There may yet come a time when human beings inhabit distant planets in colossal, antiseptic spaceships, going about their days with antiseptic, computer-controlled minds, from which all notions and needs for God-talk will have been expunged. But until that day comes (not in my lifetime, thankfully), I’m casting the time and attention I have left to give on this earth with the poet Ezra Pound: “No apter metaphor having been found for certain emotional colours, I assert that the Gods exist.”
And so they do, in such an astonishing array of forms, depths, beliefs and disbeliefs as to challenge the very notion of human beings even resembling a coherent, more-similar-than-not species.
Exhibits A and B in that challenge: Colton Burpo and Roberto Calasso.
Burpo is the now teen-aged youth who purportedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy when he was four years old. He came back to tell his dad, Todd, an evangelical minister in a small Nebraska town, all about it in the kind of off-handed, distracted way with which one describes, while scanning the morning paper, having run into a neighbor at the grocery store the previous evening.
Over the course of many months of these brief and episodic revelations (“Hey, Dad, did you know that Jesus has a horse? Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him”), Colton’s constantly amazed and forehead-slapping father cobbled together enough reported strands of his son’s heavenly visitations to team up with a ghostwriter to produce a book, Heaven Is for Real, that sat halfway till forever on best-seller lists. It has now sold more than 10 million copies, all over the world.
Those who do make it to heaven find themselves reinhabiting the most vital phase of their earthly bodies, with the additional bonus of wings, the better to fly around a land where it never gets dark and no one ever grows old or needs glasses.
Told with the child-like simplicity that reflects the unformed child Colton was during the book’s seminal event, Heaven Is for Real describes a skyland that looks like and posits an ultimate reality hewing almost exactly to the one pictured by evangelical Christianity.
Up there behind gates guarded by angels who are armed with swords and bows-and-arrows, Jesus and his dad, God himself, sit in adjoining chairs (though God, says Colton, is much, much bigger than Jesus).
The guards are stationed there to keep out all interlopers—including the ever-wily Satan—who didn’t earn their ticket to heaven while on earth but who try to crash the gates nevertheless. One of their distinguishing characteristics, Colton informs Todd, is that they never accepted Jesus as their savior. Those who do make it to heaven find themselves reinhabiting the most vital phase of their earthly bodies, with the additional bonus of wings, the better to fly around a land where it never gets dark and no one ever grows old or needs glasses.
That’s the general picture of Colton and Todd Burpo’s God: conventional, helpful, decidedly Christian, an answerer of prayers, a keeper of the celestial table where banquets await the blessed believers.
So let us now consider Roberto Calasso’s God—or gods, actually. God-as-singularity is far too limiting for the far different sense of ultimate reality that Calasso conveys in in his multiple books on literature and mythology, all of which, predictably enough, have failed to get anywhere within shouting distance of the best-seller lists.
Calasso heads Italy’s largest publishing house when he is not writing books or holding forth on the perilous state of modernity at conferences and in interviews. He possesses one of those towering intellects of the old European school, his prose so full of arcane literary references, untranslated foreign phrases and rhetorical flights of fancy that zig and zag in unpredictable directions that one must continually check either Wikipedia or the Complete Illustrated Guide to World Mythology to grasp just a smidgen of his context. The alternative is just to skim without reference or expectation, hoping to snag a resonant phrase or two that turn to understanding.
That said, Calasso greatly rewards attentive reading, with the effort eventually yielding an overarching point that is simple enough, I think: The gods exist, and they have a relentless impact on human life, whether we ever think of or acknowledge them or not.
But they are not the gods most of us grew up thinking about. They are not the God of Colton Burpo. For Calasso, that does not mean they are “unreal” or mere projections of the psyche, living and created only in the human imagination and thus subject to the imagination’s direction and will. Not by a long shot.
Calasso’s gods are all too real, breaking in and tearing through human existence, upending our careful plans and well-tended lives, rupturing relationships, causing frenzies and inexplicable reversals of fortune, searing our psyches with passions, betrayals, great loves and fearsome hatreds.
They breathe probably most deeply into artists who can’t seem to help but yield themselves to the claims the gods make on them to explore deeper and darker truths than most of us can suffer. The often tortured expressions (and lives) of many artists represent their homage and submission to the gods’ raw unvarnished power.
Make no mistake, there is love and passion and mercy and all the other salutary qualities of capital-G God in the great godly pantheon, but there is also chaos and evil and travail.
Calasso, steeped in ancient myth, carries a special torch for the Hindu goddess Shiva, destroyer of worlds, but his interests range all through the world of great stories, fearsomely told.
What he bemoans most, I suspect, has little to do with fantastic tales of a 4-year-old gone to heaven and back under the watchful eye and heart of a benevolent God, but instead, the attempted asphyxiation of myth, story and ritual under the uber-rationality of modern technocracy and market economies.
It is as if there are three poles—or islands—in the modern enterprise:
Calasso’s God as in-breaking force, myth-maker, chaos-inducer, the untamed spirit within all things, God not as a being but as beingness itself, animating everything in wonder, passion and terror.
Then Burpo’s God as Big Daddy, the ultimate arbiter and judge of a soul’s worth, a peaceful, caring, all-embracing lover and watcher of all those who adore him.
And the third: the No-God of the all-rational-all-the-time techno-scientific view. No myth, no ritual, no homage to that which lies beyond, above, below and strange.
It would perhaps require questioning Calasso directly to verify this for certain, but I suspect he has more in common, or at least more sympathy for, Burpo than he does the rationalists. An excerpt from a series of lectures he delivered at Oxford University that were compiled into his 2001 book, Literature and the Gods:
“First and most obviously, the gods are still among us. But they are no longer made up of just the one family, however complicated, residing in their vast homes on the slopes of a mountain. No, now they are multitudes, a teeming crowd in an endless metropolis. It hardly matters that their names are often unpronounceable, like the names one sees on the doorbells of families of immigrants. The power of their stories is still at work. Yet there is something new and unusual about the situation: This composite tribe of gods lives only in its stories and scattered idols. The way of cult and ritual is barred, either because there is no longer a group of devotees who carry out the ritual gestures, or because even when someone does perform these gestures they stop short…This, one might say, has become the natural condition of the gods: to appear in books—and often in books that few will ever open. Is this the prelude to extinction?”
Interestingly, he goes on to answer no, largely because reading continues to thrive:
“That we may be gazing at a screen rather than a page, that the numbers, formulas, and words appear on liquid crystal rather than paper, changes nothing at all: it is still reading. The theater of the mind seems to have expanded to include rank upon teeming rank of patient signs, all incorporated into the prosthesis which is the computer.”
I don’t know what went on with Colton Burpo. While I am dubious in the extreme that any of his tale transcended the colorful imaginings of a boy steeped in media superheroes and his pastor father’s religion, clearly he was inhabited by a myth that while banal and fitting every dotted “i ” and crossed “t ” of his religious upbringing, certainly signaled a psychic event both vivid and lasting.
And for the millions of book buyers who read his tale and swooned to have their fondest dreams of heaven confirmed in soothing detail, I can only try to be as expansive as possible. Life is hard, misery and tragedy run deep, and whatever gets one through the dark night to awaken with some sense of consolation and hope should be O.K. by me as long as it is so for them.
To live fully into one’s myths, to recognize the gods as they cross the threshold into consciousness, to relent to their often extravagant and non-negotiable demands, is simply to understand how deeply we are formed by experiences and feeling states that it is folly to think we control.
Let us give Calasso the final word:
“All of my books have to do with possession. Ebbrezza, rapture, is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge. For us it’s become the main path to the lunatic asylum…The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind.”
Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Fred Astaire—heaven enough for me most days…
For periodic and brief posts of inspiring words from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by the usual lovely photography as exemplified here, see my public Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog
Longtime attendees to this site may be startled to see a different set of rotating banner photos at the top of page. After two years featuring the luscious photography of Redlands, California-based Larry Rose, we bow in deep appreciation to him and warm welcome to Elizabeth Haslam, whose work has frequently helped illustrate posts on this blog and whose remarkable body of work on Flickr can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
I did, however, reinsert one of Larry’s photos—the groaning shelves of a college library—just to keep his vision and a strong visial sense of bookishness to all who come here.
Small “Road to Heaven” photo near top of page by John Watson, Orange County, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/john/
Photo of multi-colored sky by Brandon, Mountain View, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/darthdowney/
Photo of Shiva by Alice Popkorn, “GAIA” Germany, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alicepopkorn/