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Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the…

Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife

by Lisa Miller

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The scope of this book is somewhat narrower than you might expect, given the subtitle. It's not a general overview of belief in an afterlife, but is specifically about the idea of heaven in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. It includes a look at how the idea of heaven and peoples' relationship to that idea have changed over time, interspersed with snippets of conversations that the author has had with people from varying religious backgrounds. It's not quite as in-depth as I was hoping, perhaps, especially in its exploration of modern ideas about heaven, but it's readable, interesting, and occasionally thought-provoking. And yet, I can't say I found it entirely satisfying. I'm not sure why. I think part of it is that heaven is such a weird concept for me. On the surface, its appeal is obvious and strong, but the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. I can certainly understand why people believe in it, I just don't understand how. If that makes any sense. Maybe I was hoping that this book would offer me an enlightening new perspective on that, but I don't think it quite managed to do so. Which probably isn't the author's fault. She is clearly struggling with the concept, too. But while she, like me, is not exactly a believer, she seems to eventually find some comfort and pleasure in the visions of heaven held by the people she talks to, and to integrate some aspects of them into her own worldview. Whereas I... Well, I have to be honest, I found the whole thing deeply depressing. For an unbeliever like me, all these fiddly debates about the exact nature of heaven seem pointless and precious-time-wasting, and the many descriptions of people who deprive themselves of the joys of this life -- or even of life entirely -- in the expectation of rewards in the afterlife feel absolutely tragic. In the end, I do think it was worth reading, but mostly it's just left me feeling down. ( )
2 vote bragan | Jan 14, 2012 |
I’ve found my soul sister! Meet Lisa Miller, a self-described journalist, religion expert, and professional skeptic. She sometimes wants to believe, but it isn’t in her. She misses her grandparents, and wishes she could picture them contentedly up there in heaven waiting for her, but she just can’t. Her journey in this book to learn about heaven may have been spurred by a certain emptiness.

In search of heaven, Lisa interviews dozens of people, from rock musicians to homemakers to heavy-hitting theologians. From Muslims to Jews (her heritage) to Christians and beyond. She finds that, for most people, heaven is the best of what they already enjoy on earth—only a little better. And forever.

Lisa likes statistics, and the statistics show religious views are changing. Today, 65 percent of Americans believe that many different religious paths can lead to eternal salvation. Only a third of Americans still believe in a God who controls human events. Yet, 81 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they believe in heaven, up from 72 percent ten years earlier. How can this be? “It’s hard to know exactly what they mean—beyond an automatic and understandable hope for something after death besides the terrifying end of everything.” Belief in reincarnation, for example, is trending upward, fueled in part because people today WANT to come back and live again. Life is better in our age. Where before, we wanted to escape the cycle, now we want another run at it.

A fun and thought-provoking book, I’d recommend this one for anyone. ( )
  DubiousDisciple | Jul 3, 2011 |
I approached the book as a non-believer in any of the Big Three religions responsible for the idea of Heaven in the first place. I want always to keep my antennae out for changes in their belief systems, since the Big Three have a history of disliking people like me, and the only way to do that is to read up on where things began. Can't recongize change if you don't have a picture of the starting point, can you?

Ideas of Heaven have always seemed so...well, silly is the only word I have for it...to me. I can think of nothing that fits more exactly the "are you KIDDING with this stuff?!" strain of unbelief than the notion of Eternal Delight or Eternal Punishment. What could one possibly do in one meager lifetime to merit Eternal Anything At All? It's a very exclusion-oriented, blame-fixated kind of concept.

So that's what I learned about myself from reading this book: I chose wisely when I waved bye-bye to Jesus, I can't even buy into the rewards program, still less the nonsensical rules part of the contract.

But the evolution of the idea, which remains one of the most powerful and motivating in the Big Three's arsenal, is fascinating. The author is a professional religion journalist in mainstream publications (!) and a sort of practicing Jew. Of the Big Three, Judaism is the lightest on the Heaven front, and isn't growing as fast as the other two, more nimble, marketers. She approaches each of her subjects with a profound respect for his or her beliefs, with the notable and quite rudely dismissive exception of a psychic medium. She delves briefly into the history of each of the Big Three's ideas of Heaven before going into a lot of detail about the current set of beliefs in the current version of their concepts.

It's a shock to me that people buy this guff at all. It's transparently manipulative, and it's not in the least bit shy about its net effect of damning those Not Like You to eternity without happiness. What a horrifyingly vicious mindset that is.

Well, the author doesn't agree with me, and she very carefully and very thoroughly explains what the Big Three's adherents today think without judging them. I wish I could be so kind. I judge them harshly for this mindset, and I think they should all remember that chickens always come home to roost...what goes out strongly flavors what comes back.

Look at me! I give out rationalistic unbelief, and am engulfed in *tidal waves* of emotionalistic credulity. It is the way of the world. More's the pity. ( )
10 vote richardderus | Aug 23, 2010 |
Bethanne Patrick interviews Lisa Miller about HEAVEN: OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE AFTERLIFE on The Book Studio.
  thebookstudio | May 10, 2010 |
Showing 4 of 4
In Heaven, Newsweek's religion correspondent, Lisa Miller, has written a fascinating millenniums-long history of the idea of heaven, spliced with some surprisingly mediocre reporting on present-day believers.
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Some years ago, I wrote a cover story for Newsweek magazine called "Why We Need Heaven," and the day before its publication I agreed to do a live, early-morning television interview to promote it.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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, religion journalist Lisa Miller offers a new understanding of one of the most cherished ideals of spiritual life. She discusses not just our visions of the afterlife, but how our beliefs have influenced the societies we have built and the lifestyles to which we have subscribed. 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. From the Revelation to the Left Behind series, Augustine to bin Laden, Muslims in the West Bank to American Mormons baptizing their dead, this is a penetrating look at a cherished religious ideal.--From publisher description.… (more)

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