Tag Archives: Heaven

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.

Popular Eternity

EntertainingJudgmentPopular culture, it seems to me, mediates reality. The media of various descriptions teach us what to think, and even if there is a religiously “orthodox” answer to questions, we will weigh it in the scales against what larger society says. This becomes clear in Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Garrett, a scholar of religion and popular culture, turns his attention to death in this book. More precisely, what happens after death. The usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and zombies are here, but also the realms of Heaven, Hell, and for the Catholics in the house, Purgatory. All of these are seen through the various lenses of movies, television, song, comic books, regular books, and games. It’s fair to say that we’re a culture obsessed with death. But then again, what culture isn’t? It may be just that it comes across more charming when there’s a buck to be made at it.

What I found interesting is that although the Bible has little to say about Heaven or Hell (and nothing at all about Purgatory), each of these realms has developed a canonical script. Hell is hot and fiery, Heaven is cool and cloudy. Purgatory is gloomy, but beyond that comes in mild, medium, and hot varieties. We know these things from various teachings of our respective religions. In popular media, however, the script has been changing. We now have mild unpleasantness passing for Hell, if it lasts forever. Nobody needs to get burned. Heaven, meanwhile, can be just okay. It’s certainly better than the other place. Or the other two. We’ve overused our superlatives and have been left feeling like we’re on antidepressants.

Polls continue to tell us that many, if not most, Americans believe in literal Heavens and Hells. A point Garrett raises, however, is they may not mean by that what their clergy assert to be the case. Since near death experiences are controversial, nobody can say that they’ve actually been to either place, or the third. The exception to this rule is those who work in fiction—in whatever form. Since we can see their visions of the afterlife so clearly they have become the arbiters of eternity, with or without any religious training. In this day of marketplace religion and nones, Heaven and Hell seem to have become secular. The church may have introduced the ideas (actually, they seem to go back to the Zoroastrians, but I’m thinking of American culture) but the media have taken them over. We may be secular, but we still die. Entertaining Judgment might give you an idea of what to expect, depending on whose vision you buy.

Heaven Unawares

UninvitedIn order to have this book fit my blog, I’ll begin with a spoiler alert. If you plan to read Cat Winters’ The Uninvited, I will be giving away information below. Please believe me when I say it’s not intended to be persnickety by this preface, but I know what it’s like to enter a book knowing too much.

When autumn comes around I like to find a ghost story or two to read, to settle into what seems to be a primal urge connecting harvest with death. Sometimes the books I find are advertised in places like the Library Journal, or Publishers Weekly (which I see more like biannually). More often than not, however, they are books that I spy at a store. The Uninvited stared at me from a table. I picked it up, read the blurbs, and put it back. A week later I stopped in again and picked it up. It is a moody tale set during the First World War and the influenza epidemic. That was a time, I suspect, of great fear. And many ghosts. It’s easy to see why Winters chose such a time to set a tale. Still, the narrative is gentle and despite the places where the language sounds too modern, it is artfully told. Like most ghost stories it is a love story. Seriously folks, here come some spoilers!

The protagonist, Ivy, falls in love with Daniel, a German immigrant living in Buchanan, Illinois during the war. Germans have been under suspicion and lynchings have occurred. We come to learn, as in many ghost stories, that the protagonist and her lover were both victims—he of a lynching, she of the flu. He’s aware they’re dead, she’s not. The novel is one of Ivy’s growing self-realization that she’s deceased. While avoiding those who spy on Germans, she discovers the joys of an interracial, prohibition-free (being prior to prohibition, of course, but the idea was in the air) club where jazz is played all night long. She wants to bring her lover to the club, which is just across the street from his apartment, but he is German and feels he would not be welcome. The reader at this point doesn’t realize the two are dead. Once Ivy discovers the truth, she realizes that the club is actually Heaven. The reluctant ghosts, lost, stay away. She tries to convince them to come.

Heaven has been portrayed in many ways in literature. Although I find jazz very difficult to bear (it is like being inside a beehive without a bee suit, to me) the idea that Heaven is complete and utter acceptance of who we are is a compelling one. Religions are often all about change—how we must alter who we are to merit Heaven or Nirvana or whatever might await us at the end. Winters suggests that it is a place where people can be who they are and nobody will try to make you be any different than you were created. It is a comforting idea. It is my personal hope, however, that there might be a few different clubs in town and that some of them might be playing music other than jazz.

Almost Heaven?

HeavenCanWaitLike most kids raised Protestant, I had little idea about the Catholic worldview.  Despite family wishes, I had Catholic friends, and topics such a Purgatory inevitably came up.  (Well, they did if you were me, with my insatiable interest in religion and its trappings.)  Purgatory was a concept both just and unjust at the same time. It seemed only fair to give people who’d made mistakes a chance at Heaven, yet, at the same time, to make them suffer when they already realized that they’d made mistakes seemed like, to put it bluntly, bad parenting.  The key was in the name: Purgatory.  A place to purge the evil.  Melvillian try pots. Given this background, I couldn’t wait to read Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. The afterlife is the ultimate 64-dollar question. It pays to be informed.

This fascinating study demonstrates that the idea of purgatory has long roots into Christian history. The Bible does mention Heaven and Hell, concepts borrowed from Zoroastrianism, but it doesn’t directly mention Purgatory. For this reason most Protestants reject it out of hand as Popish and superstitious.  Heaven Can Wait, however, explores how the idea grew into an almost inevitable aspect of Catholic theology. Most intriguing to me was the concept that, like Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven, Purgatory is a place on earth. Specifically, in many Medieval minds, in Ireland. There a cave of torments, guarded by monks, on an island in Lough Derg provided those brave enough to enter the chance to purge their sins before death.  In short, those who braved this cave could bypass Hell by suffering in advance.  Heaven on an installment plan, crudely put.  As Walsh Pasulka describes the accounts of Lough Derg, archetypes begin to fly thick and fast, like proverbial bats out of Hell. This single location, sometimes venerated by, sometimes destroyed by the church, was a vortex of torment.

Over time, as the rationalism of the Enlightenment settled in, the idea of a state of being having a physical locality led to changes in the concept of Purgatory.  The kids I knew took it for granted that it existed, and, with tween angst, accepted that that’s probably where they’d end up.  At least for a while.  Protestant that I was, my choices were a bit more stark. If I messed up, as I well knew I did, my torment would be neverending. Heaven Can Wait is a rewarding exploration of how an idea, logical in its original context, survived long after the worldview of the church had begun to change. Indeed, it survives to this very day.  And like most doctrines of the church, it has a way of scaring even the most inoffensive souls straight.

Heaven Can Wait

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” So the jingle goes. Or went. I’ve only met my upstairs neighbors once. Twice now. Apparently last weekend I slept through the fire alarm—one of the dangers of awaking ridiculously early on a daily basis. The neighbors found the source of the smoke and turned off the furnace in the basement, but told me first thing in the morning before the coffee really kicked in. I avoided a close call, perhaps. What if they’d not been home?

I have no delusions about understanding how the Internet works. I’m still trying to figure out the telegraph. Perhaps having this inconsequential blog has put me on somebody’s radar, or maybe it’s just some bored robot that searches for strange combinations of words in the wee hours of the night. In any case, I ended up with an email with the trailer for Heaven Is For Real embedded in it. I recall when the book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and I suppose the Easter weekend release date is no coincidence, but the trailer still bothered me a bit. It’s not the resurrection part—the film industry wouldn’t get very far without that trope—but it is the implications of what heaven would be like. I haven’t read the book, but apparently Colton Burpo had a near-death experience and then for a considerable time afterward began describing things that were impossible for him to know. A miscarriage where his sister died, what his grandfather looked like as a young man, what his parents were doing when he was dead in the hospital. Talk about your spooky effects at a distance!

Despite my penchant for watching scary movies, I don’t think I’ll see Heaven Is For Real. There’s just too much emotional build-up here, and Life After Life traumatized me for weeks a couple decades back. Still, I am very interested in the possible explanations for what might have been going on. Near-death experiences have never been adequately explained. Scientists suggest that a lot can happen in a complex brain in a matter of nano-seconds, and we have no chronograph precise enough to know whether the thoughts and images happened before death, during death, or during resuscitation. Still, how people frequently know precisely where others were, who were not in the room at the time, and how they heard things that, medically speaking, they couldn’t have heard, remains eerie and hopeful at the same time. What does appear to be without question is that consciousness is far from being explained.

Botticini's vision

Botticini’s vision

Heaven is always described as pleasant. That concept differs radically for people, and you have to wonder how it can be one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer to be in crowds, while others like to be alone. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. And those who experience near-death phenomena often report having a body of some sort “up there.” Some people would prefer a different body. According to the trailer, Colton says we’re all young over yonder. For me, such things are far more about questions than answers. We don’t know what goes on after death. Nearly every religion ever invented says that clearly there’s more to the story. Some say we come back, others say we stay away. Maybe it is different for each. Maybe it is just a matter of having good neighbors after all.

More Fun than a Barrel

To mere mortal eyes, a traffic barrel on a Manhattan street might seem like a pretty gritty object, hardly worthy of religious veneration. Seeing leaflets advertising eternal life taped to these barrels might suggest a profound disconnect—what hath Heaven to do with traffic control?—unless one is familiar with the ardor of religious devotion. And besides, many construction sites in Midtown bear the infamous “Post No Bills” warning. When I spotted a few of these informal fliers over the past few days, however, I couldn’t help but think about religious conviction. As someone raised in an evangelical tradition, it is difficult to convey the fear in which I found myself living. Hell seemed like more of a constant threat than Heaven was ever a promise. And my young experience in a blue-collar setting had taught me that you seldom get what you hope for, no matter how hard you work for it. Somehow, no matter how good I tried to be, Hell seemed more likely than Heaven. And the Bible does suggest that if you don’t try to tell others, you’ll be held eternally responsible.

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Religious conviction and fear are not far apart. I recently spoke with a Roman Catholic believer who suggested that the fear of God has been under-emphasized of late. I do suspect that it has been parodied quite a bit, but it is difficult to assess if it has truly gone underground. Perhaps among theologians it has. Like most people, I don’t read theology. For the average believer, however, fear probably plays some part in the equation that keeps her/him coming back week after week to hear the same message over and over. My daughter sent me a flier that has been appearing all over her college campus. It is a bit ambiguous, but from my own college days I recall that the young are especially vulnerable to religious coercion. Conviction is like that.

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From my own college days I recall the earnest discussions about how far one should go to convert others. The underlying motive was always fear. Getting into Hell is so easy—we were born to it, according to some. If you just live you life as a good person, helping others and trying to improve the world, you’ll still end up there. Such is the power of eternal punishment. One of my friends, when he went to restaurants, would leave a religious tract instead of a tip for the working-class waitresses. “It’s far more valuable,” he explained, without a trace of irony. I wouldn’t be surprised to find one of those tracts taped to a dirty old traffic barrel these days. Sometimes the ardor with which we approach religion simply overlooks the more obvious implications.

Where No One has Gone Before

766px-VoyagerI already miss Voyager. Not that I ever met her, but I followed her progress from her youngest days and to when she was a curious youngster flirting with Jupiter and Saturn, to her more circumspect considerations of the outer gas giants. An extension of human curiosity itself, Voyager 1, like the Energizer Bunny, just kept going and going and going, revealing a solar system more beautiful and complex than we earth-bound denizens knew. And she didn’t see God. Ancient people had always supposed, given the human disposition to climbing, that God was somewhere above us. Even the discovery that we live on a globe didn’t really change that—we are still down here, so God must still be up there. Voyager 1 has traveled 11 billion miles with nary a glance at the divine, and she is now the first human-made object, besides perhaps God, to exit the solar system.

Space has always been a personal fascination. I took astronomy both in a Cold War era high school that actually had a working planetarium (in a very moderate-income town, even!), and in college (where there was no planetarium). In unguarded moments I even considered astronomy as a career. I don’t have the “right stuff” to be an astronaut, but I can stare at the sky for hours and wonder. Voyager was out there doing things I’d never do, seeing what I could never see, experiencing the deathly frigidity of cold, cold space. And now she’s leaving home. No one is certain how long she’ll keep serving humanity with new images and information. It will take her a long, long time to reach anywhere else, unless she’s abducted by aliens. In the meantime, all of us down here will age and die, as will the next few generations. Voyager will simply keep going.

Space is beautiful in its solitude. The objects that we’ve glimpsed out there have been full of wonder and mystery. Still, we are told, it is mostly empty space. Or dark matter. Perhaps because of the active volcanos on our own planet we were once told that Hell lay under our feet. There is a fiery world below, to be sure, as science has demonstrated. We call it the mantel rather than Hell, and visits to it are decidedly short-lived rather than eternal, but ancient religious thinkers got the temperature about right. If the analogy holds, Voyager 1 may yet meet some kind of deity out there. She, after all, has escaped the solar system and has slipped into Heaven. In order to explore eternity, we need to boldly let her go where no device has gone before. Although I never really knew her, I already miss Voyager 1 badly.