“Afterlife in Pop Culture”: New Course Examines Depictions of the Afterlife in Popular Media

September 5, 2019 | By James Powers

Amid his courses covering various fundamentals of theology, new humanities professor Dr. Samuel Keyes also introduced himself to students this past quarter with an elective course focused on one particular intersection of religion and media. “Afterlife and Pop Culture” (THEO215), which concludes this week, examines the modern world’s view of death and the afterlife as expressed in pop culture. The class has looked at various films and TV shows, such as Coco and The Good Place, that deal prominently with themes of death and the afterlife, and met twice weekly to discuss how those themes are handled.

As a point of comparison for these other works, the course also used C.S. Lewis’s allegorical novel The Great Divorce, which visualizes the afterlife according to Christian tradition - Heaven, Hell and Purgatory - through the device of a narrator who takes a trip there and then returns.

“We wanted to consider, with a critical eye, not just whether these stories were orthodox or not… but whether they’re grasping at something true that Christians can recognize,” says Dr. Keyes.

Ultimately, the purpose of the course was less to articulate Christian doctrine on the afterlife than it was to examine how other contemporary voices may relate to that doctrine.

“As much as society runs away from speaking about the inevitable separation of body and soul it sure is obsessed with trying to grasp some sort of hope that perhaps there is something beyond death,” says student Moises Mora.

Dr. Keyes explains. “I hope that the takeaway for students was less that they learned a lot of content but that they practiced using their theological and cultural skills to think about these issues.”