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Monday, December 06, 2004

Life in a Graveyard

It has literally been nearly twenty years since last I sat down to intentionally watch a broadcast television event. The occasion? Mitch Albom’s book-turned-movie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. It may become for the pagans what It’s a Wonderful Life has been for Christians – a ritual holiday event.

Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, have been raging for years about the Hollywood elite and their stranglehold on the culture. Nearly 20 books have been written on the slanders propagated by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code alone (and I must say, I contributed to that particular double-digit assault). We complain, and rightly so, about "art" like Piss Christ and the dung-smeared "portrait" of the Blessed Virgin, we wail about the Kinsey movie, we defend the Passion of the Christ against scurrilous attacks, in short, we get so defensive that we see demons behind every door.

It is an unfortunate mind-set. Why?

When something good comes along, we should trumpet it to the heavens. Instead, tired from our defense of Christianity and culture, we tend to collapse into the nearest soft chair and exclaim quietly to ourselves, "Finally! Something nice!"

This is likewise unfortunate. We should spend as much time, more time, applauding the good than we do excoriating the bad. But it is a sign of original sin that we do the reverse.

So, today I again fight against my own nature to point out this fact. The Five People You Meet in Heaven may have been written by a non-Christian, it may even have certain New Age tendencies, but it is an essentially Christian work. For those who have been exposed to neither the movie nor the book, the story is relatively simple. Eddie, a maintenance man at an amusement park dies and goes to heaven, where he meets five people who help him understand his life, where it was right and how it went wrong. The premise of the movie corresponds almost exactly to the Catholic understanding: nothing unclean can enter heaven, so we need to be cleansed of our imperfections before we meet God. This can happen on earth (though few of us spend enough time doing it) or in heaven’s mud-room, Purgatory.

Christian symbolism and references abound in the book, and to a lesser extent, in the movie. Four of the five encounters have implicit baptismal references (seashells, driving rain, ankle-deep snow and a river), while the fifth revolves around weddings. In each encounter, the person Eddie meets explains how some vice kept him from realizing a virtue. The story never uses the words "vice" and "virtue," of course, nor are the discussions even obviously a dialogue about these concepts, but that is what lies at the center of each discussion.
Though God’s name is only mentioned twice, and almost in passing, each mention turns out to be pivotal to understanding Eddie’s situation. Scripture references to both the Old and the New Testament are rich and tightly woven into the story line, written in with such enormous skill that most strike us only on a subliminal level.

While this would be enough to recommend the book to any Christian heart, the central importance of the book/movie is much deeper. Precisely because it discusses the virtues and vices in the context of pain, suffering and death, the book allows us to begin a discussion about death itself, a topic frequently and deliberately ignored in this culture.

You may think it odd to say death is ignored here and, to be sure, the cinematic depictions of explosions and corpses, mutilations and dismemberments are too numerous to count. Hollywood loves shows about coroners and suicides, murders and mayhem. But death, the contemplation of death that strikes any thinking person who walks through a cemetery, who tries to imagine each marker a coffin, each coffin a body, each body centered within a somber circle of family and friends, and the flesh encased in the dark earth, this is not encouraged. Understandably so. Nothing quite strikes the soul as the silence of the graveyard when a light breeze blows, caressing the cheek and waving the grass gently over the insensible dead. If your mind is racing, this will quiet it. The time spent there does not lend itself to fueling a shopping spree.

"As you are, I once was/As I am, you will be" – these are lines that could only be found in a graveyard. The reality is hard, especially hard for those who do not know God or do not trust what they know of Him. It is, for this reason, quite a remarkable thing that Mitch Albom’s book has been so popular. Our culture knows that it lacks, but it knows not how to answer that lack. For those who avoid Scripture like the plague, this story fills a void that cannot be filled. In short, like all good stories, it is para-Scriptural.

Tolkien used to describe Beowulf as a Christian story deliberately paganized in order to make it more palatable to a profane culture. Coming from a professor of medieval literature who used the same technique in his wildly successful Lord of the Rings novels, he clearly understood what we need today. A post-Christian culture won’t read Scripture because its members think they already know what is in it. They reject religious writings as childish baubles, religious faith as a relic of the unwashed savage. So, the savage culture their attitudes engender can only be returned to Christian virtue by deliberately masquerade.

Now, those who believe in evolution must necessarily also believe in devolution – the fact that some organisms will become extinct, cast aside by evolutionary process as useless. It never strikes the post-Christian savage that he may be numbered in that group. However, devolution, degeneracy, also called original sin - this is, of course, the central Christian doctrine describing man. Christians too often forget this. We treat with our opponents as if they had power when they, powerless, have really only a child’s crying need for God. Like a parent who delivers the necessary bitter medicine in a sweet ice cream treat, we might consider following the lead of Tolkien and Albom, deliberately paganizing the message so that the savage pagan children around us more easily accept the instruction.

To that end, there is a book that can help. Effective Habits of the Five People You Meet in Heaven, available through Bridegroom Press ( highlights the Scriptural and theological aspects of Albom’s story, helping Christians discuss it with their pagan friends. Once you see the references to Habbakuk and Genesis, to James and John, you can better discuss the power of the story that surrounds them. Pagans always seek out power, and that is the lever which will turn their hearts. We can teach them what they yearn to know. They would discover why Albom’s story is so powerful: well and good. We can show them the Cross that empowers it.

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