Saturday, December 27, 2014

Greg Garrett's "Entertaining Judgment"

Greg Garrett, the 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University, is the author of twenty books of nonfiction, memoir, and fiction. His latest book is Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, which explores the stories we tell about death and the afterlife--and why we tell them.

BBC Radio has called Garrett "one of America's leading voices on religion and culture," and he has also written on such topics as spirituality and suffering, film, U2, Harry Potter, and the boom in superhero narratives.

Garrett applied the “Page 99 Test” to Entertaining Judgment and reported the following:
This turns out to be a useful exercise: Page 99 of Entertaining Judgment actually offers a pretty representative picture of what the book is trying to accomplish. Entertaining Judgment argues that much of what we know or think we know about death (and what follows) is a product of the human imagination. Page 99 is smack in the middle of my chapter on human imaginings of Heaven. In the chapter as a whole, I’m discussing literature, music, movies, art, and other forms of culture—as well as Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim holy texts—to see how human beings have tried to envision a positive form of afterlife.

Page 99 gives you a nice snapshot of the larger book, which takes on huge concepts by analyzing specific presentations of these abstract ideas across the centuries. In this particular photo, let’s imagine that you see parts of two bodies. Page 99 finds us at the end of a section exploring the heavenly archetype “Paradise.” On previous pages, I’ve been discussing how the idea of a place of joy and beauty distinct from our current existence gets developed in texts from The Grapes of Wrath to the cult classic Big Night (set in a failing restaurant called “Paradise”) to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

As the page opens, I’m finishing a close reading of Coldplay’s Grammy-nominated song “Paradise” and its bizarre but charming music video. Then I jump into another archetype of Heaven, “Elysium,” opening with this beautiful quotation from Homer’s The Odyssey and moving on to Shakespeare, Mozart, Tolkien, and the movies Gladiator and (natch) Elysium.

I do love me some Ford Madox Ford, and it turns out he’s mostly right about how the Page 99 project applies to Entertaining Judgment. Maybe no single page of my book could reveal the way I’m developing arguments about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and our current fascination with the undead, but Page 99 does at least show you the breadth of the texts I’m exploring to do it, and that makes it a snapshot worth keeping.

From page 99:
The lyrics [of “Paradise”] however, can take us only part of the way to Paradise. At several points, the song offers only “ooos” and soaring “Ohs,” since no words can properly capture the ineffable reality of the world beyond. The video for the song presents the idea of moving from an unsatisfactory reality to—or back to—a place of beauty and joy. The narrative in the video is bizarre but serviceable: an “elephant” (lead singer Chris Martin wearing an elephant costume) escapes from a dingy cell-like zoo cage (filmed, interestingly, at Paradise Wildlife Park, north of London), and makes his way to South Africa via bike, Tube, plane, and unicycle. At last, he meets up with the other members of Coldplay—also in elephant suits—and together they play the chorus and “ohs” against the beautiful backdrop of the setting African sun, until the scene suddenly shifts to the band onstage—still wearing their elephant heads. The brightly-colored stage set continues the motif and ties the idea of Paradise now to the band’s performance and the audience’s enjoyment of it. They have all entered—or returned to—some place where the cares of this world can be set aside, if only for the length of a song.

Heaven is not simply for moderns, of course; the Greeks spoke of a land called Elysium or the Elysian Fields in which the heroic, the faithful, and those related to the gods would live after death, enjoying the good life—or an even better one. In The Odyssey, Book Four, the god-prophet Proteus tells Menelaus, King of Sparta, about his ultimate fate:

…It’s not for you to die

and meet your fate in the stallion-land of Argos,

no, the deathless ones will sweep you off to the world’s end,

the Elysian Fields, where gold-haired Rhadamanthys waits,

here life glides on in immortal ease for mortal man;

no snow, no winter onslaught, never a downpour there

but night and day the Ocean River sends up breezes,

singing winds of the West refreshing all mankind.

All this because you are Helen’s husband now—

The gods count you the son-in-law of Zeus.
Learn more about Entertaining Judgment at the Oxford University Press website.

Writers Read: Greg Garrett.

--Marshal Zeringue