In the tradition of popular culture studies, Entertaining Judgment is bursting with video game and comic book allusions, references to song lyrics, and narrative descriptions of films and television shows. The Lovely Bones, South Park, The Dark Knight Returns, The Sixth Sense, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Walking Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 12 Years a Slave, The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Cabin in the Woods, The Shawshank Redemption, and House, M.D: These are only a handful of the movies and shows discussed by Greg Garrett in his engaging study of popular afterlife narratives.
The author focuses on entertainment forms produced in the United States, an artistic and cultural milieu strongly influenced by the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (18). Most of Garrett’s identifications of “religion” in his pop cultural corpus include ideologies underwritten by, alluding to, or in contradiction of Christian theology. Yet, discussions of Judaism and Islam also appear, along with occasional asides on other religious traditions. The book’s underlying argument is that “cultural and narrative understandings” work to shape “our ideas about . . . future places or states of being” (5). Places or states of the afterlife considered by Entertaining Judgment include heaven (chapter 3), hell (chapter 4), and purgatory (chapter 5). Also of interest are the beings that inhabit pop cultural universes. The book discusses not only angels, demons, and devils (chapter 2), but also several categories of the “undead,” including vampires and zombies (chapter 1). Identifying as a theologian, Garrett’s modus operandi is a historically and theologically informed hermeneutics. He discloses “implied theology” (17) and eschatological discourses embedded in films, comics, novels, and music albums. The book’s forte is its deft ability to situate contemporary artifacts within longer histories of theological development and to trace out intertextual allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy and other influential afterlife narratives.
Strengths aside, Entertaining Judgment’s decidedly sanguine perspective on the role of media in society will be somewhat unsatisfying for scholars interested in religion and power or social theory. To be clear, Garrett does operationalize something of a weak theory of mass media’s social role. He stipulates that ideas of the afterlife come from many sources, some of which are not controlled by religious institutions. Referencing scholars of mass media, the author concedes that media play a determining role “in helping people create religious meaning and form their religious identities” (6). Garret even proffers, if concisely, a theory of subconscious media influence. “Consciously or not,” he writes, as viewers “we are taking in information when we encounter literary and media representations of the world to come” (6). When consumed, artistic and cultural artifacts “plant images and ideas in our heads about the topics they explore” and serve as “alternative wisdom traditions of a sort” (15-16). Movies and books project powerfully formative “myths” (60, 81) that seek to posit truth about how the world works. Although Garrett makes clear that implied theologies in popular media shape consumers, the problem is that critical analysis of media influence ends there. Instead, the author sees entertainment culture as a medium for self-betterment or spiritual formation. “Our stories of the afterlife have shaped human beings for centuries,” he contends. “I believe that as we enter into these stories, we too may be shaped for the better” (18).
Some readers will get the impression that Garrett’s thoroughgoing optimism may obscure the social work that pop cultural consumption does. The book’s narration of various afterlife alternatives is consistently informative, but what about the inverse of mass media function? How do Hollywood films limit or constrain audiences toward particular ends? How do artistic expressions authorized by financing collectives work to influence certain types of impressions, behaviors, and habitudes? How do various traditions put entertainment forms to work for their own purposes? Does Hollywood extend the interests of religious and social institutions as well as challenge them? For all of the evocative discussion of whether or not Lost is about Purgatory or the therapeutic nature of the zombie genre, little analysis of mediated social conflict exists in the pages of Entertaining Judgment. Garrett’s media artifacts appear at times untethered from the intricacies of power, structure, tradition, conflict, and late-capitalist economies.
A second concern has to do with method and application. The author engages in a subtle program of “theological distinction” (59) that, inevitable or not, will create challenges for instructors considering assigning the book to undergraduates. Some visual depictions of angelic forms are for the author “tacky” or “domesticated” (56, 58). He identifies and dismisses “bad theology” (64). Garrett contends that some classic films including It’s a Wonderful Life are rife with “theological misunderstanding” and “error” (74). Certain depictions of heaven are “cheesy and clichéd” (7). The Catholic doctrine of purgatory may or may not be “dodgy” (12). What does one make of such classifications? In my courses I challenge students to temporarily suspend initial criticisms of such a sort in an effort to get into the mind of the author, artist, or filmmaker. In class, I might instruct students to flag their own normative reactions to this effect and follow them up with other questions: Why is it that what is kitsch for one person is authentic and meaningful for another? Tacky for whom, exactly? Who decides if an implied theology is unorthodox (or cliché)? Is the artist playing with and resisting certain theological ideas of the day or reinforcing them? In other words, Entertaining Judgment is itself a primary source. After all, here is a theologian in the Christian tradition making claims both about theological orthodoxy and artistic and aesthetic value.
The above reservations notwithstanding, this lively study will make a compelling addition to course syllabi in religious studies. Garrett’s book is an amusing, thought provoking, informative read. Undergraduate students will recognize and appreciate many of the movies and shows mentioned throughout the chapters and will find the author’s prose straightforward and accessible. Entertaining Judgment is an effective quick reference guide and compendium for scholars interested in the afterlife in American pop culture.
Travis Warren Cooper is a Ph.D. candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Date Of Review:
November 14, 2016
Greg Garrett is 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University, where he teaches classes in fiction and screenwriting, literature, film and popular culture, and theology. The author or co-author of three dozen short stories, a dozen scholarly articles, and twenty books of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, Dr. Garrett is also Residential Scholar at Gladstone's Library in Wales and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas.
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