Saturday, August 14, 2010

McDannel and Lang, "Heaven: A History" (reviewed by Blair Dee Hodges)


Title: Heaven: A History
Author: Colleen McDannell, Bernhard Lang
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2001 (reprint)
Pages: 411
Price: $16.95

Reviewed by Blair Dee Hodges for the Association for Mormon Letters

It's not clear to me whether John Lennon realized he was proposing his
own sort of Heaven when he wrote the classic ballad "Imagine," but
that's what he was doing. He invites us to "imagine there's no heaven,
it's easy if you try" and describes a world of peace and love, a sort of
heaven on earth. The longing for peace in a heavenly place has led poets
and prophets throughout the centuries to write, paint, sing and talk
about Heaven.

Professors of religious studies Colleen McDannell (University of Utah)
and Bernhard Lang (University of Paderborn, Germany) have traced these
currents throughout western thought in "Heaven: A History."[1] To call
the book a "tour through the museum of Heaven" would impose all the
baggage the boring word "museum" carries; this book is an enjoyable

The authors explore theology, architecture, literature, art, and popular
ideas to give readers a sense of the diverse perceptions of Heaven over
time. While acknowledging the oversimplification of their framework,
they identify two overarching and competing versions of the afterlife:
theocentric and anthropocentric. The crucial difference hinges on the
type of relationship expected to exist between humans and the divine. In
the theocentric model, heaven consists of the soul and God; the focus is
on God to the exclusion of other considerations, relationships, and
associations. In the anthropocentric model, human relations are
emphasized; heavenly reunions, communities, and awareness of others are

Interestingly, the authors found both perspectives present in a wide
array of traditions: "These two concepts [theocentric and
anthropocentric] do not depend on the level of sophistication of those
presenting the image (theologians versus lay people), or time frame
(early versus contemporary), or theological perspective (Protestant
versus Catholic). Rather," they argue, "we have found that throughout
Christian history anthropocentric and theocentric models emerge, become
prominent, and weaken" (353).

It isn't the case that studied theologians always arrived at Augustine's
theocentric "beatific vision," described in his "City of God." "Eternal
life," in this view, "consisted of the supreme enjoyment of 'seeing
God'" (59). No anticipated "family reunion" in this view; one went to
the presence of God to stare on his glory for eternity. Heaven is more
philosophical, intellectual, as opposed to a physical location in space
and time.

The early portions of the book, covering early Semitic concepts and the
New Testament, are probably the weakest parts. The further back in time
the authors go, the more cloudy the sources become. They must settle
with the most broad generalizations, relying on some contested
scholarship, especially (in my view) regarding Jesus of Nazareth's ideas
about heaven in the New Testament: "Earthly concerns of sexuality,
family, or compensation for lost wealth would be of no importance," they
state, overlooking scripture verses that would call into question this
conclusion (32). Still, these chapters are insightful and contain
important elements that will inform the rest of the book.

Following the section on Augustine (discussed above) they move into the
medieval scholastics, who largely kept to Augustine's views but made
heaven a locality: "the empyrean" (82). The universe was a series of
"concentric spheres and levels" each nearer to God than the last (82).

In perhaps the most radical section, they explore writings of medieval
mystics who anticipated a "more intimate blessed union with
Christ" (354). More moderate visionaries anticipated dancing, embraces,
and reunions with loved ones; others anticipated much more, including
Gertrude (1256-1302) who became a Catholic saint: "In your conjugal love
and nuptial embraces show me your a kiss of your honeyed
mouth take me as your possession into the bridal chamber of your
beautiful love," she wrote unambiguously speaking of Christ (103). The
geography of heaven bifurcated into a lower paradise garden and a higher
heavenly building or city where saints and angels met and dwelt. Further
on they discuss levels of heaven and ranks of angels from writers like
Dante and Milton.

The rest of the book follows Protestant and Catholic reformers
retrenching from the radical elements, reemphasizing a charismatic
heaven where humans praise God eternally. However: "A basic tension
occurs at the heart of the Christian mentality," they conclude, "a
tension foreshadowed in its founder's injunction to love both God and
neighbor" (357). From the eighteenth through the twentieth century, they
find that models of heaven—from Fundamentalist to post-Christian radical
—"have deserted a human-oriented afterlife and have returned to the
God-oriented heaven of the reformers" (308).

"A major exception" to this trend, they argue, is found "in the theology
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The feelings of many
Christians who hope to meet their family in heaven and the
well-articulated doctrines of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) provide
the clearest examples of the continuation of a modern heaven into the
late twentieth century" (308). The authors spend about ten pages
(313-322) describing Mormon views of the afterlife; this is a
significant amount of space in comparison to other contemporary
Christian traditions. They tend to steer toward more popular LDS
conceptions (citing authors like Duane Crowther and Mary V. Hill in
addition to a few General Authorities[2]). They don't explore the
genesis or development of LDS views.

Still, their account is adequate to their task, reasonable and
respectful, covering topics like temple marriage, the spirit world,
embodiment, child-rearing, and proxy ordinances.

This book is a pleasurable read in practically every sense. The prose is
good, the questions raised are interesting, the scope is wide without
biting off too much to chew (they do this by focusing on western
Christianity alone for the most part). Dozens of short vignettes are
sprinkled throughout the broader overview of belief. A particularly
touching example is from the painting "Last Judgment" by Fra Angelico
(1400-55, p.130). The painting, the authors note, emphasizes "the
sentimental and human quality" of heaven. One small section depicts a
monk embracing a female angel, something quite significant to a man who
had renounced all physical contact with the opposite sex during
mortality, and in contrast to the scholastic view of genderless angels.
"'Here we see a monk,' the art historian Herbert Stutzer maintains, 'who
during all of his life had renounced contact with the other sex, but is
now tenderly embraced by a female angel' (128). This book increases my
hope that reading will be an available afterlife activity as well. It is
worth reading more than once. I enjoyed embracing this book.


[1] Originally published in 1988, it was republished as a Yale Nota Bene
paperback in 2001. From what I understand, the authors are not members
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[2] Elder Bruce C. Hafen, member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, has
enthusiastically referred to the book in some of his publications and
devotionals. See, for instance, Bruce C. Hafen, "Your Longing for Family
Joy," Ensign, Oct. 2003, 28. Hafen is not one of the quoted General
Authorities in the book, however. -Blair Hodges

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