Ghosts, of a Sort

What happens when we die?  That question is perhaps THE question that drives just about everything we do.  Evangelicalism, masked behind love of Jesus, is really the desperate attempt to avoid Hell.  That idea is powerful and insidious.  The question of what happens, however, has also inspired a tremendous amount of literature.  Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is a recent example of how diverse such views may be.  Written mostly epitaphicly, it is a conversation among the spirits in the cemetery the night Willie Lincoln arrives among them.  Fearing what is beyond, these ghosts don’t admit they’re dead, but rather think themselves sick, awaiting recovery.  When the profoundly bereft Abraham Lincoln arrives to mourn his son, things begin to change.  

All through my reading of this book I found myself wondering about the many ways we conscious creatures reassure ourselves about death.  Materialists say it’s like the turning off of a lightbulb.  All goes dark and there is no soul to remember anything.  Many of them claim science for proof, although science has no way to measure the non-physical.  Various religious sentiments of the eastern hemisphere posit reincarnation until one’s soul reaches the point of no longer having to cycle through all of this again.  Here in the western world, influenced by a Zoroastrian-inspired Christianity, we posit a Heaven and Hell.  Some include various shades of Purgatory, which, to the classic Greek, would’ve sounded familiar.  Those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences often suggest a more dream-like reality of acceptance.

There are many more shades and nuances, of course.  We’ve entered the shadowy half of the year.  Those of us in temperate regions spend half of our lives with nights longer than the days.  Death, however, is generally a shunned topic.  We try to avoid talking about it since we really don’t know what comes after.  We have beliefs.  We have hopes.  We really just don’t know.  We often look to literature to help us explore these topics.  Lincoln in the Bardo does so with some humor, some sadness, and some soul-searching.  Those of us drawn to ghost stories naturally think about them as we wait later for the morning sky to lighten, and find it dark before we turn in for the night.  A great many options await us, some with a kind of historical anchor, and others that are completely made up for our edification.  The one thing they all have in common is they force us to think of that which we really don’t know.

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

Dead of Winter

WinterPeopleOne of the commonalities of all religions, I used to tell my students, is the concern with death. Not that all religions react to it in nearly the same way, but the fact is no religion ignores it. For people, obviously, our awareness of our own mortality marks us as indelibly as our birth does. Once we become aware of death, we will never be able to forget it. This inevitability fuels many horror stories, whether literary or cinematic. When I saw Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People, I knew that I would read it. Like most book consumers, I had to wait for the paperback edition, and once it was on offer I got a copy and waited for winter. Well, this year I’m still waiting for winter, but I began reading the story once the nights were long enough to qualify. It is an appropriate story for the season and it introduces what might be considered a kind of monster as well. Like most monsters, however, sleepers are not evil. The undead, however, have to find a way, ironically, to live.

The Winter People is a sad story, and tangled in the way that makes for successful novels. The main issue at play, however, is that with which all religions are concerned. Death is perhaps the most noble of literary subjects. Since we all have to face it, it is universal and yet somehow frightening. Fear of the unknown. The dead, unlike in the stories, don’t really come back to tell us what it’s like. Even those who do, in fiction, give us a distorted view. Theirs is a world inverted from our experience of it. It lacks finality. It is a place between. There is a macabre logic to it.

The living have never been comfortable with the dead. Memory reminds of who they were. McMahon is clear, in her vision, that memory is not who they are. We put them underground, but theologically we can’t let them go. Heaven, Nirvana, Purgatory, reincarnation, or even Hell—we feel that we need to give our dead a sense of place in a life after life. McMahon builds a sober mystery into her non-final afterlife. There are some, I’m sure, who will be kept up at night by her imagination. For me, I now have something to ponder. Many are the stories, like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, that warn of resurrection. We can’t keep the departed with us, and winter, when it comes, is a season of harsh reality.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Ghosts

Universities find themselves in a strange position vis-à-vis the supernatural. I suspect that many institutions of higher education are slightly embarrassed at the fact that universities began primarily as training grounds for clergy. We’ve moved away from all that superstition and now believe that only science leads to knowledge. That’s why I find the University of Virginia’s magazine article on ghosts so refreshing. We all know better than to expect a straight answer from academics faced with the awkward question of belief, but the campus magazine invited six department representatives to a discourse on ghosts. The article, which can be accessed online, asked Art History, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Literature, Neurology, and Archaeology faculty about ghosts. At least they were willing to talk about the subject.

Edgar Allan Poe's room at the University of Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe’s room at the University of Virginia

Even in this world where skeptical ridicule is an accepted part of academic practice, we can’t quite let go of the idea of ghosts. They are among the most ancient of beliefs, and even despite the proliferation of apps that let you add specters for any occasion of selfie or digital shot, people still see them often enough to make academics wonder what is going on. Since science only studies that which can be measured, we suppose ghosts lie outside that realm. Those who’ve popularized “scientific” approaches to ghost hunting on television don’t bring their scientific credentials to the discussion. Anyone can be taught to use technology. (Well, not anyone—I sometimes still find my computer at complete odds with me. Technically, however, it is just an inert piece of matter.) From time to time serious scientists have turned their attention to ghosts. Results have been inconclusive.

As the leaves are beginning to fall, and the temperature follows suit, we know that many months of long nights lie ahead. Trees without leaves and air without warmth tempt our minds to believe that perhaps the microscope can’t reveal all that exists in this world. Halloween, after all, has become a major spending holiday and that assures its veracity. Driving through town, it is clear that it is quite an investment for some. Down in Charlottesville they are hunched over their desks, writing lecture notes and grading papers. As the wind blows that empty branch against your window on a overcast evening, however, it won’t matter what department you call home. There will be ghosts about tonight.

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Conscientious Ghosts

It’s finally Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, NPR recently ran a story on ghosts. I’ve posted on the topic of ghosts several times since they are inherently a religious phenomenon, whether they actually exist or not. Empirical method only takes us as far as that terminal border, but not beyond. Since we all face death, the question of ghosts is intriguing to many people. In some parts of the world, according to the NPR story, up to about 90 percent of the population believes in ghosts. They have been part of the religious thought of humanity since writing began. Ghosts have haunted us from earliest memory.

What makes the NPR story so interesting is that there is a kind of moral consciousness that runs through the story. An interview with Tok Thompson, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, makes up part of the story. Thompson notes that ghost stories often concern unresolved justice issues. He cites the overused “Indian burial ground” motif as an example—where there is a collective guilt, ghosts tend to gather. Slavery is another such social injustice, and again, ghosts and slaves are no strangers. Christianity tended to push justice off into the afterlife. The fact is many people do not receive fair treatment in their lives. Some of them are very good folk who just never get a fair chance. That troubled early Christian thinkers into making Heaven into a place where the reward came. It also, unsuccessfully, tried to suppress the idea of ghosts. Ghosts problematize such easy theology. What are they still doing here when Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory should suffice?

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The NPR story even addresses the idea of possessed dolls. Tok Thompson notes that the word “doll” derives from the word “idol.” This sheds a whole new light on Barbie, I suppose. An idol is an image representing a deity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition religious statuary was problematic at first. Again, Christianity bucked the trend by allowing images because people naturally want to see what it is they believe. Stories of haunted dolls and statues and other inanimate devices are difficult to accept. They are, however, deeply religious. That’s because ghosts represent what we really believe. Death is the most parsimonious of thresholds. We can’t look over at the other side, but, if ghosts exist, they may give us a glimpse beyond human sight. And that seems like an awful decent thing to do.

Resurrinception

Inception_ver3Like most profound movies, Inception keeps me coming back repeatedly. I’ve already written a post on how the Theseus and minotaur myth lurk deep within the labyrinths of this film, but upon my most recent viewing a new angle caught my attention. In the first level down into Fischer’s dream, when Saito is unexpectedly shot, Eames asks Cobb, “What happens when we die?” It could be the question of a child faced with a dead pet for the first time. Of course, Eames refers to death in a dream under sedation, and limbo is the closest thing to spiritual death that a person can experience. The timing of that question, however, triggered in my head the number of resurrections that take place in the movie. I have frequently noted here that resurrection is a standard part of the tool kit for western movies, particularly American ones. We expect resurrection. So, finally, three layers down, a dream within a dream within a dream (even Poe would be proud), Saito dies. He is lost in limbo.

Limbo is a fuzzy theological construct thought up by the church for those who don’t deserve Heaven, or Hell, or even Purgatory. Some, it seems, end up in limbo. In Inception limbo is unconstructed sub-conscious, an area even Freud would fear to tread. Saito dies and goes to limbo. Fischer, meanwhile, also ends up in limbo because Mal shoots him dead in the third-level dream. Mal is already in limbo because she killed herself in real life—or was it a dream? Cobb, of course, must die to return to limbo to retrieve Saito so that he won’t be arrested when the plane lands. In limbo, three of the four escape, riding the kick back up to consciousness. Only after baptism in the first level dream, when the van plunges into the river, do the lost souls emerge. What happens after we die? Resurrection.

I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan planted a Christian idea in the viewers’ subconscious mind. Resurrection is part and parcel of our culture. Perhaps, however, this helps to explain the durability of some religious concepts. We long for resurrection on such a deep—maybe subconscious—level that we want to see it on the big screen. Even ghosts, we’re told, haunt because of unfinished business. It is Saito, the Japanese business mogul, however, who undergoes the most resurrections. He dies in the van underwater, in the fortified mountain hospital, and in limbo (perhaps in the elevator as well, but this is uncertain). His is a regular reincarnation of resurrections. Inception, I’m sure, will keep me coming back for more. One of the questions that none of us escapes while alive, is that uttered at the level of the dream.

The Good Magazine

IMG_0902I saw this magazine in a store recently. The temptation to buy it was compelling, but with international trips and a child about to start college to pay for, it felt a little superfluous. Presumably what was meant by this jaunty title, “The Bible: 50 Ways it can Change Your Life,“ was that by reading and applying the Bible and its precepts respectively, your life will be transformed. The problem is that there is no expiration date. Not to be too entrepreneurial with scripture, but how long do you have to apply all this before the blessings take hold? One of the criticisms atheists frequently bring to the discussion is that in order to explain the truly difficult aspects of the universe, the faithful often resort to laying claim to the divine mystery. God works in a mysterious way. Rationality squirms with discomfort at the thought of unsolvable mysteries. In our cause-and-effect world you might expect a fairly quick turnaround with the almighty. I know the Bible has changed, indeed, shaped my life. In more than 50 ways.

Lest I be accused of being too cynical, I feel obligated to explain that I grew up utterly convinced that the Bible was literally factual. Even working around the contradictions I studiously denied, it seemed that the goal was more to make your after-life better, rather than the one here and now. Too many nasty things attended living by the word. People were dying in the Good Book, in droves. The trade-off was a better world coming. If something transformative, in the prosperity gospel sense, were going to happen, it had plenty of time to come along in my younger years. Instead, the Bible led me to a foreshortened career in teaching it and a job in which applying its principles is a sure path to getting fired. Can the Bible change your life? It sure can.

The ways listed on the cover—live with eternity in mind, embrace your weakness, and love your enemies—all fit parts of the Bible. They are all part of “the secret” that makes for best-selling self-help books. The Bible, however, isn’t a book about making your life better. Taking Holy Writ at face value, you obey because that is what is demanded of you. Commandments have no suggestion of option about them. It’s not that I take the Bible lightly; quite the opposite. Something tells me, however, that if I need a magazine to help me figure it out, I must be missing something. Instead of reading the Bible, this is reading about the Bible. The iconic book is alive and well, even in this secular society.

Bleak December

Tragedy follows on tragedy in 2012. Maybe the world really is ending this year. Not even a week after a man accidentally shot his own seven-year-old son in western Pennsylvania, a gunman kills twenty school children, six adults and himself in Connecticut, and still the “Religious Right” advocates our God-given sanction to own guns. Various commenters rail that guns don’t kill people—please allow the evidence to disagree. Loudly. Violently. Twas the fortnight before Christmas and all through the school… Nightmare before Christmas indeed.

As a nation we have outlived our need for guns. The only real threat out there is other people who have guns. Even a simpleton can see that it is an insane spiral because no one trusts the other guy. A miniature arms race. A cold war within a nation, state, town, or school. Like the journalists who write the sad stories for the papers, I think of Virginia Tech, Columbine, and children who will never grow up. Wikipedia has an entire article entitled “School Shootings.” America has its own sub-page. I think of other children scarred for life because some people think that it is our right to “protect” ourselves. From what? Still, they’d swear it on a stack of Winchesters. Having been shunted around from job to job and apartment to apartment, I’ve lived next to many people that I found unstable and thank local laws that they were unarmed. The sack on Santa’s back this year is a sack of serpents, and it has been opened and there’s no way to get them back in.

If the Church wanted to make itself relevant again, all denominations would band together and demand stricter gun control. No, it won’t stop every madman from massacring children, but if the Christian community really believes the Gospel it claims, it is far better to die than to kill. The next world is supposed to be better than this. The mother of the shooter, Nancy Lanza, appears to have been the owner of the guns. Probably they made her feel safer. She is now cold in the morgue because of them. Along with a classroom of children in the school where she worked. As the families of the murdered face Christmas this year, they will think that 2012 is the year the world ended. If only it would. But then, nature, and gun-ownership-rights activists ensure a future much more bleak than that.

Nikodem Nijaki's photo of shoes on the Danube Promenade

Nikodem Nijaki’s photo of shoes on the Danube Promenade

Sweet Heaven

On a weekend trip to Waterbury, Vermont, I found the sweetest cemetery ever. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory features a Flavor Graveyard where tombstones to deceased flavors stand. The epitaphs are frequently witty and the experience is lighthearted for kids and adults alike. I wondered, as I stood there looking at the monument to Bovinity Divinity, at the persistence of the belief in an aftertaste—what I presume is a flavor’s version of an afterlife. We like to believe in something more, sometimes at the expense of the here and now. Nevertheless, Ben and Jerry stand for something more than quality ice cream. Theirs is a company with social consciousness, started by two young idealists who have managed to keep their integrity in spite of success. I couldn’t help but to feel impressed by the entire operation. Frozen dairy with a conscience.

The larger question, I suppose, is why success so frequently leads to a loss of concern for others. People possess differing levels of empathy, just as animals do, but it appears so starkly in the case of those who prefer their profit at the expense of others, sometimes even the entire remainder of the world. In a universe of one, no one is rich. And seeing a successful company that has managed to pull off relative equity in the world of business has proven that it is possible. Too many idealists let go too soon.

Perhaps it is the rarified air at higher elevation, or perhaps I’m being brushed with the wings of angels at this altitude closer to the celestial sphere, but this giddiness that I’m feeling is likely born of bonhomie. There is no necessary correlation between success and lack of concern for others. I am reminded of this as I walk to work in far away Manhattan. The sidewalks, even in posh business areas, host ambiguous stains and crushed cockroaches. Even the wealthy must step out of their limos sometimes. When they do, they will plant their feet on the same dirty sidewalks as the rest of us do. Their elevators may lift them to pristine heights, but the bottoms of their shoes are just as full of the remains of everyday lives as are mine. From now on, however, when I see Ben and Jerry wrappers among the detritus on the streets, I will be smiling, thinking about the aftertaste.

Final Flight

Back in the day before CD players, let alone MP3 files, my mom had a squat, boxy rectangle of a cassette-tape player. (Remember, I am a student of ancient history.) The cassettes we had were home recorded, scratching and hissing like a disgruntled cat, but they were the latest in technology. And, of course, they were religious in nature. One particular tape I still remember with terror. Narrated by a optimistically doleful bass male voice, it recorded the events surrounding those climbing aboard a plane bound for heaven, along with authentic jet noises. It was, of course, a thinly disguised metaphor for death, something I realized even as a child. As the passengers climbed aboard, anticipating that meeting with Jesus, I trembled in fear. They were all about to die.

I have never been particularly afraid of death. Not that I’m in a hurry to go there, but I have always sensed it as inevitable and therefore not worth worrying over excessively. I was one of those who grew up thinking quite a lot about it, viewing it from different angles, trying to make sense of it. I still do. While I was in England, Time magazine ran a cover story on Heaven. Now that my feet are back on the ground, I have been reading the story with interest since I’ve just been spending several hours on a jet in the sky. One of the most surprising elements in the story is the fact that some evangelical preachers are beginning to inform their flocks that heaven is what we make it here on earth.

This may not sound shocking to you, but having grown up evangelical I knew that the only reason we behaved so well all the time was so that we could get into Heaven when we died. This was the economic basis of salvation—you paid for Heaven in good deeds and correct belief. Not that you exactly earned it, but you did invest in it. This was the defining characteristic of Christianity. The suffering that is so obvious in the world (I saw three homeless men curled up together inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal just this morning) can harsh anyone’s paradise. The traditional “Christian” response has been to look past that to a shimmering, if imaginary, kingdom in the clouds. I am very surprised that some evangelical pastors are willing to risk their entire campaigning platform in order to help those in need. It’s getting so that it is hard to tell which way is up any more. Maybe that’s what happens when you spend too long on a plane bound for a mythical destination.

As on Earth

Today’s version of the afterlife requires simple assent to a belief system, at least according to prominent interpretations of some religions. Belief alone is enough to ensure an eternal reward. The ancient Egyptians, however, considered the path longer and more torturous. Anticipating modern GOP ideals, they believed that only the wealthiest deserved a place in the beautiful west, while the poor and struggling should just fade away with the sunset. At an even earlier period the afterlife was reserved for the king alone. Even he didn’t have an easy time of it, however. To get to the afterlife you had to face many perils and trials. To help him along, as a royal crib-sheet, many kings had the requisite spells inscribed on the inside walls of their pyramids. After time these “pyramid texts” were copied by the wealthy and inscribed inside their coffins. These “coffin texts” allowed the rich potentially to buy their way into eternity.

Eventually the afterlife became democratized. The spells were inscribed on scrolls and sold to those who could afford them. This final development gives us our “Book of the Dead.” Egyptians had an organic view of death as a continuation of life itself into the inevitable future. That future offered a continuation of the prejudices of the present. Kings continued to reign, peasants worked the fields of Osiris. It may have been work, but it was better than the alternative. Christianity’s version of the afterlife was strikingly fair. At first.

At first simply being resurrected was gift enough. After all, otherwise standing in line for martyrdom at an obscenely young age utter madness. Before long, however, like the Egyptians Christians began to create Heaven in their own image. Mary inherited the heathen title Queen of Heaven. When Heaven grew too crowded with questionable types, Purgatory was invented. Social stratification became a hallmark even among the clouds. Perhaps it is our primate biology, but we humans just can’t seem to accept and promote true equality. In that respect the Bible has become a kind of Christian book of the dead. Even eternal life seems to have its drawbacks.

Cemeteries and Certainties

A visit to Highgate Cemetery is a reminder of a different way of life. Built as a fashionable burial ground for an overcrowded London of the Victorian Era, the cemetery demonstrates a closeness of life and death that we have very much sublimated in the twenty-first century, as if by avoiding the topic we might make death go away. As a tour guide led us through the overgrown, moody grounds with ivy-covered tombstones and doleful trees, she explained how those of just over a century ago wove death and life into a continuous fabric with elaborate rituals of mourning and a sure sense of the afterlife. Monuments commissioned by the families of the departed used symbols from a variety of traditions syncretized to assure the survivors that death was not the final word. The departed, one presumes, had little concern in the matter.

Symbols from the newly discovered wonderland of ancient Egypt combined with classical symbols of Greco-Roman antiquity and Gothic revival combined to assure the living that death was not really the end after all. How easy it is to forget that death, for most of human history, was very near at hand. Only with our recent medical innovations and concern not to overpopulate our environment have developed nations (something certain religious sects blithely overlook in their enthusiasm to conquer the world by dint of numbers) been able to shove death into the dark corners of our minds. Unless inspired by ghost hunters, we seldom linger in cemeteries. We separate ourselves from the dying as if the inevitable were some disease we dread catching. We can’t reconcile ourselves with the most biological aspect of our lives.

The Egyptians did believe in an afterlife, but at first it was not a democratic one. Kings and courtiers might live forever but the common person was only accorded a brief time in this world. The idea that death could be cheated by religion eventually grew, and Christianity came to accept such assurances as a hallmark of faith. The symbols for that faith figured prominently in Highgate Cemetery. As we came out from the tour, I was reminded that the radical Karl Marx, champion of the proletariat, was buried just yards away. Even those we today recognize as having borne immortal ideas still rest in the same chilly ground. Is the hope that binds them with the heavens an illusion left over from ancient times or is resurrection an idea from which we just can’t escape?

Who Knows?

While I have nothing less than respect (and just slightly less than utter awe) for my alma mater of Edinburgh, I cannot help being bemused at times by the alumni magazine. Between my wife and I, when we fail to cover our tracks adequately, we receive almost as many alumni magazines as exclusive credit card offers. Anybody intelligent enough to graduate realizes that these magazines are attempts to raise money, but they maintain the illusion of giving actual news. Thus it was I found myself facing a pithy piece stating in no uncertain terms that “Near-death events are ‘tricks of mind.’” The rationale given is that psychologists at both Edinburgh and Cambridge have decided it is so.

Now, I’ve never had a near-death experience, nor do I really ever want to. I don’t know what to make of the stories of those who claim to have “crossed over.” The problem is, there can be no winner to the argument of authentic experience versus mind trick. Those who know, by definition, can’t tell. Each side has good points to make. Some religions, particularly those of western orientation, tend to offer an afterlife anyway, so when someone appears to have slipped over the edge and claims they saw a great light, well, why not? Scientists often make the equally valid point that the rapid images that occur in the brain may seem to stretch on into minutes or hours and may incorporate images that our culture lends us of what to expect when the darkness falls. The near-death experience is, they say, final jolts of electrical “noise” just before brain activity ceases.

Some things we just can’t know, even if we attended Edinburgh. “Near-death experiences are not paranormal but are triggered by a change in normal brain function, according to researchers.” So the article says. There seems nothing paranormal about death—it is as natural an event as exists. It is common to us all, including pets and pests. The “paranormal” is the idea that something continues after death. If that something includes a deity or two, it becomes “religious” rather than “paranormal.” Whether religious, psychological, or paranormal, intelligent people continue to debate what is actually happening to those who have been briefly dead and have the medical records to prove it. For my part, if there’s something on the other side, I hope it’s a lot like Edinburgh. Maybe with a few less alumni magazines, however.

Life, and then this.

Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.