Wherein Mitch Albom’s The Five People you Meet in Heaven is given the once over by this week’s guest, Mr. Christopher Hitchens.
To begin with, is there a reason I am placed to the right of this page? It should be abundantly clear that I am to be justified Left at all times, in all contexts, and on all margins. Which is not to say that I should be considered marginal. Although I now am, and happily so, in what turns out to be a rather pleasant afterlife. An existence of pure nothingness. As the brilliant but fatally German philosopher Leibniz once wrote, “Nothing noths.” Indeed. The afterlife, therefore, is simply the action of nullity and not, as Mr. Albom would have you believe, an antechamber in which one has their five favorite people paraded in front of them like show ponies before an heiress.
For a variety of inscrutable reasons western culture allows most adult males a short leash of wishful thinking (all men are created equal, when I grow up I can be a professional footballer) until he reaches the age of the declaration of his religious beliefs. At that point he is granted full sway for any degree of idiocy or confabulation; being swallowed by whales and born of mud and rib, walking revenants and talking bushes, sexless procreation and parting seas. All is allowed beneath the tent of faith, whereas just a few years prior an insistence that fairies or vampires were real would be rewarded with a stropping. Or at the very least a Librium script and bi-weekly therapy.
Mr. Albom’s book does not bother to ask whether heaven is real, instead it presumes that if one is gullible enough to have just disbursed twenty and tax for it, a relative certainty has already been achieved. And since the afterlife does indeed exist, at least between the end papers of his thin volume, why should there not be five individuals delighted to meet you amongst the clouds? Is this meeting place by any chance a long oak table laden with grapes and wine and an unlucky braised duck? Of course it is. The party proceeds from there. At least such party as I was able to wade through, because at this point I must confess, even after a few liberal pours of Mr. Walker’s Amber Restorative, I was unable to force myself to read on.
Perhaps that is because, given my present location, I am in the unusual position of being able to attest that we will meet nothing but the darkest, most silent oblivion after we pass. And be grateful for it. Heaven, after all, promises no less a burden than eons of compulsory praise and pearly adoration, a place of unending self-abasement hunkered amongst the angels and Mr. Albom’s five people, all of whom we would almost certainly view with a growing contempt as the centuries mount. Does that not sound a far worse fate than simple, meaning-free decomposition? The good news is that, in the end, the braised duck will not be served. Although who knows precisely what the ducks have in store for us in their version of the hereafter. Should you ever find yourself at St. Mallard’s Gate, I would think it wise to avoid mentioning the orange sauce altogether.
If one is willing to concede that there have been innumerable religions since the dawn of man, and that their supplications and cosmologies cannot possibly all be correct, then one must infer that each religion is as wrong as the next, and so too their myriad conjectures. Man had discovered many truths, established elaborate moralities, and embraced the efficacy of kindness long before the bible existed. As such, Christianity is just another religion in a long line of religions that will eventually pass, like a kidney stone, and be remembered mostly for the mass failure of its adherents to live up to even its most basic guiding principles.
Nevertheless, the credulous would have you believe, as Mr. Albom would as well, that an eternal dentist’s lounge of happy camaraderie awaits you. At least those of you lucky enough to be born on a continent whose denizens worship the correct god, often inconveniently the only god available. Of course, each isthmus and island and tract of sand claims its own divine right and origin story, a fable that excludes all not privy to the astrological details specific to its mood and latitude. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to have purchased Mr. Albom’s book in Canada, as opposed to Papua New Guinea, you might actually be awarded a celestial audience with your Uncle Frederick, but not so poor Uncle Ase-Mou.
All religions, of course, stem from our infantile need for improbable but conveniently unprovable explanation, and so does Mr. Albom’s book, which appears to be written by a fourth grader with an incomplete grasp of the many other methods of adult comfort available to us, including the magazine-aided and self-administered one. In any case, history shows that those convinced of an understanding of the divine tend to commit the most horrible crimes, and so it goes with those who write the most horrible books. In the end, even the gods are not infallible against human ignorance and Bookscan numbers, despite their ability to make volcanoes erupt when certain subsistence farmers fail to sacrifice their pigs correctly. No, Agrippa, the entrails are to be spewed to the left. Yes, Albom, I will award you with a seventeenth printing.
Finally, let us look at what Mr. Albom’s Elysian daisy chain fails to consider while reuniting the faithful with the decomposed:
1. The promise that the misery and futility of those we scorned on earth, drug addict and street person alike, will be equally rewarded on an egalitarian basis once we are all floating amidst the clouds, provided they received Jesus into their heart just prior to expiring. Not something the libertarian crowd can be especially pleased with.
2. The fact that all sacred texts have utterly misrepresented the origins and workings of both man and the cosmos, that they have been wrong on almost every count about biology, chemistry, geography, astronomy, and sociology. That in no instance did they ever display an understanding of anything beyond their immediate physical location or the already accumulated knowledge of the people they were sorely tasked with uplifting.
3. The admission that all religion is, in fact, a call to servility and the prescribed acceptance of the unproven and unprovable. Further, a willingness to give credence to the notion that an omniscient benevolence could create us without failing to grow quickly bored with us, and then choose to wile away the remainder of eternity considering frantic pleas, acknowledging the thanks of those who have just scored touchdowns, and ultimately assigning pass or fail grades at a celestial check-in desk once an end (that he himself predetermined) comes to our (in this scenario now totally meaningless) existence.
4. That any creed or credo or personal set of guidelines can be enacted, enforced or reliably followed, let alone hammered into an encompassing and enduring theology, when it is based primarily on sexual repression and the curtailing of regular orgasm.
5. That nothing punishable by religion, including drinking, smoking tobacco, adultery, and most especially homosexuality, is ever made an indelible sin except by those with the deepest and most pathetic desire to participate in the very thing of which they protest far too much.
Alas, the malleable have long paid charlatans such as Madame Blavatsky or Mr. Albom to connect them to the figurative dead, if only because such “mediums” were themselves possessed by the requisite deviousness to accept coin for such corporeal assignations. The desire to visit with passed loved ones is as common to Christianity as it is Druidism or those embracing the numeral 22 as their personal savior. Nevertheless, the idea that we will reconnect with a retinue of well-wishers, let alone a pentagonal five that is chosen for us, seems beyond simpleminded and not even worth refuting. After all, what brand of cruel God would force an audience of dull aunts, cousins, and teacakes upon me, when I might instead be met at the portal of nirvana by Julie Christie, Natalie Wood, Raquel Welch, Diana Rigg, and Nietzsche? Or at the very least four hookers and a bartender?
Mr. Albom is a poor writer, and a dull one at that. Otherwise, this book might be dangerous.
On a one-to-ten scale, I give The Five People You Meet in Heaven a hungover, mostly liquid and burning Johnny Walker dump in one of the cruisier bathrooms in the basement of congress.
Now kindly leave me alone, as I would like to get on with my ecstatic nullity.
A special thanks to this week’s author-channel and celebrity medium, Paschal Beverly Randolph.
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