Our friend Paul Zahl has a new book out called PZ’s Panopticon: An Off-the-Wall Guide To World Religion. It’s a trenchant and yet hilarious survey of the world’s major religions from the vantage point of a man on his deathbed, or more precisely, a man hovering over his deathbed while the doctors are working to revive his body. What does a man in this predicament need from religion? What, if anything, will help him?
Paul’s man on the ceiling, our floating friend, is a brilliant hermeneutic device for evaluating the world’s religions, as well as the religions that aren’t called religions, but sure act like religions, which we’ll get to in a moment. But the out of body, near death experience is so widely reported that, at the very least, it operates as a legit, and also funny, moment of crisis.
I even found an occasion of this in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story set in Charlottesville called “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” A man is hiking through the Ragged Mountains and enters an alternate reality in which he is shot by an arrow and dies. He says:
“For many minutes my sole feeling was that of darkness and nonentity, with the consciousness of death. At length there seemed to pass a sudden shock through my soul, as if of electricity. With it came the sense of elasticity and of light. In an instant I seemed to rise from the ground. Beneath me lay my corpse, with the arrow in my temple.”
After hovering on the ceiling, so to speak, the man returns to his body.
“I again experienced a shock as of a galvanic battery, the sense of weight, of volition, of substance, returned. I became my original self, and bent my steps eagerly homeward- but the past had not lost the vividness of the real- and not now, even for an instant, can I compel my understanding to regard it as a dream.”
In any case, what is on offer that can help a person at the moment of death? And if there is help to be found at the moment of death, surely that help extends to all the moments of life. That’s what was on St. Paul’s mind when he came to preach the gospel in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. What did he have to offer them?
You may know that anything and everything was on offer in Corinth – it was kind of a modern day Amsterdam, the holiday destination of every male college student. Corinth was a notoriously licentious city. In fact, one of the Greek verbs for fornicate is derived from the city’s name! But sex wasn’t the only prized currency in Corinth. Money was also flowing in this capital city. And with money comes power, of course. And with power comes fame.
Fame wasn’t achieved only by these baser elements of society: money and power. Corinth was known for its intellectual rigor and for its citizen’s rhetorical skill. Speakers made their mark by their oratory skills. Paul was no slouch in this department. By the Greeks he was even called “Hermes,” the Greek god of communication. So make no mistake—he could preach persuasively and hold his own in debate. But Paul resolved to come into this city beating a different drum, even though the drumbeat of sex, money, power, fame, and intellect is what attracted the crowds.
And, really, has anything changed? Sex, money, power, fame, intellect: aren’t these still are our driving forces? And with that, we now return to PZ’s religions that aren’t called religions but sure act like religions. The biblical word for them is “idols” or false gods. People give their lives to them and people’s lives are consumed by them.
In his tongue-in-cheek way, Paul ranks the 6 religions that aren’t called religions according to the religions life expectancy – how long it will serve you. He says, “like a U.S. News and World report or a college ranking, it could help you choose!
1. Power – “It has the longest shelf-life, and it can be held from birth to death. I’ll bet you’ve had an experience of a tyrant in life who is still calling the shots from the ICU. People in power never give up their power willingly.”
2. Sex – can be enjoyed “almost until death,” and is the closest thing to transcendence this side of heaven. And just look around, from Freud to Miley Cyrus, sex has a countless throng of worshippers. If you wonder about its life expectancy, ask Hugh Hefner who, at 86, married Crystal Harris, at 26.
3. Ideology – Think Tea Party or the Green Party, it’s the same thing. “It can be used to categorize and divide until you can’t think anymore.” It’s been said that the older you get the more like yourself you become. You are a more concentrated version of yourself. This may not be the best news for the people around you!
4. Family and Children – Jesus had something unsettling to say about the kind of Family First worship that is so prevalent. When told that his mother and brothers wanted him to come home, he disowned them, saying “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Anyone who does the will of God.” I guess blood isn’t thicker than water, the waters of baptism that is. And PZ says, “Attending love is nice at the end, but at the very end it can only be received by one person. And that person is rarely your child.”
5. Fame – Fame is thrilling, but also fleeting. And if not fleeting then problematic for the famous person who can no longer go to Five Guys for a burger. And for sure, our floating friend on the ceiling is not thinking about fame, even if he had some once. “Fame is definitely something you can’t take with you.”
6. And finally – Possessions. Have you noticed that things get old the exact moment you get them? What good is our man’s yacht or even his Montblanc pen doing him now as he hovers over his body?
Phillip Seymour Hoffman was no stranger to money, fame and power. His death has shaken me. I saw him on Broadway two years ago in Death of a Salesman. His ability to connect with audiences through suffering characters was obviously fueled by his own suffering. Clearly, the religions that aren’t religions weren’t enough.
Magazine writer John Arundel said he met the actor at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah two weeks before his death. “I said, ‘What do you do?’ And at that point, he took off his hat and he said, ‘I’m a heroin addict,'” Arundel said. “Didn’t look like he was (joking). Seemed like he was having one of those ‘coming-to-God’ moments.”
None of this is new, of course. And all these religions that aren’t called religions had and have tremendous sway over us, just as they did the Corinthians. I think this is why Paul was determined to be a one trick pony with them. He decided that only one word has lasting value. And it’s such a strange word that it catches them by surprise. What was it? “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
If anything is going to cut through the claptrap, it is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. If his temptations in the wilderness are any indication, Jesus saw through the short shelf lives of fame, family, possessions and power. He was not big into ideology either: just ask the Pharisees. Instead, he opted not to call on the legions of angels at his command to save him from his crucifixion. He knew that the secret at the heart of reality is sacrifice, another name for love.
And if we are talking about life expectancy, consider this. He who was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world is the same one who is worshiped and will forever be worshipped—the Lamb upon the throne. Upon the throne, yes, but still a Lamb and not a Lion. The secret at the heart of reality is sacrifice, another name for love.
And that’s what you need. And that’s why deciding to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified is all a person really needs to know, during your life and at the moment of your death. After we’ve been let down by the religions that aren’t called religions we come to the place where Edgar Allan Poe found himself in his come-to-God moment. Poe, an addict like Hoffman, was found near death on a frozen Philadelphia bench after a night of substance abuse. His last reported words were, “God have mercy on my poor soul.”
I’m forever grateful that at the heart of true religion is the God whose property is always to have mercy.
- 1 Corinthians 2