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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Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

BRAD ASKS:

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

Traditionalists say the “establishment clause” only forbids a European-style official church. Separationists embrace the Court’s 1947 interpretation that government cannot show favoritism toward either a particular religion or toward religion in general.

In the 67 years since, the Court has nudged the door open and shut, in what Justice Alito called “our often puzzling” series of church-state rulings. In that time the nation’s religious diversity has increased, especially since the 1965 change in immigration law, and foes of religious faith have become more militant. The key rulings on civic prayers:

*Engel v. Vitale (1962): Outlawed public school students’ recitation of the New York State Regents’ brief, non-denominational prayer to “Almighty God” (decided by 8-1).

*Abington v. Schempp (1963): Ordered Pennsylvania (also Maryland in a companion case) to end public students’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer along with Bible readings (by 8-1).

*Marsh v. Chambers (1983): Ruled that prayers before sessions of Nebraska’s legislature do not violate the “establishment” ban unless they’re designed to “proselytize,” or “advance” or “disparage” a religion (by 6-3).

*Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): Abolished Alabama schools’ minute of silence for student “meditation or prayer” (by 6-3).

*Lee v. Weisman (1991): Decided a Rhode Island rabbi’s junior high graduation prayer was unconstitutional (by 5-4).

*Santa Fe v. Doe (2000): Opposed public-address prayers before Texas football games from clergy chosen by students (by 6-3).

That brings us to the 5-to-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, which applies the 1983 Marsh case reasoning about state legislatures to town councils.

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Pope Francis on economics: How innovative? How savvy?

JIM ASKS:

Conservative commentators ridiculed [Pope Francis's decree Evangelii Gaudium] for its criticism of the free market system. But how different, really, is Francis’s thinking from his predecessors?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The Catholic Church is experiencing Hurricane Francis, the early phase of what may become the most liberal pontificate in a half-century. The new pope’s eyebrow-raisers including his words on economics. An April 28 Twitter feed from Francis (or his handlers) said “iniquitas radix malorum,” (“inequality is the root of evil” — or should that first word be translated “injustice”?). David Gibson of Religion News Service says some wonder whether the Vicar of Christ is “playing into the hands of President Obama and the Democrats, who have also made the wealth gap a major talking point” in the 2014 campaign.

The papal tweet followed the November text Jim asks about. Francis declared, among other things: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s broad continuity between Francis and the prior popes in warning against greed and materialism, insisting that moral concerns must control money-making, and mandating concern for ordinary workers, their families, and those mired in poverty. But what economic setup best helps the dispossessed? On that, various Catholic conservatives have fretted that the Argentine pontiff’s views are “highly partisan and biased,” or “inaccurate and even irresponsible.”


It’s important that Evangelii is a preaching document or “apostolic exhortation,” as opposed to an “encyclical,” the highest-level papal pronouncement to carefully define official teaching on a single theme. Francis’s headline-grabbing economic comments were a minor aspect of a verbose text (47,600 words in English translation) that bounced among numerous topics.

Modern popes have issued a series of “social encyclicals” beginning with Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) in 1891. Leo applied perennial Christian concern for low-income families in a new era of industrial development. He fervently supported private property rights over against socialism, championed workers’ moral claim to a living wage, and endorsed trade unions to negotiate fair labor conditions.

Subsequent social encyclicals that focused on economics have been Quadregesimo Anno (by Pius XI, 1931), Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967), Laborem Exercens (John Paul II, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul II, 1987), Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1991), and Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI, 2009). The third encyclical from John Paul (who was canonized a saint the day before Francis’s “iniquitas” tweet) merits special attention since it marked both the centennial of Leo’s first social encyclical and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Francis’s Evangelii had only one citation from Centesimus and that had nothing to do with economics.

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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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World Vision’s gay firestorm and A.D. 2064

PAUL ASKS:

(Regarding the World Vision relief agency deciding U.S. employees can live in same-sex marriages): What does the Religion Guy think?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was prompted by that dramatic policy change by a prominent Christian organization, but a mere two days later World Vision restored its limit of employees’ relationships to male-female marriage. A news reporter’s job isn’t to tell agencies what to do but to analyze what’s going on, and The Guy thinks these neck-snapping events say much about U.S. Protestantism during, oh, the next 50 years.

Why only Protestants? There’s little chance this sexual teaching will be open to reconsideration among the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, independent churches in the developing world, Mormonism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam. With the World Vision furor the irresistible force of cultural evolution met the immoveable object of Bible traditionalism. “Parachurch” agencies like World Vision with backing from all sorts of churches are especially vulnerable. This U.S. Protestant culture war is perhaps as divisive and intense as any since slavery, fortunately minus bullets this time.

No matter what secular laws say, it’s now obvious that there’s no middle ground on whether Christianity should approve same-sex unions and marriages. Mennonite seminarian Benjamin Corey sees “the death of Evangelical Christianity in America as it once was,” namely a big-tent amalgam of moderates and conservatives. The dispute harms everybody. Those who in conscience uphold church tradition are portrayed as hard-hearted bigots who blindly refuse to accept changing reality. Churches that advocate change on grounds of compassion and justice can appear confused if not unprincipled by shedding a belief they so long preached (and they’ve lost members).

Consider the verbal arrows shot through cyberspace, including patheos.com. Episcopal priest David Henson denounced “the vile theology spewed” by evangelicals, said to “have a hate problem.” Author Rachel Held Evans declared, “I have never in my life been more angry at the Church or more embarrassed to be a Christian.” Feminist Libby Anne said conservatives appear “akin to racists.” And youth ministry guru Jonathan McKee said “Christians come out looking like idiots.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma state legislator Rebecca Hamilton said World Vision flirted with “public apostasy” so she now wonders “can we trust them?” Radio host Michael Brown denounced “a betrayal of the Lord.” The social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention (with 45,000 local congregations) said “the gospel of Jesus Christ” is at stake and called the change “devilish.” Before the reversal, the Assemblies of God (12,500 local congregations) asked its flock to gradually shift charity donations elsewhere.

It’s crucial to understand that since 1950, World Vision, a massive international service provider, has become a pride of the evangelical movement, yet also with large non-evangelical support.

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Seeking “Help!” on five venerable world religions

JAEDE ASKS:

I need to know the founder, area of the world it’s in, what their holy book is called and their holidays, for Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Jaede headlined this item “Help!!” and was probably sweating over some school exam or term paper so this comes too late. Nonetheless, a sketch of these five Asian creeds might be informative since they’re lesser-known than the much larger Hinduism and Buddhism. The Guy is grateful that Jaede didn’t ask about their complex belief systems and practices! And after some research The Guy failed in attempts to summarize their many regional and local holidays. Much more could be said but here are a few basics.

The five are listed below in order of adherents as of 2010, estimated by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell seminary, a standard data source.

Such numbers are controversial, and aspects of these faiths influence much broader populations, reflected in higher numbers from such sources as www.patheos.com/Library.html. Apart from the statistics, The Guy relied especially on The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987). Conventional years and centuries are designated here by the multifaith B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than the familiar B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, “Year of the Lord”).

SIKHISM (10,678,000 adherents) was founded in India by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.) and developed by a series of nine authoritative successors through 1708 C.E. Its center is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, near today’s border with Pakistan. Most Sikhs live in India but the faith has spread to Sikh communities worldwide (where the men stand out by wearing obligatory turbans). Though a distinct world religion, Sikhism shares some concepts with Hinduism (e.g. reincarnation and the law of karma) and Islam (worship of one all-powerful God). Its scripture is the Adi Granth (“First Book”), also called the Granth Sahib, collected hymns and poems of the Guru and others. This is supplemented by collected life stories about the Guru as well as manuals of conduct.

Further info at www.thesikhencyclopedia.com.

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The latest Bible ruckus: Oh those camels!

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KENNETH ASKS:

With new research questioning the Bible’s report that domesticated camels existed as early as Genesis, the efforts to knock this down appear defensive rather than empirical. But Rebekah was certainly watering something. Thoughts?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some breathless online news headlines from recent weeks:

“Camel Bones Suggest Error in Bible” (Fox News)

“Camels Don’t Belong in Old Testament” (Forbes magazine)

“Camels Had No Business in Genesis” (The New York Times)

“The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” (Time magazine)

“Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” (CNN).

“Archaeology Find: Camels in ‘Bible’ Are Literary Anachronisms” (National Public Radio).

Even weather.com joined the fray: “Error in Bible? Archaeologists Think So.”

It all started with an academic article (.pdf here) last October in the journal of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen applied radiocarbon and other dating methods to an ancient copper smelting site where camel bones were present, located in the Aravah Valley south of the Dead Sea. From this and the dearth of camel evidence elsewhere they concluded that camels were not used as beasts of burden in the region till “the last third of the 10th Century” B.C. (the era of the Bible’s King Solomon, famed for Temple-building and legendary mines).

Few paid attention till a February press release declared this research is “challenging the Bible’s historicity” and provides “direct proof” that biblical narratives about the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were “compiled well after the events.” Like all ancient matters that’s open to debate, and caution is advisable since archaeological evidence is spotty by nature. A maxim in this field reminds us that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

As those headlines demonstrate, the latest Bible ruckus involves more than how many camels can dance on the head of a copper mine. That’s because Genesis says people owned camels as far back as 1700 to 2000 B.C., including the patriarchs Abraham (earliest reference is Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 30-32). The most familiar mention (yes, Kenneth) comes in Genesis 24, where Rebekah kindly offers water to Abraham’s servant and his camels, whereupon he chooses her as Isaac’s wife.

If the Tel Aviv scenario proves valid across the Mideast then the Old Testament contains a mistake.

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Keeping Lent: Not once a year but four times

TERRY (YES, that TERRY) ASKS:

Whatever happened to the Lenten disciplines that used to be part of Advent, in the weeks before Nativity? How do they differ from the season of Lent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

As Christendom nears the annual season of Lent, this refers to the Orthodox Church’s little-known practice of not just one but four seasons each year of Lenten-type fasting. “Great Lent” leading up to Easter is familiar. But traditionally, Orthodoxy also observes a Nativity Fast from mid-November (or later) through Christmas Eve, and two other seasons of abstinence from specified food and drink.

As the question indicates, average Eastern Orthodox members in western nations often ignore the traditional disciplines except for Great Lent. And Bishop Timothy Ware of Oxford, England, a British convert to Orthodoxy who became a bishop, remarks that the customary regimen “will astonish and even appall many western Christians.” In other words, these ancient traditions tend to be practiced even less in Western churches, including among Roman Catholics.

Father Thomas Hopko, retired dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary (and a high school friend of The Guy) explains the Orthodox concept.

First, why fast at all? Simply because Jesus taught this Jewish practice to his followers. In the Sermon on the Mount he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast,” indicating it’s a regular aspect of the life of faith. Jesus also said fasting should be a private matter without showing off one’s piety (Matthew 6:16-18).

The purpose is not to afflict oneself, Hopko insists. “God has no pleasure in the discomfort of his people.” Nor does it somehow pay for one’s sins, which can only occur through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “Salvation is a ‘free gift of God’ which no works of man can accomplish of merit” (citing the biblical Romans 5:15-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9).

Rather, fasting is meant “to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God,” to facilitate prayer, and to empower the soul to avoid sin.

These disciplines originated with monks early in Orthodox history but came to be recommended for all parishioners. Fasting is entirely a voluntary choice. The ill, the aged, the very young and nursing mothers are not asked to abstain. Newcomers to fasting may be advised to ease into the practices rather than following the full regimen. Rules are quite complex and vary by season and jurisdiction, but here’s a customary routine for Great Lent:

“Meatfare Sunday” (February 23 this year) is the last day till Easter when those keeping the fast eat meat, poultry or fish (with backbones; other seafood is often permitted). “Cheesefare Sunday” (March 2) is the last day when dairy products and eggs are consumed. Great Lent begins the following day with a total fast from food and drink except for a little water.

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