Heaven in the American Imagination


Does heaven exist? If so, what is it like? And how does one get in? Throughout history, painters, poets, philosophers, pastors, and many ordinary people have pondered these questions. Perhaps no other topic captures the popular imagination quite like heaven.

Gary Scott Smith examines how Americans from the Puritans to the present have imagined heaven. He argues that whether Americans have perceived heaven as reality or fantasy, as God's home or a human invention, as a source of ...

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Does heaven exist? If so, what is it like? And how does one get in? Throughout history, painters, poets, philosophers, pastors, and many ordinary people have pondered these questions. Perhaps no other topic captures the popular imagination quite like heaven.

Gary Scott Smith examines how Americans from the Puritans to the present have imagined heaven. He argues that whether Americans have perceived heaven as reality or fantasy, as God's home or a human invention, as a source of inspiration and comfort or an opiate that distracts from earthly life, or as a place of worship or a perpetual playground has varied largely according to the spirit of the age. In the colonial era, conceptions of heaven focused primarily on the glory of God. For the Victorians, heaven was a warm, comfortable home where people would live forever with their family and friends. Today, heaven is often less distinctively Christian and more of a celestial entertainment center or a paradise where everyone can reach his full potential.

Drawing on an astounding array of sources, including works of art, music, sociology, psychology, folklore, liturgy, sermons, poetry, fiction, jokes, and devotional books, Smith paints a sweeping, provocative portrait of what Americans-from Jonathan Edwards to Mitch Albom-have thought about heaven.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Smith (Faith and the Presidency) is a historian, and he offers a historical survey of American views of heaven, from Puritan to postmodern, divvying up the centuries into a number of different eras that generated different conceptions of the afterlife (the First Great Awakening, slavery and the Civil War, etc.) His work is formidably footnoted; the good news is he has done meticulous homework. The bad news is his writing is hard to read; many sentences contain partial quotes to convey what a particular individual said. He argues that Jonathan Edwards, whose "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is a classic sermon, actually preached more frequently on heaven than hell. But he is less original in his review of current ideas of heaven; that they reflect a culture that has substituted therapy for religion is a well-worn analysis. Readers curious about this eternally fascinating subject will do better with authors such as Lisa Miller. (June)
From the Publisher
"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. . . . 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 (author of The Shack), The Washington Times

"In this broad-ranging work, Smith describes the extraordinary variety of views that the faithful—Puritans, Evangelicals, Liberals, Catholics, Jews, New Agers, and many others—have held about heaven. How to get there, and how to avoid the 'Other Place,' figure largely too. With deft strokes, Smith shows that notions of heaven never strayed far from the social structures and cultural assumptions of each era and each group. The book combines the careful research of the serious scholar with the winsome prose of a seasoned journalist."—Grant Wacker, author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture

"Mark Twain once said that 'a man's got to be in his own heaven to be happy.' In Gary Scott Smith's new book, Heaven in the American Imagination, we see how much American Christians' visions of the land of the blessed reflect their changing views of what it means to be perfectly happy and fulfilled. This thorough study adds heavenly perspective to each era of American religious history."—Joel Carpenter, author of Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism

"This is America after all, so we should not be surprised that this rich account of speculations about heaven is chock full of the sophisticated and the crass, the sublime and the ridiculous, the mystical and the maudlin. The book reveals a great deal about eternal life as conceived by Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others-but perhaps even more about the American circumstances in which these conceptions have been expressed."
—Mark A. Noll, author of Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction

"In Heaven in the American Imagination, Gary Scott Smith surveys the vast landscape of religion in the United States, showing how changing historical circumstances have influenced ideas and portraits of heaven. From traditional Christian theology and sermons on hell's eternal torments, to popular culture, near-death experiences, and New Age perspectives, Smith highlights important currents of reflection on the afterlife. His research, which draws upon sources ranging from art and literature to music and cinema, should appeal to a variety of readers. And while his overviews simplify complex matters of theology, the end result is nonetheless valuable, scholarly, and deeply informed."—Christianity Today

"Heaven in the American Imagination is rich with irony, as biblical literalism seems to have led in as many directions as biblical antiliteralism. Presented in the winsome prose of a seasoned journalist, the book exhibits years of careful research."— Christian Century, An annotated list of top new titles in World Christianity and American religion

"This book involves research from a wide variety of sources: the visual and literary arts, the social sciences, religious and devotional sources, and popular culture. Suitable for clergy, scholars, and the general reader, it is highly recommended for those interested in sociology as well."—Library Journal

"A wide-ranging, compelling new survey looks at how our ideas about heaven have changed over time, shifting more with history and culture than with any theological revelations. While Phillips Brooks promised (or threatened) that heaven would be filled with "active, tireless, earnest work,'' today's afterlife, if one bestselling evangelist is to be believed, is more like "Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome and New York all rolled up into one.''—Boston Globe

"If you are intrigued by the prospect of a scholarly, yet accessible, book on the afterlife, this book may be just the ticket."—Mark Sommer, hollywoodjesus.com

"The book provides a remarkable example of how one can tell a history of religion in America by picking one theme and tracing it out over the centuries. The shifts from theocentric, to domestic, to workaholic heavens reveals larger shifts in American culture and values. Also, the moments where Smith is able to bring in views of heaven that depart from the mainstream, such as the New Age or his analysis of Michael Jackson's memorial service, are fascinating and provocative."— Michael J. Altman, usreligion.blogspot.com

"...Mr.Smith's contribution is a worthy addition to adynamic historical investigation, long overdue and currently relevant....he points out 'tensions' and 'paradoxes' within the variant theological positions, something I found intriguing."—William Paul Young, The Washington Times

"It is a most instructive read-crisply written, largely accurate..."—Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

"A useful resource for the curious and strongly motivated layperson or pastor, or the researcher after primary-source threads to follow...features of the book simply reflect Smith's greater expertise working with sermons, creeds, and theological treatises."—Evangelical Studies Bulletin

"The volume offers rich and wide-ranging research. Written in an accessible style and presenting an efficient big-picture overview, it can be easily excerpted and appreciated by academics and general audiences alike."—Journal of American History

"This book adds to a growing body of works with an American slant on the subject, chronicling the history of American thought from the Puritans to postmodernism."—Religious Studies Review

"[A] sweeping monograph...[I] see how important this book will be for scholars of religion and emotion, psychology, imagination, popular culture, and spirituality...Perhaps Gary Scott Smith's work will open the door for more studies, historical and contemporary, on the role of heaven in the American imagination and cultural landscape." —Religion

"Well observed and argued... Smith has written a stimulating and well-documented book that will further promote thinking on this subject of perennial interest." —The Catholic Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199738953
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2011
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 1,451,464
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Scott Smith is Professor of History at Grove City College, in Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. The Puritans: Celebrating the Glory of Heaven
Chapter 3. Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening: Heaven Is a World of Love
Chapter 4. The Early National Era and the Second Great Awakening: The Founders, Assaults on Orthodoxy, and Revival
Chapter 5. Heaven as Home: The Victorians and Heaven, 1830-1870; Family, Friends, and Fellowship
Chapter 6. Slavery, the Civil War, and Heaven
Chapter 7. Heaven in the Gilded Age: Dwight Moody and the Princes of the Pulpit
Chapter 8. Heaven in the Progressive Years: The Social Gospel, Urban Revivalism, and Theological Liberalism; Personal Growth, Service, and Reform
Chapter 9. Heaven from the Roaring Twenties to the Fabulous Fifties
Chapter 10. Heaven, 1960-2000: New Trends and Revived Themes
Chapter 11. The Contemporary Scene: Heaven Today
Chapter 12. Conclusion

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