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Well-researched book on heaven

also offers delightful portraits

“Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife” by Lisa Miller. Harper Collins (New York, 2010). 331 pages, $25.99.

Reviewed by PEGGY WEBER
Catholic News Service

When my son was about 7, he asked me the compelling question: “Are there cheese curls in heaven?”
Well, Lisa Miller, the religion editor at Newsweek magazine, does not answer that particular question. However, she does present an incredibly well-researched body of work in her book, “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife.”
She truly provides a broad and comprehensive look at what people and religions believe about life after death.
The author’s notes, bibliography and index are 71 pages long. This certainly should make one aware of the depth of Miller’s research.
However, even though her book has scholarly merit, it also has a delightful human touch. Miller inserts delightful portraits of the people she interviews amid a lot of information. For example, she speaks with a visual artist in New York City and asks, “Do you believe in heaven?”
“Oh no,” he replies. “I would like to believe in, like, karmic retribution or divine justice, some of which is implied by heaven. I would like to believe that the people who cut in line will get their just desserts, but I don’t think they will.”
She also interviews a Trappist monk and Yale professor Pete Hawkins who described heaven as “a Bach concert that fills you up to brimming -- no matter how little you know about classical music.”
Jesuit Father James Martin’s interview is compelling and Miller is impressed. She notes “Jim Martin is living proof that you can believe in heaven -- and that you can believe that heaven is unbelievable at the same time.”
Miller spoke with Muslims, Jews, fundamentalist Christians, Mormons and nonbelievers. She includes information about Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greeks.
One learns a lot by reading this book. But some of the research is subject to interpretation. Catholics might quibble a bit with some of her statements. For example, she writes that “the church was -- and is -- seen as both the conduit for God’s love in the world and a kind of intermediary institution, like a bank, to which sinners make payments in the form of prayers and penance -- and receive credit in the afterlife as indulgences.” She concludes that purgatory brought about the Protestant Reformation.
Clearly, Miller has taken on a monumental task. She has delved into a deep theological question and emerged with a readable and well-documented book.
And the reader will especially enjoy the personal journey of Miller as she looks into the question of heaven. She writes: “At the beginning of this book, I said I believed that heaven was hope. I would now amend that to say ‘radical hope’ -- a constant home for unimaginable perfection even as we fail to achieve it. As Emily Dickinson said, heaven is what we cannot reach. But it is worth a human life to try.”
Miller’s book makes one hope for heaven. And it makes one appreciate all the people who are on the heavenly journey -- even those in search of cheese curls.

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