Shuck and Jive

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Heaven by Lisa Miller: A Review

Lisa Miller is a senior editor of Newsweek. She covers stories regarding religion. She has written a new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.

I will put my prejudices up front. I am not a fan of heaven (or hell for that matter). I was skeptical about getting much out of a book on a topic in which I put little faith. Yet there is a difference between believing in something and caring about it. Miller, too, cares but doesn't believe:

" the course of writing this book, whenever I have asked myself--over and over--"Do you believe in heaven?" I always think of my grandfather. I try to visualize him. I loved him, I was there when he died; I miss him and my grandmother every day of my life. Surely, if I believed in heaven, I would see them there in my mind's eye.

Sadly, I don't. When I ask myself, "Where is he now?" all I see is the cemetery in Westchester, the shady hillside where both he and my grandmother were buried--he on a sweltering day, she in chill January rain. I do not envision my grandparents alive anywhere. I did not see, or even imagine, my grandfather's spirit rising from his body that morning, and I have never felt him looking down on me....I do not believe in a supernatural realm where my grandparents exist as themselves, nor do I imagine them engaged in any of the activities they loved on earth....Although I do believe the world will end--everything ends--I do not believe that end will be accompanied by glorious resurrections." pp. 241-2.
Yet she cares about heaven and she cares about the people who care about heaven. She writes:
"I do not believe we know, in any empirical way, anything real about heaven. Without such evidence, the story of heaven is as much about believers as it is about belief--for how people imagine heaven changes with who they are and how they live." p. xviii
Regarding the purpose of the book, she writes:
"...perhaps this book will give people who are struggling to clarify what they believe about the afterlife some concepts to consider and some sense of what their traditions do and don't offer. I hope it will give even secular readers a sense of connectedness to believers in the past and provide them with an occasion for self-reflection. What people think about heaven reveals a lot about who they are." p. xix
These are people past and present. I was surprised to find this book to be a fascinating study of religion. She delves into the history of how theories of afterlife evolved in Judaism and Christianity and then carried over into the vision of Paradise in Islam. She interviewed a large number of people, some of them somewhat famous, some scholars, and many ordinary folks and weaves these interviews with research on the church fathers, rabbis, and imams. The book's 250 pages and as many endnotes with an extensive bibliography sets a nice, readable pace and moves easily from history to the present and back again. After reading this book you feel as though you learned some things and have a bit more insight into the function of religion in modern life.

People seem to open up to her and want to talk about their thoughts regarding heaven, whether they be scholars like John Dominic Crossan or David Byrne of the Talking Heads. (Neither of them believe in heaven, by the way). All the possible views of heaven seem to me to be explored in this book, from the need to continue this life with loved ones to the desire for cosmic justice, it's all there. Or then, maybe none of it is there. Part of the tone of the book is a sense of loss. Perhaps it is a funeral for heaven.

I am a progressive in my heart, but I yearn at times for the discipline and the faith of the orthodox. I wish I could somehow "go there" and embrace the supernatural aspects of heaven--the streets of gold, the many mansions, the banquet, the Torah study, the music the physical enjoyment of all kinds of pleasures, the bliss, the reunions....I even yearn for the literal-plus interpretation of scriptural descriptions given to me by believers who are also intellectuals....I wish I felt that. p. 347
But she doesn't.

Miller is gracious and finds delight in people who would in my view be particularly annoying and pushy. For instance, she interviewed Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, about her views of heaven. During the interview, Lotz gave Miller the hard sell about Jesus:

"Lotz knows that I'm Jewish, and over lunch one afternoon, in an expensive restaurant in midtown Manhattan, she interrupted her discourse on heaven to witness to me about Jesus. "Lisa, God wants you," she said, her voice breaking and her eyes on mine. "You are precious to Him and you have a choice." I don't believe that my ultimate destiny has anything to do with Jesus, but Lotz's certainty made me squeamish. I looked down at my notebook and kept scribbling, unable to meet her gaze. I know she's wrong, I thought. But what if she's right?" p. 64
Welcome to spiritual abuse. But unlike me, Miller doesn't call it that. Instead she writes:
"I like her. Through her I've met people who are now my friends, and I like that she--like so many ambitious women--clearly struggles with how to reconcile her ambitions with her obligations to her family." p. 61
Miller takes the reader through the intricacies of resurrection vs. immortal soul, the kingdom of God, paradise, apocalypticism, the desert fathers, and various interpretations of the supposed virgins who await male Muslim martyrs, and all along the way she speaks with real people who vary between skepticism and sure hope of things to come. I recommend this book both for its insights into popular culture and religious history.

I have one beef. This may appear to be an odd complaint. I suppose that many readers will agree with Miller rather than me on this point. On more than one occasion, including the introduction, Miller makes mention of the events that occurred on September 11, 2001 and writes of their significance.

However, in speaking of 9/11, Miller simply repeats the government's conspiracy theory as if it were fact. She never exhibits any critical distance by using words or phrases such as "alleged" or "according to the government's theory" when writing about what supposedly happened. The theory is that 19 hijackers armed with box cutters outwitted the most expensive military Earth has ever known. With two planes they managed to collapse three skyscrapers into their own footprints. For good measure, one hijacker flew a plane into the most protected building on the planet, the Pentagon. None of this has been proven. Nevertheless the media continues to respond with silence and/or ridicule to the mounting challenge to this theory by intellectuals and professionals from many fields and to the increasing public support for a new investigation.

Why pick on Lisa Miller regarding this topic? This is a time for national self-reflection on both religion and politics. Miller is a leading media figure and she writes about religion and in this book, she addresses 9/11. She writes about ultimate things precious to many people. While I know that the media serve other gods in addition to (or sometimes instead of) Truth, I hold out hope for those who report on matters of faith. After all it is a theologian, David Ray Griffin, who has put his scholarly credentials and skills to the service of searching for truth about 9/11. As Griffin has shown, it isn't the analysis of the evidence that is difficult, it is the courage to face the evidence. An occupational hazard awaits those who dare to speak much of theology and faith: they may be grasped by the conviction to seek truth for truth's sake regardless of the cost.

In an otherwise objective, delightful, and careful book, more care could have been exhibited here.

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  1. Hey John -- This sounds like a fascinating book. My personal theory about "after life" is that after life nobody knows what happens to the personality/mind, but we're pretty certain what happens to the body. I like to propose that if according to physics, matter can neither be created nor destroyed but only transformed, then maybe the same thing happens with mind/personality/soul . . . but who knows? I like the idea of re-coalescing myself again sometime in the future -- depending on what the future might be, of course. Maybe I'll opt out of earth next time.

    Second comment comes next.

  2. I have a longing for consciousness after my days are done. I have a longing to know what is going to happen on Earth in 100 years. I have a longing to know what lies beyond our solar system. That longing if I obsessed over it, could result in belief that I might be able to exist and thus know. I can see how longing turns into belief.

  3. Second comment regarding the "conspiracy theories" that are floating around about what "really" happened on September 11, 2001.

    I think it's quite plausible that a group of men with box cutters could conspire to blow up airplanes, and even fly one into the Pentagon. Until that day, most people -- including the government people charged with paying attention to these things -- ignored all the warnings, and dismissed the little bits of information that could have stopped the gang at any moment.

    There's no "conspiracy" other than the normal human proclivity to second-guess ourselves and convince ourselves that weird guy hanging around the gate isn't up to something.

    Nobody wants to really pay attention. Nobody wants to pay the money to hire the experts who can pay attention for us, and the next verse is (as the latest Apple tracking software revelation tells us) the experts will be watching the innocents as well, and the chance for awful mistakes increases by an order of magnitude.

    The problem is, we're all in this together, but Americans don't want to act with any kind of collective responsibility for the collective common good.

    I could rant on, but won't.

    Keep putting it out there.

  4. We're online at the same time!! Responding to your comment -- yes, I am with you on that 100%.

  5. I appreciate that Miller was able to deal with so many people with such widely different beliefs yet treat them all with respect - I think many people today could take a cue from her on that.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. I'm glad it ended up being a interesting read for you.

  6. Thanks Heather! I think you are right on about respect!