676 Interview with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller on “Heaven”

1730 Fresco of Heavenly Realms by Daniel Gran on a ceiling in Austrian National LibraryWhat can possibly be new about Heaven? After all, we’re talking about the universal hope of an afterlife. Among the hot nuggets identified by the Washington Post in recommending Lisa Miller’s new book is this news: Growing numbers of Americans appear to be looking toward Heaven as a real-life destination these days. Why? Well, we asked Lisa about this finding.

For a good sample of Lisa’s overall conclusions, jump back to our excerpt of “Heaven.” This book is a terrific discussion-starter for small groups—and it is unusual among new books on religion because of its religious diversity. That’s because Lisa Miller is Newsweek’s religion editor and approaches this subject as a journalist wanting to hear from many different points of view. Everyone has something to say about heaven, no matter what your personal approach to faith.

You can order “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” by Lisa Miller from Amazon now.

Highlights of Our Interview with Lisa Miller on “Heaven”

DAVID: You present some fascinating data showing that we’ve moved from roughly 7 in 10 Americans believing in heaven in the 1990s—to 8 in 10 who believe, now, a decade later. Your book explores this huge fascination in about 300 pages, but can you explain briefly why you think our belief is growing right now?

LISA: In 1997, Time magazine did a story and found that 72 percent of people believed in heaven. I think that period in the 1990s was the height of our arrogance and material prosperity as a nation. When things are good on earth—and I mean really good—I think the need for heaven wanes. And when things get hard again, the need for heaven becomes much more acute. I think 9/11 is a border we’ve crossed. It is a border in my own psyche and I think that’s true for a lot of people. Things started getting really hard after 9/11 and the threat of terrorism now feels constant. You add that to the crash of the economy, unemployment, people losing their homes, then add in the wars abroad that seem unresolvable, conflicts in the Middle East that seem more and more volatile, then think about the aging of our population—all of these things combine to make us think we’re not on the upward part of the curve anymore. Heaven is an important idea when people are feeling under threat or in need of consolation and hope.

DAVID: In my own reporting on religion over many years, I know that people are surprised to learn that heaven is not something that stretches back to the dawn of humanity. Our idea of heaven doesn’t even stretch back to the earliest books in the Bible. The idea of heaven—as we think about it in the Western world today—arose in Judaism in the centuries just before Jesus’ life. You explain this history in your book and I think it’s likely to startle many people. So, tell us a little about what you found.

LISA: The idea of this place where the righteous go to live with God after death is a Jewish innovation around 200 years before Jesus’ life. It’s a matter that wasn’t even settled among Jewish groups in Jesus’ day. Back when the people we’ve come to call Jews came to live in Canaan, they shared a lot of cultural commonality with the Canaanites. One thing they shared is that they buried their dead, sometimes in caves, and the dead stayed around. They had parties for their dead. They talked to their dead. They took care of their dead because, if didn’t do that then the dead could come and do bad things to them. They had this very intimate relationship with the dead. There was the idea that the dead lived somewhere, but there was no idea that they lived up in the skies with God.

Jewish teachers, the sort of scholars who we would call rabbis today, were very uncomfortable with the idea of ancestor worship. They felt that this could undermine monotheism. In Samuel and Deuteronomy and other places, you can find their voices warning people not to talk to the dead. There were severe punishments for that.

William Blake’s Jacob’s LadderThe other thing they shared with the Canaanites is that the God of the Hebrew Bible lived in the sky as did the Canaanite’s Ba’al and these gods did all kinds of terrifying, wonderful, supernatural things from this place in the sky. The Hebrew God sent down storms, angels and even manna during the 40 years in the wilderness. But this place where God lived wasn’t a place where people went. In fact, the idea of trying to go to the sky to be with God—that was completely forbidden. You can see this kind of warning in the Tower of Babel story. You can see it, too, in the story of the ladder to heaven as seen by Jacob. When he sees this, Jacob doesn’t say: “That’s nice! I’d like to climb up!” No, his response is: What a terrifying place! This must be God’s home.

In the Jewish context, heaven was not an idea until about 167 BCE during the time of the Maccabean revolt. Jerusalem had become an extreme pressure cooker. There was a lot of pressure from Greek lords and authorities for the Jews to assimilate, to participate in Greek culture. This is the story Jews tell every year at Hanukkah and there was this man who I call Daniel in my book, because this is within the book called Daniel. During the Maccabean revolt as this Daniel was watching the insurgents take on the forces of the dominant Greek lords, Daniel wrote these lines that I phrase this way: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

With this verse, Daniel gave us heaven. This was an idea that correlated good and faithful behavior—that is, adherence to the monotheism and the laws of the Torah—to a place with God in heaven forever and ever. This was a revolutionary idea. Nothing like this had ever existed in the Jewish context before. Until that moment if you were dead, you slept in a cave with your ancestors. If you were good like Abraham you rested comfortably. If you were bad, you might wander restlessly.

DAVID: There are other faiths around the world who envision concepts of an afterlife. Zoroastrians like to claim some credit here. You do describe the period of Jewish exile in Babylon, where you write that they encountered “the growing popularity of a new religion in the land that is now Iraq. This religion had originated about a thousand years earlier in Central Asia, in the mountains of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was rooted in the teachings of a prophet named Zoroaster, or Zarathustra.”

LISA: There were many influences the Jews were absorbing in the years before the Maccabean revolt and one of them was Zoroastrianism. These Zoroastrians already believed in an afterlife in which souls were judged. It wasn’t quite a vision of good people going up to live with God in the sky. But, in the Zoroastrian image, all the humans in the world eventually would walk across a razor-thin bridge and the bad would fall off into a stinking pit and the good would arrive in some kind of paradise-garden. So there are echoes there of bad-go-down-and-good-go-to-paradise that the Jewish neighbors of this popular religion were exposed to while they lived in exile.

But, Let’s Think About Heaven in Our Contemporary World

DAVID: So, let’s jump ahead to the contemporary world, where millions more Americans now believe in heaven than back in those roaringly successful 1990s. You manage to write a concise summary of what almost everyone believes about the afterlife. Here’s your version: “Heaven is a perfect place. It is the home of God, and a reward for living the right kind of life. In heaven, we live forever.” As a journalist, I admire your phrasing there. That pretty closely captures it, except

LISA: Yes, there is something a little tricky there in that statement. What does “the right kind of life” mean? This is the controversial part in America. Is the right kind of life being a good person and taking care of your family and not drinking too much at dinner and staying faithful to your spouse and giving a little bit to charity, too? Or is the right kind of life believing that Jesus Christ is your lord and savior? The tricky part is: What is the right kind of behavior that gets you to heaven? In general, we all agree about the basic idea of heaven, but there’s a lot of disagreement about what will get us there in the end.

DAVID: You also point out that people disagree about whether our bodies wind up in heaven. In the middle of your book (on page 107 for readers who buy the book and want to dig out these data), you point out that only about 1 in 4 Americans “believe they’ll have bodies in heaven.” You also point out that Americans mix lots of other afterlife beliefs with their Christian faith these days. Roughly 1 in 5 American Christians say they also believe in reincarnation, for example, which is quite different than our traditional one-shot-on-earth-is-aimed-at-heaven idea.

LISA: The numbers of evangelical Christians who now say they believe in reincarnation is just mind boggling to me. How can they believe both things?

For me, I’m a skeptic by profession. I’m a sympathetic skeptic, but for me the logical barrier in thinking about heaven is the idea of physical resurrection of our bodies. The conservatives say you need to actually take this bodily resurrection as literal fact. There’s a certain logic to that. If we believe heaven is a place where we have family reunions and we eat delicious food and we see beautiful rivers and pluck fruits from trees that always have beautiful food hanging on them, then we need bodies to do all of that that. To recognize our loved ones in a place like that, we need our senses along with our identities.

But in contemporary America, this idea is fading fast. There was a recent study about evangelical Christians—data that didn’t make it into this book—but even that more recent study found shocking numbers of evangelicals who don’t believe there’ll be bodies up in heaven. I was astonished. Clearly, there’s something about the idea of bodies in heaven that strains credulity. People are much more likely to believe in the body going into the ground—and to believe that, after death, the body is no longer important. Once that’s gone, then your spirit is what’s left that’s uniquely you. We might call that your soul, your indestructible and permanent self that ascends to be with God. That’s a much more common form of belief today. But there’s still a lot to think about here. If we are disembodied spirits in the end, then how can we do all those things in heaven that our tradition has promised we can do?

Heaven As Envisioned By Some Scientists and Hollywood Movie Makers

DAVID: Now, before we leave many readers running away in alarm over some of these data you’re presenting, we should point out: You also meet all sorts of fascinating people along the way who reframe the heaven question in creative new ways. One of them is Owen Gingerich, the astrophysicist at Harvard.

LISA: Owen is one of my favorite people I met while working on this. He’s an expert on the cosmos and he told me that, for him, the problem of heaven is not about whether there could be a place for heaven in the cosmos. As an astrophysicist, he knows there are lots of places, lots of dimensions, we cannot see. There are places where some of the physical rules that we assume are fixed—simply no longer apply. So, he’s not stumped or even distressed by the idea that there might be a place we can’t locate or see. He knows there are places out there we can never see.

For him, the big question is: How can human existence continue in a place that never changes? We are defined by moving forward. We fall in love, we grow older, we have children, we die. We eat food and, when we do, that food is eaten. We write a book and that book is written. How can we exist in a place that’s eternal and changeless? He uses this example: In heaven, would I learn Sanskrit, then forget it, so I can have the experience of learning it all over again?

DAVID: That’s what I really enjoyed about this book. There are lots of questions like this that are exciting to consider with friends. Would heaven be like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”? Or is heaven like the final chapters of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia”? Or is it like the ship leaving in the “Lord of the Rings”? Before you close your book, you reach out to popular culture as well. You really like Albert Brooks’ 1991 movie, “Defending Your Life.” You call it “one of the 20th century’s most inventive afterlife visions.”

LISA: Yes, even though it’s a romantic comedy, in my mind this is the best cinematic realization of an afterlife world that I’ve ever seen. What I love about it is that Albert Brooks thought of nearly everything: What do you wear? And what does it mean to eat all you want? He addresses lots of heaven clichés—like the idea of heaven having tiers where the really good people get to live at a higher level. When he gets to heaven, Albert Brooks winds up in a crappy hotel room, but the Meryl Streep character, who has done all these great things as a person, winds up living in a really cool room.

DAVID: If readers do wind up ordering your book and possibly talking about it with friends, what other films should we suggest to spark their imagination?

LISA: I mention “What Dreams May Come” in the book, but I really didn’t like that movie. I thought the special effects were amazing, but I thought the storyline was bad. I think now I’d put “Lovely Bones” on the list. That came out after this book was finished, but the vision of heaven portrayed in “Lovely Bones” certainly presents lots of interesting opportunities for discussion. It also presents problems like: OK, so where’s God in this version of heaven?

DAVID: Clearly, part of the challenge and the fun in talking about heaven is that our visions of it are so jumbled up at this point, right?

LISA: Well, people who are strongly attached to conservative religious traditions tend to have little ambivalence about heaven. If they’re pressed, they will admit they do have some differences and some questions, but they have a pretty firm idea. Then, people who very progressive spiritually or people who are atheist will shrug their shoulders at these questions and they’ll say something like: “Yeah? Whatever.” But most of us live somewhere in the middle and we live our lives filled with all sorts of images and visions and stories—some from Sunday school or Hebrew school, some from movies, some from New Yorker cartoons, or famous paintings, or songs we can’t get out of our heads—or things our grandparents told us.

I’d say: If you take some time to think about these big questions concerning heaven, then it will cause you to revisit your own tradition—and to see what some other traditions have to offer, too. It’s a journey that I think most of us will enjoy.

Remember: You can order “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” by Lisa Miller from Amazon now.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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