Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Who Goes Where There: A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell (Review)

When reviewing a book, there are many questions that I ask whilst reading. Some examples:
What is the author's thesis?
Does the author effectively work from/towards that thesis?
For what audience is the book best suited?
What are the negatives and positives about the work?
And what/how does this book add to the ongoing dialog of the Christian faith?

In Rebecca Price Janney's Who Goes there: A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, I felt that her premise was 2 fold. One, to explore the attitudes of Heaven and Hell during different time periods in our nation; and two, to explore WHY the attitudes and theologies have changed over time. I have mixed opinions about whether she achieved these objectives or not. I think that she began this book with those two premises in mind, but quickly lets it give way to concluding that most people simply have poor theology on Heaven and Hell, and it has been that way for a while!

I'll begin with premise #1. Janney gives an American snapshot of the trend in our history to change our opinions on the subjects of the afterlife. She is very unbiased towards the fact that there was once a time when the majority (and I question her use of the word "majority") had "solid theology" on the subjects of Heaven and Hell. When was this time? Well it was none other than The First Great Awakening. Known for such tent/traveling preachers as Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards, this was a booming time of what has become known as "Hell-fire and Brimstone Preaching". These preachers would come into town, set up shop, and people would flock to these events and buy whatever was being sold. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but let's think a little about the lifestyle of that time period.

Moral was low, the death-rate was high, all day was spent working (usually manual labor), and money was scarce among the masses. Who can blame people for flocking to an invitation given by one of these great orators that either 1) played on their already present fears, or 2) gave them a beacon of hope. People were wooed by these educated preachers because education was also poor in America at this time. It's not that dumb people fall for these messages, in fact I think it is that these average people longed for better understanding and education and "learned" from these people these doctrines they were pandering. Who would blame them? It makes complete sense that people thought more about Heaven and Hell at this point in time than any other since.

But for Janney, those were the "good old days". Americans have produced nothing but poor views on the subjects since. She chastises those who's understanding of Heaven is that "everyone good gets to go, except child-molesters and Hitler." I started thinking about this and I have to say, in all my years involved with churches and my time in ministry, I have NEVER once even heard a preacher say at a funeral, "well, Clive was a good guy, but since he never accepted Christ.... well, Clive's off to Hell now." It's not just the American populace and laity that think that people deserve to go to Heaven, even some of the most conservative ministers deep down do not act this out practically. Only when it is a concept from behind a pulpit, when we don't put faces to the concepts (except Hitler?!) is this taught with the utmost certainty.

But Janney doesn't mention this. And because she fails to accurately discover why most people's theology on the afterlife have changed, I feel that this book is truly not worth the read. Please understand, it has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with her theology on the subject! I don't recommend this book to anyone because she doesn't stay on her thesis, she is completely biased to the fact that any theology but her own is poor, and she truly misses out on a fantastic opportunity presented by this book. That opportunity comes with my last question I ask of a work:

What or how does this add to the ongoing conversation in our Christian faith?

I think that there are 2 thoughts that I conceived from this book.
1) There is a trend by many Christians, especially postmodern Christians, to NOT talk about the afterlife. I don't think its fair to say that theology has gotten weak, in fact, there has been some great theological thoughts on Salvation and the afterlife (both new and reclaimed) that has come out of this shift. But since the Heaven/Hell theology has been forced down many people's throats at the expense of equally important messages of Christ, there is a tendency to shy away from talking about or tackling the questions that people still have about the afterlife. We must focus on a holistic view of following Christ, and that means not ignoring any of these issues about which the Bible speaks. Janney, sort-of leads the reader to this conclusion, but sacrifices the calmer message for that of denouncing any theory of the afterlife except for the single one to which she herself adheres.

2) I think this is the more important question that Janney totally misses her opportunity on. When you have billions of people in the world, (Janney never really looks past the American geographical boundaries, but the phenomenon of which she speaks is world-wide) and over the past 100 years (or more) this idea of a different Heaven has emerged and held tight: the idea that it isn't about accepting Christ, but something bigger. That Heaven is a place that people deserve after the hell of this life, or because they are good people, or the myriad of the other beliefs out there. When are we going to let these theological concepts (and yes they can be considered theology, that one branch of Christianity does not have a patent on thinking about Heaven and Hell) dialog with more "traditional" ideas of the afterlife? If we believe that God is still at work and revealing himself...if we believe that theology is as Daniel Migliore defines it: "Faith seeking understanding," then we owe it to our own beliefs and certainties to face these challenging thoughts and questions. Who knows where it will lead us? I think we would find that these thoughts are far from "poor theology", and in fact, be shocked to find how well thought out and developed these ideas are.

When we push people and thoughts like this aside for our own "certainty", we miss out on many opportunities. I think this sums up Janney's book...a missed opportunity!

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