Visions of Jesus

Phillip H. Wiebe. Visions of Jesus: Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today, Oxford University Press, 1998.

While portions of this book of are of a chiefly theological character, there is much in it which should be of interest to Magonia readers. The core of the study deals with 28 cases of modern "Christic visions", in which people claim to have had a vision or other chiefly visual encounter with a figure they identify as Jesus Christ. These visions have much in common with the range of visionary material we have been studying, and much of Wiebe's commentary could apply to those as well.

He classifies the visions into four main categories: 1) those taking place in dream or trance-like states; 2) waking experiences in which the environment seems to change (what Green and McCreery called metachoric experiences); 3) those in which the figure of Jesus is seen as superimposed on the normal environment; 4) those of a collective character, or which seem to impact on the environment, i.e. produce physical evidence. Such a categorisation may be useful for a wider range of anomalous personal experiences.

Of the four cases of physical evidence mentioned here, three are essentially bounded by the narrative, i.e. the only evidence for it is that the narrator says it exists. Two of these were healings, and one a ground trace identical to those claimed in UFO reports: deep snow disappeared where Jesus stood, and there was a 3-foot diameter circle of burned grass. This suggests very much that we are dealing with a narrative convention in which anomalies in the environment are incorporated into narratives as "stigmata of the supernatural" marking places where theophanies occurred rather than a unique physical phenomenon.

One case of physical evidence involved an alleged film of the materialisation of Jesus in a Pentecostal church in Oakland, California, part of an ongoing series of paranormal events there. Various other people, including Wiebe himself as a teenager, remember seeing the film, but it comes as no surprise to Magonians that it is now reported stolen. Memories of the film differ, and some people who were present when it was shown do not appear to have any memory of it at all. Is there a connection here with the newish Fortean experience, memories of non-existent photographs, like the 'Thunderbird' photograph which has been dealt with at length in Strange magazine.

The general run of experiences do not look as though they have a common origin; some seem to relate to dream-like, possibly narcoleptic and epileptiform states, others fall into the hypnogogic/hypnopomic category, some within the context of spiritual crisis and religious conversion, while others have a strange matter-of-fact quality.

Of course it has to be borne in mind that what we are really dealing with here are personal memorates of experience, not experience itself, as Wiebe was not present when any of these events took place. In some cases the narratives do appear to be part of an established religious biography, particularly when the narrator is a religious professional of one sort or another. Wiebe examines a range of explanations for these experiences, supernatural, paranormal, psychological and neurological, not finding any of them truly satisfactory, but suggests that they may be tentatively interpreted as evidence of the transcendental. That conclusion he would admit must be a matter of personal faith, and he hints that such an interpretation would not necessarily contradict a naturalistic explanation at the empirical level. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, first published online 1998.

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