. So, I just didn’t think it was a compelling question because I felt like my readers would say they knew the answer is yes…

But, are you saying it was naive or wrong or not smart to take for granted that the tipping was, indeed, “Christian?”

And as for not focusing my interviews on explicitly self-identified Christians more or exclusively, I wanted to open the gist of the story up to as many people as possible — Christians and non, because I think we all have a stake in charity, in questions of morality and in how the rich practice charity. And, my readers are not all Christians, you know? I wanted to draw in as many people as possible to being thoughtful and to contending with these really hard questions — most good for most people per dollar vs. good for people I care about or who I’m connected to.

I write every once in a while about the intersection of religion and various aspects of daily life and I am open to feedback and criticism because I know that I am not an expert. So I appreciate the thought you put into analyzing my story. I don’t really think my story qualifies as a holy ghost story, though. Other than leaving out the piece of Scripture, I don’t see what key idea or deeper Christian point I left out …

I replied to Megan and thanked her for being so nice in her response. I pointed out that I wrote not long ago about the inherent difficulty that we at GetReligion face in critiquing journalism without knowing the full, behind-the-scenes story of the reporting, writing and editing involved.

And I said:

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A flood of reactions to Hollywood’s ‘Noah’

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DAVID SAYS:

(Regarding the feature film “Noah”) I would love to read your personal reaction.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Personally? The Guy is no fan of science fiction or slam-bang special effects. Those hulking stone monsters with flashing light bulbs for eyes didn’t thrill and otherwise Hollywood’s puzzling ark-aeology seemed, so to speak, all wet.

But who cares about The Guy’s taste in movies? “Noah” is a conversation-starter so let’s survey the conversation.

Preliminaries: There are well-known literary parallels between the Bible’s famous Genesis chapters 6-9 and other flood narratives from the ancient Mideast. Skeptics use that to debunk the Bible while traditionalists say that only undergirds Scripture’s authenticity. The movie’s phantasmagoric visuals present the story as fiction without even a kernel of primordial fact. Whether viewed as total myth, literal history or some mixture, both Noah and “Noah” raise deep questions about the Bible and, more, about the Bible’s God.

Given past scorn and ridiculous mistakes, believers are understandably apprehensive when showbiz folks get their hands on religion. The director of this biblical blockbuster, Darren Aronofsky, is a self-described atheist apt to drop F-bombs.

The wary National Religious Broadcasters got Paramount Pictures to state in publicity that “while artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” That disclaimer seemed like an implicit endorsement from conservatives.

Others bestowed outright hallelujahs. Blogger Billy Kangas, a doctoral candidate at Catholic University of America, thinks the film takes “every single word of the text in Genesis seriously.” President Robert Barron of the Catholic Mundelein Seminary says “God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation: Not bad for a major Hollywood movie!” He sees the God of “Noah” as “personal, active, provident, and intimately involved in the affairs of the world that he has made.”

President Jim Daly of the evangelical Focus on the Family says much the same.

The Bible’s account says God raised the flood to destroy much of what he created due to unbearable human sin and violence. One of the most perplexing sentences in Scripture is Genesis 6:6: “The LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (RSV). Seeking to comprehend this, Kenneth Mathews of Beeson Divinity School writes that “the making of ‘man’ is no error; it is what ‘man’ has made of himself.”

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What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?

 
Just in time for Easter, The Arizona Republic decided to write about #TipsforJesus.

As the Page 1 reporter who wrote the story put it on Twitter, “@TipsforJesus still leaves $$$, so for #Easter, we asked ethicists — is it moral?”

Here’s a crazy question: Since we’re talking about Jesus, wouldn’t the better approach be to interview Bible scholars and ask, “Is it Christian?” 

For those joining GetReligion in progress, this is what we frequently refer to as a holy ghost. Granted, most of the haunted stories we critique don’t feature Jesus in the lede:

There’s nothing in the Bible to indicate Jesus was an especially good tipper.

But for eight months, the anonymous person behind the TipsForJesus Instagram and Facebook accounts has left 250 to 600 percent of his bills at steakhouses, resort bars and restaurants, predominately in the Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles areas.

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the central mysteries of their faith this weekend, ethicists, charity experts and servers around the country ponder slightly smaller Christian mysteries: How effective and moral is this kind of giving? And where might this tipper show up next?

The TipsForJesus diner typically leaves $2,500 to $7,000, documenting his largesse on Instagram with 81 photos of signed receipts and closeups of smiling servers.

From there, the 1,700-word story provides an all-you-can-eat buffet of numbers and analysis by sources representing important-sounding-but-secular organizations such as the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

One of the sources, ethicist Peter Singer, argues that “the most moral act is to save as many lives as possible per dollar”:

A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer is the pragmatist who pointed out in a December Washington Post op-ed that every Make-A-Wish dollar spent on the 5-year-old San Francisco leukemia survivor known as Batkid would’ve been better spent fighting poverty in Africa.

“It’s proven time and time again that donations go furthest when we give to impoverished people in developing countries,” Singer said in a Skype interview.

Later, another expert feels comfortable suggesting that Jesus would frown on #TipsforJesus:

Jesus would argue that you should be giving to the poor, said Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, which tests the effectiveness of social services policies and charity initiatives.

“So this feels gimmicky rather than actively saying, ‘Let’s look to Jesus to guide us in acts of charity,’” Karland said.

As I read the story, I kept wondering if anyone would raise this question: How did Jesus himself react to an extravagant gift? John 12:3-8 of the New Testament recounts (in the New International Version):

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New York critics, heaven and a very busy religion week

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OK, think of all of the stereotypes that you have heard about elite critics in New York City, those powerful mainstream-media scribes who are said to have the power to determine what is good and what is bad at the highest levels of American culture.

Do you have that picture in your mind? Now, don’t discuss the details — because what would be dangerous.

Actually, you don’t need to say anything because of editors of The New York Daily News just WENT THERE at the top of an interesting feature-ette about the movie “Heaven Is for Real” and, to a lesser degree, the current wave of God movies at your local multiplex.

Yes, I remember that I cranked out a post the other day that mocked a Los Angeles Times piece on the whole “Hollywood wants to sell tickets to Christians!” trend. This piece has a bit more focus and a sense that this is not really a trend, but part of a longer story about Hollywood trying to “get” people who embrace traditional forms of faith.

But first, about that daring opening:

The movie is about heaven. The primary audience is devout Christians. And the only screening for New York critics is on Monday — when many will be marking the first night of Passover.

Yes, a “devout” Christian alert. Actually, this movie is getting some harsh reviews from defenders of conservative, “devout” Christian orthodoxy (more so than the original book).

But keep reading. As you can see, that “devout” thing is not the key religion stereotype in that lede.

But throwing out the normal marketing playbook is part of the strategy with “Heaven Is for Real,” a Hollywood film based on the best-selling story about a boy who claims to have met Jesus during a brief visit to the hereafter. TriStar Pictures, a division of Sony, said, if necessary, it would set up another screening for local critics on Tuesday. But that, of course, is also Passover.

In any event, Joe Roth, one of the film’s producers, said he isn’t aiming his movie at big-city tastemakers anyway.

Which, of course, means that big-city tastemakers are almost all, well, you know, the kind of people who are busy on Passover. As opposed, you know, to the kind of people who are headed into sanctuaries during the second half of this very busy religion week.

Well, this Eastern Orthodox scribe is part of a community that spent about seven hours in church yesterday and and is headed back today on Good Friday (great Dante meditation here by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher) for multiple doses of liturgy. And then tomorrow is Holy Saturday (a day, in Eastern Christianity, that actually deserves more news coverage than it gets) followed, in the earliest hours of Sunday, by the great feast of Pascha.

I say all of that to note that, if I vanish from from the blog in the next day or two, you know where I am. The same goes for Father George Conger, of course, who is an Anglican priest.

So what is the Daily News crew actually saying about this movie? What’s the big idea? As it turns out, there is a big idea here and it’s a valid news hook.

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What he said! Yes, Hollywood wants more Christian $$$$

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In this morning’s email newsletter from the folks at Religion News Service, editor Kevin Eckstrom raised his eyebrow high (no, honest, you can sense it in the copy) and quipped:

Pretty sure we’ve seen about 5,429 versions of this story already.

Right. We get it. Hollywood is trying to lure Christian audiences to the cineplex. Again. Meanwhile, it other news …

Well, “this story” was the new feature in The Los Angeles Times that ran under an oh-so-predictable double-decker headline that proclaimed:

Hollywood tries to win Christians’ faith

With the box-office success of ‘Son of God,’ ‘God’s Not Dead’ and the controversial ‘Noah,’ more faith-based movies are in the works. But experts warn not to treat Christians as a monolithic audience.

Now, the only part of Eckstrom’s quip that I question is that very precise number — 5,429.

Don’t get me wrong, he may have done the hard work online and in LexisNexis and come up with a list of 5,429 previous urgent mainstream news reports ever since 1965 (I picked that date because of the breakthrough release of “The Sound of Music” that sent legions of evangelicals rushing to theaters to see a movie about a nun) describing the various ways Hollywood producers have tried to understand the Christian audience and get it to show up on cue.

I don’t doubt that there have been that many stories. Trust me on that.

Still, I sent Eckstrom this email reply in which I focused on a more symbolic total.

I was going to say 666 versions of that story and just let it go at that.

But one more time, let’s roll out the epic language for the obvious:

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