In Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford University Press), 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.
Smith focuses primarily on Protestant and evangelical conceptions of heaven. Beginning with a detailed study of Puritan beliefs, he analyzes the impact of Jonathan Edwards, George White-field, and the Great Awakenings. Early evangelicals associated heaven with splendorous beauty, the grandeur of God, and the astounding eternal love the saints would share with their Lord. Nineteenth-century slaves, on the other hand, anticipated heavenly rewards of freedom, justice, and compensation for suffering. Before the Civil War, descriptions of heaven stressed themes of domesticity, family reunion, and leisure. Later, during the Gilded Age, heavenly visions tended toward pictures of ongoing personal growth, work, and service.
Unitarians, deists, freethinkers, Mormons, and Social Gospelers offered their own very different portrayals of heaven. More recently, in an era marked by greater religious plurality, thinking on heaven has evolved significantly, as Smith amply demonstrates in a chapter revealingly titled, "Heaven in a Postmodern, ...1