In Heaven, Newsweek’s religion correspondent, Lisa Miller, has written a fascinating millenniums-long history of the idea of heaven, spliced with some surprisingly mediocre reporting on present-day believers. At its core is a (very politely administered) slap to the American consensus. The heaven you think you’re headed to—a reunion with your lost relatives in the light—is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.
Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Quran lived in thirst—so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first”—so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today’s Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: ” ‘Heaven’—is what I cannot Reach!/ The Apple on the Tree—/ Provided it do hopeless—hang—/ That—”Heaven” is—to Me!”
You can read the whole review on Slate.