Book Fair Author Lisa Miller's "Heaven" Agonizing or Thought-Provoking, Depending on You

[Eds. Note: Author Lisa Miller will be speaking about her book at the St. Paul JCC this Thursday, Feb. 9th at 7:00pm as part of the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair. Click here for more info.]

I am finally finished with Lisa Miller’s Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (Harper: 2010) and I have rarely been so glad to be done with a book. I am sorry to say this, but I found it tedious. I search my memory for what it was that intrigued me enough to say, “I’ll review that one,” but I cannot figure it out.
Or maybe, like everyone, I’ve lost loved ones and thought about what happens when you die and had a passing thought that this could be an interesting read.
After lamenting to my sister that I have to write this review, she admits to not having heard of the book, but recommends Mitch Albom’s ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, ‘In My Heaven’. I read the Albom book. It was interesting and Miller mentions it in her book.
The song leaves me about as flat as Miller’s book, though. These are not the things I think about when I think about heaven.
And maybe what I realized through every agonizing page of ‘Heaven’ is that I did not want to be thinking about heaven at all.
I have an opinion, even a belief, maybe about what happens when you die, but the questions about heaven (or not) are just not part of my consideration. I am the person who appreciates what I have every single day, multiple times a day. I have always focused on the here and now, realizing that life is short and we never know what will happen.
Since Miller concludes after six years of research and talking to just about everybody who is anybody in the religious or spiritual world who has thought about, written about, spoken about, or preached about heaven, that obviously we can’t actually know what heaven is, the whole book seems like a rather futile exercise in collecting information to me.
Admittedly, I am the wrong audience. Unlike most Americans, I don’t think about heaven that much. I just don’t care.
I did, however, enjoy my conversation with Lisa very much.  Lots of people, especially those who have lost a parent recently, have thanked her for writing the book. They have found it to be comforting. People who grew up with no religion, who know very little, were especially happy to have this book to give them a good background from all the most popular viewpoints. And Lisa does a great job with that.
She has managed to interview even the most remote hermits and spiritualists out there. She presents the information in a fluid way. And there is so much there, from historic perspectives (which are the parts I found most interesting) to individual anecdotes and questions. The questions the book poses and leaves the reader with are numerous, and those readers rooted in any kind of Orthodoxy tend not to like the book so much.  They want more answers. Or they think they have them, and were hoping that Miller would validate their views.
Years ago, Lisa Miller was covering the car rental industry for the Wall Street Journal.  Journalism was thriving.  She wanted to write about what mattered most to people and religion was a way to talk about unexpressed yearnings, identity and the things most feared. She was given the chance and has been writing about religion ever since.
The book began to percolate right after 9/11. Miller did a piece for Newsweek about why we need heaven.  She was struck by the fact that the suicide bombers were sure they were going to heaven, just as the surviving family members of those tragically killed were certain that their loved ones were heaven bound.  Both motivating and consoling, she wondered if heaven is the same or different?
Prior to 9/11 Miller had never really given heaven much thought. Suddenly, she became obsessed with so many questions:  who gets to go to heaven? when do you go?  is G-d there? She discovered that many people have spent their lives contemplating these and other questions.
Yet, like herself, many reform Jews not only haven’t struggled with the questions, they tend to avoid the topic as much as possible. As Jews in general, Miller found that we are wonderful about the rituals surrounding death, maybe better than anyone, and yet we shy away from the inexplicable aspects of death. “Of course,” I tell myself.  “Because we are a questioning people and since we cannot ‘know’ the answer, we don’t bother so much with certain aspects of the questions.”
After six years of interviews, writing, editing and ultimately completing the book, Miller feels she has a better grasp of the idea(s) of heaven.  It was a journey for her. She found some ideas that she can live with. I suppose that as I read, there were things that rang true for me, too, intermittently, but in the end I find myself not sure whether I was taking away that much from the book. I did not find it refreshing or reassuring in any way.
I am sure there are plenty of people out there who will be outraged by my view, who care not only about heaven for themselves and their loved ones, but for their pets as well.
And those people should read this book.
They will find it touching and tender, and full of interesting information of how and why views of heaven changed over time, within certain religions and across religious lines into society as a whole in different time periods.They will likely find a portion of the book that speaks to all that they hold dear, and find great comfort in knowing that their veiw is shared by some of the best experts in the field. I expect that Lisa Miller was writing for them.
As for me, I celebrate life each day and do not worry myself with heaven or no heaven. I am hypnotized by the clouds and would take up at least part time residence up there in the clouds if I could. Not because they represent heaven or are perfect, but because they are mysterious, have no answers and beg to be investigated and experienced constantly, for they, like me, are ever changing. When I die, I hope to be remembered for how I lived my life here, not imagined in some unknown ‘heaven’.
(Photo: Mystic Musings)