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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fair and Fascinating study
I imagine it would be difficult to write an unbiased book about near-death experiences, especially if you had a religious bone to pick. However, Carol Zaleski succeeds in writing a very scholarly, fair-minded book, and avoids the trap of attempting to envangelize the reader. Either you believe people have out-of-body experiences, or you don't and Zaleski doesn't...
Published on August 1, 2000 by E. A. Lovitt

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholary and dense but very informative
Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experiences in Medieval and Modern Times by Carol G. Zaleski, is a scholarly look at "near death experiences" from the middle ages to the current times. It is a tad bit dated, but is still a wonderful jumping off point into this exciting area of study. She does her research very well, and presents a very thorough...
Published on June 4, 2004 by imdateless


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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fair and Fascinating study, August 1, 2000
This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
I imagine it would be difficult to write an unbiased book about near-death experiences, especially if you had a religious bone to pick. However, Carol Zaleski succeeds in writing a very scholarly, fair-minded book, and avoids the trap of attempting to envangelize the reader. Either you believe people have out-of-body experiences, or you don't and Zaleski doesn't attempt to convert you. What she does do (and this is what makes "Otherworld Journeys" so fascinating) is examine the influence of culture and religion on near-death experiences. A twentieth-century American will not report the same near-death experience as, say, a thirteenth-century Italian. Why that is true is for the reader to decide, in light of the evidence presented by this interesting and well-researched account.
I felt "Otherworld Journeys" was a definite keeper and well worth re-reading.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholary and dense but very informative, June 4, 2004
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"imdateless" (Somewhere in the USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experiences in Medieval and Modern Times by Carol G. Zaleski, is a scholarly look at "near death experiences" from the middle ages to the current times. It is a tad bit dated, but is still a wonderful jumping off point into this exciting area of study. She does her research very well, and presents a very thorough survey from both literature sources as well as first hand accounts, summarizing the major similarities between the time periods as well as their distinct differences. At the end she recounts some of the numerous theories out there surrounding NDE research, and gives her summation of the work she has completed. This book has a very scholarly tone to it, a very interesting read, but could be hard for some people to truly appreciate.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Study of the Near-Death Experience in Both Medieval Literature and Modern Accounts., February 23, 2009
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This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
_Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times_, published in 1987 by Oxford University Press, by religion scholar Carol Zaleski is a fascinating account of the near-death experience as found in literature from medieval and modern times. As the author notes the term "near-death experience" is defined as "the testimony of individuals who have revived from apparent death was well as those who have only come close to death" as explained by Raymond Moody. As the author notes definitions of such terms as death and deathbed visions, etc. often become blurry, thus it is necessary to use terms such as "near-death experience" and "otherworld journey" interchangeably. This book provides an excellent examination of such experiences and journeys in the literature from the medieval period as well as comparing it to modern accounts of near-death experiences. The author offers some useful reflections on the ubiquity of this phenomena and what this might have to say for the survival hypothesis. The author also examines cultural factors that might be involved in the near-death experience and how such factors play such an important role in interpretation. As such this book remains an important one for the study of near-death experiences and otherworld journeys from ancient and especially medieval times to the modern day.

In the "Introduction", the author lays out the role of near-death experiences and otherworld journeys in the literature of all cultures. For example, the author considers the role of the otherworld journey in accounts from those of the Prophet Mohammed, Zarathustra, Mani, William Blake, and others and shows that these individuals share many common features in their accounts. The author then considers various accounts from a wide scope of cultures and traces the origins of the notion of the near-death experience to Raymond Moody's 1970s classic _Life After Life_. The author then provides a discussion of the material that will appear in this book.

Part I of this book is entitled "Orientation". The first chapter is entitled "A Wide-Angle View" and considers the disposal of the dead beginning with Peking man and the Cro Magnons in the Paleolithic era up until the arrival of homo sapiens sapiens and into the ancient world. The author considers otherworld journeys in the accounts of shamans, in the epic of Gilgamesh, from the ancient Egyptians, from the epics of Homer and in ancient Greece, among the Chinese, in the _Republic_ of Plato, among the ancient Gnostics, among the earliest Christians, and the rise of the Kabbalah. The second chapter is entitled "Four Models of Christian Otherworld Journey Narration". This chapter considers otherworld journeys in medieval Christianity, making mention of for example such topics as: The Otherworld Journey as Apocalypse: The Vision of St. Paul, The Otherworld Journey as Miracle Story: The Dialogues of Gregory the Great, The Otherworld Journey as Conversion: The Vision of Drythelm, and The Otherworld Journey as Pilgrimage: St. Patrick's Purgatory. Many of the comments on purgatory and St. Patrick's Purgatory can also be found for example in such classics as the study on purgatory made by Jacques le Goff.

Part II of this book is entitled "Medieval Christian Return-From-Death Stories: A Thematic Treatment". The third chapter is entitled "The Other World: Medieval Itineraries". Here, the author considers such topics as the exit from the body (mentioning the exit of the soul through the gateway of the mouth from the body, as well as death as a violation of the unity of the body and the soul), the guide (mentioning the role of the guide in the other world journey), and the journey itself (mentioning for example such classic accounts as those of Dante in _The Divine Commentary_ or those of the seer Emmanuel Swedenborg). The fourth chapter is entitled "Obstacles". Here, the author considers various obstacles faced by the individual in the otherworld journey including such things as fire, the test-bridge, and the encounter with deeds. The fifth chapter is entitled "Reentry" and considers the reentry of the individual into the world after passing through the otherworld journey. This chapter considers such topics as the visionary transformed, the visionary as messenger, the narrator as messenger, vision and revision, and the interpretation of visions.

Part III of this book is entitled "The Modern Near-Death Narrative: A Thematic and Comparative Treatment". The sixth chapter is entitled "From Deathbed Visions to Life After Life". Here the author considers such topics as nineteenth and twentieth century precursors (mentioning such things as the work of individuals such as F. W. H. Myers and the Society for Psychical Research as well as other early researchers), the role of _Life after Life_ as a "new phase" (mentioning the importance of Raymond Moody and his classic 1975 work which coined the term "near-death experience"), and the researchers (mentioning the importance of such individuals as Kenneth Ring, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and others and noting the conflict between new age type versions of near-death experiences and more fundamentalist Christian versions). The seventh chapter is entitled "The Other World: Modern Itineraries". This chapter considers such modern features of the near-death experience as attitudes towards death and dying, images of the soul, liminality, the journey, the light, judgment, "falling into heaven": mystical states and visions of the whole, otherworld topography, and otherworld demography. In particular it is interesting to note that modern versions involve less fear of judgment and a more pleasant experience of death than medieval versions may have. The eighth chapter is entitled "Back to Life" and examines such topics as approaching the point of no return, the visionary transformed, and the visionary and the interviewer.

Part IV of this book is entitled "The Interpretation of Near-Death Visions". The ninth chapter is entitled "Ecstatics and Statistics" and considers such things as the credentials of ecstatics and the possibility of verification of near-death experiences. The tenth chapter is entitled "Explanations and Counterexplanations". Possibilities considered in this chapter include the question of whether the experiencers were really dead, models of death, natural causes of the near-death experience, and various counterarguments. The eleventh chapter is entitled "Evaluating Near-Death Testimony". This chapter considers such topics as experiential claims, double vision, corporeal imagery, the question of interpretation, another world to live in, and the orientation of this study. The author ends by relating near-death experience to imaginative experience and states that near-death experiences have as much to say about the world after death as they do about ourselves as imaginative beings. The book ends with an appendix entitled "Chronology of Medieval Visions".

This book offers an interesting study of the near-death experience and the otherworld journey in the literature from ancient times and especially the medieval period and compares this to the modern day. Such a study is highly useful for those who seek to understand about the possibility for survival of bodily death. In particular, it is interesting to note how many features of the otherworld journey have changed (but also how many remain the same) since the medieval period. As such, this book remains an interesting study and account for those who seek to better understand life and death and the possibility of life after death.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work, if by now somewhat dated, September 7, 1999
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This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
Carol Zaleski's book is clearly one of the best books on NDEs, still quite relevant even though a bit dated. This is interesting reading not only for her balanced presentation of the pro and con viewpoints of leading researchers on NDEs, but also for her contrasting NDEs of the latter 20th century with NDEs experienced by Christians of medieval times.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Its a bit difficult, not a casual read, February 27, 2006
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This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
I have started reading this book and I am sad to say its a bit difficult to read. There is no subject that intrigues me more than the near death experience, and I read everything I can find on the subject. This is one of those books that you have to read in dead silence or you will miss something in her very long, very complicated paragraphs. I suppose it is Carol's doctoral thesis or something. Its written in a flat accademic fashion that is a bit cold and technical. I am still going to plod through this book, but I will have to sit at a desk to do it, with pen, paper and dictionary in hand. I hope the information gleened will be worth the difficulty of getting through the research. I can only hope.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a rare jewel among plain stones, February 4, 2010
This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
This is the best book ever yet published on the subject of near death experiences in the English language, and probably any language. Saying that, it wins through mainly because it understands itself not to be a scientific study (it is not) but a scholarly work of comparative literature. I have read just about every book (in the English language) written on the near death experience worth reading, as well as many that were not worth reading. This is one of the very best. It charts the history of the near death experience through the Western Christian traditions, showing how it has formed itself, at least in Europe and America, out of those traditions.

This is far from being the whole mythic picture of NDEs, but Zaleski has done a wonderful job of showing how deep and evolving those roots are even from within Christianity. Go back 200 years and the experience is almost nothing like what it is today, with its "spiritual democracy" and "self empowerment" motifs, clearly developing in parallel with social changes in the intervening period. Folks who don't know this history, or who are blissfully unaware of it, often assume that there is a single changeless thing called a "near death experience" that remains constant and consistent across the world. This is not so. Any similarities that can be ascribed to "experiences at the boundary of death" are in fact VERY general, as anyone who cares to examine Thai experiences, Indian experiences, Chinese experiences, Melanesian experience, and the few other non-American groups who have ever been studied, will soon see for themselves. The myth of global consistency arises out of flawed methods of sampling. For instance, people will only report having an "NDE" if they know, first of all, what that term even means, and what it is taken to refer to. When submission is left to individuals supplying their own reports, instead of field study, what happens is that this creates a heavily weighted bias, even with "people from other cultures", for the Americanized template of what one of these experiences is supposed to be, which in turn reinforces the mythos that this template is "consistent". These other culture cases, for instance, are often people who have lived in America, have access to the internet, have read of other American-style experiences, and so on. When you break through all that assumption, you find what you find with Melanesian or Thai experiences, which is that they are RADICALLY different from the American Moody-esque "NDE template".

This book was the first and original foray into this much understudied question of the cultural variance in death-boundary spiritual experiences. A truly comprehensive work on that topic could scarcely be written, because it would swell into a Golden Bough, requiring lifetime(s) of work in field anthropology to gather the necessary data, or even assimilate the scattered clues in old texts of various nations, cultures, and religions. Yet it is a task that must be done if we are ever really to understand what these experiences are, and how they grew into being. Zaleski's book is one of the very few that correctly sees and understands this issue. Most modern publications along with their authors believe that the NDE either arrived in 1975, or else is fundamentally the same across geography and history. Nothing could be further from the truth and are literal representations of real events. Just read a few Thai NDEs, and you'll see the problem much more efficiently than by reading my words here.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in NDEs and you haven't read this book, I would say it is like being interested in movies and not having seen Gone With the Wind.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Yes to New icons of the After Life, April 23, 2011
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There isn't enough space here to write a review that does justice to this book. It is an extra-rich and extra-comprehensive scholarly work It takes on the unusual task of comparing and contrasting return-from-death literature in medieval Christendom with similar stories in contemporary secular society that fall under the designation of "near-death experiences," all toward the end of demonstrating a means of solving the challenges of "meaning" that NDEs present to modern science and especially to religious orthodoxy. I may not be parsing my words carefully enough to convey the careful nuances involved in Carol Zaleski's purpose, but I think my statement is correct enough to give the reader a good "boiled down" idea of the kind of conclusions that the author will draw.

The book section that deals with NDEs covers about 100 pages in the last half. If you are reading this book because of an interest in NDEs, I'd say you should put it at the top of your list because Zaleski does a very good job of summarizing all the major "scientific" approaches to the controversies about NDEs, pro and con, and so she will save you the work of reading a lot of other books in an effort to formulate perspectives on the problems of what causes NDEs, whether or not there are really invariable characteristics of NDEs, whether or not they are always positive in their effects, etc. (Recall this book was published in 1987, and I think that since then more NDES about hell have come to light than she was aware of.) After examining all the scientific arguments that try to explain and support or debunk NDEs, Zaleski decides that the battle is not conclusive and must end in a draw.

Further, after Zaleski examines various attitudes from members of the Christian and some other types of religious communities, she decides to find a way to jump over the unresolved difficulties of the religious challenges and to state a way that she sees toward finding NDEs to be salutary and legitimately useful within a religious context. This is through an understanding of the "religious imagination" and how it works in narrative forms of visionary revelation. The long exposition of her entire book leads to her concluding argument that centers upon "religious imagination" and the use of symbolic language. She is excited about scholarship along these lines and, for the reader who may be interested in pursuing these concepts, she especially points in Chapter 3 (note 33) toward two articles and two books that deal with concepts of "religious imagination."

(Of interest, I note that she has written another book that is a brief meditation making use of NDEs interwoven with images from writings of the Church fathers ordered under the framework of the Prayer of the Hours, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and which material was presented as a lecture during the Easter Octave: Life in the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope: The Albert Cardinal Meyer Lectures, 1996.)

(Zaleski's PhD is from Harvard and she is Professor of World Religions at Smith College; is an editor for The Christian Century; collaborates with her husband Phillip on writings of religious scholarship; and happens also to write about the group called The Inklings which included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein.)

In the first chapter of this book, Zaleski provides a general overview of the types of otherworld journey literature that occur in cultures worldwide. In Chapter 2, she differentiates between the various typical characteristics and socio-religious purposes of the medieval forms of 1) the apocalyptic vision which had its prototype in the Vision of St. Paul--not the Scriptural account, but the influential, purportedly authentic, 3rd century manuscript in which Paul elaborated upon the details of his vision; 2) miracle and vision stories which had their well-springs in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great; 3) conversion visions such as the 8th century journey of Drythelm as recounted by the Venerable Bede; and 4) the pilgrimage experience with its prototype in the medievally well-known Purgatory of St. Patrick Having established this basis of the types of medieval visions that would compare well with the concept of the NDE, Zaleski goes on in three subsequent chapters to explore elaborately some typical medieval symbols and literary conventions found in near-death stories.

Zaleski deals with the question as to whether medieval otherworld visions contained some elements that were reportage of actual NDE experiences and actual other kinds of visions, and concludes that they did. She demonstrates how the literary conventions probably came to overlay and change the original vision report. This exposition was of interest to me because I approached the book with an idea that some actual NDEs might have been the basis for certain medieval literary works which did appear to contain descriptive details strikingly similar to those of modern NDE stories. Zaleski's treatment of medieval literature was so interesting, however, that I became even more fascinated with her accounts of the conventions of medieval death-vision literature. I must say that at first I thought the idea of comparing medieval vision literature and contemporary NDE stories was far-fetched and inappropriate, but I became fairly well convinced otherwise by her explanation about how and why medieval changes obscured the original reportage of near-death stories.

For the reader who can take the intellectual quality of her scholarly narrative, the book proves to be an amazing treasure trove of information. Further, at the back of the book are 37 pages of notes, a four-page list of primary resources of medieval vision literature, and a 19-page bibliography, so the book also provides a wealth of reference materials.

There's just a whole lot of information compressed into this book. This lady's learning and her ability to express it toward the end of illuminating the subject of otherworldly journeys past and present is more than remarkable. I found it very enjoyable to be stuffed with a feast of good learning, BUT, Zaleski's writing is sometimes so dense with concepts and conclusions that reading her book, simultaneous with creating intense interest in it, gave me a headache! Especially moving through the NDE sections and into her interpretive ending. It sometimes required a great deal of concentration and re-reading of sentences to follow her lead. I was relieved when I got to the end of the book! But, I cherish it as one terrific book!

Eventually, Zaleski's religious conclusions regarding NDEs have to do with the idea that our religious language and communication is based on "symbols," and she defines symbols after the mode of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Paul Tillich, and others, as something that participates in the reality it represents and which cannot be translated adequately into conceptual terms. Furthermore, religious imagination, or the capacity to create or appreciate religious symbols (which is demonstrated in Zaleski's analyses of literature and NDE accounts) can work with both universal patterns and idiosyncratic material to fuse the universal and particular into "a seamless whole." Theology, as a discipline of critical reflection on religious experience and religious language, cannot escape some fundamental limitations such as the lack of a mode of expression that combines both analytic and symbolic thought. According to Zaleski, our understanding of the transcendent comes to us and we communicate about it through the use of symbols. (For instance, when one says "God is dead," or "God is both Father and Mother.") Thus, theology's fundamental material will be symbol, and theology's task should be to assess the health of our symbols. Zaleski argues that one cannot really say whether a symbol is true or false, but only whether it is vital or weak. In order to diagnose the vitality of religious symbols, theology deals with ranges of experience that cannot be verified as ultimate truth. If we have no direct conceptual or sensory access to reality, then the only way to judge the validity of images and ideas is how well they serve "a remedial function, healing the intellect and the will." According to Zaleski, if we fully recognize the symbolic nature of near-death testimony, and accept the limits it imposes upon us, then we will be able to accord it a validity and value that would not otherwise be possible, and this will yield further insight into the visionary, imaginative, and therapeutic aspects of religious thought in general.

From my reading of the book, I did not have a clear understanding or firm grasp of most elements of the above-stated argument, which may be more my fault than the author's.

The author says that even the most potent images of God, good, and evil can lose potency over time, and sometimes what is needed is a "fresh gust of iconoclasm." She writes, "At its best, theology is the art of detecting and serving the changing needs of religious symbol systems; thus it proceeds in a rhythm of creation and destruction rather than a progressive conquest of truth....If we view theology in this way, as an essentially therapeutic rather than theoretic discipline, it is easier to come to terms with religious change while maintaining respect for tradition....What is needed is not the pursuit of superficial 'relevance' for its own sake, but a balance between preservation and innovation." She insists that theology and religious teaching and inquiry must deal not so much with truth-telling as with truth-seeking. She quotes Gregory the Great in support of her assertion that when we sit in judgment upon newly coined concepts of God, the soul, and immortality, we should consider the context in which they appear rather than measure them against "a narrow intellectual standard."

The social context of religion in our time is growing increasingly individualistic as many persons are choosing personal, solitary experience as a religious way amidst what Zaleski points out is a "dizzying array" of competing world views and paths. She sets up a formulation of the necessity for both social and personal validity in religious experience. Religious experience is invariably social and religion is a cultural system whose traditions reflect and promote social order and tend to value the group over the individual. In sum, Zaleski sees a deficiency in the social aspect of NDEs, "On a personal scale, a revelation must organize life into a meaningful whole, without excluding other experiences. On a social scale, it must create or serve a community, and on this score near-death testimony breaks down into private testaments which, despite their common features, have not mustered the collective energy to produce a coherent world-view. Those who experience near-death visions, as well as those who are affected by hearing them, still face the problem of finding a community and a context in which to search again for and apply the insights they have received."

Zaleski quotes William James as follows: "In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James uses psychological and medical observations to shed light on the nature of religious melancholy and joy, conversion, and mystical states, and shows that these subjective phenomena inhabit those same realms of human experience where the sublime coexists with the spurious. When it comes to questions of truth or value, however, James refuses to yield the privilege of interpretation to doctrinaire skeptics. Against 'medical materialists' and dogmatists of every stripe, he insists that an experience should not be evaluated on the basis of its origin; he proposes, instead, these general criteria: 'immediate luminousness....philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness.' Speaking in more traditional terms, he urges us to decide the validity of subjective religious phenomena solely on the basis of their 'fruits for life.'"

Although Zaleski faults James' viewpoint as too personalistic, lacking the needful social universality and broad religious importance, I tend to favor James' criteria as most nearly like my own with regard to willingness to accept and embrace the messages of most NDEs that I've heard about.

There are plenty more remarks and ideas that I'd like to cite, such as those in which she discusses how a belief in the afterlife has salutary personal and social effects, but this review is already over long. Not all passages of the book are difficult reading; some of the reading goes fast. It's an exceptional book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near Death Experiencs in Medieval and Modern Times, January 30, 2014
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For anyone interested in the subject of near-death experiences, this book gives a great historical take on what has happened to people in previous eras who had this type of natural adventure. Very transformational.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A PROFESSOR OF RELIGION ANALYZES BOTH MODERN AND ANCIENT NDEs, April 11, 2013
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This review is from: Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Paperback)
Carol Zaleski is Professor of World Religions at Smith College, and has also written books such as Life of the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope: The Albert Cardinal Meyer Lectures. She wrote in the Introduction to this 1987 book, "The purpose of this study is to examine the return-from-death story in two widely-separated settings: medieval Christendom and modern 'secular' and pluralistic society. Comparative study ... will disclose some of the ways in which the otherworld journey narrative is shaped by the social and historical situation in which it occurs... it will provide a new perspective on the question of how we might interpret the literature of otherworld visions." (Pg. 6)

After reviewing some early Christian eschatological literature, she notes, "medieval visions exhibit a similar profusion of barriers, obstacles, trials, and judgment scenes. My aim is not to systematize this material into a rational theology of judgment, but rather to examine prominent forms of expression, in order to appreciate the imaginative experience they convey." (Pg. 62)

She suggests, "the reasons for the appeal of contemporary near-death literature [e.g., Life After Life] are similar to those that swelled the ranks of the spiritualist movement in the second half of the nineteenth century and attracted public attention to the work of the early psychical researchers. Like spiritualism in its heyday, near-death studies give the impression of being nondogmatic, rational, empirical, even naturalistic... The purpose remains the same, however; experiential reports of life after death are popularly considered to be practical evidence which... will yield scientific confirmation of religious hopes. Moreover, near-death reports... are well suited to the peculiar blend of anxiety and optimism that characterizes the modern secular or liberal religious mentality." (Pg. 98-99)

She observes, "[Kenneth Ring's] description suggests that he wishes to reconcile his findings with those of [Raymond] Moody. The sound, the tunnel, and feelings of loneliness are features that occur only rarely in the reports Ring collected; yet he includes them in his model narrative, buffeted with 'mays' and 'ors' as if they were options he is unwilling to rule out, if only out of loyalty to his predecessor." (Pg. 107)

She points out, "The researchers agree that passage from darkness to light is a nearly universal sign of transition to a new phase of near-death experience; but they disagree on the timetable... This may surprise the reader who is trying to make the details fit a 'single, common path.' Such discrepancies occur not because of incoherence in individual reports, but because Moody, [Michael] Sabom, Ring, and others attempt to construct an overarching narrative by selecting typical features from a great number of differing accounts. In the interest of portraying near-death experience as in essense a unitary phenomenon, the researchers create a pattern out of the welter of various tunnels and paths, lights and presences, gardens and edifices." (Pg. 123)

She argues, "If near-death reports cannot be explained by drugs alone, there is good reason to consider other toxic conditions that may have hallucinogenic effects... Ernst A. Rodin, a neurologist who scrutinizes his own near-death experience... calls his near-death vision under surgery 'one of the most intense and happiest moments of my life,' [but] he concludes in retrospect that it was a 'toxic psychosis' induced by an oxygen-starved brain." (Pg. 165-166)

This is a fascinating, scholarly, critical examination of NDEs that is well worth the time of anyone studying such experiences.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars NDEs: "true in so far forth", September 14, 2013
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Zaleski's was the first scholarly study of modern "near-death experiences" (NDEs) that places them in some historical perspective, comparing them with a genre of medieval penitential literature based on the visionary journeys to heaven and hell by various saints, knights and monks. While the older form clearly sought to, literally, scare the Hell out of readers; today's NDEs, if anything, have generally served to comfort and uplift with assurances that there is "life after life" and that it is a kinder, gentler reality than previously believed. Both types of "visions" seem to have led to "conversions" on the part of the visionaries, transforming their lives for the better, which to Zaleski, seems to be the overriding point. To attempt to verify them objectively or "scientifically," she considers completely wrongheaded, since they are "symbolic expressions that can never be translated into direct observations or exact concepts."

In other words, such experiences may not be factually "true," but they're still symbolically valid, or in an expression used by American psychologist/philosopher William James, "true in so far forth." They may not "provide a direct transcript of the truth, but only because they act as a lure toward truth." But what truth? That heaven or hell is really like that? No, that the visionary has discovered "what death means to him at the core of his being," that "he or she has confronted "his own deeply held image and presentment of death." When looked at this way, Zaleski is sure the testimony of near-death visionaries "will begin to seem less foreign" to the rest of us. Or not.

I'd guess that would be the case mostly for academics like Zaleski, who are always pleased to discover popular phenomena that function as "symbols and archtypes for the individual psyche and society at large." The rest of us -- lay readers, skeptics, scientists and the visionaries themselves -- value such experiences only if we can be reasonably sure they correspond to reality. Indeed, most would probably echo Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor's reaction to a similar academic discussion of the Catholic eucharist at a cocktail party when she fumed "If it's just a symbol, I say to Hell with it!"
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