If you’re like me, not often, but every once and awhile you come across a book that you enjoy so much you say to yourself, “that’s the book I wish I’d written.” Well-written with accessible language, it covers all kinds of interesting stuff that you could possibly think of–and some stuff you couldn’t. You find the author’s discussion of the subject matter intelligent, friendly and honest. By the end you’ve enjoyed the book so much that you could never be jealous of its author for writing it before you ever could. And before you know it you’re off enthusiastically recommending it to your friends.
That’s how I feel about Lisa Miller’s 2010 book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. Miller, the religion editor for Newsweek magazine, has put together a fantastic book that entertains just as it educates. Just like Mary Roach did with Stiff and Bonk, Miller traveled far and wide to interview a wide spectrum of fascinating and knowledgeable individuals. Not only did she pick the brains of theologians and other religious figures but also that of scientists, musicians (much to my joy she devotes nearly an entire chapter to her visit with former Talking Heads front man David Byrne, so the two of them can discuss at length the song “Heaven”) and everyday people. As one on-line reviewer astutely pointed out, in many ways this book is less about belief and more about believers. From the high culture of Dante to the pop culture of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and TV’s The Simpsons, Miller looks at our age-old fascination with the afterlife. Not only do we see how heaven is perceived by adherents of different religions (or those without religious belief) but how our concept of the afterlife have evolved over the years, starting with Hellenistic-era Judaism and ending with our present day.
As much as I loved her book, Miller did make a couple of boo-boos. At one point she claimed that Jesus was not descended from the house David. However, if one looks at the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and takes into account the genealogical information contained therein (keeping in mind of course that modern scholars have criticized the two Gospel writers’ claims) Miller claim seems a bit off-base. Elsewhere in her book, she calls Karl Barth a philosopher when in reality he was a theologian. But when I look at the overall quality of her book, her two offenses are forgivable.
This is a great book and enjoyed it so much that it’s inspired me to finally read Alan Segal’s Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. I have a feeling when I compile my “best of” list at the end of 2012 that Miller’s Heaven will be on the list. Consider this book to be highly recommended.