Smith offers a kaleidoscopic vision of heaven in American history, with Puritans celebrating the glory of God; Victorians---family, friends, and fellowship; moderns---the realization of one's potential. Draws on a grand assortment of sources: art, music, sociology, psychology, folklore, sermons, hymns, poetry, fiction, and devotional books. 368 pages, hardcover. Oxford University.
Does heaven exist? If so, what is it like? And how does one get in? Throughout history, painters, poets, philosophers, pastors, and many ordinary people have pondered these questions. Perhaps no other topic captures the popular imagination quite like heaven.
Gary Scott Smith examines how Americans from the Puritans to the present have imagined heaven. He argues that whether Americans have perceived heaven as reality or fantasy, as God's home or a human invention, as a source of inspiration and comfort or an opiate that distracts from earthly life, or as a place of worship or a perpetual playground has varied largely according to the spirit of the age. In the colonial era, conceptions of heaven focused primarily on the glory of God. For the Victorians, heaven was a warm, comfortable home where people would live forever with their family and friends. Today, heaven is often less distinctively Christian and more of a celestial entertainment center or a paradise where everyone can reach his full potential.
Drawing on an astounding array of sources, including works of art, music, sociology, psychology, folklore, liturgy, sermons, poetry, fiction, jokes, and devotional books, Smith paints a sweeping, provocative portrait of what Americans-from Jonathan Edwards to Mitch Albom-have thought about heaven.
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.
Smith (Faith and the Presidency) is a historian, and he offers a historical survey of American views of heaven, from Puritan to postmodern, divvying up the centuries into a number of different eras that generated different conceptions of the afterlife (the First Great Awakening, slavery and the Civil War, etc.) His work is formidably footnoted; the good news is he has done meticulous homework. The bad news is his writing is hard to read; many sentences contain partial quotes to convey what a particular individual said. He argues that Jonathan Edwards, whose "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is a classic sermon, actually preached more frequently on heaven than hell. But he is less original in his review of current ideas of heaven; that they reflect a culture that has substituted therapy for religion is a well-worn analysis. Readers curious about this eternally fascinating subject will do better with authors such as Lisa Miller. (June) Copyright 2011 Reed Business Information.