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Heaven in the American Imagination Hardcover – June 1, 2011


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Editorial Reviews

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"What you have in this book is an interesting and complicated story, a growing and expanding imagination of the nature of heaven throughout the American experience and the consistency of the underlying theological positions on how to get there. The book explores beliefs about heaven from diverse perspectives--Catholic to Protestant, evangelical to New Age, Mormon, Jewish and others, all within the context of the historical narrative. . . . Smith's contribution is a worthy addition to adynamic historical investigation, long overdue and currently relevant. In his conclusion, he points out 'tensions' and 'paradoxes' within the variant theological positions, something I found intriguing. If you want to know more about these and along the way have an adventure into the mind and thought of American culture and history, I encourage you to get your own copy. Mine is all marked up."--William Paul Young (author of The Shack), The Washington Times


"In this broad-ranging work, Smith describes the extraordinary variety of views that the faithful--Puritans, Evangelicals, Liberals, Catholics, Jews, New Agers, and many others--have held about heaven. How to get there, and how to avoid the 'Other Place,' figure largely too. With deft strokes, Smith shows that notions of heaven never strayed far from the social structures and cultural assumptions of each era and each group. The book combines the careful research of the serious scholar with the winsome prose of a seasoned journalist."--Grant Wacker, author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture


"Mark Twain once said that 'a man's got to be in his own heaven to be happy.' In Gary Scott Smith's new book, Heaven in the American Imagination, we see how much American Christians' visions of the land of the blessed reflect their changing views of what it means to be perfectly happy and fulfilled. This thorough study adds heavenly perspective to each era of American religious history."--Joel Carpenter, author of Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism


"This is America after all, so we should not be surprised that this rich account of speculations about heaven is chock full of the sophisticated and the crass, the sublime and the ridiculous, the mystical and the maudlin. The book reveals a great deal about eternal life as conceived by Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others-but perhaps even more about the American circumstances in which these conceptions have been expressed."
--Mark A. Noll, author of Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction


"In Heaven in the American Imagination, Gary Scott Smith surveys the vast landscape of religion in the United States, showing how changing historical circumstances have influenced ideas and portraits of heaven. From traditional Christian theology and sermons on hell's eternal torments, to popular culture, near-death experiences, and New Age perspectives, Smith highlights important currents of reflection on the afterlife. His research, which draws upon sources ranging from art and literature to music and cinema, should appeal to a variety of readers. And while his overviews simplify complex matters of theology, the end result is nonetheless valuable, scholarly, and deeply informed."--Christianity Today


"Heaven in the American Imagination is rich with irony, as biblical literalism seems to have led in as many directions as biblical antiliteralism. Presented in the winsome prose of a seasoned journalist, the book exhibits years of careful research."-- Christian Century, An annotated list of top new titles in World Christianity and American religion


"This book involves research from a wide variety of sources: the visual and literary arts, the social sciences, religious and devotional sources, and popular culture. Suitable for clergy, scholars, and the general reader, it is highly recommended for those interested in sociology as well."--Library Journal


"A wide-ranging, compelling new survey looks at how our ideas about heaven have changed over time, shifting more with history and culture than with any theological revelations. While Phillips Brooks promised (or threatened) that heaven would be filled with "active, tireless, earnest work,'' today's afterlife, if one bestselling evangelist is to be believed, is more like "Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome and New York all rolled up into one.''--Boston Globe


"If you are intrigued by the prospect of a scholarly, yet accessible, book on the afterlife, this book may be just the ticket."--Mark Sommer, hollywoodjesus.com


"The book provides a remarkable example of how one can tell a history of religion in America by picking one theme and tracing it out over the centuries. The shifts from theocentric, to domestic, to workaholic heavens reveals larger shifts in American culture and values. Also, the moments where Smith is able to bring in views of heaven that depart from the mainstream, such as the New Age or his analysis of Michael Jackson's memorial service, are fascinating and provocative."-- Michael J. Altman, usreligion.blogspot.com


"...Mr.Smith's contribution is a worthy addition to adynamic historical investigation, long overdue and currently relevant....he points out 'tensions' and 'paradoxes' within the variant theological positions, something I found intriguing."--William Paul Young, The Washington Times


"It is a most instructive read-crisply written, largely accurate..."--Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS


"A useful resource for the curious and strongly motivated layperson or pastor, or the researcher after primary-source threads to follow...features of the book simply reflect Smith's greater expertise working with sermons, creeds, and theological treatises."--Evangelical Studies Bulletin


"The volume offers rich and wide-ranging research. Written in an accessible style and presenting an efficient big-picture overview, it can be easily excerpted and appreciated by academics and general audiences alike."--Journal of American History


"This book adds to a growing body of works with an American slant on the subject, chronicling the history of American thought from the Puritans to postmodernism."--Religious Studies Review


"[A] sweeping monograph...[I] see how important this book will be for scholars of religion and emotion, psychology, imagination, popular culture, and spirituality...Perhaps Gary Scott Smith's work will open the door for more studies, historical and contemporary, on the role of heaven in the American imagination and cultural landscape." --Religion


"Well observed and argued... Smith has written a stimulating and well-documented book that will further promote thinking on this subject of perennial interest." --The Catholic Historical Review


About the Author


Gary Scott Smith is Professor of History at Grove City College, in Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (June 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199738955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199738953
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,538,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By J. Rios on January 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Gary Scott Smith in his book, "Heaven in the American Imagination" (Oxford, 2011) has written a detailed, in-depth, and far-reaching study of the history of Heaven in American thought. Beginning with the Puritans, Smith highlights in each chapter a different era (Victorian, Pre-war, Civil War, etc.), documents that era's historical distinctives (wars, death rates, major events), spotlights its notable theologians (ranging from Jonathan Edwards, to D.L. Moody, to Billy Graham, to Mitch Albom), and then discusses how the people of that era, given their history and influences, formulated the doctrine of Heaven. In this way, Smith seeks, through alternating survey and analysis, to document the changing perception of the afterlife that has followed the progression of the American experiment. On the whole, Smith's book contained many historical gems as well as some interesting theological observations. Unfortunately, these insights were often rendered opaque by Smith's oversaturation of data. The result was a book with good information--if you have the patience to mine it out, that is.

Historical study, then, is perhaps the best term to describe what Scott has done, and while Smith's history is often interesting, this is also a weakness of the book. For example, Smith's chapter-by-chapter structure is fairly rigid. Each chapter has a survey of history, a survey of theologians, a section discussing perceptions of afterlife, one on perceptions of hell, and a conclusion. When Smith discusses the work of theologians in the given time period, he fills his paragraphs with quotations--often of only one or two words at a time--to such a degree that one finds the theologians blurring together. Quotes, in other words, were not used either economically or very efficiently.
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