The history books will record Roger Ebert as a great film critic. He was that and, I am certain, much more to those who loved and knew him best. His loss has been felt by many around the globe because of the millions he touched. Ebert took us to the movies for years; he guided our ticket purchases, awakened in us a poetic appreciation for films we might not otherwise have seen; and best of all, he called the public away from the mindless, lowest common denominator of entertainment. His ability to critique film and his way with words had the effect of “raising all our boats” in the areas of culture, intellect, emotion, and even an awareness of the sacred.
Ebert’s ability to awaken us is what makes his death feel so tragic; but it is also what makes his now popularized letter, “I Do Not Fear Death,” equally as tragic. Ebert’s final critique came to us not in the form of a film review, but in a staunch and unwavering gaze cast toward seeming permanence of death. It has taken the Internet somewhat by storm and praised by many.
I confess, I found little praiseworthy in it. In fact, it primarily aroused in me a deep sense of pity to see a man with such brilliance and appreciation for beauty in life take those gifts and place them in a room with such a low ontological ceiling.
Ebert begins his letter with the assertion that there is “nothing on the other side of death to fear.” The belief in nothingness after death is what Nobel Prize poet Czeslaw Milosz called “the true opium of the people.” Ebert himself confesses in his letter that the prospect of eternity “frightens me,” lending great credence to the observation of Milosz. The opium of nothingness can produce an intoxicating bliss when we come to believe that we’ve no one to answer to on the other side of death. The liberation granted in a belief of nothingness is probably far more pleasurable than any notion of God, for it is according to Milosz, “a huge solace in thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged.”
I am not surprised to see Ebert’s letter so readily received by so many. Who wouldn’t want nothingness after death? Nothingness allows us to follow our own bliss in the time we have, to suck what marrow we wish from the bones of life, to find our own sense of purpose and meaning—to ultimately make a go of it with the ideals that suit us and please us best. That’s opium indeed.
What this worldview ultimately lacks is a cross. The cross of Christ stands in stark opposition to the blissful addiction of nothingness. The cross implies direction and purpose, and it carries a stronger resolve than the comfort of just ceasing to exist. The cross indicates that it is often our discomfort that opens us to the deeper courage. The narrowness of it funnels our lives into tight ideological spaces, which ultimately wring out of us the greater nobility.
I believe I probably would have never written a response to Ebert’s letter had he not quoted Walt Whitman. I am in love with Whitman and the familiarity of his “Leaves of Grass” wash over me much like holy writ. To equate the line, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,” to a belief in nothingness after death is a gross misreading of the good gray poet. In the lines preceding, Whitman says things such as:
“I know I am deathless…The smallest sprout shows there really is no death, and if there ever was, it led forward to life…There is that in me—I know not what it is—but I know it is in me…it is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life.”
The idea that Whitman may in fact be under our boot sole testifies to his belief in life after death; it is neither a denial of it, nor is it some kind of awkward groping into nothingness. Ebert lowered Whitman’s ontological ceiling to fit his own, and this perhaps disturbs me as much as anything.
Ebert continues his letter by making references to Richard Dawkins and meme theory, which is little more than a tautological blanket tossed over an inept, naked Emperor who has spent the last 500 years trying to cage Platonic idealism. It is precisely the kind of mechanistic stain that Ebert applies to his own wife’s experience of the sacred in his letter: “Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally—not symbolically, figuratively, or spiritually…I believe she did it in the real physical world I have described, the one I share with my wristwatch.”
I understand the sentiment—Ebert wanted to contextualize the experience without cheapening it and he made a valiant attempt. Yet, at the end of the day what he aims for is hardly possible. He does cheapen it…like a bad director or script writer.
The beauty of a good film is that it takes us beyond the screen and into the wonder and imagination of the intangible. To say that such an experience shares the same space as a wristwatch is on its very best day, a gangly truth. That Ebert would never use such vernacular for his favorite film and yet chooses to apply it on the grand screen of human life is cause, not for celebration, but unmitigated remorse.
I give his letter 2 out of 5 stars and hold out higher hopes, both for our species and for Him Who awaits us all in the Great Beyond.
David Allred is the lead pastor of High Places Community Church at 123 Randolph Road in Oak Ridge, and he works alongside founding pastor Martin Fischer. High Places owns and operates the historic Grove Theater, which is also home to numerous Arts organizations who share a vision for improving quality of life in Oak Ridge. For more information, see http://highplaceschurch.com.