"Parting is all we know of heaven . . ." - Emily DickinsonHEAVEN: A History; by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang; Vintage Books; 358 pages, $14.95.
At the risk of offending Amherst's Woman in White, we know a lot more about heaven now that Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang have taken a long look at the subject.What do Christians think of heaven? Is it more than "just God and a few people who fly around like angels"? McDannell and Lang have documented the history of religious thoughts and images regarding heaven in a book that is rather like the spaghetti sauce commercial. "St. Augustine, Dante, Calvin and Luther?" It's in there! "Lord Byron, Swedenborg, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth?" It's in there! And to add spice to the ingredients, you'll find such spiritual juxtapositions as Hal Lindsay and Bruce R. McConkie, Reinhold Niebuhr and William Jennings Bryan.
Not only are the great philosophers, prophets and essayists represented, but the visual arts - from medieval woodcuts to loving scenes of reunion by William Blake - are liberally sprinkled throughout the book.
One depiction of heaven came from preacher-educator Isaac Watts (1674-1748) in the following poem:For all the conjecture about what heaven is like, the authors have also included a few thoughts about what it isn't. Since Lord Byron (1788-1824) thought women were angels and "wedlock's the devil," he commented that if saints had wives, "All heaven would ring with the conjugal uproar." So he was convinced that marriage was outlawed in the celestial realms. Emily Dickinson was equally sure that heaven wouldn't be just a place of rest. It "will take so many beds. There's you & me & Vinnie & the `other house.' & the Israelites & those Hittite folks, it does appear confused to me!"
There is a spiritualist description of heaven as a city given by Rebecca Springer:
"There seemed to be vast business houses of many kinds, though I saw nothing resembling our large mercantile establishments. There were many colleges and schools; many book and music stores and publishing houses . . . There were art rooms, picture galleries, libraries, many lecture halls and vast auditoriums."
In the closing chapters, the authors state that "there is no longer a strong theological commitment to the modern heaven" and then spend seven pages explaining the major exception to this - the teachings of the LDS Church. "While most contemporary Christian groups neglect afterlife beliefs, what happens to people after they die is crucial to LDS teachings and rituals. Heavenly theology is the result not of mere speculation, but of revelation given to past and present church leaders."
There may be a number of readers who would enjoy this book and then keep it for reference in their library. Forget the mall bookstores. You'll have to trek to the University of Utah bookstore to find this gem by the U.'s associate professor of history Colleen McDannell and her co-author, Bernhard Lang, professor of religion at the University of Paderborn, Germany. (McDannell holds the current McMurrin Professor of Religion Chair at the U.)