It’s hard to imagine a movie more perfectly suited to our day and age than “Hereafter.” It’s a story about a Near Death Experience, or NDE, to be sure, but just as importantly, it dramatizes the plight of NDEers, and other accidental mystics, when forced to confront the blank, empty stares of materialistic humanity.
All of us are bound to die, and yet most people not chronically ill are put off mightily by discussions about life after death. The rich and successful don’t want to dwell on judgment, while the hungry and poor are so preoccupied with survival they can hardly think about anything else.
And those who call themselves religious are often caught up in a someday notion of the rapture, or soul sleep until the second coming. Meanwhile, roughly 15 million Americans have a near-death experience under their belts, and could tell folks firsthand it’s not like that at all — if ever they were asked.
“Hereafter” was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, who is getting on in years, and some critics have surmised he made the movie to begin his reconciliation with death. My response to that would be yes and no.
Yes, because the film is full of death, from a tsunami portrayal in which hundreds of thousands in beachfront communities die to the heartbreaking death of one child.
No, because Eastwood is into portraying the screwed-up values of this day and age — of media’s shallowness, organized religion’s obtuseness and society’s domination by politics and greed. Clearly, Eastwood still is trying to shame us into changing our ways here on Earth.
And yet, the movie has gentleness to it, suggesting that if we would just give each other a chance, things still might be all right. The film is built on stories that turn up in a seemingly random pattern, each containing a tragedy apparently unrelated to the others. Yet everything is related, after all.
So many people are adamant today about being free and independent, but “Hereafter” demonstrates it’s often a blessing when unlikely coincidence interweaves our stories. And anyway, haven’t you heard? There are no coincidences.
There are enough messages contained in “Hereafter” that I can discuss some of them without giving away the story. There are images to tell us how unready we are for major natural disasters, and how unprepared we are for the little disappointments and the big betrayals in our own lives. When something incredible happens, our friends and lovers are prone to greet our sudden enthusiasm with withering nonchalance.
“I had a vision,” the reporter tells her lover in a moment of bravery, and she begins to describe her near-death visit to the other side. “You had a concussion,” is all her boyfriend has to say to shut her up again.
In another scene, an overworked priest runs an assembly-line cremation service, saying as few words as possible as the coffin descends into the flames. He then shoos the family out of the hall as the next family arrives.
A man (played by Matt Damon) who has been given a great gift through a childhood disease — that of being able to communicate with the dead — hates himself for the gift he’s been given. “I feel like a freak,” he tells his brother, who wants to mass-merchandise his brother’s talent to bring in the big bucks.
Meanwhile another pair of brothers, twin children, rely heavily on one another to hide their mother’s addiction problems from child welfare services. When the older twin gets killed, he keeps on with the partnership from the other side until he finally is released.
The thing about “Hereafter” is that transformation can take place in the audience, as well as in the film’s characters. Any moviegoer paying attention should agree that many of the problems the story presents could be overcome by the simple acknowledgment that we are eternal beings who live even after our bodies die. When we conform our lives to that understanding, then amazing things can happen to us in the here and now.
Other pastors may disagree, but I consider it a blessing that the theology of “Hereafter” does not try to define God, other than placing the deceased on a lighted plane where many others have gathered. There is no portrayal of Jesus or of angels, and none of God, unless the light is meant to be the key. Eastwood has taken the ba-sic, commonly described attribute of a positive NDE, that of standing in the light, and he goes no further than that.
The fact is, the basic NDE is a universal experience, described in similar terms by experiencers of all cultures and faiths, and by those belonging to no faith at all. Theologians still can debate where the soul travels after it enters the light. Eastwood stops at the point of agreement — that our soul does go on, after we die.
The Rev. Dr. Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.