Book Review: PZ’s Panopticon


I just finished reading PZ’s Panopticon: An Off-the-Wall Guide to World Religion by Paul Zahl, and I wanted to at least spin off of a few thoughts before I move on.

The overall idea of the book is simple and brilliant: what do a number of the more prominent world religions have to offer us when we are at the very point of death? He calls this point of death a “panopticon”, which means a point of view from which all can be seen. So from the point of view of the very threshold of death, the book looks at the merits of the various religions. As morbid as this may sound, the book is a lot of fun. While profound and sometimes unsettling, it also has the signature culture and wit that we have come to expect from the man.

The book is fairly well organized. After introducing the book’s concept, He goes through the major world religions of the west (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and the east (Hinduism, Buddhism). Then he considers a few dead religions – Greco-Roman mythology, ancient Egyptian religion, and the Aztec religion. There is a whole individual chapter on the Occult; I guess it is kind of an “undead” religion. Then he takes us through some thoughts about religions that are not commonly thought of as religions, such as sex, power, things, family, and ideology. I think that in some cases he is surprisingly warm and accepting of the power of the religion, but on reflection most fail our test for helpfulness at the very point of death.

I think that it is clear that whatever catastrophic and career-crushing event happened that prompted this perspective, it had to do with PZ’s vocational place in the Christian religion. So it is very interesting how he identifies forgiveness and the hope of an afterlife as a free gift through mere belief as the big win, but otherwise he seems very unsympathetic to the Christian religion. One might say that the Christian faith is very helpful on your deathbed, but not the Christian religion. As he says, there never seems to be room for Jesus in the inn. In fact he mentions that in his denomination, it was frowned upon to dwell upon the hope of an afterlife as a comfort in times of death or bereavement, which to me is kind of like giving someone a billion dollars but saying that you can’t use the money. So his endorsement of the power of the Christian faith in terms of its help when you are facing death was unexpectedly muted and much less than glowing. However, in the end, it turns out that it is really the only offer at all.

He gave wonderful reviews of Judaism and Islam, in that they promote strong familial bonds and wonderful spiritual practices. It was difficult for me to discern what benefit they really offer on your deathbed, although if you’ve been good Islam does offer a hope of an afterlife which sounds great as long as you are a young libidinous male. If you die as a young virgin girl maybe not so much. I don’t think that Judaism has a very detailed view of the afterlife; the idea of “going down to Sheol” never seems to be anything but something that is hopeless and terrible and to be avoided at all costs.

I thought his criticism of the Aztec religion was extremely harsh. It is a bit of an embarrassment for Christians really, unless you work it out. You can’t come as a Christian and say, “their religion was repugnant because it was all about human sacrifice.” Why shouldn’t a critic turn around and say, “isn’t your religion all about human sacrifice?” The truth is, they were on to something, that the shedding of blood does appease wrath, but flawed in that you can’t have a person stand in for your sin if that person is already guilty. So they had to keep making thousands and thousands of offerings because none of their sacrifices really satisfied justice. It became nothing more than a disgusting bloodbath, and left you terrified of your own guilt at the point of your death. The Aztec religion fascinates me for these reasons, and I was glad he included a few reflections on them.

His section on the occult was interesting. I never really thought about it, but he’s right, most of our ideas come from fiction, not from official documents. One thing that occurred to me is that the occult does offer some strange hope of an afterlife. You could live on as a ghost or a vampire or something — but these are not joyful hopes, they are shadowy fearful terrible hopes. So the occult offers a kind of counterfeit earthly bad hope of an afterlife, but it might be something that someone on their deathbed might cling to. However, it also has the additional problem that none of it is true. If you are dying and you think, “maybe I could hang on if I became a vampire,” I think it would be clear to you that you had seized upon a very bad and unworkable hope.

One more thing: I don’t know what zeitgeist is out there that causes people to shy away from the cross of Christ as penal substitution, but I want to point out that I strongly believe in it and I think it terribly clouds the issue of a strong assurance of forgiveness when you are squishy on the means of atonement. I want to take the occasion in this review to point everyone to my little apologetic for penal substitution:

Overall, a profound and enjoyable read from the beloved and learned Paul Zahl! I highly recommend it.

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