Viewing Heaven from America

Article excerpt

Byline: William Paul Young, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …