In a very schmaltzy YA book I read in middle school, a whole school bus load of middle schoolers died in a car accident and went straight to Heaven. I’m pretty sure the protagonist and his eventual girlfriend got to come back to life by the end because they had Unfinished Business back on Earth, but before they do, they get a preview look at Heaven as all their friends settle down for the rest of their afterlives.
The Heaven of this book most closely resembles a glitzy theme park. The children don’t miss their earthly lives. In the Heaven of the novel, they get the opportunity to do everything they would have wished in life. Several of the students go to see Joan Jett in concert, an opera aficionado gets to sing the parts she longed for in front of full amphitheatres.
At first, when reading these descriptions, I was excited and jealous. I have a decidedly mediocre singing voice and a deep and abiding love of musical theatre. The idea of being able to play the parts I’d dreamed of was deeply tempting, but a moment’s consideration quickly dampened my enthusiasm. The Heaven of the novel sounded like a simple lowering of standards. The only way I’d get a standing ovation as Emma Goldman in Ragtime was either if the audience were composed only of clones of my tone-deaf father or was instructed to appear enthusiastic. A hollow victory.
But it’s hard for a twelve year old to give up on instant gratification too easily. I rejected talent without effort and then, after a little thought, decided talent without training (the “I know kung fu” ethos of The Matrix) would be equally unfulfilling. I just couldn’t imagine mastery without effort.
When I was trying to find the book again to link to, I was surprised to find it praised as contemporary Christian fiction, since I had been so repulsed by its puerile Heaven. Upon reflection, though, I’m not sure how far off it is from mainstream Christian doctrine.
Ultimately, I rejected the gifts bestowed in the novel because I couldn’t count myself the owner of my virtues in that universe. There was no possibility of feeling pride in my accomplishments. Which, I hear (from Lewis anyway), is exactly the point.
In a Christian world, any ability I have to be good is given to me by the grace and mercy of Christ as gifts. I don’t earn it, don’t deserve it, and certainly have no standing to take pride in it. It’s undeserved grace. It’s as miraculous, absurd, and, ultimately, as vaguely unsatisfying for me as any other magical gift.
I can be pleased with the kindness of a friend only as a gift of good fortune, undifferentiated from the providence of catching a lucky break in traffic on my way to work. My friend’s moral action is as impersonal and unmotivated as the eddy in the traffic pattern. Presumably, in a religious framework, I would feel grateful to God for both, but I feel as unsettled and disappointed by this idea as I was by Magical Wish Granting Heaven. To my mind, both profoundly devalue any human striving.