"They killed Kenny!": "South Park," "Lost," "Batman" and our modern sense of heaven

Is heaven a place on earth? A bar that plays your favorite song? How pop culture shapes our sense of the afterlife

Published January 17, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

    (Comedy Central)
(Comedy Central)

Excerpted from "Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination"

As the sun begins to set, a baseball player, John Kinsella, walks across a baseball diamond incongruously nestled within an Iowa cornfield. Beside him is Ray, the son he had never expected to see again. Things had ended badly between them, with pain and sadness on both sides, and now John can scarcely take his eyes off Ray, who not surprisingly seems just as amazed to see his father. After all, John died years ago, and Ray now appears older than this uniformed ballplayer who is a walking, talking version of those old photos of his dad before he married and settled into family life.

“It’s so beautiful here,” John says. “For me—well, for me, it’s like a dream come true. Can I ask you something? Is this—is this heaven?”

Ray Kinsella shrugs a little and looks abashed. Strangely enough, it’s not the first time a dead person has asked him this question about the ballpark he built in the middle of his cornfield.

“It’s Iowa,” he answers sheepishly.



“I could have sworn it was heaven.” John Kinsella turns away to gather up his baseball equipment, but his question has sparked an equally important one for Ray.

“Is—is there a heaven?”

John turns, gazes unblinking at his son, and says, without a shred of doubt, “Oh, yeah. It’s the place dreams come true.”

Is this heaven? Is there a heaven? The questions raised in the movie "Field of Dreams" are the ones we all ask about the afterlife. They haunt us because, unlike other knowledge we seek, they cannot be answered from our store of experience. No one living truly knows the answer to these mysteries: Where did we come from? What happens to us when we die? Is there another form of existence then? Are there consequences or rewards in that next life—if there is one—for the things we did in this life? If there are consequences, will we proceed directly to our final state of being, or will we be required (or permitted) to pursue some intermediary step first? Is there a God? A devil? Is anyone up there (or down there!) looking after, or over, us?

These questions express our deepest concerns about existence. We wonder if there is a guiding intelligence behind the universe. If there is, what does that intelligence feel about us? And all of this is our way of approaching the underlying question: Is the future to be longed for or feared?

Many believe that after this life our souls, perhaps in our resurrected bodies, will continue to exist. The concept of an afterlife is a part of most religious traditions, whether that next life is thought of as a place of reward, punishment, or transition, and almost all of us are familiar with some of these religious and cultural constructions of what might come next. Our sacred texts and religious traditions attempt to provide answers to our seemingly unanswerable questions, and they ask only that we accept them through the eyes of faith. What awaits us, religion teaches, may be heaven, hell, or purgatory—realms of the blessed, of the damned, and of the not-yet-worthy. These are dominant understandings of the afterlife in the West, all of them conditioned on our behavior in this life and on our efforts to be faithful to our beliefs, or, at the very least, to be good human beings. As Miles, the narrator of John Green’s "Looking for Alaska," notes in writing his final exam on the afterlife for his world religions class, “People, I thought, wanted security. They couldn’t bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn’t bear the thought of their loved ones not existing, and couldn’t even imagine themselves not existing. I finally decided that people believed in an afterlife because they couldn’t bear not to.”

As we see from "Looking for Alaska," cultural and narrative understandings can also help to shape our ideas about these future places or states of being; our perceptions of sacred as well as secular matters are always being informed by secular texts as well as by holy ones. Recalling Mark Twain’s observation that people of his day learned more of their religion from plays, novels, and the Christmas story than from sermons, Lynn Schofield Clark notes that “today, as then, central beliefs concerning the realm beyond this world and the afterlife come from many, often unexpected sources.”

This is true whether we’re talking about heaven, hell, or purgatory. It’s true about our understanding of supernatural creatures like demons, angels, and spirits. It’s even true about our ideas about God, the devil, and other divine or diabolical forces. We rely on this imaginative help because our holy books leave a lot to be desired as authoritative sources of information about the afterlife. The Bible and the Qur’an include some references to the realms of paradise and of eternal punishment, but not many. As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has noted, there is almost nothing in the Bible about going to heaven and still less about hell. Although many Christians have placed their beliefs about the afterlife at the center of their faith, Wright argues that the frequent and somewhat confusing references to the kingdom of heaven in the gospels are not attempting to describe a place, heaven, but something else entirely: God’s sovereign rule breaking through into the earthly realm. Outside the wild apocalyptic vision of Revelation, biblical references to heaven and hell are few and far between. Today’s Calvinists may talk a great deal about heaven and hell, but in his fifteen-hundred-page masterwork, The Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin devotes only a couple of passages to heaven, and a single paragraph to hell.

The word purgatory doesn’t appear in the Bible. The concept of a place of punishment between this life and the next was extrapolated by theologians largely from a single verse in Matthew in which Jesus says, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Much of what Christians believe about  the afterlife does not come from the Bible, but through human imagination, whether theological or creative.

As Wright points out, our modern Western concepts of the afterlife have been largely shaped by such things as medieval images of heaven and hell and the "Divine Comedy" of Dante. Art, literature, and other forms of culture represent visually and dramatically the sacred abstractions that we otherwise know only through the stories of our faith traditions. Sometimes our cultural imaginings reinforce the impressions we receive through our faith; sometimes they call them into question. They can encourage us to believe; they can cause us to doubt. But always these imaginings are a part of our process of creating meaning.

Stewart Hoover, who presided over a quantitative study about audience interactions with various forms of media, concluded that mass media play a “subtle, nuanced and complex role” in helping people create religious meaning and form their religious identities. While the media might not necessarily constitute the primary influences on our beliefs (despite what generations of censorious religious leaders and concerned parents have said about novels, movies, and music), what we read, watch, listen to, and play is one avenue of our ongoing search for religious answers, and it is a broad and well-traveled avenue indeed. Consciously or not, we are taking in information when we encounter literary and media representations of the world to come. For example:

Kenny McCormick is not like other children. He’s two-dimensional, for one thing (like the rest of the characters on the television show "South Park"). He’s poor—the poorest kid in town, as his so-called friend Eric Cartman is fond of pointing out. He is also one of those rare individuals with direct experience of the afterlife, because Kenny dies, over and over again (more than one hundred times so far in sixteen seasons of the show), in ways both gruesome and ridiculous. He’s visited hell, and as someone who has suffered so undeservedly perhaps deserves, he’s been to heaven. At the end of the feature film "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut," Kenny is permitted to enter heaven, passing through a phalanx of bare-breasted female angels, two of whom fit him with wings and a halo. Kenny flies directly toward the viewer and the closing credits roll. A similar vision of heaven appears in the Emmy-winning "South Park" episode “Best Friends Forever” from 2005. After his usual death, Kenny is chosen to lead the angelic forces in the fight against Satan on the grounds that he has mastered a video game, "Heaven versus Hell." When he arrives in heaven, he enters a vision out of Christian art: a gleaming heavenly city, winged angels, the gatekeeper St. Peter, and the archangel Michael, who is in charge of heaven’s defenses at least until Kenny takes over.

"South Park’s" heavenly scenes parody hundreds of years of religious and cultural depictions, a “fluffy clouds” heaven like the one Colton Burpo told his father he had visited while having surgery for appendicitis: “Colton had climbed into the lap of Jesus, who was dressed in a white robe with a royal purple sash. The Son of Man then summoned winged angels and requested music. There were halos and bright colors, a rainbow horse and a throne for the Son at the right hand of the Father.” In this and many other of our most traditional and sentimental visions of a Christian heaven, a shiny, sparkling realm takes what we know about the valuable and the beautiful in this life and simply translates it into the next: jeweled crowns, streets of gold, golden harps. In most of our versions of paradise, sacred or secular, heaven is a place where dreams come true—buxom angels for Kenny and a rainbow horse for little Colton. It is, as Leah Rozen writes, “a heaven bursting with fluffy clouds and angels strumming on harps.” Whether we’re talking about books or television or film, we should recognize this version of heaven to be, as Rozen writes, cheesy and clichéd. In fact, one rarely sees the “fluffy cloud heaven” now unless it’s used for comic effect, although it is no less recognizable for that as one possible vision of the afterlife.

Susie Salmon is also in heaven, or “her heaven,” as she describes it. Although it has no fluffy clouds, her heaven may be equally stereotypical. A young girl brutally raped and murdered probably deserves a heavenly afterlife. In Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones" and the film adaptation directed by Peter Jackson, Susie looks down from heaven on an earth where she desperately wants her broken family to heal and her killer to be caught. Her heaven is both more prosaic than Kenny’s, and more secular. You won’t find archangels, or St. Peter, or even God in this heaven. But as Katherine Viner notes, “The view of heaven presented in 'The Lovely Bones' is a familiar one—a place of happiness, without judgment, where you get what you desire as long as you know why you desire it.” In her heaven, Susie has a roommate named Holly, interacts with an intake counselor named Franny, and walks around a landscape that looks very much like the future into which she will never live:

When I first entered heaven I thought everyone saw what I saw. That in everyone’s heaven there were soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot and javelin. That all the buildings were like suburban northeast high schools built in the 1960s. Large, squat buildings spread out on dismally landscaped sandy lots, with overhangs and open spaces to make them feel modern. My favorite part was how the colored blocks were turquoise and orange, just like the blocks in Fairfax High. Sometimes, on Earth, I had made my father drive me by Fairfax High so I could imagine myself there.

These are only two of the many versions of heaven or paradise in literature and culture, surprisingly perhaps, given the difficulty of setting any dramatic story in a realm marked by bliss, lack of conflict, and stasis. Margaret Atwood describes the problem for storytellers in "The Blind Assassin," where she writes that “happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.” It should be and is difficult to write of heaven without succumbing to sentiment or cliché. In my younger years as a fiction writer, my still-unfinished novel about Winston Churchill’s adventures after death was stalled by my inability to imbue heaven with anything like reality. I found it impossible to write convincingly of a place I couldn’t imagine with any freshness. Of course this has hardly deterred media from showing us heaven, whether traditional or radically different.

We encounter heaven in works ranging from classics like Dante’s "Paradiso" and Milton’s "Paradise Lost" to contemporary novels such as C. S. Lewis’s "The Last Battle" and Leif Enger’s best seller "Peace Like a River." We see it in the films "It’s a Wonderful Life," "What Dreams May Come," and "Tree of Life." We find images of heaven on television in South Park, The Simpsons, and Charmed. We enter heaven in comics and graphic novels, see it represented by the paradisaical planet Krypton in the Superman mythos, or by Asgard, the heavenly realm where Thor resides. Heaven is presented more literally as the realm of the blessed dead from which the hero Green Arrow is forced to return in "Quiver," a story arc written by filmmaker Kevin Smith, or from which Ben Grimm (The Thing) is “rescued” by the other members of the Fantastic Four in a set of stories written by Mark Waid.

Heaven often appears in popular music, whether standards, pop, or hip hop. If we survey the charts from the 1920s to the present we find: “My Blue Heaven” (“Just Molly and me and baby makes three / We’re happy in my blue heaven”), “Cheek to Cheek” (“Heaven / I’m in heaven.... When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek”), Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (“They say in heaven love comes first / We’ll make heaven a place on Earth”), Def Leppard’s “Heaven Is” (“Heaven is a girl I know so well / She makes me feel good when I feel like hell”), Keyshia Cole’s “Sent from Heaven” (“I wanna be the one who you believe / In your heart is sent from...heaven”), and Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven” (“Oh you use your heart as a weapon / And it hurts like heaven”). The use of heaven as a metaphor allows meaning to flow simultaneously in both directions. In each of these songs (and many others), the songwriter uses the idea of paradise to transcend an earthly reality. At the same time, the song’s earthly associations flavor our understanding of heaven: dancing cheek to cheek is like heaven, but at the same time, heaven is like dancing cheek to cheek.

Hell too is a popular topic. It is often said that in John Milton’s "Paradise Lost" God is perhaps the least interesting character while Satan is, by Milton’s intention, the most dynamic and most compelling. Hell is a place of driving ambition, of great conflict, of violence and abuse, and thus, naturally, of tremendous dramatic interest. As with heaven, we find hell used to flavor earthly settings and situations while earthly analogues help us understand something about the place of eternal punishment and separation. Death Valley is “hellish,” for example, because of its deadly and unrelenting heat.

One familiar fictional setting, Gotham City, is hellish because it is full of unremitting evil, senseless mayhem, and violence perpetrated by and directed against its inhabitants. Despite Batman’s never-ending efforts, Gotham is a dark, difficult, and wretched place, as close to hell on earth as we can imagine. In the graphic novel "Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth," Elijah Snow describes Gotham City’s history: “Old as New York, founded on the East Coast and originally designed by English masons on opium...exacerbated by absinthe-fiend local architects in the twenties, basically not fit for human habitation.” Frank Miller’s "The Dark Knight Returns," a mythic remaking of the Batman story from the 1980s, opens with images of hellish flames and heat: Bruce Wayne (the secret identity of Batman, that fearsome figure of the night) is involved in a fiery crash of the race car he is driving. We cut immediately to images of Gotham suffering under a heat wave, its yellow sky heated beyond endurance.

In this city, violence and atrocities are part and parcel of the superheated environment, and as Bruce walks through the streets, he muses that he and perhaps all those he passes are dead and doomed: “I’m a zombie, a flying Dutchman, a dead man, ten years dead,” while a street protester in the same frame carries a sign that could be a commentary on Bruce’s interior monologue. It simply says: “We are damned.”

Whether in comics like "The Dark Knight Returns," "Batman: Year One," or "The Joker: Death of the Family," in the cinematic versions of Gotham brought to the screen by Tim Burton ("Batman" and "Batman Returns") and Christopher Nolan ("Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight," and "The Dark Knight Rises"), or the Gotham City with which you can interact in best-selling video games such as "Arkham Asylum," "Arkham City," and "Arkham Origins," few settings in popular culture proffer so powerful a vision of hell on earth. As in the traditional theological understandings of hell, the residents of Gotham are far removed from God, from beauty, from justice, from peace, and from joy.

Unlike Metropolis, that lovely, well-lit, we might even say heavenly city of the future and home to the godlike Superman, Gotham feels to its inhabitants like a place of eternal punishment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only a seemingly demonic force, that of Batman, can prevail in the location of such evil. Only greater violence can prevent violence, greater determination overwhelm that of devilish villains like The Joker, Mr. Freeze, and the Penguin. In "Batman Begins," Batman (Christian Bale) consciously fashions himself into a demonic creature of the night to make his enemies fear him. Christopher Nolan depicts Batman breaking up a warehouse drug deal by using elements common to horror films—traveling Steadicam, dramatic musical stings to make the audience jump, moving shadows, sudden bursts of violence. It is the central irony of the Batman mythos: our hero is trying to clean up hell using many of hell’s own methods—which might be, incidentally, why Batman’s hard-fought peace never ever seems to last for long.

Hell can also be played for humor, however, particularly now that many doubt its actual existence. In “Pancakes,” a two-page strip from Mike Mignola’s comic series "Hellboy," the young title character, the redhued son of a demon prince and a human witch, is getting ready for his breakfast at the army base where he has been taken after crossing over from hell. General Norton Ricker, of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, is in charge of feeding him. Hellboy wants noodles, but when he arrives at the table the general informs him that he can’t have noodles for breakfast. He is going to eat pancakes.

“But I don’t like pancakes!” Hellboy protests.

Tough, the general responds. You’re trying them—at least one bite.

The general cuts and spears some pancake on a fork.

Hellboy reluctantly opens his mouth.

Mignola includes an extreme close-up frame of the letters “USA” on the army-issue fork to stretch the tension out a moment longer—before Hellboy announces his newfound love for pancakes.

The "Green Eggs and Ham" moment is not the point; in the very next frame, Mignola gives us an establishing shot of Pandemonium, the city of the fallen in hell, rendered in reds, oranges, and yellows to suggest the searing heat of the place. The inhabitants of Pandemonium are screaming, their arms lifted in anguish. The archdevil Astaroth asks Mammon what can possibly be happening.

“It is the boy,” Mammon explains. “He has eaten the pancake.”

Another powerful demon laments that Hellboy will never return to them now.

“Truly,” Astaroth says, “this is our blackest hour.”

As we’ve always imagined, hell is a bad place, burning eternally; what makes it even worse? You can’t get pancakes there.

The concept of purgatory has fallen somewhat out of favor (although it remains an official item of belief for Roman Catholics, who profess that those imperfect souls who die in God’s grace must “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”). Perhaps surprisingly, however, even such a dodgy concept as purgatory offers us a multitude of cultural touchstones. When all-star baseball pitcher Roger Clemens was acquitted of charges he used steroids and lied about it, a headline opined that nonetheless, Clemens was “in baseball purgatory.” Alex Rodriguez, another baseball superstar accused of such violations, was said in a recent newspaper column to be on “the road to Baseball Purgatory, where you’ll find faded stars who have either been banned from the game or been told, without any nuisance paperwork, that they’re not welcome at the ballpark.” Rockstar Games, the maker of the popular "Max Payne" series of shooters, announced that cheaters, hackers, and “miscreants” who violated game decency would be placed “in their own little purgatory” that works a bit like the Catholic one: “If you serve your time in the cheater’s corner and clean up your act, you may get a second chance to play with others. If you are a repeat offender you will result in indefinite banishment [sic].” The U.S. stock markets, waiting anxiously in 2012 for some resolution of the Euro crisis, were said by the Associated Press to be in purgatory, although how exactly the markets might earn themselves out of that state was not explained. Grantland, the sports and popular culture website, features a regular column, “Escape from Pop Purgatory,” asking if well-known but out-of-favor musicians have at last earned their way back into the pop mainstream with their current releases. And even the stodgy old Economist offered the headline “Finance in Purgatory” for a recent article on possible restrictions on international money transfers.

Our appropriation of purgatory may arise more from narrative need than from theological aptness, but culture can help us crack open even a challenging religious teaching such as purgatory. One of the central fan theories about the television show "Lost," for example, was that the strange desert island where Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), and the other “Lostees” had crashed was purgatory. As a "Lost" wiki notes, this was “the favorite theory seized upon by every viewer new to the show,” that “everyone on the island is actually dead and their actions on the ‘island’ determine when they will leave Purgatory for heaven.” Certainly there seemed to be evidence in favor of this—dead people walked the island, no babies could be born there, and this gathering of people lost in every conceivable way a human being could be lost suggested to many viewers that some sort of testing or redemption was under way. All the same, the show’s producers made it clear from early on that these characters were not dead and in purgatory.

That early denial, however, didn’t prevent "Lost" from at last employing the purgatory model of refinement and testing on the way to ultimate redemption. In the sixth and final season, "Lost" began to feature a “Sideways world,” a reality in which the Lostees lived out lives as though they had never crashed on the island, interspersed with the reality of their lives on the island. It became clear that although the island itself might not be purgatory, this sideways world did function as a halfway station in which the characters were actively working toward their eventual salvation. Entertainment Weekly’s "Lost" aficionado Jeff Jensen explored the connection in an interview with "Lost’s" executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse:

EW: Season 6 gave us the Sideways world, which was ultimately revealed to be a kind of purgatory where the castaways went after they died....Perhaps one reason that [fans] didn’t guess the secret is because back in the first two seasons of the show, you pretty vociferously ruled out purgatory as a theory of the Island.

CUSE: I agree with you. Because we said the Island was not purgatory, people extrapolated that to mean that a concept that resembled it couldn’t even exist within the entire show....

LINDELOF: I know [fans] had lists of questions they wanted answers to. What did the numbers mean? Where were the Dharma food drops coming from? What was up with the polar bears? But the list of questions we wanted to explore included: What happens when you die? What is the nature of man—good or evil?

In the Sideways world, characters were faced with decisions they had made before, and usually made badly. On the island, Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) sacrificed his daughter Alex (Tania Raymonde) to his ambition for power. But in the Sideways world, where Linus was a high school history teacher, he faced another test when Alex, his brightest student, asked him for a recommendation to college. Alex’s future became tied up in Benjamin’s power play to become principal of the school, but this time he chose correctly; this time he chose love over power. In this purgatory world, the Lostees were offered the opportunity to change, and ultimately, to be transformed into people capable of moving into the light in the final moments of the series finale.

Our movies, novels, and other forms of culture often feature stories of people who are caught between one state and another and who are being changed for the better so that they can pass into whatever comes next for them. Sometimes this story of redemption clearly happens in the context of life after death, as we’ll explore in movies such as "Ghost" and "The Sixth Sense." We meet ghosts or spirits who can’t move on until they accomplish something profound. But we also discover other understandings of purgatory that emerge when characters are simply stuck in their everyday lives and seem to be unable to move forward.

Take weatherman Phil Connor (Bill Murray), the sad, self-centered soul in need of redemption in "Groundhog Day." Unaccountably, inexplicably, Phil is stuck reliving the same day over and over again. Every  morning, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” awakens him as it blares from the clock radio in his hotel room in the small town in rural Pennsylvania where he’s been sent to cover Groundhog Day. Every morning, Phil goes off to do a broadcast from the groundhog site, interacts with the locals, and attempts to get out of town.

He thinks this is strange, of course, imagines that his experience is unique, doesn’t dream that anyone else could understand his suffering.

“What would you do,” Phil asks a stranger late one night in a bowling alley, “if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

“That about sums it up for me,” is the response. This lonely drunk— and many of the people with whom Phil interacts—are also slogging day by day through an existence that seems to be interminable and unchanging.

What is one to do in the face of such a long, gray existence? The message of "Groundhog Day"—and, as we will see, the central narrative of many of the stories depicting purgatory—is both dramatic and theological: if you don’t like your life, if you don’t like your identity, change. By the end of "Groundhog Day," Phil has said goodbye to the hedonistic, sardonic boor he was in the opening scenes. He has transformed himself, through his own planning and hard work, into a person with realized talents and genuine compassion and he is dramatically rewarded with the love of the lovely Rita (Andie MacDowell), who wouldn’t give the old Phil the time of day—for good reason. We’ll consider in detail why the purgatory narrative remains so central in our culture, despite the fact that the Protestant mainstream of American Christianity doesn’t accept the doctrine, but perhaps one reason is that it allows for a powerful story about change and growth.

In all of these snapshots of the afterlife, we are learning something about how heaven, hell, or purgatory can be used to help us understand earthly concepts like pleasure, love, joy, satisfaction, and security. We’re seeing how the characters of those landscapes, whether they be lost souls or the redeemed, angels or devils, ghosts or spirits, teach us something about our own humanity. The art and culture we consume plant images and ideas in our heads about the big topics they explore  in the process of entertaining us. These images of and stories about the afterlife, wherever they come from, help us to make sense of challenging concepts and along the way they offer us some peace of mind. In the Washington Post Hank Steuver wrote of "Lost": “America, it’s so obvious. Millions of you loved ‘Lost’ because you feel lost.” For a people who were lost and wanted to be found, for a people afraid of the future, Lost met many needs, some emotional, some spiritual. Its dramatization of life and the afterlife helped us make at least one version of sense out of this crazy mixed-up post-9/11 world.

"Lost" and other narratives can be considered as alternative wisdom traditions of a sort, helping readers and viewers to find comfort and make meaning about ethical and spiritual questions. "Star Trek’s" legions of fans could talk with you about the Prime Directive, and some could perhaps explain how it might be interpreted in our own lives. "Star Wars" fans are sometimes consciously drawn to live out the philosophy of the mythos (or to tweak the beard of census takers), but for whatever reason, “Jedi” remains a popular choice in religion censuses around the world. Although—like many churches—the Jedi “faith” has declined in recent years, its British adherents remain sufficiently numerous for it to rank only behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism. Compare its 176,000 adherents in the United Kingdom’s 2011 census to the 29,000 identifying as atheists.

While it may be a lark for many of them, why this particular lark? Why not claim to be an adherent of Wonder Woman or Big Bird, both of whom also have an observable ethos? Something about the ideas behind Star Wars, about the concept of a force that binds all things together appeals in some way. Likewise viewers of "Doctor Who," the longest-running science fiction show—and one of the most venerable television series ever—find meaning and comfort in its ongoing narrative. For its fans, as Matthew Sweet notes in his article describing the “Tao of Who” in the Telegraph, “'Doctor Who' has the moral and ethical influence of a religion.”

A study by cultural critic Clive Marsh discovered that for British filmgoers, like the audiences surveyed by Lynn Schofield Clark, “philosophy, theology, and ethics are happening as furtive, incidental activities  amid enjoying a supposedly escapist culture.” C. S. Lewis argued that in great stories, plot is merely the net that snags what is truly important. Likewise, Diane Winston notes how for television viewers, “the experience of watching, and responding to, TV characters’ moral dilemmas, crises of faith, bouts of depression, and fits of exhilaration gives expression—as well as insight and resolution—to viewers’ own spiritual odysseys and ethical predicaments.” Literature and culture deal with all manner of human concerns caught in their nets: love and hate, war and peace, life and whatever comes after life.

In literature as ancient as the early Mesopotamian "Epic of Gilgamesh," we find human beings speculating on what might follow death, expressing their hopes and fears, trying to make sense of death and how our actions in this life may affect what follows death. Today, through the music and imagery of rock bands like U2, Iron Maiden, and AC-DC, in the storylines of TV’s "Lost," "South Park," and "Fantasy Island," in the implied theology of films such as "The Corpse Bride," "Ghost," and "Field of Dreams," in the wildly popular populist paintings of Thomas Kinkade, who in 2004 had a gallery showing entitled “Heaven on Earth” at California State University, Fullerton, and within the supernatural landscape of ghosts, shades, and otherworldly way stations in the "Harry Potter" novels and films, writers, musicians, and artists of all sorts continue to investigate those hopes and fears.

Theologian Jeremy Begbie affirms that literature and the arts may be and often are “vehicles of discovery, not just of ourselves, but of other people and indeed of virtually anything with which we engage from day to day, from physical objects to grand ideas.” Art may address spiritual and religious questions obliquely rather than directly, as theology tries to do, but it has always had a role in exploring every part of the human condition.

Excerpted from "Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination" by Greg Garrett. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Greg Garrett. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Greg Garrett

MORE FROM Greg Garrett