“First Moments in Heaven” — When life fails to imitate art

“First Moments in Heaven” — When life fails to imitate art September 7, 2020

first moments in heaven christianity atheism art
“First Moments in Heaven.” (Thanks to 9GAG)

This painted imagining of “Heaven” I bumped into online (shown above) proved to be as ethereal as its theme.

The only hint I could find that it actually exists somewhere independent of its internet presence is an advertising note offering a copy of the painting — “First Moments in Heaven” — for $77.99 on eBay (when I tried to access the site, it warned me only to go there “at your own risk”).

Despite the painting theme’s total disconnect from reality, it’s lovely, in my view, evoking a warm and wondrous scene of reunion in “Paradise” of dearly departed human beings, young and old, many of them children. Who would not long for such reincarnation and reunification if it were possible, right?

That many children were depicted in the painting didn’t miss the notice of one snide commenter (“sweatypig”) on 9GAG, an impious humor website that posted an image of the painting. Sweatypig wrote:

“That’s a lot of dead kids. Someone blew up a school bus or something.”

However rational, that sounded a little harsh when reacting to a gentle, loving portrait of a person’s religious beliefs and longing to embrace loved ones who have long passed.

After all, many stories we Americans traditionally embrace and love are fictional (which is to say invented, not real). Virtually everyone is saddened I assume when Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters in the animated Disney feature film “Bambi,” for example, or when Old Yeller has to be “put down” when he gets rabid in the movie “Old Yeller.” It’s human to grieve, even in made-up tragedies. (But I reveal my age by referring to ’50s classics.)

This is to say here’s nothing inherently wrong with fictions and fantasies, which are often powerfully moving and humanistically meaningful, so long as we acknowledge that they are inventions — but inventions from whose real-world lessons we often can derive important existential understandings and wisdom.

The problem is when we believe our fantasies are real — and direct our lives accordingly.

That is what the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Tempe followers were doing when he ordered them to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and they mostly complied (others were shot), that tragic July day in 1978. Minutes later, nearly 1,000 of Jones’ acolytes — men, women and children — lay dead.

If anyone was speaking to Jones, it was the “Devil,” not “God.” His motivation wasn’t to bring his followers to “God” in “Paradise,” but to make a grandiose, murderous gesture of selfish rage when he realized that his fraudulent gig was up and U.S. federal authorities would surely soon arrive at his temple compound in Guyana, South America, arrest him and shut down his entire operation.

As far as we can glean from the only reality we have access to, Jones’ tragic apostles would never have arrived in “Paradise” in a “divine” realm, but they certainly arrived in “hell on earth,” as we say. This reality clearly occurred to not a few of them in their final moments, but it was by then too late.

So, lovely as the painting “First Moments in Heaven” may be to look at in real time, it is dangerous in the way it emotionally encourages people to continue believing in such fantasies as real. That is what supernatural religion does.

When Christian apostates, for example, talk about the trauma of leaving their faith — and I’ve read many of these wrenching stories — they often talk about the pain of giving up beautiful imaginings of Heaven that they had nurtured their whole lives.

Images are important, therefore, but it’s even more important to know the difference between those that are real, and those that are unreal. Then, the lessons that resonate from them will far more likely be inherently true and reality based

When I searched for the source of this painting, I was inevitably referred to a quirky website called Brian at Play, whose home page offers this lead-in:

“I believe everything we do should contain an element of lightness. In this site, I address topics drenched in both despair and joy. Songs, academic papers, books, silly accents, poetic barrages—I believe God grips it all with rough, welcoming hands and a winsome smile. So this will always be an unfinished work, just like you and I are. Jump or slide on in!”

I could not find an image of “First Moments in Heaven” on the site, or at least I lost patience after fruitlessly wasting what seemed far too much time in that pursuit.

All I know for sure is that I’ve seen what appears to be a copy of a very kindly painting that presumably exists somewhere, but I don’t know who painted it or when.

I view the painting as, more than a work of art, an object lesson in how we should practically monitor our beliefs, although it is clearly both a painting and object lesson.

It’s essential, I think, to always be sure we know the difference between the actually sublime and the imagined “divine.”

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