Heaven is a Place on Earth: Popular Culture Has More To Say About The Afterlife Than Religion

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John Gray reviews Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgement: the Afterlife in Popular Imagination.
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From Gilgamesh on, the afterlife has taken many guises. Our view is an incoherent projection of needs and impulses, irreconcilably at odds.

Entertaining Judgement: the Afterlife in Popular Imagination - Greg Garrett - Oxford University Press

The leading moral philosopher of the 19th century, Henry Sidgwick, spent much of his life looking for evidence that human consciousness survived bodily death. For this eminent Victorian (born in 1838, he died in 1900, having spent all his adult life as an academic in Cambridge), there had to be an afterlife if ethics was to have any meaning. If we are extinguished when we die, there can be no basis for morality – no reason why we shouldn’t follow the dictates of self-interest, or simply obey the whims of the moment. The only way of avoiding this “intolerable anarchy” was what he called “the Postulate of Immortality”. After devoting many years to investigating paranormal phenomena, he could find no convincing evidence that this postulate was well founded. An agnostic who in his intellectual life was never less than scrupulously honest, he died believing he had failed in his quest.

There was a curious postscript to Sidgwick’s life. Not long after he died, a medium who practised automatic writing – in which texts appear despite an absence of conscious awareness, with another mind seeming to be their author – began producing scripts purporting to be from the late philosopher. Most dealt with the mind/body question: how is consciousness related to the brain? One of the texts, however, dealt with Sidgwick’s search more directly. He had always been a seeker, the spectral author of the text wrote. Now he knew, from his immediate experience, that the human mind does continue after death. Yet he was as baffled as to the meaning of this posthumous existence as he had been regarding that of his earthly life. In a tone of earnest sadness echoing that found in Sidgwick’s writings, the text concluded: “We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of living by being born.”

Sidgwick’s contributions to ethics continue to be studied in universities, but you will find no discussion by philosophers of the fact that he regarded the search for proof of an afterlife as being at the heart of his work. For them, less intellectually adventurous and obsessively secular, the very idea that ethics might rely in any way on the idea of an afterlife is a relic of superstition. Popular culture, in this regard, is more interesting and more freethinking. As Greg Garrett writes, citing the cultural critic Clive Marsh, “Philosophy, theology and ethics are happening as furtive, incidental activities amid enjoying a supposedly escapist culture.”

In this wide-ranging, accessible and lively study, Garrett goes on to show how various kinds of afterlife are represented in films and television series, comics and music – all of them expressing beliefs and attitudes about how we ought to live.

In literature as ancient as the early Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, we find human beings speculating on what might follow death, expressing their hopes and fears, trying to make sense of death and how our actions in this life may affect what follows death. Today, through the music and imagery of rock bands . . . in the storylines of TV . . . in the wildly populist paintings of Thomas Kinkade . . . and within the supernatural landscape of ghosts, shades and other-worldly way stations in the Harry Potter novels and films . . . artists of all sorts continue to investigate these hopes and fears.

For some, the mythic worlds created by series such as Star Wars are more real and compelling than those of conventional religions. Citing a 2011 census, Garrett notes that while the “Jedi faith” has declined in recent years, its self-professed British adherents “remain sufficiently numerous for it to rank behind only Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism”. According to the census, the Jedi faith had 176,000 declared adherents in the UK, while those describing themselves as atheist numbered only 29,000.

The afterlife appears in mass media in many guises. Garrett covers depictions of heaven, hell, purgatory and a range of in-between states, including the one occupied by the undead. In zombie movies all of humankind is threatened with death of a peculiarly horrible kind. Ghost stories rely on the possibility that something of human intelligence persists after the dissolution of the body, while tales of vampires intimate that intelligent life can last for ever for those who subsist on human blood. In Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, death means the opposite of intelligent life: “Whatever we were before, our souls, our memories, those things that make us human, vanish – but our bodies, our disgusting, dead, decaying bodies, will go on consuming long after our souls have departed them.” It might be objected that these stories of zombies aren’t about the afterlife. What zombie stories depict is not another world but an apocalyptic transformation of life on earth.

In that respect, however, these stories hark back to the original teachings of Jesus. As Garrett observes, “There is almost nothing in the Bible about going to heaven and still less about hell.” He might have gone on to point out that Jesus had nothing to say about immortal souls going on into any afterlife. The gospel of the dissident Jewish prophet was a type of apocalyptic myth: the world was about to end – not figuratively, but literally. The dead would be resurrected and would enjoy eternal life in bodies that had been miraculously perfected. Zombie movies express the apocalyptic fears of a materialist culture – one that imagines human beings as complex machines that can easily go haywire. Conceived as a vast machine that might break down, the very planet becomes an object of dread. In a mode that plays on fear of ecological disaster, John Hillcoat’s film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road evokes an ashen, post-cataclysmic world, virtually drained of life, where cannibalism is normal. Apocalypse films are end-of-the-world visions for people who have forgotten or never known those that appear in the Bible and other religious texts.

Popular culture contains few, if any, convincing representations of a happy afterlife. Garrett cites Shangri-La, a Himalayan valley inhabited by happy near-immortals, as featured in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933), which became a Frank Capra film, shot in California and released in 1937. But both the book and the film seem to me to belong in a different genre – a variant of utopian fantasy, whose central theme is an impossibly peaceful and harmonious society, hidden away somewhere far from the conflicts of the familiar world. Capra later made It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), an exquisite fable in which the human world interacts with, and is changed by, a very human-looking angel; but the only heavenly afterlife in this story is the one to which the central character (a would-be suicide, magnificently played by James Stewart, who believes he is facing ruin as a result of trying to help others) returns when he is restored to his previous life, in which it turns out that he is not ruined at all. Heaven is the ordinary human world, as seen by someone who feared he had lost it for ever.

One feature of Entertaining Judgement is that most of the examples Garrett selects for discussion are recent and American. A centennial professor at Baylor University, where he teaches popular culture and theology, a writer of novels and short stories and a lay Episcopalian preacher, Garrett offers reference points that relate to contemporary American Christianity and its secular iterations in the media. He cites the television series Lost, featuring a group of survivors of a plane crash on a tropical island that seems initially to be uninhabited, as an exploration of the idea of purgatory. When suffering or disaster has stripped away everything that is not essential, he writes, what remains is human goodness. With its comforting message of redemption through human action, this is a distinctively American reading. Here and throughout the book, a wider range of references would have been useful.

Surprisingly, there is no discussion of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), arguably the subtlest and most moving exploration of the idea of the afterlife in popular culture. The film was released in the US under the title Stairway to Heaven. In fact, it contains no mention to heaven; much of its charm comes from the delicate ambiguity with which “the other world” is treated. (Powell and Pressburger objected to the American change of title but to no avail.)

It begins in the cockpit of a British bomber going down in flames after a mission over Germany, with the pilot expecting to die because his parachute has been damaged. Before he bails out, he communicates with a radio operator based in England. Finding himself on a seashore, he believes he is in the afterlife but soon becomes convinced that he has somehow survived. He meets the radio operator, and the two fall in love. Yet he is troubled by visions of a messenger from “the other world”, who admits to failing in his mission to conduct the pilot into the afterlife. According to all the laws governing the universe, the pilot should be dead, but he pleads against the judgement. His appeal, which takes place on a spectral stairway rising into the empyrean, is accepted. The film ends with the pilot in hospital, emerging from a successful operation. It is left open whether his visions of an afterworld were delusions caused by brain damage, or glimpses of another order of things.

The power of A Matter of Life and Death comes from the questions it poses about what human beings truly want from an afterlife. Many – including Sidgwick, whose search was driven by his fear of moral anarchy – look to a posthumous existence as a corrective to earthly injustice. Yet there is no intrinsic reason for thinking that survival of bodily death would allow an escape from unfairness. (Nor is it clear why surviving bodily death would make the survivor immortal, but that is another story.) If life after death were no more than a natural extension of our biological existence, as some 19th-century spiritualists believed, it could contain just as much suffering and unfairness. The afterlife might well be just as morally random as life here below.

Ancient pagan beliefs illustrate the point. Several kinds of posthumous existence – including the idyllic afterworld of Elysium – were envisioned in Greco-Roman myths; but there was no presumption that the moral failings of earthly life would be corrected, and admission to the Elysian Fields was restricted to mortals who were somehow related to the gods, or who had achieved distinction as heroes. The gods themselves were pleasure-loving, capricious and not notably moral; for ordinary mortals, the afterlife was a dim realm where witless shades of the human beings who had died wandered about glumly. The Roman dramatist and essayist Seneca (following Stoic and Epicurean traditions that Garrett doesn’t mention) believed that the fact that we die should not concern us, because we will no longer exist. The notion that surviving death would make sense of life, which Garrett takes for granted, relies on a monotheistic faith that the universe is governed by some sort of moral order. Otherwise, there is no reason to expect anything much from dying.

One of the questions explored in A Matter of Life and Death is whether we truly want a cosmos ruled by moral laws. The pilot appeals against the judgement that consigns him to death on the grounds that he has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice: if anyone is at fault, it is the celestial authorities that allowed him to live. There is, however, another strand to his plea. The laws that govern the universe must be broken on occasion, he argues, in order to protect what is most precious in life, which is not justice, but love. Even a world that was perfectly fair would be humanly intolerable if it ignored the demands of the heart.

“In most of our versions of paradise, sacred or secular, heaven is a place where dreams come true,” Garrett writes. True enough, yet what he omits to note is that human dreams of perfection are essentially contradictory. We may dream of a cosmos governed by moral laws but we also want one in which our cherished personal attachments can sometimes be exempted from these laws. We would like ourselves and those we love to be spared ageing and death; but if our wishes were granted, whether by divine decree or by means of the new technologies that futurists in Silicon Valley are coming up with, we would cease to be the creatures we are and become unrecognisable to one another. Our inability to form any coherent view of the afterlife results from it being a projection of needs and impulses that are irreconcilably at odds.

Now, as in the past, there are many who look to another life to resolve these conflicts, but the anarchy from which they seek to escape is inside themselves. This tumult is reflected in the best of the popular media, whose visions of the afterlife mirror the discordant yearnings and fears we have in our lives here below.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His new book, “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom”, will be published next month
Cover image: James Stewart and Donna Reed in “It's A Wonderful Life” (1946). Photo: Roland Grant Archive