Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gary Scott Smith's "Heaven in the American Imagination"

Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Heaven in the American Imagination, and reported the following:
My book argues that while American conceptions of heaven, as expressed in literature, sermons, art, and music, have typically been rooted in religious traditions and been based on interpretations of relevant scriptural passages, they have usually been closely connected to what was happening on earth. Americans have tended to imagine an afterlife that contains what they judge to be the “best, most lasting, virtuous, and meaningful” aspects of this life and eliminates those things they consider “the most difficult, frustrating, evil, and inessential.”

Deeply influenced by their own life experiences and their different political, social, economic, and cultural circumstances, Americans have sharply disagreed about what heavenly life will be like. Although most Americans have claimed to derive their images of heaven solely from the Bible, they also display their dreams, hopes, and visions of the good life. Their depictions of celestial life shed substantial light on what Americans have most treasured and feared in various eras.

Page 99 illustrates this thesis by its analysis of how heaven was viewed during the Civil War. Here’s the key paragraph from that page:
Antebellum Americans’ view of death and the afterlife, in the words of Mark Schantz, made it easier for soldiers “to kill and be killed” and for their loved ones to emotionally accept their deaths. Influenced primarily by evangelical Protestantism, Romanticism, and the culture of ancient Greece, most soldiers strove to meet “death with a spirit of calm resignation,” aware that their society prized heroic action and confident that eternal rewards awaited them. Their views of the hereafter, concern about how they would be remembered, deathbed behavior, and the antebellum image of death combined to create a cultural climate that made the slaughter of the Civil War possible. Large numbers of Americans were able to “face death with resignation and even joy” because they possessed “a comforting and compelling vision of eternal life.” For most of them, heaven was not an ethereal, vague region, but rather “a material place” where individuals “would be perfected and the relations of family and friendship restored.” Their confidence that they would spend eternity with God and loved ones in a magnificent abode without any trials or suffering enabled many soldiers to fight fearlessly and furiously, contributing to the war’s astounding death tolls.
Learn more about Heaven in the American Imagination at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue