In Search of Heaven – Lisa Miller

Of course I believed in heaven as a child. Every weekend, driving up to our country house in Vermont, I’d gaze out the window from the backseat of the family car and see the shape of God in the clouds. But I am a skeptic, a rationalist, and over time my childish imaginings gave way to disbelief. Heaven — the hallmark card version, with people floating on clouds wearing wings and halos, the dead living “up there” as they did in life — made no sense to me.

Not long after 9/11 I wrote a cover story for Newsweek called “Visions of Heaven.” The theological conundrum it posed was this one: all suicide bombers think they’re going to heaven. They imagine that they are martyrs who will be rewarded in Paradise for their heroism and sacrifice. The victims’ families insist that their beloved ones are martyrs who, too, ascend immediately to God. Yet this puzzle makes no sense. Are there multiple heavens — some for assassinated innocents and some for suicide bombers? Is heaven a true fact? Or is it based in individualistic conceptions that evolve through history and culture?

Reporting this story helped me sketch out some of the basic questions about heaven, questions that have haunted believers for millennia. Is heaven a “real place” or is it an idea, a metaphor? If real, what does it look like? A city? A garden? A banquet? Do we keep our bodies in heaven? And if so, do we do the things that bodies do: eat, drink, make love? Are we recognizable as ourselves? Do we have identities? Or are we disembodied spirits who achieve some mysterious union with a universal spirit?

And so I decided to write a book, which came out last month: Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.

I had no idea, when I entered this project, how massive it would be: there are as many ideas about heaven as people who imagine it. Great scholarly overviews on the subject have been written, notably Heaven: A History, by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, and Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion by Alan F. Segal. Other scholars have broken off important parts of the heaven problem and written books about resurrection, the ancient world, salvation theory, utopian societies, spiritualism, the intersection of science and heaven, the Reformation, afterlife visions, cremation, and Muslim afterlife beliefs.

Heaven has been painted, written, or sung about by Dante, Milton, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Mark Twain, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, New Yorker cartoonists, David Byrne, Albert Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, the Winans and Alice Sebold. And then, of course, there are the visions given to us by Scripture and tradition. Our own individual visions are aggregations of all of these; sometimes our imaginings are ours alone.

The only way through all this material, I decided, was to get personal. And so I wrote a book with myself as the protagonist. Not a memoir, exactly, but a sorting and discussing of the main themes in the heaven conversation by someone — me — who wants to believe, a skeptical, observant Jew who happens to write and report about religion for a living. I spoke not just to dozens of scholars but to everyday believers and clerics, trying to find for myself visions of heaven that worked, inspired, provoked. This makes for an idiosyncratic book. It is not comprehensive (I don’t include a section on Milton, for example); it is not definitive. I don’t claim to know where heaven is or what it looks like. But it does, I hope, offer useful, complex images and ideas about heaven that people can chew on. For if 80 percent of Americans tell pollsters they believe in heaven, it might be useful for them to know a little bit about what they mean.

Book Description
A groundbreaking and accessible history of heaven—from the earliest biblical conceptions of the afterlife to the theologians who frame our understandings to the convictions and perceptions of everyday people

Drawing on history and popular culture, biblical research and everyday beliefs, Heaven offers a new understanding of one of the most cherished—and shared—ideals of spiritual life. Lisa Miller raises debates and discussions not just about our visions of the afterlife, but about how our beliefs have influenced the societies we have built and the lifestyles to which we have subscribed, exploring the roots of our beliefs in heaven and how these have evolved throughout the ages to offer comfort and hope.

She also reveals how the notion of heaven has been used for manipulation—to promulgate goodness and evil—as inspiration for selfless behavior, and as justification for mass murder.

As Miller demonstrates in this absorbing and enlightening book, the desire for a celestial afterlife is universal—shared by the faithful around the world and across religions. It is as old as the Bible itself. While there are many notions of what exactly heaven is and how we get there, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all agree that heaven is God’s home. From the Revelation to the Left Behind series, Augustine to Osama bin Laden, Muslims in the West Bank to American Mormons baptizing their dead, Heaven is a penetrating look at one of our most cherished religious ideals.

Lisa Miller is the religion editor for Newsweek. She is the recipient of numerous journalism prizes, including the 2009 Wilbur Award for Outstanding Magazine Article for her December 2008 cover story “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, she interviewed Barack Obama about his faith and covered the controversy over his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. She has written cover stories on subjects ranging from Islam in America to the new evangelicalism to the Mormonism of Mitt Romney. She has a regular column in Newsweek and on, and in conjunction with The Washington Post, she helped to launch the religion website On Faith. Her first book is Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (Harper).

Miller graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in English before starting her career in journalism at the Harvard Business Review. In 1987, she moved to The New Yorker, and in 1992 became a senior editor at Self. From 1993 to 2000, Miller was a senior special writer at The Wall Street Journal, where she established… View More


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