Yawns Be Damned: Of Hitchcock, Heaven, and the Thrill of the Chase

“This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called ‘heaven.’” (CCC 1024)

(photo: Image credit: Tinus Badenhorst, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be!
Ah, how you will delight the angels!
Fillipa, “Babette’s Feast

We have a marketing problem in the Church. In crass business terms, people just ain’t buying what we’re selling – at least not like they used to.

I’m talking about heaven, the “ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings,” as the Catechism describes it, “the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024). It’s not that folks don’t want a resplendent afterlife; they just don’t want the one the Church is hawking, nor the hard work of continual conversion that goes along with it. In fact, it seems that more people believe in some kind of heaven today than believe in God – and certainly more than believe in hell. “It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality,” notes researcher Jean Twenge, “thinking you can get something for nothing.”

Yet it’s a “something” vaguely defined these days, clearly removed from traditional heavenly constructs, and readily detached from formal religion. And why not? We Christians have done a middling job when it comes to making our vision of the spiritual end game an enticing prospect. Indeed, it can come across to moderns as downright boring.

I can think of no better expression of this critique than the 1979 Talking Heads song, “Heaven” – a pretty tune, but pretty depressing; not exactly a Sunday school singalong. David Byrne, the song’s co-writer, starts off with celestial party imagery – comparing heaven to a bar that everyone is trying to get to, where the house band will be playing our favorite song – but then the imagery takes a dark turn. Unlike real parties, this one concludes with everyone leaving “at exactly the same time” and then immediately commences again. And that favorite song the band is playing? It’ll be repeated, over and over, and over and over and over…. “Heaven is a place,” Byrne despondingly croons, “a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.”

Real parties, especially homecoming parties and reunions, are joyous occasions in part because they’re occasions. The feasting and frivolity, the dancing and merriment, are enjoyable precisely because they’re departures from the norm. Most of the time we don’t party like that, so we enthusiastically join in when we get the chance.

But all that on and on into eternity? Without a break to catch our breath? No thanks. Music critic Dave Bell calls the Talking Heads heavenly anti-anthem “pop as Samuel Beckett might write it: tedious, beautiful and desperate.” I don’t know about Samuel Beckett, but I certainly agree that the song gives voice to a legitimate gripe: Heaven, Christianity’s cosmic hope, might appear to outsiders as something dreadfully monotonous.

Is it?

It’s a key question for the New Evangelization because heaven is the goal – the telos, the whole purpose of faith and even our very existence. “God…created man to make him share in his own blessed life,” reads the Catechism’s opening paragraph, and then (in case we missed the point) the paragraph concludes by asserting that God “invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”

Sounds good…unless that blessed life is blessedly and eternally boring, and the Heads weren’t the first to voice such misgivings. Back in 1884, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn expressed similar doubts after Miss Watson told him that heaven was a place where one “was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.” Really? Who can blame Huck for responding, “I didn’t think much of it.”

Frank Sheed argues that Protestant Christianity’s exclusive reliance on Scripture is at least partially to blame for this eschatological public relations blunder. “For centuries they have talked, preached and sung of heaven as a place of harps, hymns, crowns of gold, streets of jasper,” Sheed writes. With no theology of heaven to speak of, Bible-only Christians rely exclusively on derivative biblical symbols, which “give no notion of the life of heaven any more than pictures of men with wings give a notion of the being of angels.” In the end, the symbols alone can’t withstand intellectual scrutiny – least of all in an internet age filled with endless diversions and distractions a button-click away. “The result is that for the average man,” Sheed concludes, a Christian “heaven…is not attractive.”

That’s a significant challenge in our efforts to re-evangelize the post-Christian West. How can you preach a Gospel of self-abnegation and the Cross to those who are content with assuming they’ll win an amorphous post-mortem prize regardless? In a sense, we have to re-package a robust Christian vision of heaven for a whole new generation – a generation that’s given up on religious “pie in the sky bye and bye,” but is apparently still counting on some kind of celestial reward.

I think Huck Finn gives some insight into how to go about doing this. “All I wanted was to go somewheres,” he says with reference to Miss Watson’s end-times catechizing, “all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.” Note that Huck envisions an afterlife of action, not amenities. A heaven consisting of incessant sameness, no matter how comfy, holds no attraction for him. Instead, what excites his imagination is a forever that holds out the possibility of ongoing adventure – particularly if it includes his earthly companion, Tom Sawyer: “I wanted him and me to be together.”

This is in keeping with the Church’s understanding of the heavenly realm. It’s less a static noun than a very active communal verb – less like being somewhere than a continual corporate going. Tradition and the saints use the term “beatific vision” for this, but it’s a dynamic kind of sight. Don’t think of an endless Sunday afternoon visit to an art museum, dully gazing at one picture of God after another for all eternity. Rather it’s an apprehension of limitless divine transcendence, an enfolding of all the blessed into God’s own inner life, which means infinite, exhilirating discovery. “Further up and further in!” the creatures repeatedly exclaim in C.S. Lewis’s allegorical The Last Battle. For them, Paradise is “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” No rest – onward into God!

How to communicate this concept to a post-Christian West? Enter the McGuffin. It’s a term often attributed to filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, although the idea has been around a long time. A McGuffin is a plot device that drives a film’s (or a story’s) narrative momentum. It can be any object of inherent value – a necklace, a coveted document – although its actual function is not of central importance. “In some cases in a movie, you never find out what the McGuffin is,” writes Jennifer O'Rourke, “just that it's important to move characters in a plot from point A to point B.” In Hitchcock’s 1935 “The 39 Steps,” it’s the plans to a high-tech airplane; in “North By Northwest,” it’s generic government secrets. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the McGuffin is, as long as everybody is after it – like R2-D2 in the first Star Wars movie. Indeed, as Hitchcock told filmmaker François Truffaut, in its “purest expression,” a McGuffin is “nothing at all!”

Let me quickly clarify here that I’m not suggesting that God is himself a mere plot device – that he’s “nothing at all,” and that we’re all on a supernatural goose chase. No, he’s real alright, but he’s Real in a way that we will never fully comprehend – even when he capacitates us to “see” him in heaven. In other words, God’s own inner life, always pointing ahead with each successive epiphany, will motivate us to keep seeking him in the beyond – just as it motivates us in this life. The McGuffin mystery in this case will never be fully realized, compelling us ever on to new heights of revelation. While we will have “laid hold on God,” Sheed explains, “our intellect, with no barrier between itself and its supreme object, will be eternally enriched in eternal activity, for God is infinite and our intellect will never exhaust the truth which is its supreme beatitude.”

Thus, heaven is not a destination but a quest – an endless quest that begins now. “‘All the way to heaven is heaven,’” writes Dorothy Day, paraphrasing Catherine of Siena, “for He said, ‘I am the Way.’” In a distracted age, it’s an invitation to gleeful, perpetual adventure that’s bound to resonate.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy