Thursday, July 07, 2011

Heaven is for real and purgatory is a poem

Two summers back, N.T. Wright, in a class on "The Mission of God," recommended that we read Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory. I ordered a copy via Amazon while sitting in class (wi-fi and laptop available throughout the lectures), but the book has been in limbo on my desk since then. This summer, I'm finally reading it, and it's outstanding. If you're tempted to read something else about the afterlife, like visions and near-death experiences, don't. Put it down off the end table at Barnes and Noble, and go get this little volume instead. Please?

Here's the main conceit or question Greenblatt poses: What if we take seriously the [Protestant] charge that Purgatory was [and is] a vast piece of poetry? (47)

Greenblatt doesn't actually get around to Hamlet until about eighty pages into the book, but this is about right, because the only way to really write about purgatory in an era that doesn't quite "get" it is to hit it by diversion. His opening chapter on John Donne and the early Protestant attack on the doctrine of Purgatory, illustrates how this is so.

For one, we learn how influential visions of the after-life are for the here-and-now. Purgatory inspired the rich to endow tendrals, chapels, and hospitals, all towards the end of shortening their time in Purgatory. When popular imagination concerning Purgatory was transformed by the Protestant Reformation in England, society, church, and culture were radically altered.

Similarly today, although we may not note it, visions of the afterlife have real world consequences. Although we may all see this differently, I would tend to say that our very soft, easy-going vision of the afterlife contributes to things as diverse as taxation that favors the rich, out of control medical costs, and low overall rates of benevolence.

Greenblatt doesn't say any of this. He's doing history and literary analysis. But it's the merit of reading such a digressive book that I end up thinking way more about my (our) visions of life after death than I ever would have otherwise.

And I'm especially intrigued by the thesis offered, that perhaps Purgatory was never a "doctrine" in the traditional sense to begin with, but a piece of powerful poetry. Which begs the question, what poetry is informing our imagination today?


  1. I was once addicted to the easy-going vision of the after life, like you note. I never wanted to believe in Purgatory. But now, I can't imagine the universe without it.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation on Greenblatt's purgatory book. I just downloaded it. His *Will in the World* seems to me one of the very best books ever written on Shakespeare.

    As to the point on Purgatory, it sounds quite right to me. I've long thought that once we have made our necessary Lutheran protest and girded ourselves against all that's false and dangerous in the notion of purgatory, we have every right to go back and to play with what may be salutary and gracious in its imagination. There is a kind of respect for the sinner and for the need for time for healing amends, a respect for justice and for grace in their coexistence, which can work to enhance, rather than inevitably undercut, the experience of divine grace. Good pastors know that it's often important to listen to people's confessions, to take their sins seriously, rather than just shutting them up to give them automatic forgiveness. (I say "usually" because sometimes the main sin is that of a scrupulosity which needs to be interrupted and deflated.)

  3. I've read all of Greenblatt's work except this one. Thank you for the reminder! My own doctoral specialty is New Historicism, and of course, Greenblatt is an important thinker in that movement so his work has vastly influenced my thinking and scholarship.