Ever since humans started telling stories about life, they have also told stories about life after life. We show an unquenchable obsession with the world beyond the grave, and today’s pop-culture narratives offer ample testimony to that fact.
In his workmanlike study Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination (Oxford University Press), Austin, Texas–based writer and scholar Greg Garrett explores this obsession. He looks not only at our tales of heaven and hell, but at tales of the undead (vampires and zombies), of death’s denizens (angels, demons, and the Devil), and of purgatory. For a relatively short book, Entertaining Judgment is a strikingly thorough inventory of these topics, as they appear in such movies and TV shows as The Hunger Games, Doctor Who, Lost, Field of Dreams, Twilight, and even, somehow, professional football. Garrett—a lay Episcopal preacher who teaches fiction, screenwriting, literature, film, and popular culture at Baylor University—manages to namecheck Dante, Milton, Barth, Augustine, and various mythological traditions.
Items of pop culture, Garrett says, can function as “alternative wisdom traditions of a sort, helping readers and viewers to find comfort and make meaning about ethical and spiritual questions.” They help us make sense of challenging concepts, and “along the way, they offer us some peace of mind.”
As a scholar and experienced writer—his previous books include The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in ‘The Matrix’ and The Gospel According to Hollywood, plus some works of fiction—Garrett writes rigorous, readable prose. It is clear he has spent plenty of time with the stories he writes about. He invests deeply in the stories as stories, not just as vehicles for religious or political messages.
Feeling Better about the Here
So what does our fascination with tales of the afterlife tell us? A few things, but the most important recurring theme in Entertaining Judgment is that we partake in narratives that ease anxiety about our lives. In other words, stories about the hereafter make us feel better about the here.
Tales of ghosts, for instance, “beckon us forward toward our future . . . to become the people we are called to become.” Stories from people who returned from the dead might “shine a light into the unknown and tell us something that might assuage our anxieties”; they tell us that human beings can change and grow. Vampire stories satisfy “our desire for an eternal life in which we will be perfected” and “tap into our spiritual and emotional desires to have that which is good now . . . and could only be better when we are perfected spiritual beings.”
Demons and devils may be symptoms of our failure to “take ourselves and our own evil seriously.” Angels teach us that “we are endowed with choice . . . that it is really up to us.” Tales of a heavenly realm have “helped to dry the tears of the suffering and offered the possibility of some greater meaning in our earthly lives.” Hell, too, can assuage doubts about the world’s goodness: For “every real-life spectacle that appalls or irritates—racial cleansing, chemical warfare, children kidnapped and held as sexual slaves, stop-and-go traffic—hell offers itself as a partial explanation, and as a powerful [image] that helps to explain, at least to some extent, the existence of such cruelty and suffering.”
There are more examples in this vein: Garrett argues that we seek out afterlife stories precisely because they offer satisfying answers to predeath dilemmas: “[A]s I have postulated all along,” Garrett writes, “these stories of life, death, and what comes after life are among our most important stories and among the most powerful ways that we wrestle with these big questions.”
Entertaining Judgment is comprehensive enough to make it a useful guide to popular culture and a handy starting place for conversations about the topics it covers. But as a work of cultural criticism, it is curiously unsatisfying. The reason took me a while to discern.
The book never answers the most vital of critical questions: So what? What is the underlying meaning of all these interesting observations? Pop culture can certainly reflect what we desire—in this case, according to Garrett, comfort in the midst of fear, an explanation for our suffering, and some hope that the world will not always be filled with grief and suffering.
So far, so good. But culture does not simply reflect us back to ourselves like a mirror; it also forms us. The more we engage with it, the more it rejiggers our imagination about who we are and what comes next. Garrett thinks it’s important to analyze TV, movies, books, video games, and other tales of the afterlife, because “as we enter into these stories, we too may be shaped for the better.” But beyond some hints, we never get a clear explanation of precisely what that shaping looks like.
Garrett’s final hope is that the book will encourage us to think and rethink our views of the afterlife and explain the lasting dramatic power of our favorite stories. “Above all,” he hopes that “because of conscious consideration of these stories, your suffering might be shorter and your wisdom increased, in this life and whatever might follow it.” Unfortunately, this emphasis on easing life’s burdens limits the book’s moral force. Certainly, stories about the afterlife reveal things about ourselves and our desires. But we ought to go one step further, admitting that they can reinforce an all-too-easy obsession with ourselves—with our salvation, our agency, our problems, our responsibilities.
Fear and Trembling
Contrast this solipsistic mindset with the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19–31. The parable implies that the person who experienced earthly comfort winds up in hell, whereas the poor man who experienced hell on earth is comforted in the hereafter. It’s important to note that the story wasn’t told to the poor and suffering to promise that their discomfort is only temporary; it was told to wealthy, comfortable Pharisees to make them feel uncomfortable, to arouse anxiety about their lives on earth.
That’s the real revelation of Entertaining Judgment: We don’t like that sort of anxiety one bit. Many of us prefer stories that bring pleasure, hope, and inspiration—not ones that challenge or even terrify us. If afterlife stories are mostly about assuring ourselves that heaven is real and hell is for bad people, how are we shaping (or misshaping) our imaginations about people who believe differently? Along with cultivating our longing for the resurrection of all things, are we also reminding ourselves to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Is our preference for inspiration making us more self-centered?
Garrett’s book tiptoes toward these questions but fails to ask them outright. Nonetheless, Entertaining Judgment could help nudge thoughtful readers toward the deeper plunge we so desperately need.
Alissa Wilkinson is CT’s chief film critic. She teaches English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City.
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