The Paranormal in the Bible and in Old Norse Literature--Superstition?
At the beginning of this book, Kvastad says he has no intention of discussing the historical truth of the Norse sagas and the Bible, but rather of assessing whether the paranormal accounts in them "are possible according to contemporary science" (p. 46). Thus, the reader would expect the book to look at seemingly paranormal claims found in the Bible and the sagas (an odd combination, but more about that below) and set them alongside apparently similar nonreligious paranormal claims to see what contemporary parapsychological research has to say about them. For example, where characters in the Bible seem to predict events before they take place, the book would examine pre-cognitive experiences in general and survey the scientific literature concerning them. It would then ask what light these experiences and contemporary research throw on the ancient accounts, and go on to analyze the difference a religious context makes to these experiences.
From the point of view of biblical exegesis, such a book could show that the twentieth-century Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann's project of demythologizing the Bible--the preeminent and prevailing approach to the Bible for the last half-century warrants reevaluation. Bultmann (1952), who popularized the idea that Christian faith should not depend on historical research, claimed that accounts of paranormal activity in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are not to be treated as descriptions of objective events because they stand outside the accepted conventions of natural science, but instead interpreted or eliminated as myths (in the sense of fantasy). However, if parapsychological research into precognition, telepathy, and psychokinesis can show that these experiences are reported cross-culturally and transhistorically by nonbelievers and believers alike and are thus part of the natural flow of human experience, then their appearance in the Bible cannot be dismissed as the mythological cosmology of the age in which they were written. Rather, biblical scholars will need to reconsider the role and significance of these events as actual events within the biblical narratives.
From a different but related perspective, one in which paranormal events are thought to be the ground of Jesus' faith and of the faith that others had in him--that is, the idea that Jesus' spirituality, not to mention his authority, rested in large part on his paranormal abilities, his reputation for both working and also benefiting from miracles--an analysis which showed that Jesus' abilities were neither unique nor unusual would shift the emphasis away from what Jesus and other biblical figures did, in the way of special effects, and back toward how they lived and what they said or preached. Had Kvastad actually done this (and the topic has been suggested by both Catholic (Heaney, 1984) and Protestant (Kelsey, 1976) thinkers, it would have been an interesting and significant contribution to both the fields of religion and parapsychology.
Unfortunately, the book does not reference any exegetical scholarship, modern or otherwise, on such relevant topics as dating, authorship, background, and context of the various biblical texts, which is, to say the least, a considerable drawback in a book that looks to discuss the Bible. (1) The closest the book comes to a discussion of background research is a comment by the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther to the effect that the Bible was the "work of the Holy Spirit." What Luther or religion intend by this phrase is not gone into; Kvastad says this means that the Bible is the result of "automatic writing" (p. 304), and leaves it at that as if, having said that, there is nothing more to know. This is because Kvastad--who lists as his qualifications for writing this book, having been on the research committee of the Norwegian Parapsychological Society, a past member of the International Association for the Study of Near Death Experiences (IANDS), and the author of "a book in English on mysticism" (p. xv) which he does not name and which I could not find--is not really interested in exegesis, or for that matter, in meaning at all. What he is interested in is picking out, labeling, and piling up example after example of what he believes are paranormal incidents in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Norse sagas.
Before we look at these examples, Kvastad's lumping together of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Viking sagas, two living religions with one dead one, only makes sense when one realizes that Kvastad is not actually interested in religion at all. That is, he is nowhere concerned with the religious, absolute reality (he consistently mistakes the relative for absolute), values, holiness, or the sacred, and with how paranormal accounts in the Bible might function in relation to them. Rather, Kvastad's attention is focused exclusively on the paranormal and as a result he sees all three books as sagas, by which he means large, melodramatic stories featuring supernatural beings and paranormal activities. Indeed, he thinks of the Bible as "largely a dialogue between people and supernatural beings, who communicated either in speech or by telepathy, in visions or in dreams" (p. 317). Neither the content of that dialogue, nor even the possible meaning and significance of the mode of communication is mentioned, let alone discussed, in this book.
A slightly lesser problem, but a significant one from Kvastad's perspective, is that he lists examples from the sagas and the Bible as if they occurred independently in separate parts of the world and in isolation from one another. This is supposed to support his view that similar paranormal events arise everywhere. On the contrary, since the sagas he draws on for his examples are mainly the "Christian sagas" written after the conversion to Christianity (about 1000 C.E.), there is no question but that the sagas borrow from and are modeled on the earlier biblical texts. That is, while Kvastad is fight that accounts of paranormal activity feature in all the world's religions, his choice of texts does nothing to demonstrate this. It is worth noting, however, that no religion has ever disputed the appearance of paranormal phenomena in its texts; what has been debated (but is not touched on in this book), are the presumptions, consequences, and ramifications of that activity.
What does the book do? It lists, labels and categorizes by type of phenomenon. Since the format of Chapter 4 is repeated throughout the book, it serves as an instance of the whole. The chapter "Psi in Old Norse Literature and in the Bible" is divided into sections for each psi capacity. Each section consists of paragraph after paragraph of what Kvastad perceives as examples of the particular capacity. The examples are taken from the sagas, the Bible, characters in plays by Ibsen and Strindberg (perhaps the Norwegian equivalent of the English-speaking author's quoting from Shakespeare and, arguably, forgivable on that ground), and a range of unnamed, unattributed, and unverifiable sources. Of the latter, Kvastad frequently uses the phrase "some scholars [theologians, Christians, historians, etc] say..."--as in "A theologian once said, 'Man is a worm; but he can become a glowworm.' (p. 276)"--without identifying who those scholars are or where they said it. Typically, he resorts to such general statements as these: "It is said that, in Tibet, rats and birds are taught to meditate" (p. 70); "There is said to be a psychic Indian who finds free parking places through clairvoyance" (p. 124); "Once, when a certain woman became psychic her parrot rebuffed her"(p. 158); "The issue of the meaning of life has caused many philosophers to lose their minds, according to one of their own" (246); "A certain Dr. Wolf found that 85% of those who died of snakebite hadn't received a deadly dose of venom. It was faith that killed them" (p. 80). (2) Concerning that "certain Dr. Wolf," I searched in vain for the source of this astonishing study. Unfortunately, even where a study or claim is noted, the majority of the references in the endnotes section are in Norwegian and untranslated. It is also unfortunate that in a book that already has only a fraction of the notes it actually requires, in my copy 13 references cited in the text (notes 129 to 142) are missing from the endnotes.
There is no discernible standard or system for how the examples are selected. Or rather, the standard seems to be whatever items Kvastad comes across that strike his fancy and that he can make fit into one of his categories, no matter how incredible the story, no matter how questionable the source. In the chapter on "The Art of Medicine," Kvastad attacks alternative medicine, but it is clear that his choice of examples is highly biased. In fact, he pokes fun at "witchcraft medicine" because of its idea that 'like cures like,' seemingly unaware that this idea is behind vaccines (p. 327). Were it not for the so-called "witchcraft medicine," there might be no smallpox or polio vaccine. No distinction is made between the sagas and biblical narratives, scientific studies, and tabloid journalism; all are presented with the same degree of weight and authority. So, for example, under the heading "living corpses" which "some scholars" call 'tangible ghosts,' (p. 286) Kvastad claims that this is what "the church" (not clear which 'church' he is referring to) means by the resurrection of the body (p. 287). Leaving aside whether or not this is what the New Testament, not to mention any church, understands by the resurrection of the body (and let it emphatically be said, they don't), Kvastad then compares the biblical account of the resurrection with a book called "The Elvis Sightings," and with the following: "Some believe that Jesus appears even today. There was a newspaper article about someone who picked up a hitchhiker. The hiker asked, 'Do you know who Jesus is?' 'Yes,' the driver replied. 'I am Jesus,' said the hiker. The driver turned to look at the man but he had vanished. Some took this as a portent of Judgment Day" (pp. 290-91).
Even if one were willing to overlook the lack of attribution and the anything-and-everything gets included style (and the racism, "Mao Zedung, the red god of the yellow ones" [p. 105]), in the absence of any analysis or interpretation, the pile-up of examples quickly becomes tedious. Kvastad considers St. Paul's experience on the way to Damascus as, alternatively, a poltergeist outbreak, a UFO encounter, and a near-death experience. The one thing he does not consider is that it is in the first instance a "conversion" experience, and without that the rest is of little significance. Kvastad thinks that once something is labeled or named it can be dismissed. Thus, for example, when he says that the Book of Revelation "stems from an NDE" (p. 255), that is all he says. One wants to respond, 'You want to make something of that? Please?' Unfortunately, Kvastad doesn't. After he attributes the resurrection appearances to poltergeists, and calls Jesus a levitating ghost (p. 144), he's finished with the topic. One wants to ask him, 'And, so?' What difference, if any, does this make to Christian claims about the resurrection or Jesus?
Kvastad claims that the "apocalypse has NDE traits" (p. 254), when it ought to occur to him that NDEs may rather draw their imagery from apocalyptic accounts. He fails to see this entirely when it comes to UFO accounts, holding that Ezekiel's vision of the "heavenly throne" resembles a UFO sighting (p. 319). Rather, the reverse is more likely to be true: UFO sightings resemble biblical visions. It is a shame that by reducing one of the most significant visions of the Bible--which gave rise to its own distinct mystical tradition in Merkavah or 'Chariot' mysticism--to a UFO sighting, Kvastad plays right into the hands of those who dismiss parapsychology and any value it might have for religion. (3)
When it comes to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Kvastad makes errors that cast doubt on the validity of the rest of his claims. Three of them are particularly egregious:
1) In arguing that Jesus was precognitive he says: "it is only when details are mentioned that are difficult to know in a normal way that we should suspect precognition," and gives as an example here Jesus' predicting in Luke that the Jews would be exiled. He claims this is precognitive because "the notion that the Jews would be dispersed in Jesus' time was so bizarre that no one in Jesus' time would have accepted it" (p. 90). This is where some background reading on the Bible would have come in handy: at the time of Jesus the majority of Jews already lived in the diaspora.
2) He states that the relationship between the two texts "is much like prophecy and its fulfillment" (p. 82). This is an unconscious faith statement which requires imposing onto and reading into the Hebrew Bible connections that are not written in the text itself: one can read the Hebrew Bible from cover to cover and not find in it any mention of Jesus. To state this as fact as Kvastad does is wrong and irresponsible.
3) He also says that Jesus could be a reincarnation of John the Baptist. Since the gospels claim that John and Jesus knew each other even as far back as the womb, this makes no sense (p. 261).
Finally, although Kvastad says he is not concerned with the historical validity of the Bible and the sagas, this seems to be what he is getting at with his list of examples. The argument runs something like this: if paranormal events in the Bible and the sagas can be fit into the same categories as paranormal events outside of the Bible, then, if the ones outside can actually happen, so too by extension can those inside. Further, if the paranormal events could have taken place, then it is no small jump to contend that they did take place. (4) Taking the argument one step farther, why shouldn't this view that what could happen did happen cover all the events in the Bible and the sagas? However, assuming it could be shown that psi capacities exist in the wider and modern world and thus could have taken place in the ancient world, this does not render any psi event or any other event in the Bible historical. Reading a book and breaking the narrative down into categories according to types of phenomena (instances of telepathy, precognition, out-of-body experiences, etc.) says nothing about whether or not the narrative itself took place. If we fed all of the Harry Potter books into a computer and separated out all of the paranormal phenomena, and grouped similar phenomena into categories, this would still tell us nothing about whether or not these events actually occurred. Moreover, even if it could be shown that some of the phenomena in the books do actually occur in the real world, Harry Potter would still be a fictional character in a novel.
(1) Kvastad might have sought out an Icelandic historian, since he states without qualification that "Icelandic historians were educated Biblical exegetes" (p. 46).
(2) Along with the above I have a short list of quotes I would very much like to know the sources for: "Poltergeists can follow in the wake of a woman's orgasm" (p. 143); "Loose-tongued Free Masons have had their pictures struck with knives" (p. 59); "Pythagoras forbade the practice of sticking knives in people's footsteps" (p. 62); "Rich Americans lacquer their dog's claws in gold" (p. 159); "Today, in Jerusalem, tickets to heaven are on sale at a 'bargain price'" (p. 228).
(3) Kvastad does not help his case by claiming that God communicated telepathically to Jonah--and to the whale (p, 159).
(4) Kvastad frequently gets caught up in circular reasoning in which psi phenomena in the Bible and sagas are put forward to establish the case for the existence of some psi capacity when, in fact, the existence of the biblical phenomena is what needs to be demonstrated.
BULTMANN, R. (1952). Theology of the New Testament (Vol. 1). New York: Scribner, and London: SCM Press.
HEANEY, J. (1984). The Sacred and the psychic. NewYork: Paulist Press. KELSEY, M. (1976). The Christian and the supernatural. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
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|Publication:||The Journal of Parapsychology|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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