Hooked on Heaven LiteBy DAVID BROOKS
Op-Ed Columnist - NY Times
March 9, 2004
Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom? Do you fear Gibson, the religious zealot, the man accused of narrow sectarianism and anti-Semitism, or Albom, the guy who writes sweet best sellers like "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven?"
I worry about Albom more, because while religious dogmatism is always a danger, it is less of a problem for us today than the soft-core spirituality that is its opposite. As any tour around the TV dial will make abundantly clear, we do not live in Mel Gibson's fire-and-brimstone universe. Instead, we live in a psychobabble nation. 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.
Albom is far from the worst of the schmaltzy shamans, but his fable "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" happens to sit at No. 3 on the Times best-seller list and pretty much exemplifies the zeitgeist. It's about an 83-year-old man who feels lonely, adrift and unimportant, and who dies while trying to save a little girl from a broken carnival ride.
He goes to heaven and meets five people who tell him that he is not alone and that his life was not unimportant. They reconcile him with his father, who had been cruel to him. They remind him of what a good person he was. He gets to spend time with his wife, whom he'd neglected and who died young. He is forgiven for the hurts he accidentally committed while alive.
All societies construct their own images of heaven. Most imagine a wondrous city or a verdant garden where human beings come face to face with God. But the heaven that is apparently popular with readers these days is nothing more than an excellent therapy session. In Albom's book, God, to the extent that he exists there, is sort of a genial Dr. Phil. When you go to his heaven, friends and helpers come and tell you how innately wonderful you are. They help you reach closure.
In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It's all about you.
Here, sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away. The language of good and evil is replaced by the language of trauma and recovery. There is no vice and virtue, no moral framework to locate the individual within the cosmic infinity of the universe. Instead there are just the right emotions - Do you feel good about yourself? - buttressed by an endless string of vague bromides about how special each person is, and how much we are all mystically connected in the flowing river of life.
"Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the `psychological man' of the 20th century seeks neither individual self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly militate against it," Christopher Lasch wrote in "The Culture of Narcissism." Lasch went on to call the therapeutic mentality an anti-religion that tries to liberate people from the idea that they should submit to a higher authority, so they can focus more obsessively on their own emotional needs.
Reading "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" is a sad experience because it conjures up a mass of people who, like its hero, feel lonely and unimportant. But instead of offering them the rich moral framework of organized religion or rigorous philosophy, instead of reminding them of the tough-minded exemplars of the Bible and history, books like Albom's throw the seekers remorselessly back upon themselves.
The flap over Gibson's movie reminds us that religion can be a dangerous thing. It can be coarsened into gore and bloodshed and used to foment hatred. But we're not living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Our general problem is not that we're too dogmatic. Our more common problems come from the other end of the continuum. Americans in the 21st century are more likely to be divorced from any sense of a creedal order, ignorant of the moral traditions that have come down to us through the ages and detached from the sense that we all owe obligations to a higher authority.
Sure, let's get angry at Mel Gibson if he deserves it. But let's not forget that the really corrosive cultural forces come in the form of the easygoing narcissism that surrounds us every day.
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