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Book Review: Revealing Heaven by John W. Price

The number of Americans who have had a near death experience is greater than the number of those who attend a major league baseball game in one year.

For John W. Price, author of Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case For Near-Death Experiences, this is nothing short of astonishing; not just because of what it positively affirms (life after death), but because of what it negatively reveals – that people are embarrassed to admit their encounters.

This is Price’s mission: to “shout from the rooftops” just how common an experience this is for everyone, the world over. As an Episcopal Priest these experiences confirm the gospel Price preaches, so to draw attention to them is to draw attention to the gospel itself, the hope it represents, and the comfort it brings, especially in a world full of pain, sorrow, and skepticism.

Along the way, Price hopes to convert a few pastors as well. Too many ministers, it seems, are not only embarrassed about these kinds of testimonies in their congregations, many don’t even believe they’re real.

Price goes about his in a straightforward way: telling the stories of near-death experience in an easy and readable fashion, largely following the timeline of his own road of discovery. We get to experience his sense of wonder and excitement as he comes to conclusions about the implications of his convictions for his practice of faith, and ministry. In the midst of these stories, Price does a better than average job of building a broad case for the biblical literature’s evolution of life after death, and winds up making a convincing case that the early church stood firmly on the hope of resurrection.

The book is disarmingly charming in its simple and unadorned approach. Price never seems to overreach in style or content. And yet, I found myself again and again asking the question: “Do we really need this book?”

First, I’m not sure that belief in heaven in at a point of crisis. I’m utterly convinced that Christianity is waning, and will continue to, but few people I know – including many who possess no formal faith – wouldn’t be troubled by the idea of a literal afterlife.

I was also struck by Price’s insistence that near-death experiences particularly affirm the Christian gospel. Obviously, there are some religious beliefs that wouldn’t hold to a literal heaven, but, as Price himself points out, these experiences are nearly universal across cultures and religions. After reading the book, I still fail to see how these experiences – if true – particularly commend Christianity over and above other faiths.

Lastly, I was put-off a bit by Price’s tone towards Christians who don’t believe in a literal afterlife. It’s one thing to hold to such a belief (or lack thereof), but it’s quite another to posit your belief as an unassailable certainty and an essential element of the Christian faith.

And make no mistake: however gentle his writing style, Price is certain – not only of the existence of a literal heaven, but even of fairly esoteric details concerning the nature of death and heaven (see the chapters “How death works” and “How heaven works”). Price bases his assertions on the anecdotes of people’s stories. Now, I’m a strong proponent of religion as a source of knowledge, but the knowledge religion transacts in isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative. Religion has no mechanism for determining the details of phenomena such as, whether we can “walk” in spiritual bodies after death. Yet, this is the kind of claim Price makes.

In my opinion, these chapters – and this tone of certainty in general – damages the credibility of Price’s claims. Still, for those interested in the subject, it’s an interesting enough – and breezy enough – read to recommend it.

(I was provided with a copy of this book in return for the review I’ve written. I was in no way required to write either a positive or negative review of the book.)

 

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17 Comments  »

  1. Steve says:

    I understand there are people (like Marcus Borg) who do not believe in the resurrection but love Jesus and call themselves Christian;, and yet the afterlife is such an essential in the sayings of Jesus and the writings of Paul that it seems silly (or “most miserable”) to bother calling oneself a Christian otherwise. It just dilutes the meaning of words.

  2. Jason says:

    Or it expands the meaning of them…

    It’s an interesting point. Does belief in “heaven” constitute a defining tenet of Christianity, particularly when so many Christians hold to a concept of heaven that has no basis in the biblical literature? In other words, does an inaccurate belief in heaven possess any more efficacy for faith than an inaccurate non-belief in heaven?

  3. Steve says:

    Point of clarification: I think that life after death, and victory over death, is essential, as symbolized in baptism. If Christ was not raised from the dead, we are of all men most to be pitied.
    That is not the same as saying I have any specific notion of what heaven is like, nor is that essential to know.

  4. Jason says:

    Well, I agree the resurrection is the locus of Christ’s power, but I think it’s a bit of a rhetorical conceit on our part (because I’ve said it too) when we state that if Christ was not actually raised then there is no meaning to Christianity.

    I say this because it’s simply a fact that for some, the symbolic myth of Christ is powerful enough without an imaginary of the real upon which to base their faith (I’m speaking here of those who claim Christ positively and wholeheartedly as a mythic figure, not those who refute him as “merely” myth). In my limited experience, these folks tend to exhibit no less a richness of faith than any other more orthodox person. If this form of belief is efficacious for transforming them into the image of Christ, how can we deny them access to the fold?

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book as part of the tour.

  6. Steve says:

    Jason, it’s not my place to deny anyone access to the fold, and I think Jesus progressively reveals himself to people over time, including to people who love his story but don’t yet fully embrace it as historic truth.
    Paul said that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless”. So, if you think that kind of faith is still efficacious in transforming someone into the image of Christ, then one of the following is happening:
    The resurrected Christ is transforming that person, but somehow they don’t recognize Him yet.
    We’ve lowered our understanding of what it means to become like Christ, such that it is achieveable by human effort.
    Paul was wrong, or has been misunderstood: worthless is the new worthwhile.

    Any any case, though, we ought to at least respect that words have meanings.
    If I drive a Ford, but want to be known as an pilot, it does no actual good to call my car a plane, though it may make me feel better about myself. But when you ask me, “are you flying to Seattle today?”, and I say yes, in my Cessna, and then I drive away in my car for 1500 miles, well that was an unhelpful conversation, wasn’t it?
    If the main writer of our generally accepted New Testament scriptures thinks that resurrection is essential to a worthwhile faith, then shouldn’t we at least respectfully label that faith as Christian (and the opposite as something other than Christian), if for no other reason than to preserve a common language as a basis of communication?

  7. Robert says:

    I just listened to the John W. Price’s Feb 19th interview on near death stories. I find it to be very insightfull in what others experience by way of heaven and hell. Blissfull / traumatic. From what the author of this post has made point of (first) lack of faith in heaven is not a crisis, christianity is waning, and few people he knows would not be troubled by the afterlife. I.. cant say I understand what the person who wrote this review is trying to say. Would someone care to explain?

  8. Jason says:

    Well said Steve! Just a few comments. First, regarding Paul’s words, it is possible that all three are true to some extent:

    1) I tend to think Christ is transforming many of us, perhaps most of us, (perhaps even all of us) with a certain degree of us not recognizing it.

    2) The distinction between transformations that involve human effort and those that don’t is utterly imaginary. By that, I don’t mean to say it isn’t a true distinction (perhaps it is), I simply mean that the distinction exists entirely in the theologically structured imagistic conceptions of the acts performed by those people who have been trained to think of their efforts as a special case of ‘non-effort’. Relatively speaking, most Christians don’t believe this distinction is necessary; many do, but only in passing; a few Christians believe that believing this distinction is the only thing that will keep God from tormenting a person for all eternity. At the end of the day, speaking from the perspective of the real, whatever we do, including the way we respond to something that is done to us, requires our effort. Nothing else is possible. My point is this: whether or not there is effort involved has no bearing on one’s belief in the real existence of Christ or not, nor does it have any bearing on the ‘height’ of one’s view of the ends toward which those efforts may be employed. All change involves self-effort (even in Calvinists) and the only thing that must be believed for that change to occur is that the change is both possible and worthwhile. For some, that change is made more possible and more worthwhile by a belief in the real existence of Christ and his resurrection; for others, the symbol of Christ is enough.

    3) I tend to think Paul was wrong about other things, so this point doesn’t trouble me. However, it’s possible that Paul simply incorrectly believed a symbolic truth to be a literal one. Jesus’ often corrected his followers for this mistake. In that way, his statement could be both right and wrong.

    Lastly, I would propose that words don’t have meanings, meanings have words. Put another way, the meaning of something is not held captive by a words, rather, words are the servants of meaning and may be changed or replaced, either by innovation or convention, as needed. To use a silly twist on your example, if advances in knowledge one day lead us to the understanding that what we today call “driving” is actually better understood as “flying”, then meaning will adjust its use of words that direction and future conversations may, in fact, look more like the one you sketched out, and remain very helpful. The original intent of the author is less important for determining right usage than widespread agreement based on the most accurate possible information. (Of course, the doctrine of Innerancy was invented to avoid this inconvenience).

    It’s a silly example because we’re not likely anytime soon, if ever, to change our understanding of what it means to drive or fly, but what it means to be a Christian is always changing. Cultures have always evolved their use of words to understand religious and philosophical meanings according to changes in knowledge and culture, perhaps no more rapidly or intensively at any time in human history than right now.

    Thanks for your comments, I’ve really enjoyed your feedback : )

  9. Jason says:

    Hi Robert, I’m saying it’s an interesting book, and worth reading if a quick and popular presentation of this subject is of interest to you. But I think the author overreaches in his conclusions, both about the factual artifacts of the afterlife and the necessity of belief in this kind of afterlife for the Christian gospel.

  10. Steve says:

    Jason, thanks for your thoughtful response.
    “Meanings have words”. Hmm… Someday I must “dial” you on my phone to have a conversation about that! But seriously, Orwell warned us about the importance of semantics and the fungability of words, when he said that “slovenliness in out language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.” He was speaking about politics, but I think it could apply to theology. To the extent we want to have a productive exchange of differing viewpoints, we ought to at least respect the words that help us understand those distinctions.
    As someone recently wrote at Patheos,
    “I have no problem with Christians who struggle with traditional belief; my problem is with those who “reinterpret it” so radically that it isn’t recognizable anymore. They say, for example, that they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but when pressed to explain it, what they really believe is that the disciples came to a realization of the continuing relevance of the message of Jesus or Jesus’ ongoing “spiritual presence” among them and us. They don’t mean that the tomb was empty and that Jesus’ dead body was transformed to a new mode of eschatological life.”

  11. Jason says:

    Steve, my apologies for neglecting your comment. I’ve been very busy at work and haven’t checked in here for a while.

    Two thoughts:

    1) Orwell’s caution was not again the changing of language, it was against the abuse of power. As he illustrated, that abuse can come by changing the terms – but it can also come (and probably more often comes) by the artifice of preserving them. This is what conservatives do: attempt to preserve some cultural artifacts in order to protect their power. Liberals do the same, but through the tactics of change. Language-games are political power-games, no doubt about it.

    2) You’re quite right that we can be speaking past each other even when using the same terms, but the question that interests me is this: why does it matter if by “resurrection” you mean the literal raising of Christ’s body and I mean the mythology of it?

  12. Steve says:

    Jason, no problem, and thanks for asking good questions!
    The benefit of sharing common language and meanings is that it is increases the likelihood we’ll be able to communicate with a common understanding. I noticed in your most recent post ends with a (perhaps humorous) struggle to define “prayer”, “church”, and “accurate”. Why make things harder? Why do we now have to add adjectives to the front of words, like bodily resurrection vs. mythical resurrection?
    If we both agreed it was agreat sunset tonight, but I meant the orange glow in the sky and you meant the end of tax season, what good does it do us to talk to each other?
    In this, I would reflect some of Hamann’s philosophy: that God, speaking creation into existence and then giving his Son as the Word, rescues us from our contingencies of space, time, history and language. (Still working on finalizing that thought, but I too have run out of time!)

  13. Jason says:

    What a wonderfully idyllic world you live in Steve!

    : )

  14. Steve says:

    Why yes, it IS wonderfully idyllic… but then again, “that depends on what the meaning of ‘IS’ is”.
    : )

  15. Steve says:

    Jason – In all seriousness, what I’m trying to say is this:
    If I ever get to the point where I no longer believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, then I would much rather have the following Easter conversation:

    He: “He is risen!”
    Me: “Sorry, but I disagree, nevertheless I still find ways that the myth is meaningful to me.”

    – - than this one:

    He: “He is risen!”
    Me: “He is risen INDEED!!… [sotto voce] and by ‘indeed’, I mean not ‘not in DEED’, but rather that Jesus disciples came to a realization of the continuing relevance of the message of Jesus, and Jesus’ ongoing spiritual presence among them and us.

    Quite frankly, conversation #1 feels like it has greater intellectual honesty and respect for the other person’s ability to handle opposing viewpoints, and respect for language in general. IMO, that’s not protecting the power of a conservative position with words, it’s respecting our ability to disagree with clarity and amicability.

  16. Jason says:

    I agree Steve! But you might still consider yourself a Christian, and lay claim to that title, even though the person with whom you were speaking might seek to disavow your communion. Paul certainly would.

    What it actually means to be a Christian among 21st century Americans (conservative and liberal) is different enough in belief and practice from what it meant for, say, 4th century greeks, that it can be rightly said that the term “Christian” has changed quite a bit. Now add myriad other cultures and centuries to the comparison and the differences can be quite vast.

    I think that’s a good thing. Language should change with culture.

    But I’m with you in this sense: there is something that shouldn’t change, and it’s what I referred to earlier as “meaning”, but you could rightly call it the essence or message, or gospel. We may use different terms in different times and places to translate this message – in fact, we must – but whatever the language, the essence of the message must remain. The question for the ages throughout the church is, what is that message. That is why the most important theological conversations going on today are still, in my opinion, conversations about what the gospel itself actually is.

    There is a practical side to this, of course. I really do convey a different kind of practice than some other christians when I use the word “prayer”, but I would argue that I’m adhering to the same essential meaning of what that word represents. There are many different forms of prayer, but for most everyday conversations there’s no time and no need for fleshing that out. So, when a conservative evangelical asks if I will pray for them, I usually just say yes – even though I have no intention of doing what I know they have in mind when they make that request.

    Context is hugely important here. In the example above, it’s better to be silent about our differences, not because I don’t respect the other person’s ability to handle opposing views, but because the fact of our practical differences is less important than our solidarity in a time of concern, especially given our essential unity on the matter. In another, perhaps less consequential and more leisurely setting, I would be quite clear about our differences for the sake of conversation, for the sake of respect, or for the desire to grow closer together on an issue that is important to both of us.

  17. Julie Waters says:

    Interestingly enough, someone at my homegroup (in our last meeting) brought up how they like listening to these testemonies. Personally, there are a few I wouldn’t mind reading about and I do find them interesting as a whole. However, these testimonies are not usually something I gravitate to considering I don’t personally know these people nor can I see in their hearts whether they are truly Christians or not. (Other questions come into play but you get the picture).

    “Lastly, I was put-off a bit by Price’s tone towards Christians who don’t believe in a literal afterlife.”

    I’ve never heard of any Christian who didn’t believe in a literal afterlife. (Not that I’ve asked around a lot either but….). I would be curious to know what they DO believe in? What do they believe happens to their souls? Not judging – just surprises me.

    I know you’re busy – working with penguins and all – so no rush.:-P

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