Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition by Louis Markos

Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic TraditionHeaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition by Louis Markos

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an excellent overview of the stories that have influenced and shaped our views of Heaven and Hell from ancient times until now. I particularly enjoyed the author's exploration of the chain of influences that have connected all these stories and the way that they've been tweaked to express new ideas in the "journey to the other side" format. For example, I never realized that the rebellious Titans' deepest level of hell (Tartarus) shows up in 2 Peter 2:4 (the only spot in the Bible) by using the word Tartarus to signify Hell:
"God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to Hell [Tartarus]", and delivered them into chains of darkenss, to be reserved unto judgment." What makes the use here of Tartarus quite stunning is that the rebellious Titans of Greek mythology share much in common with the "sons of God" who mate with the "daughters of men" to produce the nephilim (see Gen. 6:1-4) and who are then (according to the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch) put in prison to await judgment. ... just as Hell in the New Testament is linked both to the angelic rebellion of the "sons of God" and to the punishment of sinners, so Tartarus functions as both the prison of the Titans and the place of suffering for such archetypal sinners as Tantalus, Ixion, and Sisyphus: the sinners, that is, whose cries Orpheus hears rising up from the pit below.
Of particular interest to me were the in-depth looks at the Divine Comedy, the hijacking of Milton's Satan by the Romantics (I will never look at William Blake the same way), and how it continues to influence us today via the Byronic hero.

Louis Markos is a Protestant but he has a deep understanding of Catholic theology that would put many a Catholic to shame. His explanation of Purgatory in his preface to Dante's Purgatorio is masterful in explaining both the theology and the way Americans misinterpret it precisely because of their American identity. This is just a bit:
Purgatory is not about "earning our salvation," but, in having already been saved by Christ's sacrifice on the cross, working with the Spirit to present ourselves as clean vessels. Out of pure grace and love, the Prince lifts Cinderella out of the cinders and takes her to his castle. But Cinderella would never think of entering her future home until she had the chance to wash, fix her hair, and put on her finest gown. The American Christian, in his somewhat adolescent way, asks if all of this is "fair." But Purgatory is not about fairness; it is about freedom.
This signals that I can trust Markos to be just as careful in communicating information I am not familiar with. It's nice to be able to trust an author that much.

There is an extensive bibliography, written in a very readable style, with lots of ideas for further exploration of the topic.

Highly recommended.

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