Archive for October, 2009


After Life, a 1998  film by  Japanese director Koreeda, is set in a large, shabby building,  perhaps a social services institution,  where the souls of people who died that week are processed before moving on to the hereafter.

A group of the newly dead of various ages checks in each Monday.  The employees of the institution explain  that they  have until Wednesday to choose a single memory from their lives to take with them into eternity.

Since there are twenty two  dead people being interviewed by the staff,  the first half of the film can be a bit confusing.  It is  hard to know what you are supposed to be paying attention to, not unlike the first half of life itself.

It is easy to become impatient with the contrived premise of the film (who would set up an after life like that?) or, alternatively,  to become so enthralled by the concept  (“What memory would I choose?”) . Either way, you might think  that you don’t really need to finish all two hours  of the film.

If you stick with it, however,  you slowly realize the crux of the film  is not the dead people and their choices at all,  but rather the relationship between two of the staff members who, belatedly, are figuring out for themselves what really matters.

This movie raises  important questions about the meaning of life,  the least of which is “what is your single defining memory?” It offers it own answers for some of those questions, answers that felt profoundly true to me.

I wanted to discuss this movie with everyone I care about.


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Are you as tired as I am of the  war of words  between the “crusading atheists” and the “defenders of the faith” or, at least, of the idea of faith? At first, I found it engaging to read Richard Dawkins,  Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their ilk, but I  soon grew tired of their arrogance. It did not seem to me that they had tried very hard to understand what  religion means to religious people.  These battles were spilling a lot of ink (better than spilling blood, I agree) but not shedding much light on anything important like justice, moral courage, or world peace.

So I am happy to report some good news.

Two  important books,  one published just a few months ago and one to go on sale next week,  indicate that a ceasefire may be at hand. The titles of the two books sound like the calls to arms we have become accustomed to. In one corner: Good Without God and in the other corner, the challenger:  It’s Really all about God.

But take a look at the subtitles! Greg Epstein,  a Jew who is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, offers as a full title, “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” And Samir Selmanovic, a Seventh Day Adventist minister in New York from Croatia, calls his book, “It’s Really all about God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.

What’s going on here? The minister has the word “atheist” on his cover, the nonreligious writer has the word “believe” on his. Is it possible that two thoughtful people have decided to put down their swords and write thoughtfully about the many different ways people find to live lives of meaning and goodness, with and without God?

Greg Epstein and Samir Selmanovic seem to think it is  possible to be right without making the other guy wrong.  What a great concept! If they were to debate each other, it might actually be a little boring. On the other hand, we might come away learning something about living lives of humility and compassion.

P.S.  I am proud to say that Samir Selmanovic spoke at RRC last year and our Multifaith Studies Department is  sponsoring Greg Epstein next month.(Sunday, November 22, 11 a.m. Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk. Free to the Public.)

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