By Jeff Brumley
It’s a good thing so many films, books and television shows are fixated on life after death, Baylor University scholar Greg Garrett said. Because we need them.
“For many of us, if we don’t tell these stories about the afterlife then there’s a lot about this life that doesn’t make sense,” says Garrett, a professor of English who teaches courses in fiction and screenwriting at Baylor.
Garrett boasts a doctorate in English from Oklahoma State University, a master of divinity from the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, numerous short stories and books — including critically acclaimed novels — and various scholarly articles.
But Garrett has been enjoying the limelight lately because he has combined all those skills and interests with another set of specialties: Christian spirituality, homiletics theology, film and popular culture.
One product of that mix of academic and spiritual interests is Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, which was published in January by Oxford University Press.
‘Is there justice and mercy?’
Garrett says he has been struck by the steady decline on the one hand of religious adherence in the United States and other Western nations, and on the other by increasing fascination with the afterlife.
Many non-religious people, he says, are asking the same ontological questions human beings have always pondered.
“Does the cosmos care about me or is it indifferent? Is there justice and mercy? Is anyone looking out for us?”
Even if the answer is no, there may be comfort for some who believe they must set out on their own course and make their own meaning, he says.
But many others, while rejecting organized religions, still believe there is meaning and purpose to life and the universe. They also believe in an afterlife, Garrett says.
And that, he adds, may explain the huge popularity of novels and films that deal with vampires, zombies and other supernatural figures and themes.
Novels, films and television shows such as “Twilight,” “Harry Potter” and “Walking Dead” reveal a cultural yearning for, if not belief in, an afterlife and transcendent purpose to life.
The immensely popular “Twilight” series presented readers and viewers with a cast of human and undead characters caught in moral and romantic dilemmas.
Zombies present viewers with an array of possible meanings, from dark concepts of life after civilization to warnings against our own natures.
“If we are not careful we can become too much like zombies,” Garrett says. “We will just mindlessly consume, eating to eat again.”
These genres are “serving a lot of needs for them,” he says of viewers and readers who are outside traditional faith communities. “People are making meaning and understanding their lives — maybe not consciously — but being formed in some powerful way,” Garrett says.
But it’s not just those with no religious affiliation whose beliefs, hopes and fears about life after death are being worked out in popular books and films.
The “spiritual tourism” literary genre features sacred or everyday people who ascend to heaven or other realms. Ancient examples include some of the Old Testament prophets, St. John’s Revelation, Mohammed’s night trip to heaven and a seventh-century Irish monk’s visit to purgatory.
A more recent example was the bestseller The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. In it, Alex Malarkey recounts his death and subsequent visit to heaven. While the story turned out to be a hoax, its popularity among individuals and church groups displayed a yearning for more beyond this life.
“Prevailing stories about heaven” communicate the hope “that there is something better, some sort of recompense for our suffering,” Garrett says.
“It’s a fairly universal, human thing that when people have a transcendent vision, they want to tell the world about it.”
‘A powerful tool’
Garrett grew up Southern Baptist, which he says gives him some insight to strong beliefs about heaven and hell.
“I was raised in a tradition where everything is about the afterlife.”
Now an Episcopalian, Garrett says churches could use information from research and books like his to connect with many who are unchurched. Popular novels and films can tip churches off about the spiritual concerns of those who are unaffiliated. That in turn can help Christians connect with the faith.
“The ability to recognize the connections and explore those connections can be a powerful tool of evangelism.”