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Book Review:

In Heaven As On Earth:

A Vision of the Afterlife

By M. Scott Peck, M.D.

Hyperion
225p. ISBN 0-7868-6204-1
Hardcover, $19.95

Reviewed by Jeff Duntemann


Some years ago, when the Near Death experience got real hot in publishing, I predicted that novels about the afterlife would soon be the Next Big Thing. Weíve taken a detour down Angel Lane since then, thanks to Sophie Burnham, but the era of Dead Guys Novels finally seems to be dawning. This is the first one Iíve read, and like a lot of pioneers, it deserves a few arrows in some delicate places.

M. Scott Peck is the author of People Of The Lie, a powerful and extremely effective book about the nature of human evil. Peck is a psychiatrist, and has written about a number of psychological and spiritual topics. Heís less known for his novels, and apparently has only written two. But before I dig into things, I need to point out that this is a novel in the same sense that C. S. Lewisí The Great Divorce is a novel, which is to say, the author is using the novel form as a device to put across his philosophical and theological points.

And hereís the crux of the problem. As a story, itís mighty thin gruel. As philosophy, itís neither especially convincing nor particularly coherent. Sitting here the day after I finished it, I couldnít sum up in one ringing sentence exactly what heís getting at, and thatís a bad sign.

As the bookís subtitle indicates, this is a vision of the afterlife, what you might call effing the ineffable--describing something that is pretty much outside the bounds of human imagining. People who claim to have had visions of the next world often come back falling all over themselves, saying things like, "Wow, it was great! It was just the terrificest thing I ever saw! It was like...it was like...well, it just defies description!"

Amen. A literal view of the afterlife is probably impossible. To make your points, youíll have to do what a lot of people do and draw metaphors that point back to human experience, with the caution that "this isnít a literal description of what I saw, but putting it in human terms is the best I can do to get it across." Lewis did that in The Great Divorce, and it became one of his finest books. Peck seems uncomfortable with that approach, and seems to want to offer a literal description of the undescribable. There is something truly compelling about Nirvana, the Cosmic Void, as the Eastern traditions know well. But try to describe it, and youíre painting the stuff in the middle of an empty crate.

In Heaven, As On Earth begins with the death of the protagonist, Daniel, a 73-year-old psychiatrist and theologian who dies after a long struggle with cancer. He does the canonical out-of-body trip around his deathbed room, dutifully insults his ukky-looking corpse, and then roars into the Dead Guys Memorial Tunnel with enthisiasm. He pops out the other end into the Light, and has the bad manners to ask, "Are you God?" God refuses to answer, and in doing so sets the pattern for the whole rest of the book.

After passing out in the presence of the Light, Daniel wakes up a small room done up in green, with no doors or windows or anything but a slab like a prison bed and two smaller slabs that would have to suffice as guest chairs. After frothing in confusion for a bit, Daniel sees two human figures materialize badly on his guest chairs, flickering like Happy Days reruns on a dying black-and-white TV. They are his Greeters, Sam and Norma, one a paunchy former salesman, the other a former housewife in baggy slacks. They describe themselves as "ordinary people." This is a slander on ordinary people, and especially on salesmen, whom I number among my friends.

Daniel wants to know whatís going on, where he is, and whatís going to happen to him. He asks a lot of what I would consider pretty obvious and reasonable questions, like, "How can we see each other if we donít have bodies?" and "is this heaven, hell, or purgatory?" To virtually every question he asks, his Greeters reply, "I donít know." Pressed further, they admit that they simply donít care.

Daniel claims to be an impatient man, but heís the Dalai Lama next to me. I would have throttled them both, even if it meant doing some time in Godís pizza oven. This pair of lobotomized white trash should have been pushing brooms on the loading dock somewhere, not "greeting" an intelligent and motivated man.

Poor Daniel wrings a bare minimum of information out of them before they mercifully evaporate. They have, however, infected him with Sam-and-Norma disease, and he is never quite the same again.

By this time, weíre getting a certain vision of the afterlife. Iíll summarize:

* Thereís no there there. Itís worse than Oakland. In fact, itís about as visually exciting as the inside of a refrigerator box.

* Thereís almost nobody home. Daniel encounters an empty room and a morbidly obese young woman, and has a mind-numbing discussion with some bodiless spirits living under some rocks in a garbage can that we later learn is Hell. Apart from that, heaven or wherever he is (no thanks to Sam and Norma) seems mighty empty.

Daniel is at his best confronting his Greeters. After that he gradually loses his curiosity. He discovers he can travel through time, and after one short trip decides heís no longer interested. He visits his two living children briefly and then loses interest in them too. Half a day away from Earth and from his perspective it might as well never have existed. Why and how does this change occur? We are given no clue. This is characterization by fiat, and it rings false.

Through all of this, Daniel mulls the fate of his wife of 50 years, Mary Martha, who died three years before he did. He obviously misses her, even though Peck paints her as prickly, frigid and obsessed with her "space." So where is Mary Martha?

In reading that section I flashed back to the part of Shadowlands, in which C.S. Lewis asks his dying wife if, heaven allowing, she would come to meet him when his last day finally arrives. Fierce in her love, Joy replies, "If Hell itself would try to stop me, Iíd smash it to bits." Now thatís a wife worth missing. And truly, if I were in Danielís place and I sensed that Carol were coming up the Tunnel, any demon getting between me and her would have a Jeff-shaped hole in him.

But poor Daniel blunders around in his cosmic refrigerator box for days and days before he finally sends out a polite mental request for his wife to come visit. Poof! She shows up. Supposedly they still love one another, but I saw little evidence of it in the text. Mostly they seem like two ancient antagonists who have called a truce after some pointless war. They make polite talk in the shapeless void (which is the real nature of the Afterworld) during which Mary Martha explains the intriguing process by which Dead Guys help make new souls. Having done that, she tells Daniel sheís simply not interested in her own children anymore. Finally she poofs back to work with her "committee," telling Daniel that they might just possibly see one another again someday.

At this point I threw the book at the wall. In Heaven As On Earth is short, the writing very sparse. I wasnít sure how much to try to read between the lines. Detachment seems to be the point here. In the next world, weíre supposed to lay aside our earthly concerns and confront the reality of a new mode of existence. This isnít the first time Iíd heard this, and it isnít the first time it bothered me. "Detachment" is a slippery notion, and in this book comes off as a sort of New Age happy face put on selfish self-involvement. Now, I can see fostering detachment from money, tobacco, fast cars, and earthly power. But Mary Martha, on entering Heaven, left her concern for her children and her husband at the door. One quick visit with Daniel and some vague promises to see him again someday isnít detachment. Itís selfishness and emotional cruelty. She didnít even say, "We can still be friends." From that point on, I couldnít stop myself from hating the Mary Martha character. Perhaps fortunately, we hear no more of her. There is no love in this heaven.

The book only has two more major scenes. In the first, Daniel is tested by Satan in the form of a sexy teenaged girl, who drags Daniel back to Earth, gives him a teenaged body with a double twist of hormones, and then offers to make love to him if he will only worship her. Daniel resists--narrowly--but only by realizing that Satan is 100% lie, and while Danielís a slave to sex he understands lies.

Itís a nasty test to push on a lonely old guy whose wife has forced him to live as a celibate for 25 years, and it stank a bit of double jeopardy. Do we have to subdue our adolescent hormones again in heaven or risk eternal damnation? Not fair, Big Guy! Been there. Done that. Washed the car with the T-shirt.

The final scene shows Danielís initiation into a committee that in some utterly unexplained fashion is trying to improve life on Earth. The whole business is visually confusing, with balls of light zipping around a featureless amphitheater of some sort, and precious little explanation of whatís going on and how itís accomplished. Then the book simply stops, in what is certainly the least satisfying ending Iíve encountered in the last several years.

Iíve gone into more detail here than in most of my reviews in this series because I donít want to give the impression that Iím simply carping. This is a very bad book from a very good writer, and itís impossible to tell whether Dr. Peck set himself a task he couldnít pull off, or simply got too "detached" from his writerís integrity to write a book that made as much sense as People Of The Lie.

The afterlife vision here is of a featureless realm full of people who donít seem to know much and, worse, donít care to learn. I get no whiff of love, no trace of curiosity, and little of responsibility. Plenty of detachment, but no sense of engagement--and no sense of community, but instead a sense of aching lonliness, of light balls whipping through the void wrapped up totally in their own concerns. There is no humor, no ritual, no unambiguous sense of this odd place being in any way human.

Worst of all, I donít get any Big Picture of what the afterlife is about. Swedenborg, the Theosophists, the Sufis, nearly all mythic and mystic traditions have a detailed Earth-Below-and-Heaven-Above cosmology that takes a position on human nature and human destiny and does its best to communicate it. I was kind of hoping for the same here, especially with a title like In Heaven As On Earth. Alas, nobody home. Save your money.