Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Visions of Jesus" Review

Yes, here is the review of Philip Wiebe's book "Visions of Jesus". For anyone who doesn't already know, "Visions of Jesus" is a book about contemporary visionary experiences with Jesus. One can really say it is a two part book. In the first part, the author, thru the use of magazine ads, fan letters, etc collects 30 stories in which individuals of all Genders, ages and  (nominal, conservative, etc) and theological opinions claim to have seen Jesus. Than, he goes thru church history, and cites a few more "Christic Apparitions" that have supposedly occurred. However, as Ken Pulliam briliantly reminds us in his own review of the book, there are far, far more Marian apparitions than Christic apparitions. The second part of the book is a critical analysis of psychological and neurological theories on hallucinations, and why Wiebe feels that they alone cannot account for certain details in the accounts. Misfortunatley for me, Wiebe's grasp of cognitive science and Psychology is far above my own, so I will not be commenting on this part of the book much. However, I will comment about the first part.

Now to begin, I'd like to challenge Weibe's claim that cases like these may be under reported since many of them came from his home province of BC, and some live near him (Pg 40). This is true, but one also has to keep in mind that he sent magazine ads to Religious magazines in Canada, America, Britain and Australia, as opposed to trying to stay within a geological boundary. So, it seems to me that he merely cherry picked cases that were impressive, and ignored ones that weren't. Also, considering that there were only 30 cases included, I think it's more coincidental that many stories come from BC and places near him than that they are significantly under reported. If there were 1000 cases studied, than this would be good evidence- but not 30.

Anyways, after reading the thirty modern cases he documents, I couldn't help but notice the interesting qualities they exhibit. For instance, in one of the cases, Jesus was seen and felt, and temporarily replaced a piece of furniture the visionary was currently leaning on. In another case, the Visionary could see Jesus, regardless of whether her eyes where open or closed. In most of the appearances, Jesus appeared as a solid figure, much like Apparitions supposedly do. Many cases also included him talking- sometimes without his lips in sync with the dialogue! In a few visions, Jesus could also be touched- feeling "warm". All these features remind me (and Wiebe) of the New Testament visions of Jesus in which he was supposedly solid and capable of communication and touch. And if that isn't enough, one case (Case #4) featured someone who supposedly "hated God" having an experience of Jesus himself after quietly one night admitting that Christianity might be true. Sounds like a possible candidate for Paul?

Wiebe, however, argues that these cases prove that Jesus was resurrected, and still appears to his followers today. I see them as evidence for the contrary. Anyways, despite Wiebe's argumentation in the later chapters, I still found one glaring problem with the accounts- one that makes me fairly sure that these are just hallucinations- and that's that they are all extremely Private occurrences. Of all 30 cases he brings to the table, only one features a collective apparition. And even that sole case is extremely dubious, to say the least. Furthermore, some of these cases occur in public, with many people present- yet, only one person can ever see them. Of all the cases I read, there are only five cases in which the Christic apparition leaves some sort of a trace on the environment:

Case #1. The recipient fell unconscious at church and had a vision of a heavenly city with Jesus, who offered her wine. When she woke up, she appeared to be drunk, and other church members claimed that they could smell wine coming from her mouth.

Case #2. The recipient battled an evil creature while in a state of being half awake/half asleep. Jesus occasionally appeared to him to help him, but was rejected, until the demon got too powerful and he finally accepted Jesus' help. During the "battle", his hysteric wife claims to have seen him levitate. Strangely enough, the wife never sees Jesus or the demon, and the man never noticed that he was levitating. The pets and children slept thru the whole thing.

Case #25. The recipient has a vision of Jesus in 18" deep snow. The spot where Jesus stood, about 3' in diameter, was bare ground, with no tracks leading to it or away from it. The visionary was unsure whether Jesus was transparent or not.

Case #26. The recipient had a skiing accident, in which he injured his neck vertebrae. He saw Jesus in the hospital and made a miraculous recovery. Jesus appeared somewhat transparent.

Case #27. The recipient saw Jesus standing over the bed of a sick friend, but looking at him. The recipient tried to touch Jesus, but he disappeared, touching the sick friend as he left. The sick friend jumps up, healed, and reports that he felt something touch him when it happened.

The cases are rather interesting. But, as I said before, we have no good reason to think that these coincidences are of divine origin. For all I know the rain gutter could've released a bunch of water that made the spot in the snow. And the little girl in church may have drank grape juice before the event, leading some to think it was wine. After all, the church she went to wasn't allowed to drink wine, remember? How would they know what it smelled like. Furthermore, Wiebe himself admitted that he could not verify the details of each account. And we all know how bad memory can be.

Anyways, there was one case that was very impressive. Apparently, according to Case #28, an entire congregation and a Pastor all saw Jesus appear in the middle of a sermon. And if that isn't enough for you, the apparition was filmed! Although this case may seem impressive now- the entire case looks far more like deliberate deception when you look at it more closely. Ken Pulliam had a very good response to this case (here) which I will not spoil for you. Another fierce critique of this case comes from, strangely enough, a Christian  apologist (here).

As I've said before, the second part of the book is far too complex for me to critique. What I do know, however, and what Pulliam points out quite rightly is that Cognitive scientists are learning more and more every day- so we shouldn't feel bad just because we don't have an answer now. Perhaps in the future, when we understand how the brain works better, will we be able to come up with a more complete theory that accounts for the types of experiences honest people like these have. After all, most Psychologists are atheists.

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