Century Marks

Century Marks

Wake-up call

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander believed that there is a scientific explanation for near-death experiences—until he had one of his own. What was unusual about his near-death experience was that his cortex, the part of the brain that makes us human, was inactivated during a seven-day coma. He has no doubt that his inner self was alive and well during that time. Through most of his near-death journey, Alexander was accompanied by a young woman. Without using words, she conveyed a three-part message to him: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” “You have nothing to fear.” “There is nothing you can do wrong.” He wants to spend the rest of his life studying consciousness and show that humans are much more than their physical brains (Proof of Heaven, Simon & Schuster, excerpted in Newsweek, October 8).

Normal belief

A Florida state judge has ruled that a schizophrenic man sitting on death row can be executed despite the fact that the legally insane are not supposed to be executed. The reason, the judge ruled, is that this murderer believes he is the “Prince of God” who will some day sit at God’s right hand. The judge said that since this is a normal Christian belief, it doesn’t prove the convicted man is crazy (The Week, October 26).

Strangely familiar

The King James Bible, Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer shaped the English language more than any other literature. The BCP, which is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its 1662 edition, was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, who was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VIII. Cranmer borrowed freely from the Sarum Missal, the Latin liturgy that the English Catholic Church had used for centuries, and he wrote many original prayers and collects. Cranmer wanted this prayer book to be for the people, not just the priesthood, so he used ordinary phrases and biblical similes, some of which live on in our language today (“for better, for worse,” “from ashes to ashes,” “peace in our time”). Echoes of the BCP can even be heard in the writings of secular authors like Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett (New Yorker, October 22).

Two strands of Islam

Islam from the beginning has urged moderation in religious practice, according to Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. “God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship,” the Qur’an says. Muhammad said, “Make things easy, do not make them difficult.” Two different streams of interpretations emerged in early Islam: one urged a literal application of the teachings of the Qur’an without regard to context or circumstances; the other urged flexibility of interpretation based on the social context of the day. The extreme literalists call into question the authenticity of moderate Muslims (Islam and the Arab Awakening, Oxford University Press).

Fourth strike

Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604), known for his generosity, approved the sale of church treasures to provide for poor people. He distributed food weekly, sent cooked rations daily to the sick and even had dishes from his own table given to the poor. Sabinian, Gregory’s successor, was much more miserly. Three times the deceased Gregory appeared to him in a vision, calling him to repentance. Getting no response, Gregory appeared a fourth time, striking Sabinian on the head with a staff. Sabinian died soon thereafter (R. A. Herrera, Mystics in Spite of Themselves, Eerdmans).