June 23, 2024

In the early days of the culture war, science stood on one side and religion on the other. In 1925, the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial hung on whether a Tennessee high-school instructor had violated state law by teaching human evolution. He was on trial, but it was really Charles Darwin who was on trial. Darwin won, and so, in a larger sense, did Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and the whole tsunami of advanced science that was setting the stage for the 20th century. By the time physicists and astronomers were exploring the origins of the universe, the whole “God made the world in 7 days” idea, even if you fervently believed it, did not pretend to be “science.”

But with the rise of the American Evangelical movement and its worldly political engine, the Christian Right, what once looked like a science-vs.-faith dichotomy began to break down. You could see this in the rise of the Christian “theory of evolution” — demonstrated in theme parks and museums — that posited the existence of dinosaurs walking side by side with prehistoric man. This was not your father’s Biblical literalism (unless I’m forgetting some New Testament verse that includes a Triceratops). And it was not something that was taught in anthropology class. Yet it was very much presented as the Christian historical version of scientific truth.  

It’s no coincidence that this happened just as science was coming under assault from right-wing politicians. The attacks on climate-change science, the resurrection of the war against Darwin — hell, even Donald Trump’s election denial is, at heart, anti-science (or maybe anti-math), championing Trump’s “faith” (in his own infallibility) over what we once called empirical reality. Part of how the right has used the Internet Age to further its goals is that you can’t have “empirical reality” in a world where everyone lives in his or her own reality.

Which brings us to “After Death,” a faith-based documentary that’s the latest release from Angel Studios, the game-changing distribution company that released “Sound of Freedom.” It’s a movie about near-death experiences (NDE), and as such it presents itself as an adjunct to medical science. Of all the experts, authors, and researchers interviewed in the film, the most pivotal is Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist whose first book, “Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation” (published in 1982), presented the experiences of 116 people who had undergone a near-death crisis. In “After Death,” Sabom offers his findings as hard-headed science and even encourages skepticism. He’s a drawling, white-haired avuncular figure in his late 70s, and this is his folksy way of saying, “I’m not doing a hard-sell on you. I’m just looking at evidence.” Tellingly, the film never mentions that he’s a devout Christian.

Sabom is a founding member of the International Association for Near Death Studies, and “After Death” includes other associates of that group. But what we learn early on, in listening to the testimony of those who claim to have had near-death experiences, is that their experiences are all the same. I’m exaggerating slightly, but not much.

Our first witness, Dale Black, is a retired airline pilot whose seminal near-death experience occurred in 1969. He and two other pilots had just taken off in a small plane from Hollywood Burbank Airport when the plane’s engine began to falter. They were 100 feet in the air when they went down. The plane crashed into a basilica (we see black-and-white photographs of the crash site). The two other pilots were killed; Black survived. And that means that he lived to tell of his experience, which is that he felt himself floating up, above the crash site, until he was looking down on it (seeing the other pilots and himself). And then he saw the white light…  

The 1960s and ’70s were a seminal time for the rise of belief. People began to believe in conspiracy theory (the two big early ones were the JFK assassination and, in a goofy but telling way, Paul Is Dead). They began to believe in New Age mysticism, in crop circles, in cult figures like Jim Jones and Charles Manson. And, building on the fabled story of what had happened in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, they began to believe not just in the existence of UFOs but in alien abduction. Hundreds — thousands — of witnesses started popping up to testify about what had happened to them when they’d been abducted by extraterrestrials.

These stories, too, weren’t just about the uncanny; they had an uncanny similarity. The aliens, as described, always looked just like the aliens at the end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (blobby white heads with slit eyes). The person would describe being taken into an alien spaceship, then dimly waking up, in a groggy half-consciousness, as they were being tinkered with in some ominous alien lab experiment. Then they would be dropped back off on earth.

Was this reality? I would call it mythology. But the eagerness to believe it ­— the eagerness to believe in something beyond the everyday life that we can all see and touch — was powerful. (Elon Musk is on record as believing in simulation theory, which holds that the world around us isn’t real.) That sense of an alternative belief system underlies the descriptions of near-death experiences, at least as they’re documented by the Christian researchers in “After Death.” The floating, the heightened “2001” acid-trip colors and incandescent light, the transcendent feelings of love and calm: It all sounds tantalizing, and it all sounds more than a little like a mythology.

What we discover, though, is that “After Death” is a Trojan Horse of a documentary. The film, as directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke (their style comes down to the tabloid-TV technique of bathing every talking-head moment in “revelatory” music), implies that it’s merely collecting near-death experiences as a responsible, fact-based documentary would do. The experts interviewed have advanced degrees!

Yet this is all a big come-on. The one piece of “powerful” non-subjective evidence is the (archival) testimony of Pam Reynolds, an American singer-songwriter who died in 2010, and who claimed, in 1991, at the age of 35, to have had a near-death experience during a brain operation. She, too, said that she floated out of her body and observed, from the air, everything that was going on. The proof, in this case, is that she later identified objects in the operating theater — a bone saw, the other surgical instruments laid out just like her father’s shed tools — that she couldn’t have known about otherwise. That’s the closest the movie comes to a “Whoa!” moment.

All of this, though, is just designed to whet the audience’s appetite for a gauzy extended advertisement for the Heaven that awaits you. About 30 minutes into the movie, God gets his first mention; 15 minutes later, we hear of our first near-death Jesus sighting. I’m not saying that renders the experiences invalid, but at this point we’ve left the realm of science. We have to take what everyone is saying on…well, faith.

The film is also a clandestine advertisement for faith healing. The reason there weren’t many near-death experiences 100 years ago is that medical science wasn’t advanced enough; it’s now far more common for a patient to come close to death, or be “clinically dead,” and then be resuscitated. That’s science. After a while, though, we start to notice that the film is presenting the recoveries themselves as miracles. By the end, the witnesses who’ve undergone these experiences are proselytizing, with beatific smiles, for the eternal life of the soul. That’s fine; maybe it’s even faith. But when faith feels compelled to sell itself by pretending it’s something else, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s propaganda.

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