Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Theology of The Lovely Bones

I recently read Alice Sebold's popular novel The Lovely Bones. It is one of the many fiction novels being adapted into a feature length film this year.

The film version of The Lovely Bones is scheduled to come out in December of 2009, prime season for a big box office and awards.

Peter Jackson who's famous for his direction, adaptation, and production of the Lord of The Rings trilogy really demonstrated his ability to tackle difficult (and popular) source material.

The Lovely Bones might not be as complex as J.R.R. Tolkein's trilogy, but the power of this popular novel is in a very unique literary device.

The main character of the story is Susie Salmon, a young girl who is raped and killed at the beginning of the story. This "mystery-esque" thriller takes away all the who, whats, and wheres right of the bat, and the audience knows it.

Yet, as the story unfolds, Susie is the narrator. She tells the story from heaven as she witnesses how her death and murder investigation is handled.

As I read The Lovely Bones, it was pretty clear to me that Sebold's intentions in writing this novel was not to expose a philosophy or theology of heaven, but rather write with a unique literary device that allowed a dead girl to be the narrator of her only story.

In order to shape these worlds on paper Sebold created a heaven with her own set of "rules" and "practices."

Because people tend to fuss less about books then they do about movies, I anticipate that come this holiday season we can certainly expect some uproars over the "theology" that is espoused in this potentially popular film.

The heaven that is created by The Lovely Bones, is largely ambiguous and irreligious heaven, relatively devoid of any sort of traditional religious perspectives.

At the same time, this afterlife borrows from the creation tradition. This place is clearly called heaven, and this afterlife does have "angels" but, there is no presentation of God, judgement, or eternal worship.

In reading The Lovely Bones, the heaven we see initially largely reminds me of the heaven that is shown in the Robin William's film What Dreams May Come. There is a sense that the dead go to an eternal place where they can create there own private paradise. Where Robin Williams could live in a world of paint splashing around with his dog, Susie Salmon and her "heaven friend" Holly can read fashion magazines in a world that looks like Susie's local high school.

In fact, Susie's heaven is separate and different from the heaven's of others. She imagines her grandma Lynn's heaven as a place where her Grandma will spend the day drinking mint juleps all day.

This is not your Christian view of heaven. This is not a place where God is sitting on a throne and worshiped, and there is no pain or suffering. In fact, there is a degree of pain and suffering for Susie.

For Susie, much of the pain she experiences in "heaven" is the result of the fact she has missed out on experiences, she is denied the opportunity to grow up, and she cannot experience physical pleasures and experiences.

With Susie as the narrator, in many ways this story plays out as a ghost story, a "Casper" of sorts, where the narrator has unfinished business and as she "expands her heaven" is able to watch down at the people in her life as they experience life. Susie is able to watch her family deal with her death, her sister Lindsey and Buckley grow up, and her killer as he hides the evidence of the murder, including her own body.

Unlike most "ghost stories" of this nature, the packaging of this story, in movie format is different. Most ghost stories don't portray heaven, or have an angelic "intake counselor." Similarly, most ghost stories are movies with horror tendencies, not movies that are packaged with young actors and actresses, and fantastic special effects of heaven, and based on best selling novels, coming out in the holiday season.

I expect some controversy in association with this film, some productive conversations, and unproductive conversations, perhaps even a boycott or two.

Personally, as I've stated, I do think that purpose of Sebold was to create a literary device, not a theological perspective. All the same, I think the theology portrayed in this film is really reflective upon current secular humanist ideals. I think most people want there to be an after life and to have an after life where it can be tailored and formed to our individual desires and preferences is very modern.

For Sebold to create a less ecumenical all-embracing heaven might not only have been limiting to her plot, but probably off putting to many of her readers, and I feel like the heaven she created is the synthesis of societies wishes for what many would want heaven to be like.

Yet, The Lovely Bones (not attempting to be theological) doesn't address whether her killer, George Harvey will also get to go to heaven, have an intake counselor angel and have his perfect life of torturing and harming young girls.

In addition, the thought of an eternity reading fashion magazines in heaven sounds really drab. Susie, as the narrator, does reflect some on the lengthiness of eternity, and while she has the opportunity to re-unite with her dead grandfather in Heaven, her general joy she experiences in heaven is fairly limited. Most of her time in heaven is spent pining for what was missed of her lost experience on earth.

If this is heaven, who would want it?

Peter Jackson's portrayal of heaven, and the way he incorporates this essential plot device into the context of the film is sure to enrage some audiences, regardless of how he employs his skills or transfers the story to screen.

(Movie Still from the Lovely Bones via Empire.


Terri B. said...

RC: Thanks for stopping by! I really liked Plot Against America, but then I like stories of alternate history. I'll probably re-read someday. Have you ever read Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle? Another alternate history.

I look forward to reading Lovely Bones and enjoyed your comments here. I know quite a few people who believe that there is a heaven but that it is something that all will go to and that you create your own version (at least they are doing so in the here and now in their own heads), so maybe the movie will be appreciated. I can indeed see the boycotts over theology coming though! I was especially intrigued by the questions you put out there though, that if all go to heaven and get to have their "perfect" heaven then what will the murderer's "heaven" be like? Shudder!

Anonymous said...

I think you are correct about the lack of vision in the aspect of Heaven. But I enjoyed the movie. Me, I hope we all come back to the Earth in another life. Brand new with no memory of the past. For what joy would there be from things expected and a past ever present. That is why I say to my kids Live your life and love your life. I tell them to beware of those who worship and LOVE death. This goes for so called religeous and others. Life is joy. Death probably sucks. RJ

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This may be the best book you'll read this year; perhaps the best book of 2002. Alice Sebold tells a chilling story without histrionics or sensationalism, and her self-discipline makes the story all the more poignant. If you want a first-hand experience with what writing should be, treat yourself to The Lovely Bones.

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Though no book is perfect, and this one is no exception to that, I enjoyed the way Alice Sebold put the whole story inside the framework of a fantasy, beginning it in heaven. That's what makes "The Lovely Bones" unique. The only other book I read that does that is "West Point..." by Norman Thomas Remick which, take it for what it's worth, I also recommend. But, don't just go by what I say. Get the books. You won't be disappointed.