Do dogs go to heaven? What about cats? Your next door neighbor? Is heaven up or down? These are just some of the most commonly asked questions regarding heaven and the afterlife. If you are even somewhat interested in heaven you need to read Lisa Miller's new book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife (NY: Harper, 2010).
Lisa Miller is the religion editor at Newsweek and writes a regular column on spirituality, belief, ethics, and society. I never heard of Lisa Miller or her work, but after hearing her interview on NPR a few months ago I knew I had to read Heaven. And boy I am glad that I did! Lisa Miller has a fine writing style that keeps the story going and peppers her research with personal anecdotes and some backstory to set the stage for her discussion about heaven.
Heaven is organized into nine chapters:
What is heaven?
The Kingdom is Near
Green, Green Pastures
Is Heaven Boring?
Heaven is written for a general lay readership. Miller admits that she is neither a scholar of religion nor a theologian, yet she did her research by interviewing well known teachers and writers such as Martin Marty, Stephen Prothero, Alan Segal, N.T Wright, James Martin, SJ, and others. I was actually excited when I saw the endorsements for her book came from such authors as Marty and Prothero whose writing I enjoy very much. Miller also includes a highly detailed bibliography for readers who want to go deeper and delve into the complex history of heaven and the afterlife. Heaven makes a good complimentary book to Wright's latest book, Suprised by Hope (NY: Harper, 2009) which is a book about heaven from a Christian Biblical perspective.
Miller shows her readers the common everyday ideas about heaven: that heaven is like a garden or that heaven is boring and there is nothing but darkness, or that we get to see God face to face. She then contrasts these common cultural misconceptions (or perhaps conceptions?) with the scholarly or more nuanced view of heaven from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theologians. Miller admits that her book is not the last say on the topic nor is it comprehensive, and I agree on that point. However, where Miller shines is how she manages to digest the common understandings of death and the afterlife with the more scholarly understandings and share this with her readers.
I certainly would recommend this book for a Bible study group or reading club interested in the topic.