Heavenly Questions

A lot can happen when you’re in a coma. Or nothing at all. I haven’t read Kevin and Alex Malarkey’s account of the latter’s trip to Heaven during a coma, and it looks like I never shall. A story by Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post explains how Alex Malarkey, now that he is no longer a minor, is suing Tyndale House over the publication of his Near Death Experience (NDE), penned by his father. The story, according to the Post, was a fabrication. Alex awoke from his coma recalling nothing, but Kevin knew a good thing when he saw it and wrote an account of the young boy going to Heaven. Alex says it never happened. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is now being pulled and pulped as a hoax.

NDEs are real (even if one didn’t happen in this case), but what they actually are is a matter of debate. The mainstream interpretation is that they are the last gasps of consciousness before a brain dies, temporarily. These often comforting thoughts can be quite similar in very different contexts and sometimes include the formerly deceased knowing details that they couldn’t possibly have witnessed in real life. Scientists willing to buck convention explore these episodes less with the intention of proving Heaven is true than with probing the idea that souls are real. That consciousness somehow continues. That life may, after all, be eternal. Since there are no scientific apparatus in the afterlife, there’s no way to measure or quantify such events. This leads most scientists to conclude that these are merely dying thoughts, or, as in the Malarkey case, hoaxes.

Ever since Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, confessional publishers—particularly of the evangelical brand—have promoted such stories. Religion and science, while not necessarily the cats and dogs they’re presented as being, don’t often coalesce around a common nucleus. Part of the problem is that spiritual events are beyond the reach of the scientific method since no laboratory conditions exist to test them. A number of scientists and medical doctors attest the reality of NDEs, but these occur in human consciousness—a realm of which we know little. Religious publishers know a good story when they see one since the doubts cast by science have to be regularly dispelled. The problem is the money such stories attracts also allures those seeking the fiduciary comforts of this material world. In this case, it seems, if you didn’t have the experience yourself you could capitalize on someone who did. Or didn’t. Those eager for proof are always willing to buy and sell the story.

A Parable

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a holiday known as Earth Day. Now, Earth Day was a poor holiday. She didn’t prostitute herself to commercialism, she wasn’t attached to any religion, and people didn’t even get the day off work. Still, she was an optimistic holiday. One of her prophets was a woman named Rachel Carson. A science writer who could see that our rampant greed and fatal shortsightedness were leading to environmental catastrophe, Carson wrote books of warning. People began to take heed. An ecology movement was born. New concepts like “sustainability” and “stewardship” and “moderation” became part of national consciousness. Other nations joined in. Earth Day was born. She was a happy child.

But there were demons in this land. Huddled in filthy holes in the ground, these demons cared only for owning as much of the earth as they could. They wanted to heat the planet so much that Earth Day couldn’t survive. They would drown her in the waters of her melted ice caps—her very tears. These demons couldn’t do it alone. They lived in the dark and since they cared for no one else, they had to find a Devil among them. A Devil who could quote Scripture. Such a Devil, they reasoned, would make the followers of the dead God join them. The followers of the dead God were like sheep without a shepherd. And the demons had all the money in the world. So they decided to kill Earth Day. Nobody would stop them.

With Earth Day gone, the weather went wild. Winds constantly blew. Hurricanes of new and intense savagery emerged year after year. The demons laughed, for when the people’s things were destroyed they would have to buy replacements. The demons would become even richer. The followers of the dead God clapped their hands in glee. But the demons and their Devil didn’t know that Earth Day couldn’t die. They did as they pleased, taking what they wanted from the what they supposed was her corpse. Then the weather, Earth Day’s dearest friend, began to do what it would in its rage. The demons awaited summer when they might feel hot again, but summer only comes after Earth Day. Oblivious, they lived their lives of plunder and greed until the followers of the dead God were all gone and they had no one left from whom to steal. Rejoicing in their acquisition of all the earth, they failed to notice the storm. Earth Day was returning and all their wealth could not save them.

Ouch! Ouch!

The cold and flu season seems to have had an extended life this year, what with snow still falling in April and yet another week of cooler weather in the forecast. Although there’s no cure for the common cold, we do have the ability to prevent many maladies with a vaccine. Under eight years of Republican governance, New Jersey had become quite friendly to those who don’t want their kids vaccinated, despite being the most densely populated state in the union. The reason many objectors give? “It’s against my religion.” There was a massive outcry recently when a bill was approved that requires religious objectors to state what their religion is and what exact tenet of that religion vaccination actually violates. The statements of those opposed show that religion was largely being used as an excuse by those who didn’t want their children inoculated. Confirmation class has a purpose after all.

Social responsibility, of course, reaches beyond the home. In fact, it begins as soon as we open the door. Add to that the fact that most people can’t describe the basic beliefs of their own religion accurately and you have a real case for contagion. When you sign up to join a religion—what a capitalistic idea!—you generally go through training classes to let you know what you’re publicly proclaiming you believe. Given that religion deals with everlasting consequences, you might think most people would pay close attention, embedding the facts deeply. That, however, often isn’t the case. Beliefs are handed down like family heirlooms, or are gleaned from watching television (usually Fox). One’s religion is useful for making excuses, but people hate to be challenged on this point.

In the right’s continuing war on social responsibility, they’ve been pumping the media full of anti-vaccine fear. Vaccines, they’ll aver, use human embryos. Any other other form of conspiracy theory can be used to turn hoi polloi against them. Our society was built into what it is by as many people as possible agreeing that when it comes to the good of all, individual prejudices sometimes have to be overlooked. It’s natural enough for parents to be concerned for the wellbeing of their children. It’s sadly ironic when their “religion” tells them that the most basic protections are somehow evil. Who can help but to think of Abraham holding the knife above a bound Isaac on the altar? That is, if they happen to be of a certain religion, and if they paid attention during their version of confirmation class.

Situation Norman

It was in a locker room. I couldn’t believe I was here. First of all, at Gordon College—that bastion of conservative Christianity. Second of all, in the same room as him. A friend had offered to drive me up here from Boston, where we were both in seminary. I was a little saddened to see less than 200 chairs set up on the gym floor, carefully arranged on a tarp so as not to mar the shining wood beneath. Larry Norman came onto stage to great applause, and was remarkably intimate with his fans. He’d been a big name in the 1970s, almost single-handedly starting the Christian rock genre. After the concert was over, my friend said “Do you want to meet him?” Here he was, in the locker room, taking the time to speak with fans, individually. He refused to sign autographs, preferring to give the glory to the Lord. But he listened, he responded, and, it was clear, he loved.

While the sections of the brain that process religion and music may not be the same, we know that our gray matter is intricately interconnected. Analysts have noted that the most famous religious leaders of modern times have quite often been deeply affected by music. Religious services without some form of music are in the minority for a reason. And it really doesn’t matter what style said music takes, it moves people. Instead of apologizing for my own musical tastes, I’ll simply note that I was exposed to Larry Norman at a young age. Although his religious perspective and mine had parted ways before I had the chance to meet him, I’ve never disparaged his music. It is authentic, innovative, and above all, sincere.

Gregory Alan Thornbury has just published a biography of Larry Norman. I will surely read it. Although Christian rock has grown insipid and cloying since it began, it is still a remarkably lucrative business. Evangelicals will pay good money to get those rock rhythms with unthreatening words and praise of Jesus thrown in. Norman’s songs, however, were complex and nuanced. Equal parts love and social justice, they might not even mention Jesus. Or when they did, they might suggest he was a UFO. Unconventional. Blasphemous to some. As the ‘70s faded into the ‘80s, Larry Norman was considered old news. He had, however, started something that was bringing other people lots of money. And he looked me directly in the eyes late one night in the locker room of a conservative Christian college, and told me to keep on believing. Obscurity, he showed by his life, is no measure of a person’s actual importance. And music and religion can never be separated.

Private Browsing

Montclair, New Jersey, is a diverting place. At least it is for me. I used to teach—strictly as an adjunct of course—at Montclair State University. And like many other diverting towns, Montclair has multiple bookstores. On the occasions my wife has to spend a Saturday working in Montclair I often accompany her. If the weather is decent I can walk to both bookstores and have a leisurely browse. Since anything leisurely is rare these days, I eagerly anticipate such trips. Typically I’ll sit in my wife’s work place counting off the minutes until I can leave to get to the Montclair Book Center just as it opens. Used bookstores are a bit like archaeology—you never know what you’ll find, and some of the treasures may be unique. I often have the store mostly to myself, for private browsing.

This time, however, I had another task to accomplish first, before I could go to the first bookstore. By the time I arrived, it had been open for over an hour and there were, surprisingly, plenty of people there. We’re accustomed to hearing that people no longer care for books. While it’s true they won’t bring in the numbers of, say, those wanting the latest video game, it’s also true that on a pleasant Saturday morning an independent bookstore can be a crowded place. It warmed my heart to see so many readers out. And they weren’t all old like me. Younger people talking about the merits of this or that author, browsing in the sections I frequently haunt. Although I found none of the books on my list, I still had that blessed feeling you have when you discover you’re not really alone.

The other store, Watchung Booksellers, is a couple miles to the north, at least by the walking route I use. A small indie, it typically has what modern-day people might be expected to be interested in. I arrived to find it crowded as well. I’ve been there a number of times in the past and usually there are two or three others browsing. This time it was actually a little difficult to get around the small space. Seeing children there made me especially glad. A crowded bookstore is a sign of hope. As we struggle against the forces of ignorance and hatred that seem to have gripped the privileged classes, Saturdays at bookstores doing brisk business are an indication that the future may correct such ill-informed sentiments. Bookstores are termometers of national health, and seeing them busy made my Saturday. It’s worth getting up early just to spend such a day in Montclair.

Exorcising Theology

Among those curious about exorcism, the name Fr. Gabriele Amorth requires no introduction. As “the Vatican’s chief exorcist” (a claim the book makes), Fr. Amorth was known for conducting many deliverances and for teaching a new generation of exorcists. Looking for an entryway into his perspective, I read An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels. That a priest in Rome should be conservative was no surprise. What was truly astounding about this account was how unquestioningly the exorcist accepted nearly everything to do with Roman Catholicism. His reading of the Bible is quite literal. His understanding of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God offers no nuance. Demons are fallen angels and, somewhat surprisingly, he uses “Devil” and “demon” interchangeably. For a hierarchy so thoroughly parsed, this was a bit unexpected. Encountering these explanations, much of what I’d recently read in Matt Baglio’s The Rite made sense. Baglio’s protagonist studied in Rome when Fr. Amorth was still active.

Much of the book felt like a lecture from the 1950s. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll can all lead to demonic possession. And it turns out to be quite pervasive. Many people, saints and sinners alike, are possessed and don’t even know it. This is truly, according to the priest, a “world with devils filled.” The book begins with a Catholic, if literal, interpretation of Jesus’ role in the salvation of humankind (although the masculine pronoun is preferred throughout). Not only that, there’s no question that women can or should be exorcists. This is something that priests alone can handle. And he even goes far as to point to Eve (who literally existed, one gets the impression) as an example of how women are more easily tempted than men. Reading this brief tractate was like stepping back into a world that even antedates that of the Republican Party. Not decrying science, however, Fr. Amorth suggests medical explanations can account for some of what sufferers deem as possession. Those who think they are in trouble with demons should first go to a psychiatrist. If the problem can’t be solved, it’s time to call in the men in black.

Another area of concern is his outlook on other religions. African and East and South Asian belief systems are coded as possibly satanic. This universe is a strictly Catholic one. Having noted that, a strong undercurrent of love pervades the book. It’s clear that Fr. Amorth was a priest motivated by care for others. His theology may have been hopelessly medieval, but his heart was in the right place. And, if the accounts are to be believed, he was quite good at expelling literal demons. Some of the metaphorical ones, however, seem to have remained firmly in place.

Dreaming Reality

It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.

Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.

Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.