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?