Many people worry that Mel Gibson’s brutal film about the crucifixion of Christ will bring out the worst in all of us. But New York Times columnist David Brooks is much more worried about Mitch Albom, the author whose sentimental story The Five People You Meet in Heaven has spent months on the bestseller lists. Albom, you may remember, wrote the runaway bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie.
“While religious dogmatism is always a danger,” Brooks writes, “it is less of a problem for us today than the soft-core spirituality that is its opposite. . . . We’ve got more to fear from the easygoing narcissism that is so much part of the atmosphere nobody even thinks to protest or get angry about it.” He’s right.
Perhaps the biggest indication of this religious narcissism, as Albom’s book demonstrates, shows up in our ideas about heaven. For the most part, rather than being a place where God is worshiped and glorified, Albom’s heaven, according to Brooks, is “an excellent therapy session” — a place where people from our past chat with us about the significance of our lives.
The therapeutic heaven isn’t the only vision of the afterlife that we find tempting. As a book review in Slate.com points out, we also love the idea of a heaven where we’ll experience unbridled luxury. Writer Adam Kirsch explains that this idea has been around for centuries, but a number of new books take it to unprecedented levels. For instance, according to the inspirational book A Travel Guide to Heaven, heaven is all about “having fun” in “the ultimate playground, created purely for our enjoyment.”
What the therapeutic heaven and the luxurious heaven have in common, Kirsch writes, is “their refusal of transcendence.” We tend to think of heaven as being all about us — the answer to all our questions, the end of all our sufferings, the beginning of endless fun and excitement, with what Kirsch calls a “cruise-director God” catering to our every whim.
It’s true that God has promised that heaven will be a place of joy, where our tears will be wiped away forever. But in concentrating completely on these aspects, we’ve lost sight of what heaven is ultimately about. As Kirsch speculates, “Instead of angelic choirs, it now seems,” according to the present theories, that “we will be greeted in heaven by the sound of a billion voices, all talking about themselves.” When you think about that, our self-centered visions of heaven start to look pretty awful.
Compare this idea with C. S. Lewis’s vision of heaven in his book The Great Divorce, in which new arrivals must learn to want God more than they want their own sins, their own desires, or even their own beloved family members. Only then can they experience the joy that God has prepared for them.
As Lewis wrote elsewhere, “a ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self . . . is the mark of Hell,” not of heaven, which is why the hellish violence of The Passion of the Christ paints a clearer picture of heaven — that is, what it cost to bring us there and whom we should look forward to meeting when we get there — than all the syrupy therapeutic or luxury visions we can ever make up for ourselves.
For further reading:
David Brooks, “Hooked on Heaven Lite,” New York Times, 9 March 2004. (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve. Or call 1-877-322-5527 for a copy.)
Adam Kirsch, “Paradise Lite,” Slate.com, 5 February 2004.
David Kuo, “Gimme That New-Time Religion — a Play-Doh Jesus,” Los Angeles Times, 8 March 2004.
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce(HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 edition).
BreakPoint Commentary No. 020731, “As I Lay Dying: Worldview and Life’s End.” (Free registration required.)
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040116, “Say It Ain’t So, Dave: Evangelicals and the Cultural Mainstream.”
Richard John Neuhaus, As I Lay Dying: Meditations upon Returning (Basic Books, 2002).
Mark Gauvreau Judge, “There and Back Again,” BreakPoint Online, 11 June 2002.
- M. Moore, “Knowing Scripture and the Power of God,” BreakPoint Online, 2 March 2004.
Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion (Eerdmans, 1994).
Cathleen Falsani, “The Next Great Awakening?” Chicago Sun-Times, 18 March 2004.