“The Book of Heaven”

[Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2000]

“The Book of Heaven,” by Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski, Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $35.

Imagine there’s a heaven. At the word, a pop-up tableau instantly unfolds and feathers from moulting wings drift into the air. Before a plywood set spray-painted gold, choir voices sing with determined cheer, like a power drill going through steel. Pink chubby infants giggle as they roll from cloud to bouncy cloud. Stay for eternity? The prospect of just an afternoon brings cold sweat to the forehead.

Yet that stereotype is not the only way of picturing the place, much less the most attractive. People have imagined heaven in a variety of forms for pretty much all of human history, and we may well wonder why. Perhaps it’s mere day-dreaming, idle speculations of a place better than this. In “Lubberland,” a seventeenth-century English invention, “the streets are pav’d with pudding pies” and “he that is without a wife may borrow of his neighbor.”

Perhaps more solemn motivation impels this imagination: the bloodshed and persecution that go unpunished in this life. Will the murderer ever slumber in a peaceful grave, next to his butchered victim? Will the lies and lesser cruelties inflicted on us never be vindicated? And, gulp, what about our own guilty deeds against others — might those some day be exposed?

Thus, for some the afterlife is a place where victorious wrong is made right. A Northumbrian named Drythelm died one night about 700 AD, St. Bede tells us, and returned to life the next morning. He had seen lands of fragrant delight and peace, and lands where the evil were herded into stinking pits, tormented with both heat and cold. After his awakening he gave his possessions to the poor and retired to a monastery, where he took on ascetic disciplines like standing in a freezing river. “I have seen greater cold,” he would say.

For others, heaven represents a place where God lives and where, in imagining it, the writer can recount a mystical experience, the vision of the face of God. A fifteenth-century Egyptian writer describes how Muhammad floated into Allah’s presence on a green silk cloth. “My sight was so dazzled that I feared blindness,” but with his eyes closed he was enabled to see Allah with his heart. “Then He lowered somewhat for me his dignity and drew me near to Him.”

These examples and dozens of others are provided by “The Book of Heaven,” an anthology edited by Carol and Philip Zaleski. The Zaleskis have collected writings about heaven from religious traditions around the world and stretching back for millennia. These range from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the Sioux Ghost Dance to instructions for seeing the god Mithras (this introduces a liturgical practice new to me: hissing.) Most of the samples, however, are drawn from Western religions, both to plumb one tradition in depth and to minimize losses in translation.

The Zaleskis have organized their book as a sort of travel guide. In seven chapters they depict the journey, the landscape of heaven, and the vision of God at its center, then step back to disclose the heavenly court of saints and angels, and then the common citizens. Concluding chapters consider the possibility of a man-made utopia on earth, and the apocalyptic end and rebirth of the world.

There’s another reason humans may persistently dream of heaven: it might really be there. Perhaps people in all times have experienced something that defies words; it’s impressive that the Zaleskis found so many who tried. In light of these writers’ serene or ecstatic witness, our stereotypes of a shabby, tinfoil heaven look ignorant and small. Even if we haven’t thought seriously about heaven since childhood, that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. Perhaps the germ of the idea of heaven is planted deep inside us, and it resonates with something we can sense in the distance like a gathering summer shower. As the Zaleskis write in their introduction:

“Is heaven, strictly speaking, inconceivable? Is perfect happiness a contradiction in terms? Perhaps so, but try this: Imagine the happiest moments of your childhood, the most genuinely gratifying experiences of your adult life. Add to these every glimpse of beauty, every act of creation, every awakening of insight. Subtract the anxiety that eats away at the core of even our best experiences, cancel the contradictions, and translate to eternity. Is this so difficult?”

One of my regular memories as a nearsighted kid was of a parent pointing to something in the distance, say a bird in a treetop, and saying, “There it is. See it?” And often I didn’t, though I squinted and tried to follow the line of the pointing arm. Sometimes I would exclaim, “Oh! Now I see it!” and sometimes just keep repeating, “Where?” But I never did say, “You’re wrong. It’s all wishful thinking. The bird does not exist.”

With the aid of “The Book of Heaven,” readers in the latter two categories will be, at a minimum, entertained and delighted, because the subject matter is so intrinsically refreshing. But some may at last be able to say, “Oh! Now I see it!”

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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