Mark Twain quipped that people assume heaven will be green fields and harp music — an eternity of activities no one would enjoy for five minutes while still alive. Here is a central dilemma of our preoccupation with heaven. Our imaginations are limited by our experience. When we read fantasy, or science fiction, it is always an elaboration of things we already know. The invented creatures have six heads, or are made of light. We cannot really imagine something we have not experienced. And — with few exceptions — no one on earth imagines he has already experienced heaven.
There is no lack of people willing to give it a shot, however. In her new book Heaven Newsweek reporter Lisa Miller interviews a variety of people: devout believers, scholars, a self-styled medium, pop singer David Byrnes (of the hit song “Heaven”), and the author of The Lovely Bones. All of them try to explain how it might be possible that we, who can so easily find ourselves bored to tears by a long afternoon, will be enraptured for eternity.
Heaven is a fascinating and enduring topic. While hell may be more vivid (after all, Dante’s Inferno gets higher marks among most aficionados than his Paradiso), we aim for heaven. Miller writes engagingly, intersperses her own reflections with those of the wide variety of personalities, and raises the central questions. While it is true that you may not finish knowing what heaven is like, you’ll feel, given the range of religious and other traditions she covers, that you’ve had as close as possible to a virtual tour.