It is far more common nowadays to see references to the afterlife—angels playing harps, demons brandishing pitchforks, God among heavenly clouds, the fires of hell—in New Yorker cartoons than in serious Christian theological scholarship. Speculation about death and the afterlife seems to embarrass many of America's less-evangelical theologians, yet as Greg Garrett shows, popular culture in the U.S. has found rich ground for creative expression in what happens to us after death. The rock music of U2, Iron Maiden, and AC/DC, the storylines of TV's Lost, South Park, and Fantasy Island, the implied theology in films such as The Corpse Bride, Ghost, and Field of Dreams, the heavenly half-light of Thomas Kinkade's popular paintings, and the supernatural landscape of ghosts, shades, and waystations in the Harry Potter novels all speak to our hopes and fears about what comes next.
Greg Garrett scrutinizes a wide array of cultural productions to find the stories being told about what awaits us: depictions of heaven, hell, and purgatory, angels, demons, and ghosts, all offering at least an implied theology of life after death. The citizens of the imagined afterlife, whether in heaven, hell, on earth, or in between, are telling us about what awaits us, at once shaping and reflecting our deeply held—if sometimes inchoate—beliefs. They teach us about reward and punishment, about divine assistance in this life, about diabolical interference, and about other ways of being after we die. Especially fascinating are the frequent appearances of purgatory, limbo, and other in-between places. Such beliefs are dismissed by the Protestant majority, and quietly disparaged even by many Catholics. Yet many pop culture narratives represent departed souls who must earn some sort of redemption, complete some unfinished task, before passing on.
Garrett's incisive analysis sheds new light on what popular culture can tell us about the startlingly sharp divide between what modern people profess to believe and what they truly hope to find after death.