Throwing a Very Dim Light

Kenneth Ring and Eveylyn Elsaesser Valarino. Lessons From the Light; What We Can Learn From the Near Death Experience. Insight Books, 1998.

While this book has many of the appurtenances of an academic work - notes, references, a resource list and index - in reality it is much closer in tone to an evangelical polemic, extolling the wonders of the NDE, or at least the sanitised Ken Ring version, which does not include the neutral or even downright unpleasant variants reported by other investigators.

In the language of the tent evangelist Ring enthuses that just reading about NDE's can transform your life, to say nothing of curing your sore throat. This book may well represent very much the end stage of the desecularisation process for NDE studies.

I'm afraid that my impression is that if this book has any healing properties, it is becauce laughter is good for the soul, and parts are, unintentionally, quite funny; other sections are however rather irritating, or they are if you, like me, find a bunch of narcissists singing their own praises rather off-putting. Again and again NDE survivors tell us how wonderful and empathic and helpful they are. This amazing empathy does not always include members of their own family, and we get the usual pattern of family relationship breakdown, which, of course, are always "the other persons fault", particularly if the partners and family are dull, materialistic types who fail to appreciate what a wonderful, special person the NDE 'survivor' is.

Of course it would be surprising if a close encounter with one's own mortality did not often lead to revaluation of priorities. Some of the reactions rather belie the NDE's claims that they have received intimations of immortality; if you know you have an eternity of bliss awaiting you, a mere 40 years with the same old boring prat is a mere trifle. Realising that life is short, and you might as well live it to the full may lead to a different reaction.

Ring presents the stories in large part with a classical, gee-whiz attitude, and though occasionally the cooler reality , that a bunch of anecdotes doesn't actually prove anything breaks through, the gushing enthusiasm soon takes over, Confronted by the fact that a story about a NDE'er seeing a shoe on a hospital window ledge is reported as having occurred in two separate hospitals on opposite sides of the United States, he does not take the hint that this story may be a free floating piece of folklore, perhaps in the traditions of many hospitals (a suspicion rather confirmed by Sue Blackmore's inability to verify the original version of the story) - no it's much easier to believe that people just make a habit of leaving shoes on hospital window ledges, no doubt to attract passing astral travellers.

Ring makes several references to his previous book, Heading Towards Omega, but tactfully omits the predictions in that book of universal catastrophes occurring in 1988.

If all that the NDE cult, for despite Ring's disavowal that is clearly what is developing, were doing was providing solace for the terminally ill and the bereaved then one could say it is probably doing a fair deal of good and precious little harm. But there are much more worrying sub-texts: the plugging of the old Christian Science, New Thought line that illness is either, illusory or the sufferer's own fault, the millennialism which is quite prepared to envisage the deaths of billions on the road to the New Age, and the plugging of the old Panglosian lie that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.

Ring ends up telling us that the NDE's (or a favoured few of them) are messengers from God, and that "We can ask no more of these people, make no further inquiries or insist on additional proofs", ie the traditional religionist response of "shut up and don't ask awkward questions". -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 66, March 1999.

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