Should near-death experience researchers be held accountable for living to the standards envisioned in the experiences they write about?

On February 14, 2014, a Delaware jury convicted a man of waterboarding his companion’s daughter by holding her head under a faucet.

The man, as many of you will recognize, was the well-known near-death experience researcher and former pediatrician Melvin Morse (his license to practice was revoked following his arrest in 2012). He had been charged with three felonies, two for alleged waterboarding and one for alleged suffocation by hand, but was convicted of one felony — waterboarding in the bathtub — and five misdemeanors. His conviction could draw several years in prison. Sentencing is set for April 11.

The assaults on the child were the more horrifying because Morse is the author of Closer to the Light, the primary study of NDEs in children, as well as three other books about near-death experience. (One entirely false speculation, which continues to circulate widely, is that the waterboarding might have been an attempt to induce an NDE. This was the crack made by a police officer after the arrest, based solely on the topic of Morse’s 20-year-old book; but like most smart-alec humor it has no basis in likelihood.)

Within days of Morse’s arrest, commenters on his generally acclaimed books had hit the Amazon reviews, warning readers away. Closer to the Light, which until then had 33 five-star reviews and a smattering of lower ratings, erupted with one-star comments, now numbering 18.

    • “Do not buy this book. The author is a psychopath who had everyone fooled for a while…”
    • “… in light of these recent events, I feel that I should pull this and his other books from my shelves…”
    • “It’s horrific. Please don’t buy this monster’s book.”

Should the only book specifically about children’s near-death experiences—a book which, despite known flaws, has been enormously helpful to parents and once-child experiencers—be boycotted because of the criminal behavior of its deeply disturbed author? It is, of course, not a new question. Almost simultaneously with the Morse conviction, similar questions were being asked in other places, about other abuse.

Over at the Religion Dispatches site, Stephanie Krehbiel was posting “The Woody Allen Problem: How Do We Read Pacifist Theologian (and Sexual Abuser) John Howard Yoder?” She quotes Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times: “Can a bad person be a good theologian?”

Of Yoder, she says, “He drew people to religious nonviolence, and inspired legions of Christian intellectuals. Mennonites were proud to claim him.” And yet, female seminarians were being quietly warned, “Don’t ever be alone with John Howard Yoder behind a closed door—not in his office, not in a conference room, and not even in a classroom. It is not safe for women to be alone with him.”

Krebhiel writes:

Whenever these cases surface, they’re accompanied by a discussion about whether or not we can or should appreciate the work of artists and writers who are accused of doing terrible things. It’s a question without any satisfying categorical answer, which I suppose is why it generates so much copy. The nuances are endless: does it matter if the artist in question is alive or not? If he or she is dead, does it matter how long? Is there a difference between music that has words and music that doesn’t? Between loving a movie made by an alleged sex offender and loving a work of theology written by one? How on earth do we weigh all of this?

In the March 3 issue of The New Republic, senior editor Adam Kirsch tackles the same question with “Like It or Not, Movie Lovers Are Going to Forgive Woody Allen.”

“We knew as much about Allen’s alleged crimes in the early ‘90s…as we do today. But in the intervening years, the accusations have been draped in polite silence, so that people in Hollywood can continue to work with Allen and the public can continue to enjoy his films.”

But if the public continues to enjoy Allen despite the claims about him, why are reviewers boycotting Morse’s work? In a curious echo of Krehbiel’s comment about theology, Kirsch may hand us a clue: “An artist is not like a priest, who claims to live his truth; the artist’s job is only to find a form for his truth.”

Interesting! Near-death experiences occupy a territory quite close to and perhaps overlapping with the sacred; their messages routinely speak of peace and love and service—messages taught by the enduring religious traditions. I wonder if readers assume that near-death researchers, like priests, take as their own the truth of the experiences they write about. Could the rage at Morse be intensified by a belief that he should be held accountable for living out the peace and love and service of his book’s children and their angels? What do you think?

Adam Kirsch, “Like It or Not, Movie Lovers Are Going to Forgive Woody Allen.” The New Republic, March 3, 2014, 9-11.