What happens after we die? In 2019, you don’t need to consult holy scriptures in order to find answers to the mysteries of the afterlife — you just need to turn on the TV. Despite the increasing secularization of mainstream pop-culture, depictions of the afterlife onscreen are currently a dime a dozen, with shows like The Good Place, Miracle Workers, Russian Doll, Forever, Black Mirror, as well as an upcoming series from The Office producer Greg Daniels each advancing their own unique visions of demons and angels, heaven and hell, and everything in between. But why are we seeing such a glut of representations of this particular subject right now, and what can it tell us about our current cultural moment? We called up Dr. Greg Garrett, a professor of English at Baylor University, to pick his brain about TV’s new favorite subject. While Garrett was raised conservative evangelical, he now identifies as Episcopalian; his writing, including is 2015 book Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, focuses primarily the intersection between religion and culture,
Why is the afterlife such a cultural preoccupation for us right now?
I don’t think that there is a time when we have had this many kind of versions of stories of the afterlife kind of popping up in the culture. They are a way of helping us cope with some of the stresses and difficulties that we might be experiencing in the present moment. We’re living in a time of really high tension — for some people, it feels like we’re living in hell — and these shows use fantasy to help us deal with real-life concerns and issues and figure out things like what do we owe each other and what does real justice look like and what is generosity and what does an authority figure look like?
What’s different about the way the afterlife is represented on TV now from the way it was portrayed in pop culture in the past?
I think what’s really interesting about The Good Place is that normally in a situation comedy you don’t welcome character change. The idea that somebody like Eleanor could become a better person is not a useful trope for situation comedy, because what you want to do is cast these characters in a familiar role that viewers are going to come back to over and over again. I think one of the really kind of audacious things that The Good Place does is it says: I’m going to make a commitment to taking this character who was not so great in her life on earth and show her dealing with what is the usual purgatory narrative, which is self improvement.
And what about Miracle Workers?
That’s also kind of fun. In afterlife stories one of the big questions is how did we get here, and the concept of God is the center of that. That is usually impossible to do in a heaven story. God is the most boring character in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In most iterations of God that emerged from traditions, God is unchangeable. God is just a literal force of nature that doesn’t move, doesn’t shift and it’s the thing that Margaret Atwood is talking about in The Blind Assassin when she says that, “in heaven there are no stories.” The thing that they do in Miracle Workers is to humanize God so that God is not God the force of nature — he’s just a slob like one of us. Afterlife stories are often about fairness and unfairness on earth. If you live a good life it’s nice to know that maybe there’s a place where you’re going to be rewarded for it and conversely if you’re a jack-hole here that there’s a bad place where you’re going to spend eternity getting tortured. So having this God who is so human and so capricious and wanders around in his sweats, that kind of explains some of the crazy stuff going on in the world.
Both The Good Place and Miracle Workers position the afterlife as a bureaucracy. What does it reflect about contemporary life that the afterlife is represented as a sort of failed corporation?
They’re like afterlife versions of The Office, and I think that’s because for many of us that’s the place where we spend much of our time. The easiest mechanism for us to understand something intangible is by comparing it to what’s in front of our noses every day, so I walk into my cubby and I sit down and I turn on my computer and things get done or don’t get done as the case may be. If that’s how the afterlife works as well, then that seems to explain a lot.
A lot of these shows also explore monogamy, soulmates, and the idea of commitment that lasts for all of eternity. Could you talk a little bit about the depictions of romance in the afterlife historically and what do you think these current shows are exploring?
This idea of eternal love is one of the tropes that we have in our romantic love language. When you say to someone that you’re going to love them forever, actually that probably has an expiration date. But in shows like this and also in the Twilight novels where you’re talking about vampire lovers, they’re going to be young and eternally together. That’s something that grows out of the Mormon scriptures, the idea of a temple wedding where you’re going to be married not just for this life but for all eternity. And so you have to wrestle with what that means.
In my book Entertaining Judgment I talked about how one of the reasons that we’re so drawn to these imaginative versions of the afterlife is that the scriptures don’t talk about it much, so we put all of these kinds of things together in our head. What would heaven look like for me? Is it the place where dreams come true like in Field of Dreams? Well that means that I’m going to spend a lot of days in the bleachers in Wrigley Field watching a Cubs team that actually wins.
There are all these different iterations and for many of us the primary relationships in our lives, the love relationships, are the things that make life meaningful. So I think of my grandmother who is 99 now and has lived for 20 something years. After my granddad died, every time I would talk to her the first thing out of her mouth would be about how she can’t wait to get to heaven so that she can see my grandpa. So for her it can’t be heaven unless she is with the person she has loved the most in this life. But what I love about these shows is that they are also wrestling with the tensions we deal with with that. I’ve had happy marriages and unhappy marriages and if I were stuck with my first wife for all eternity that would feel like the bad place.
In Miracle Workers and The Good Place, these eternal beings watching over us are just as flawed and useless as we are. Is that a newer trend in these kinds of stories?
That’s a much more recent way of thinking about the occupants of the afterlife. I would say maybe 30 or 40 years ago we started getting some ideas that these eternal beings could transform as a result of experiences, though as far back as the ’30s and ’40s there are some films about angels who fall in love with humans. But it’s not until you get toward much more recent times where you have the devil or God or angels angels who are able to transform.
I wonder whether that reflects our increasing loss of sources of authority we can trust.
Yeah I think that’s a really good insight. Steve Buscemi’s God [in Miracle Workers] is light years away from the God that would show up in the consciousness of many seriously religious people. For those of us who are wrestling with what the world looks like now and as you’re pointing out all the different institutions that have failed us, the questions is: What do we place our trust in? And so here have have a character or characters who at the end of the day really are kind of like us, trying to make their way the best that they can. I really love that character of Michael [from The Good Place] and I love the way that he changes and grows and transforms. That is actually the kind of afterlife I would like. I don’t want to be sitting around on clouds plucking at a harp all day.
It’s like that line from the Talking Heads song: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” In The Good Place all the fun people are in the bad place. All the rock stars, all the philosophers. Is that also a new trope?
That’s an interesting question. There are fun people in Dante’s Hell and people who probably don’t belong there; he was just angry at them at the moment and thought that this was a good place for them to represent one of the things that he wanted to speak out against. But I think partly what also is happening is that the way we see religion, particularly conservative Christian religion depicted in America, it looks really joyless to a lot of us. I’m a religious person but that’s not my tradition, and to imagine spending eternity with a group full of really white, really boring, really joyless people, I can’t imagine how that could be any version of a heaven that I would want to be a part of. When I hear my grandma talking about heaven it’s like first she gets to see my grandpa and then she’s going to sing all day and walk streets of gold. I think I’d rather watch some good television.
Russian Doll is another show that plays on that purgatory idea. Why does this idea of repeating things over and over again, like we see in Russian Doll or Groundhog Day or even in The Good Place, end up as a feature in so many of these afterlife narratives?
Well I think that’s how we learn in this life. I’ve been going to spiritual direction, which is my version of therapy, for 14 years, and what I discover is I have to do something over and over again to develop a habit of virtue which is actually the idea behind virtue ethics. The other thing is that there’s this really beautiful idea of these eternal second chances. There have been times in all of our lives when we have said Man I wish I could do that over or I wish I hadn’t said that. To go back and be able to start fresh with a little bit more data and maybe a little bit more hope that you can do better, that’s a real attraction in those stories.
Has researching your book or watching these shows informed your own conception about what you believe happens to us after we die?
I was raised in a tradition where we had very clear ideas. We thought we understood everything about the afterlife because of the way that we read the Bible. Where I am now, strangely enough is I have less idea than I’ve ever had about what the afterlife might be and at the same time more faith that there is something good at the center of the universe. I believe that there is something after this where I will be in communion with whatever it was that created me, but I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t think it looks like a baseball field in Iowa and I don’t think it looks like The Good Place and I don’t think it looks like fluffy clouds. I think probably if I turn out to be right about this, it’s going to completely blow my mind. At the end of the day I’m really okay living in the not knowing.