It must make the secular humanists grind their teeth at night. Mitch Albom wrote a recent best-seller entitled The Five People You Meet in Heaven. The protagonist dies and meets five different people in the afterlife; people who help him understand what his life was about. The success of the novel would be unremarkable, except for a couple of things. First, the book’s plot is shot through with New Testament imagery. Second, Mitch Albom is Jewish.
Why would Albom write a novel that re-tells the Gospel? Because people desperately need to hear it and they know it. Disney’s Hyperion imprint bought the manuscript, reviewers gushed over the book; Hallmark even created a made-for-TV movie adaptation, but no one seems to have realized the origins of the novel’s success. For those who haven’t read the novel and would like to, be warned that the plot is given away in the next few paragraphs. For those who want to consider what this means, keep reading.
To see how Albom did it would take a book, but we can briefly consider each of the novel’s five encounters. Some may think it a stretch to see in the Blue Man, the first encounter, a rendition of the Old Testament relationship between Yahweh and His Chosen People, but when the second encounter involves a soldier whose remains are hung in a tree, our suspicions grow. The third encounter is set at a diner, where a son tries to communicate with his father, with a mediator named Ruby, after the blood-red mineral; clearly a Last Supper resonance.
The fourth encounter with its wedding sequences reminds us of Christ the Bridegroom, especially since the wife he meets carries the French rendition of the name Daisy – the flower which has always symbolized the Christ child. The final encounter, though, puts the icing on the cake. Here he meets an innocent, a girl with the Filipino name for “star” standing on a white rock near a river. The white rock, the river, and the pure woman crowned with stars are all found in Revelation, as is the wedding feast from the preceding encounter. Supporting details make it clear these scenes were not accidental.
But his is not the only popular book to leverage the message of Scripture. While many people have attacked Dan Brown’s novel for it’s incredible historical inaccuracies, and rightly so, few have noted that he endorses three very Biblical principles: sex is holy, marriage is holy and women should be treated like an image and likeness of God (i.e., goddesses). True, these principles are dressed up in pagan garb, but their Scriptural relevance is no less weighty in the new disguise.
Once one gets used to reading the symbols, it is remarkable how much popular literature and movies simply re-hash the New Testament (the first Matrix movie, for instance, or the first edition of Blade). But this is nothing new. Consider Les Miserables, possibly the most successful novel of the mid-1800’s. A criminal, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread (Eucharist), escapes from jail and is set free from the police during his flight by a bishop’s silver. “Jean Valjean, my brother,” whispers the bishop as he sets him free, “you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you… and I give it to God.”
From that moment on, Jean Valjean is the major Christ figure in the book (there are several), pursued relentlessly by the Old Testament law, which finds its embodiment in the son of the prostitute, the police officer Javert. Valjean will rescue the daughter of a prostitute and raise her as his own. He will even toil through the sewers of Paris, just as Christ descended into Hell, in order to assure the marriage of the virgin he saved to her promised bridegroom. Meanwhile, Javert will complete the book and the baptismal imagery by drowning himself in the Seine thereby releasing Jean Valjean forever.
The stories that move us most deeply are not the bodice-rippers or the Vagina Monologues. They are, instead, those works that answer our crying need for God. “Sophisticated” readers simply require the Gospels to be hidden a little more deeply, so that we are not frightened by His too-near presence. Thus, despite all the well-founded worries to the contrary, there is something comforting in the fact that Albom and Brown are so popular. All hope is not lost. As Christians, you would think we would know that.
This essay is based on information that can be found in “Effective Habits of the Five People You Meet in Heaven” and “Fact and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code”, both by Steve Kellmeyer.