To the Edge and Back

A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.
- Albert Einstein

Recently I became curious about a mysterious phenomenon: the near-death experience, or NDE. Despite my general preference for evidence, science, data, and the like, I’ve always been a bit intrigued by events that seem to defy scientific explanation. Being also curious about the afterlife, I bought a couple of books. Maybe this NDE thing was just misfires from a dying brain like many skeptics claim, but maybe it was something else…

An NDE from Someone Who Should Know Better

One book was Proof of Heaven, a personal account by a respected neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander who had an NDE while comatose with bacterial meningitis that should have been destroying his brain at the time. After spending his entire career dismissing NDEs as nonsense, he woke up a strong believer in them with a remarkable tale to share.

The Book That Coined the Term

Next was the book that coined the phrase near-death experience, Dr. Raymond Moody’s Life After Life. Moody gathered and studied 150 accounts of NDEs and looked for recurring elements, thinking that if NDEs were real, they would probably share many similarities. He was correct.

What Happens During an NDE?

Moody identified twelve elements that kept appearing in NDE reports. Each report was a bit different, and none of them contained every element, but several elements popped up repeatedly, including:

  • A sense of being outside one’s body in a separate and immaterial body of sorts, often looking down upon one’s physical body as medical people struggled to save it.
  • Remarkable peace, lucidity, and lack of pain.
  • The ability to move, often to other parts of the hospital where the subject often heard or saw things they shouldn’t have been able to hear or see. Many of these instances were verified later, much to the surprise of the medical professionals and families.
  • A dark tunnel or cave, through which the subject often moved at seemingly great speed.
  • A being of light whose presence enveloped the subject in an overwhelming and indescribable sense of unconditional love and peace.
  • Meeting other beings, generally deceased relatives or occasionally close friends.
  • A life review in which the subject reviewed his entire life or just certain parts, but with the ability to better understand their significance and how his choices affected others. The purpose of this life review was always the person’s own education, never as a determinant for a heaven/hell decision.
  • A decision to return to one’s body. Sometimes the subject chose to return to attend to unfinished business such as raising a child, while other times the decision was made for the subject, sending him unhappily back to his broken physical body.
  • Profound life change after returning, characterized by a complete loss of the fear of death and greater love and compassion for others.

Moody and Alexander, both physicians, took pains to evaluate the natural explanations that skeptics often suggest, such as low blood oxygen, drug-induced hallucinations, mental illness, brain malfunctions, dreams, and recalled memories. Although convenient and widely accepted in some circles, none of these explanations really holds up under closer analysis. The problem with most common explanations is this: NDE reports nearly always involve a high level of awareness, recall, lucidity, and complex thought. Low blood oxygen, painkillers, hallucinogens, or a malfunctioning, dying brain would make one’s brain foggier, not sharper.

Hmm.

Mounting Evidence

I am now on my fifth book on the subject. Yes, there are plenty of personal accounts in books and on TV, some of which might be frauds trying to make an easy buck. But the books I’ve been reading are by physicians who once believed that NDEs should not be possible, but have been convinced otherwise by studying the evidence and, in Alexander’s case, also by personal experience.

Most of my books have focused on analyzing large numbers of NDE reports. These reports are often submitted anonymously or de-identified prior to publication, so there is little incentive for false reports from people looking to sell their book or get on Oprah. Even in studies larger than Moody’s seminal study, and even when comparing NDE reports among different languages and cultures, the same elements appear time and again. Sometimes the respondents interpret or describe things differently based on their cultural background, much like travelers describing the same landmark in different ways, but the elements themselves get repeated in a surprising number of cases. Interestingly, the elements don’t vary significantly by nation, culture, gender, or (perhaps most surprisingly) religion. Christians, atheists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims all reported the same types of NDEs. If these reports are true, the traditional Christian view that all non-Christians go to hell seems to be mistaken.

I’ve been wrestling with a lot of questions lately, really over the past year. Along other things, it’s been difficult to believe there truly is something else beyond death. Remember, I like data and evidence and sound reason, and since I haven’t died yet that I know of, I have no personal experience to use as evidence. Although this blog post probably hasn’t convinced you, the books I’ve been reading about people who have been to the edge of death and returned are making me more convinced that the afterlife is real, albeit different from many people’s expectations. That growing conviction comforts me more than I would have expected.

Do You Have a Story?

Estimates suggest that around five percent of all people have experienced an NDE, although many of them never discuss theirs publicly for fear of ridicule. So I suspect that some of you either have personally experienced an NDE or know someone who has. If so, I would love to hear about your experience.

If you’d like to read about some NDEs without buying a book, check out NDERF.org.

Blog Soup 12/15/2012

Happy December! Here is today’s Blog Soup (r).

  • Yesterday’s elementary school shooting hit much closer to home than other recent mass shootings in colleges, high schools, malls, and movie theaters. My oldest son will start kindergarten next fall. Yes, the odds that a similar tragedy will occur at my sons’ schools are tiny, but yesterday served as a harsh reminder that no place can be completely safe, not even a kindergarten classroom. I ache for the families and friends of the fallen. In case you’re wondering, we’re not telling the boys what happened. They won’t hear about it from the news (we don’t watch it) and probably won’t hear anything from their friends, so we didn’t think it would help in any way to tell them. We don’t think they are old enough to process something like that well.
  • Speaking of my oldest son, Brenden is a ninja. The house can be quiet and still, perhaps late at night once we’ve put the boys to bed or early in the morning as I’m coming home from work. When he wants to see us, he can often creep from his room, descend the stairs, and suddenly appear in the living room or dining room virtually undetected. It can scare you at first. Then you smile and admire his ninja skills.
  • Speaking of being terrified by surprise appearances, have you seen the elevator prank video? Sweet Holy Moly. I’d like to think the rational side of my brain would prevail and I’d quickly figure out that I was being punked, but in reality I might just lose my business instead.
  • I just finished a fascinating book by Bart Ehrman called Misquoting Jesus that discusses the process of copying and distributing the early New Testament manuscripts. We have no original manuscripts left, only copies of copies of copies. In the copying process, the text of the manuscripts changed a bit in numerous places. Some changes were simple and harmless, such as an accidental misspelling. Others were intentional, perhaps to clarify a point of confusion, correct a perceived error by a previous scribe, or even to advance the scribe’s theological agenda. Textual criticism scholars study the various manuscripts like detectives and try to determine what the original text probably said, what changes were made in the manuscripts over time, and why.
  • Spielberg’s Lincoln deserves to take home a mountain of awards on Oscar night – acting, directing, set design, music, screenwriting, you name it. The story – Lincoln’s fight to pass the 13th Amendment to ban slavery – made a fascinating framework that focused on the man and his relationships rather than being a typical war movie. Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones particularly stood out as Lincoln and sharp-tongued liberal Republican (yep, they used to exist!) Thaddeus Stevens, respectively. Watching the political battle to get the votes reminded me a bit of the modern-day question of gay rights. We’ve made some progress, and I expect a similarly heated battle within the next decade or two to finally grant gay Americans all the rights that straight ones already enjoy.
  • I am mostly glad to see Josh Hamilton go. Too much drama off the field, too many injuries, too much money. It’s amazing to me that in a sport where it’s considered great to get a hit one third of the time, we still think some players are worth $20 million a year or even more.
  • The financial realities of college are setting in. Four-year public schools are significantly more expensive than community colleges. Tuition at UTA in 2012 isn’t too much less than tuition at Baylor during my freshman year (1997). We still think the switch to UTA is worth the extra cost thanks to better job prospects after Jenny finishes her degree, though. But it was eye-opening when she started registering for classes.
  • Some woman stole our credit card number, used it to buy $1000 worth of high-end car headlight bulbs and other auto parts, and accidentally listed the billing address (ours) as the shipping address (also ours). So the stolen goods arrived at our house this week. Oops. Chase waived the charges, and we are returning the parts to the shipper. The woman’s phone number was listed on the shipping label, so I gave her a call. She identified herself as Jenny Box. I told her my wife had the exact same name. She hung up immediately and refused to answer when I called back. So I left a message telling her we had received the parts she ordered. Heh heh.
  • I am tired of the Christmas wars. Some Christians don’t seem to realize that some people celebrate other holidays in December, or that Jesus probably wasn’t actually born on December 25. It’s okay – no, good – to respect other people’s beliefs and not to demand that everyone celebrate the same holidays you do. You can wish me a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus, or whatever floats your boat. I will wish you the same in return.

Thoughts on Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans’ new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood officially launches on Tuesday. Because she is awesome, I preordered it and finished it over the weekend. The book details her year-long experiment with trying to follow the “biblical” ideal of how a woman should be. To explore as many different elements as possible, she focuses on different qualities each month, finding specific ways to apply each quality and frequently calling in outside perspectives or help. The results range from cringe-worthy to insightful to inspiring to laugh-out-loud funny.

Before reading it, my feelings and expectations were muddy. As most of you know already, I’m not a fan of strict gender roles, particularly the tendency of many people to use the Bible as justification for them. Plus the topic drew up uncomfortable reminders of the conservative end of Christianity, such as the John Pipers and Mark Driscolls of the world, that often views women as subordinate to men and best suited for a supporting role not just in the church, but in life.

The book pleasantly surprised me.

Although Evans has battled publicly and fiercely on her blog with some conservative leaders on the topic of women, she adopts a humble, curious tone in A Year of Biblical Womanhood and focuses more on her journey and its implications rather than trying to prescribe roles or pick fights. Each section reads quickly with a mix of humorous personal anecdotes (struggling to convince her egalitarian husband that she needs to submit to him and call him “Master”, camping in her front yard during her “monthly uncleanness”, enthusiastically buying kosher wine for the Passover meal only to realize that it’s disgusting), eye-opening looks at how women are actually described and treated in the Bible, and fascinating insights from other women who are trying to live “biblically” in their own way, whether it’s as an Orthodox Jewish wife in Israel, a single Mennonite woman who left her roots but still loves God, or two Christian women who willingly share the same husband. I found myself disappointed at the end of many of the chapters because I wanted Evans to dig deeper, but she had to stop somewhere to keep the book a reasonable length. So while it held my interest throughout, I can’t say it rocked my world in any way or changed the way I view the Bible or women in general. If nothing else, it gave me a deeper appreciation of some of the pressures that Christian women face.

Some dismiss the book’s structure and the experiment itself as a gimmick, and I can see their point. But it’s an effective gimmick that keeps the book moving, drums up interest and publicity, and provides a way to manage a very, very broad and ambitious topic. Others have criticized the book as mocking Christianity, but I strongly disagree. As one reviewer noted, this book is largely about how we read and apply the Bible, so it seems perfectly legitimate to explore some of the different ways, even the contradictory or unusual ones, that women try and have tried to follow God.

Does Evans present a clear, carefully researched and supported vision of what a “biblical” woman? No, and that’s precisely her point – Christian rhetoric to the contrary, there is no one standard for biblical womanhood. The reason is simple. As Evans has argued on her blog and in her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, using the Bible is impossible without wrestling with it and interpreting it. Different people come from different perspectives and interpret and apply the Bible in different ways, and that’s OK. As she notes in the final chapter:

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives…When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality), we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes…More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Some women tie an albatross around their necks trying to pursue an impossible standard of womanhood and then feeling guilty for falling short. Evans’ experiment demonstrates many aspects of this struggle with grace, vulnerability, humor, and clarity. She isn’t presenting a radical new vision of womanhood or even breaking much new ground. Instead, she is illustrating the breadth of womanhood in the Bible and current practice and, perhaps more importantly, giving today’s women permission not to be so hard on themselves.

Blog Soup 10/27/2012

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My birthday was this week, so I’ve been taking it easy. But now it’s time for more soup, says I.

  • First of all, happy birthday to me! I am now 34 years old. No, I don’t feel any different, nor do I feel old. However, this does mean that next year I’ll bump up to the next older division in most races (35-39), which should help my medal chances by making me among the youngest in my division instead of the oldest. There’s a silver lining in pretty much everything if you look for it.
  • I’m starting to consider the possibility of a Romney victory. No, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but the world isn’t going to end no matter who gets elected. Honestly, with a divided Congress and little interest in bipartisan action, I expect very little to get done no matter which guy wins. The very structure of our government is designed to slow down the pace of change. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’m questioning the wisdom of our current arrangement.
  • It’s benefits enrollment time at work, and we are switching to a new healthcare plan called a health savings plan paired with a health savings account. Our old plan was an EPO that had a sizable monthly premium, copays for office visits, and coverage for other expenses at a set percentage. The new plan has a tiny premium – $11/month for our entire family. The trade-off is that our deductible is $3000, and except for preventative care and some preventative drugs, we pay all medical costs until we reach the deductible. Since all of us are fairly healthy, I think we will save money with this plan barring any unusual medical expenses. Plus the health savings account lets us set aside money pre-tax for medical bills, and if we don’t spend the money, it remains in our account indefinitely.
  • One more thought on the election: if the race ends up as close as the polls suggest, we could end up with another electoral college disaster like we saw in 2000 with Bush and Gore. If it happens again and screws the Republicans this time, perhaps we will finally have enough momentum to reform or scrap the electoral college system.
  • I lost some training time earlier this month had to skip my Tyler trail run due to bronchitis, but I’m back to 100 percent now and feeling great. I finished a great 10k run on Thursday when I probably could have finally broken the 50 minute mark if I’d run the whole way. I hope to return to my normal weekly mileage next week and get back on track with my long runs. I’m signed up for two races right now: the Jingle Bell Run 5k in mid-December and the Disney Half Marathon in January.
  • I like scary movies, especially this time of year. Why? Maybe because I spend so much of my life trying to be safe and responsible. It’s fun to intentionally experience a situation that makes me feel slightly out of control and vulnerable. But I have to watch them alone because Jenny is NOT a fan.
  • I now have as many Tour de France titles as Lance Armstrong. I wanted to believe him, I really did. Many of us did. He’s still one of the best cyclists in history. But the testimony of so many people around him finally convinced me that he was dirty, just like so many others in the sport during that era. It’s sad when a clean athlete has no chance to compete because so many of his/her competitors are cheating.
  • Our church built our new sanctuary about 10 years ago and borrowed millions of dollars to pay for it. Now we are doing a fundraising campaign to pay off the debt over the next two years. I don’t like seeing churches borrow money, partly for practical reasons and partly because the Bible seems pretty clear that borrowing money is a bad idea. So I was pleased when the leadership pledged not to borrow any more money in the future.

Thank you, come again.

Blog Soup 10/7/2012

Hello, and welcome back. Lots of goodies for blog soup today, so let’s dive in. BTW, I like soup better than stew, hence the name change.

  • First of all, happy birthday to my mother-in-law, Marilyn, and happy early birthday to my grandmother, Ann!
  • I watched the first presidential debate, and I agree with…pretty much everyone that Romney won Round 1. He spoke well and seemed comfortable and confident. Obama seemed uncharacteristically un-smooth and distracted. Both guys were spinning, though. It’s hard to know the truth from listening to any politician. Any two politicians can take the same data and use it to make completely different arguments. No wonder so man people hate politics. I still predict an Obama victory, especially after Friday’s reduced unemployment rate.
  • Apparently, when you have a seat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, you can simply ignore the fields of science that you don’t like.
  • For the first time since January, I trained a guy at work for the last three nights. The hiring committee picked a good one. He is bright, has a great attitude, works hard, and cares about what he does. It’s great to work with solid people like him.
  • This should be self-evident, but a recent study found that providing free birth control dramatically reduces abortion rates. Obamacare will soon require insurance providers to cover birth control at 100%. Thus the opponents of Obamacare, while they might have legitimate reasons, are opposing a law that supports one of their top priorities.
  • Jenny had a great meeting with her nursing advisor. She will probably be able to complete all her prereqs by August and start nursing school in the fall. That’s less than a year away. Whoa.
  • Spending time in the weight room amuses me. My legs and core are strong, so I can lift from the bottom half of the weight stack with those muscles. But I have the upper body of a T. Rex, so I’m lifting maybe a third of the way down the stack. You can see where my priorities lie.
  • I. LOVE. THIS. WEATHER.
  • A researcher found that among religious people, atheists are about as trustworthy as rapists. Apparently, they are much more likely to trust someone who believes that a higher power is watching them. I don’t know many open atheists here in Texas, but I do know and have read about many professing Christians who are amazing hypocrites (Hitler, anyone?), so that perception doesn’t seem fair to me. Morality and trustworthiness should be more dependent on having and following a moral code than on believing or not believing in a particular religion.
  • Finally, don’t forget to vote in my accents poll on the right side of this page. Thanks!

Thank you, come again.

This and That – Sept 16

Long Run Day
 
Huh, that sounds like a dish at my favorite Pho restaurant. Mmmm…pho…. I Love Pho. No, that’s not me being emphatic, it’s the name of the restaurant in north Irving. You can get a LARGE bowl of pho (Vietnamese soup) for about $8.
 
Anyway, I have decided that Saturday is my favorite day of the week. Why? Along with college football day in the fall, Saturday is Long Run Day, the one day of the week when I run a really long way. Yesterday I ran 11 miles. Next Saturday I hope to do 12, followed by 13 the following week. My 15.5-mile Tyler race is less than four weeks away, and I can hardly wait. My legs feel good, even the hip flexor that was irritating me for a while during the spring and summer. My energy level stays high during the runs. The temperature is dropping. I love the long run because it’s a challenge without being impossible. At the end I feel like I’ve accomplished something because I have. I return sweaty and tired and a bit sore, but I’m generally happy. There’s nothing like achieving something you once thought you could never do.
 
Filling the Space
 
A wise person once noted that when people move into a larger living space, they eventually acquire more stuff to take advantage of the extra space they gain. For instance, when we moved from a two-bedroom apartment into a four-bedroom house, we almost immediately got pregnant with Jonathan and filled the fourth bedroom with baby furniture. Sure, that was our plan rather than a surprise. However, even without Jonathan, we would’ve done something with that extra bedroom that probably would’ve involved getting more stuff. We had the space, so why not use it for something?
 
I’ve noticed, and another writer pointed out, that we do the same thing when our income increases. We survived on our previous level of income and could do any number of nice things with the extra money: save it, invest it, give it away. But let’s be honest – those nice, responsible things aren’t nearly as fun as upgrading our lifestyles. Why deny yourself something you want when you finally get the money to pay for it?
 
So…yeah…turns out an expanded budget isn’t the same thing as an unlimited budget. So after a couple of fun months, it’s time to be fiscally responsible again. Eyes on the prize, Box! Item #1 is saving up for…
 
Nursing School Update
 
For the last two years, Jenny has been knocking out nursing school pre-reqs at Tarrant County College and planning to start nursing school there next fall. The nursing program there awards an associate’s degree in nursing and prepares students to pass the licensing exam to become a Registered Nurse (RN). After studying the nursing job market and talking to some professionals in the industry, Jenny is working on a transfer to the University of Texas at Arlington, which awards a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). We think the BSN will help her find a nursing job once she graduates, and it also lays the groundwork for a possible master’s later on. Yes, UTA is more expensive, but it’s not nearly as steep as the private nursing schools in the area (gulp). And it will require more classes. For her, the BSN requires about four extra classes that she needs to take prior to entering the nursing program. At this point, she’s not sure when those classes will be offered. She should start the nursing program either next fall or in spring 2014. Either way, nursing school will take four semesters in all, and we think the BSN will be worth the extra time and money. Go Jenny Go!
 
Science vs. Religion
 
As you’ve surely noticed, sometimes scientific knowledge conflicts with one’s religious beliefs – not necessarily the core of one’s faith, but the interpretation of certain passages or concepts. Moreso than in most Western countries, it seems much more acceptable in America to choose religion over science when the two seem to conflict. I was like that in high school. But then as I grew older, I started wondering why I expected the Bible, written thousands of years ago, to serve as a science textbook rather than a religious text. When writing the Bible, the authors came from their own culture and their own level of scientific knowledge, and they were writing for an audience from the same culture and the same level of scientific knowledge. It doesn’t seem fair to expect the Bible to be absolutely accurate from a scientific perspective by 21st century standards. Many aspects of our society (think iPhones, TVs, atomic bombs, heart transplants, space travel) are so radically advanced compared to Bible-era technology that the Bible’s writers would probably consider them absolutely miraculous…and probably quite difficult to describe in ancient Hebrew. So when I see a conflict between science and my faith, I generally assume that my interpretation of the Bible was flawed in some way, probably because I’m expecting the Bible to be something it was never intended to be. God gives us all a brain, and I’m pretty sure He expects us to use it.
 
Random Thoughts
 

  • Have I mentioned lately how glad I am that I’m not famous? Among other perks, no one wants to publish topless pictures of me.
  • We have almost all the details worked out for our trip to Disney in January, and we’re all very excited. I think Jenny and I are more excited than they are because they don’t really know what to expect. I can’t wait to see their reactions to all the amazing things they will see.
  • Last Sunday, Baylor alumni Robert Griffin III had arguably the best debut by a quarterback in the history of the NFL. He already has a starting job, tons of fans, marketing deals with Adidas, Subway, and Nissan, the respect of his teammates and coaches, and a bright future ahead of him. History holds numerous cautionary tales about the dark side of fame and fortune, but everything I know about RG3 tells me he will handle the craziness and pressure just fine. Sorry, Jerry, I’m a Redskins fan now.
  • Whenever I’m around Jonathan, if I start singing or dancing, he tells me to stop. Sometimes he covers his ears. Apparently, I’m embarrassing him even if no one else is around. Or maybe I’m just that bad.
  • I took the boys to play tennis this week after Jenny got Jonathan his first racket, a tiny blue Spongebob one. Jonathan got bored quickly, but this time Brenden actually tried to hit with me for a while. Tennis is a hard game to learn and nearly impossible to master. Brenden always gave up quickly in prior outings, but this time I changed the rules. Basically, if he got it over the net, he got a point, and I cheered for his every point. He likes that kind of tennis. Here are some pictures.
  • Jenny and I did two yoga classes last week. I like to think it will help me stay loose for running and cycling, plus it helps me relax. I sorta did a move called Side Crow for the first time. Google it if you want a picture. It was definitely NOT relaxing, rather quite difficult and a bit scary, but I did manage to hold it for a second or two without falling on my face.