Heaven in the American Imagination 1st Edition
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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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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. The net result of Smith's structuring and quote-density is that Heaven in the American Imagination is often tedious to read.
Still, within the tedium there are real gems. Many of these are from the descriptions of the various time periods he examines. For instance, we learn that the perception of Heaven during the Civil War was uniquely framed by the tragic loss of life: Heaven was the place where you were reunited with those loved ones. Another fascinating section documented the conceptions of Heaven as formulated by America's black slaves--whether it be as a place of peace from their labor, or for justice from their masters. Or, to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe was partly responsible for the myth that deceased children become guardian angels when they die. These kinds of historical connections (and developments) were some of the most compelling parts of the book.
As I have intimated, however, the forest of ideas is sometimes lost for the trees of historical detail, and to get at the real analysis of the book takes a little ingenuity. So, according to my analysis of Smith's book, I believe there are four things (generally) to observe about the history of Heaven in American thought.
#1. There is always an orthodox line. Throughout the history of Christianity in America, there has always been a consistent strain of Christian orthodoxy which upholds the traditional understanding of the afterlife: that it is attained by faith in Christ alone, that there is a real Heaven and a real Hell, that choices in this life determine one's ultimate destiny. Furthermore, along with this strain there is a consistent voice which reminds us that Heaven is about God more than it is about us (the object of Heaven is relationship to and union with the Trinity). This orthodox line is a refreshing reminder that truth, though it sometimes seems dormant, continues to thrive.
#2. Alongside the orthodox line there is always a popular perception of Heaven. This popular perception was present even in the earliest founders of America, whose Deist beliefs led them to think that doing good and being a good person would warrant acceptance into Heaven. In one form or another, this perception of Heaven has also always been present in American thought. Thus, disconnected from Christian orthodoxy, Americans felt liberated to populate and shape the afterlife after their own desires. Rather than being about a God they may or may not believe in, Heaven became more and more about us.
#3. Between the orthodox and the popular line, a host of `theologians' have attempted to bridge the gap by accommodating Christian theology to popular tastes. Hell is softened, Heaven is reinforced by theologically whitewashing the desires of the masses, and the entry requirements are reduced (good behavior is enough for some, others think everybody gets saved, and so on). Fuzzy theological books about visits to heaven are some of the best examples of this accommodation--especially because they emphasize all the pleasure and peace of Heaven, while reducing the need for obligations in the present. In short, these popular accounts of `Heaven' are most often wonderful opiates against real action or reflection.
#4. There are four historical features of Heaven, and one modern one. The oldest and most orthodox perception is that Heaven is a place of divine contemplation. We are exposed to the Trinity, and worship and enjoy the Godhead forever. The nature of this enjoyment, while described in various ways (harps, singing, worship, contemplation, etc.) is never truly described, but, when in doubt, Christians have retreated to superlatives (`unending,' `wondrous,' `incomprehensible,' etc.). The Puritan foundation of American theology helped to cement this perception of Heaven, but as the Puritan influence faded, Americans began to import into Heaven desires that were framed by their times. For some, heavenly rewards were the focus of Heaven (those who suffered, lost children, were slaves, feared survival). For others, heavenly reunion was the key (especially during wartime, but also when infant mortality was high). For still others, Heaven was the place where we fulfill our talents and abilities (perfect knowledge for the Puritans, but work for later believers, and singing, dancing, skill-usage, and thrill-seeking for 20th century Americans). Finally, and most recently, heaven has been conceived as a place of therapeutic healing, where our anxieties regarding self-identity are resolved in the peace of inner harmony.
So, what does all this mean? My own assessment is this: that the more narcissistic we have become as a culture, the more we have lost out on the reality of Heaven. Focusing on ourselves, we have cheapened Heaven with our cut-rate desires. This must necessarily be the case, because Heaven and narcissism exist in an inverse relationship, and we must continually ask, "Is Heaven about God, or is Heaven about me?" If the focus on Heaven is about what I get, and what I experience, then I'm on the wrong track. If the focus is on what God is doing (and by proxy on experiencing Him), then I am on the right track. And the line that is drawn between the two is the line called narcissism. Seen this way, the history of American theology appears to be the history of increasing, and increasingly blessed and accommodated, narcissism. Heaven goes from being God's gift, to the reward we are owed for good lives. Hell shifts from being a place of revealed, final judgment, to being an inconvenient theological pariah. Heaven shifts from being the place where we encounter God, to the place where we get rewards, meet people we want to see, and exercise our skills and talents. Are these features inherently untrue? By no means--but they cannot be the focus of Heaven, and if they are, then they are idols. And the fullness of our narcissistic fruit may be bearing a crop even now--Heaven is the place of ultimate self-fulfillment and healing, where it is entirely about us, and only marginally (if at all) about God. Hell, the very thing that judges our narcissism, is then fully eclipsed. We are left, then, with a Heaven that is for us, about us, and leaves nothing to trouble us at all. It is a place that reminds me of something George MacDonald once said, "The one principle of Hell is: I am my own." Hell, indeed, is narcissism extended to eternity. Heaven, by contrast, is the opposite: it is about someone and something else; it is eternal self-sacrifice and eternal renewal in relationship with the Triune God.
All in all, Smith's book was an interesting and informative read, although it was bogged down by its organization and oversaturation with detail. Nevertheless, I came away with a renewed appreciation of the Puritans, of Jonathan Edwards (who I now suspect really is America's greatest-ever theologian!) and some fascinating details about the Civil War period in American History. I also developed some interesting perceptions about American thought--chief among them was this: that while Americans are saturated with desires, they are also starving for significance. As a consequence of their hunger, they have consistently projected their confusion into the afterlife for over 200 years. What, then, is Heaven in the American imagination? For some (the orthodox, a small group) is the presence of God. For others (most everyone else), it is the projection into eternity of the fulfillment of our temporary desires. And that is a discouraging revelation indeed.
Heaven in the American Imagination: 4.5 stars for content, but only 2 for readability and organization. Final judgment: 3.5.