- - Friday, August 26, 2011

HEAVEN IN THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION
By Gary Scott Smith
Oxford University Press, 29.95, 360 pages

Gary Smith’s book “Heaven in the American Imagination” is a romp through American history on the thin-golden-thread topic of heaven, hell and how one avoids one and gets into the other. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a scholarly discourse (one-third of the book is footnotes and bibliography) but not at all pedantic. Mr. Smith’s aerial view, spanning from the Puritans to postmoderns, is an important and unique contribution to the ongoing and seemingly never-ending conversation about matters ultimate and eternal. It is a fascinating reminder of Solomon’s terse wisdom that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

When The Washington Times asked if I would review the book, I sent Mr. Smith an email asking if he would take a few minutes to talk to me.

After chatting about his background (born and raised in western Pennsylvania), faith history (from Methodist to the Reformed Evangelical bend of Presbyterian) and academic vitae (master of divinity in church history from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, master of arts and doctorate in American history from John Hopkins University, currently chairman of the history department at Grove City College), I asked the author why he wrote this book.

“As an American religious historian and not a theologian, I wanted to limit myself to strictly American views on heaven, an analysis that had never been done, and how these views, whether expressed in art, music, sermons or literature, are not only rooted in religious traditions but connected deeply with what was happening on earth. In dealing with the two big questions, what is heaven going to be like and how do we get there, we are able to watch these themes nuance and change within the context of American events.”

What you have in this book is an interesting and complicated story, a growing and expanding imagination of the nature of heaven throughout the American experience and the consistency of the underlying theological positions on how to get there. The book explores beliefs about heaven from diverse perspectives - Catholic to Protestant, evangelical to New Age, Mormon, Jewish and others, all within the context of the historical narrative.

I told Mr. Smith that my favorite portion of the book was Chapter 5, “Slavery, the Civil War, and Heaven,” especially the elucidation of ways in which blacks adopted the religious framework of their owners but then embedded it with deeper and radically different meaning. He told me that while each period was fascinating and he loved making connections between them, he particularly enjoyed and worked hardest on “Heaven in the Progressive Years” (Chapter 7), where there is an obvious correlation between what was happening in culture and the way heaven was being perceived.

In our discussion, Mr. Smith was candid about his “evangelical” desire to “get people to think about theological issues in a roundabout way; what some have historically said about how one gets to heaven is a theme that runs through all the chapters; whether entry is by faith in Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior or based in things that one does.”

Regardless, Mr. Smith’s contribution is a worthy addition to adynamic historical investigation, long overdue and currently relevant. In his conclusion, he points out “tensions” and “paradoxes” within the variant theological positions, something I found intriguing. If you want to know more about these and along the way have an adventure into the mind and thought of American culture and history, I encourage you to get your own copy. Mine is all marked up.

William Paul Young is the author of the best-selling Christian novel “The Shack.”