Top 10 Recent Books: 5 on Heaven, 5 on Hell

You've been warned.

You’ve been warned.

I’ve recently written on both heaven and on hell. My own readings on these topics might be idiosyncratic. I’m not sure whether these books get read in seminaries or comparative religion programs. I don’t even know whether these topics are of any interest to academics in those disciplines. I, for one, went through most of the classes offered on Christianity at the University of Washington’s excellent Comparative Religion program and didn’t encounter, or discuss, anything about these topics. What follows is a list of books (in no particular order) I’ve found helpful for thinking about heaven and hell (along with their publisher blurbs).

Please order books via the links provided here if you’d like to help put some diapers on little Rosman butts!

HELL

JBR is the dean of devil studies. This is the summary book from his five volume history of the topic.

JBR is the dean of devil studies. This is the summary book from his five volume history of the topic.

“[In The Prince of Darkness] Russell recreates the arcane images of good and evil we all once understood perfectly well as children. From the moment the cover is lifted on this beautifully produced book, the world darkens. Russell presents story after story, using them like a descending staircase, drawing us down into archetypal memories of unending battles with the Evil One.”—Bloomsbury Review

The Devil's story in detail.

Are you ready to RUMBLE?!

“[The Old Enemy is a] learned . . . but also robust book. . . . Forsyth is much at home amid the heroics, graphic laments and winged enormities and leviathans of the Sumerian, Hittite and Canaanite epic fables. . . . He sees the narrative links between Marduk and Zeus, between the death-king Mor and the classical underworld. At the close of the study, the chapters on Augustine glow with intelligence and sympathy.”—George Steiner, The Times Literary Supplement

What the?

What the?

“This book displays the breath and breadth of life in history more than any merely analytical study could do. [The Formation of Hell] illuminates and deepens us with its humanity and its rare lucidity of style.”—Jeffrey Burton Russell

The prince of philosophical prose. Nobody keeps you interested in abstruse problems like Kolakowski.

The prince of philosophical prose. Nobody keeps you interested in abstruse problems like Kolakowski.

“[Kolakowski’s] exploration of the philosophy of religion covers the historical discussions of the nature and existence of evil, the importance of the concepts of failure and eternity to the religious impulse, the relationship between skepticism and mysticism, and the place of reason, understanding, and in models of religious thought. He examines why people, throughout known history, have cherished the idea of eternity and existence after death, and why this hope has been dependent on the worship of an eternal reality. He confronts the problems of meaning in religious language.”

He'll make you a believer in the (non?-)existence of Satan.

He’ll make you a believer in the (non?-)existence of Satan.

“Rene Girard is beyond question one of the seminal Christian thinkers of our time. Few, if any, have more imaginatively engaged the dominant ideas of modernity and post-modernity by exploring the bilical telling of the human story. He is one of those writers who, once discovered, leaves an indelible mark on one’s mind and soul. Read I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and be prepared to be changed.”—Richard John Neuhaus, First Things

HEAVEN

Zaleski is our premier guide to otherworld journeys.

Zaleski is our premier guide to otherworld journeys.

“Critics of religion have argued that Christianity’s success stems from its promise of eternal life, that people become Christian at bottom merely to cope with their fear of death. Contemporary theologians and philosophers, highly sensitive to this charge, tend to skirt the issue of life after death. To speak of the afterlife is at best to engage in wishful thinking, at worst to descend to the level of pop religion, encounters with angels, and UFO abductions. In The Life of the World to Come, however, Carol Zaleski asks the question, ‘Are we rationally and morally entitled to believe in life after death?’ and answers with a spirited and emphatic ‘yes.'”

Much more fun than his book on sin and guilt.

Much more fun than his book on sin and guilt. Also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

“With erudition and wit, Jean Delumeau’s History of Paradise explores the medieval conviction that paradise existed in a precise although unreachable earthly location. Delving into the writings of dozens of medieval and Renaissance thinkers, from Augustine to Dante, Delumeau presents a luminous study of the meaning of Original Sin and the human yearning for paradise. The finest minds of the Middle Ages wrote about where paradise was to be found, what it was like, and who dwelt in it. Explorers sailed into the unknown in search of paradisal gardens of wealth and delight that were thought to be near the original Garden.Cartographers drew Eden into their maps, often indicating the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were cast, along with the magical kingdom of Prester John, Jerusalem, Babel, the Happy Isles, Ophir, and other places described in biblical narrative or borrowed from other cultures. Later, Renaissance thinkers and writers meticulously reconstructed the details of the original Eden, even providing schedules of the Creation and physical descriptions of Adam and Eve. Even when the Enlightenment, with its discovery of fossils and pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, gradually banished the dream of paradise on earth, a nostalgia for Eden shaped elements of culture from literature to gardening.In our own time, Eden’s hold on the Western imagination continues to fuel questions such as whether land should be conserved or exploited and whether a return to innocence is possible.”

The man who brought you the ultimate itinerary of the Devil also has a handle on heaven.

The man who brought you the ultimate itinerary of the Devil also has a handle on heaven.

“At minimum, it is the most rigorous modern study of the various strains of Western tradition that culminate in [Dante’s] Paradiso. But its introductory chapter [of A History of Heaven] goes beyond that to sketch out an apologia for passionate heavenly belief. In effect, Russell tries to re-establish the honor of the Christian mystical tradition. . . . Like Dante’s, Russell’s paradise is deeply God-oriented. . . .”—David Van Biema, Time

A slightly more philosophical guide through the significance of the afterlife to the present life.

A slightly more philosophical guide through the significance of the afterlife for the present life.

“Nicodemus first posed the question “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This book reads that problem in the context of contemporary philosophy (particularly the thought of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze). The phenomenology of the body born ‘from below’ is seen as a paradigm for a theology of spiritual rebirth, and for rebirth of the body from ‘on high.’ [The Metamorphosis of Finitude argues] the Resurrection changes everything in Christianity–but it is also our own bodies that must be transformed in resurrection, as Christ is transfigured. And the way in which I hope to be resurrected bodily in God, in the future, depends upon the way in which I live bodily today.”

Death, you lose!

Death, you lose!

“Levering brings the best of current biblical scholarship into a creative interface with theological reflection informed by one of the Church’s greatest minds, Thomas Aquinas. In Jesus and the Demise of Death the core tenets of classical Christian eschatology, recently jettisoned by many theologians as allegedly outdated, make a surprising and come-back. Levering adds an important and timely Catholic contribution to the lively contemporary theological debate about Christian eschatology.”—Reinhard Huetter

Don’t miss our top 10 books (that I’ve read) of the last 10 years.

But remember, a different faith means a different afterlife:

I couldn't get a preview of the video link below. So here's a sneak peak.

I couldn’t get a preview of the video link below. So here’s a sneak peak.

http://en.gloria.tv/?media=93470

 

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Understanding Simone Weil’s Quest for the Absolute

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“France offered a rare gift to the contemporary world in the person of Simone Weil.” –Czeslaw Milosz

The Notre Dame Press overstock sale continues until mid August; like I can wait that long to lay waste to our savings.

In the end I settled on Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity, Fritz Bauerschmidt’s (of Hillbilly Thomist fame) Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ (Don’t miss Mark McIntosh’s classic study from the same series about von Balthasar entitled Christology from Within–not on sale, but well worth the cover price and more), and Morgan’s book about Weil’s writings on science and love, Weaving the World.  

Not a spectator sport.

Not a spectator sport.

During my first scan through the list of books on sale I somehow missed Matthew Levering’s theology of reading the Bible (only the cloth edition is on sale), which is essential reading. The usually stale Library Journal gives it a refreshingly glowing review:

“Levering compellingly argues for the legitimacy of a type of biblical interpretation once prevalent among the Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians, one that includes a participatory encounter with the divine. . . . Written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the volume will appeal to anyone interested in biblical interpretation. While directed toward scholars, the book is nonetheless accessible to the intelligent lay reader.”

Finally, I also purchased the essay collection The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, which features essays by some of our greatest living theologians, people like David Tracy, Cyril O’Regan, and Louis  Dupré.  If you’re not familiar with Weil then here’s what Czeslaw Milosz, one of her first translators, said about her and his own friend Camus, all the while taking potshots at that villain Sartre:

“Violent in her judgments and uncompromising, Simone Weil was, at least by temperament, an Albigensian, a Cathar; this is the key to her thought. She drew extreme conclusions from the Platonic current in Christianity. Here we touch upon hidden ties between her and Albert Camus. The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on St. Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, [‘Cathar’ from Gr. katharos, pure] and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on Grace — absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of ‘Judge not and ye shall not be judged’: gives the advice ‘Judge, and ye shall not be judged,’ could be, I have reason to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.”

Speaking of Louis  Dupré, I also noticed he has a book, The Quest of the Absolute, forthcoming from NDP.  Here’s what it promises:

“This eagerly awaited study brings to completion Louis Dupré’s planned trilogy on European culture during the modern epoch. Demonstrating remarkable erudition and sweeping breadth, The Quest of the Absoluteanalyzes Romanticism as a unique cultural phenomenon and a spiritual revolution. Dupré philosophically reflects on its attempts to recapture the past and transform the present in a movement that is partly a return to premodern culture and partly a violent protest against it.

Following an introduction on the historical origins of the Romantic Movement, Dupré examines the principal Romantic poets of England (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats), Germany (Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Hölderlin), and France (Lamartine, de Vigny, Hugo), all of whom, from different perspectives, pursued an absolute ideal. In the chapters of the second part, he concentrates on the critical principles of Romantic aesthetics, the Romantic image of the person as reflected in the novel, and Romantic ethical and political theories. In the chapters of the third, more speculative, part, he investigates the comprehensive syntheses of romantic thought in history, philosophy, and theology.”

Waiting for  Dupré.

Waiting for Dupré.

 We’ll close with a quotation from Simone Weil, which both serves as a brief introduction to her quest for the absolute and demonstrates her continued relevance:

“For the past two or three centuries there is a belief that force is the sole master of all natural phenomena, and, at the same time, that men can and should establish their mutual relationships on justice, as determined by reason. This is a patent absurdity.

It is not conceivable that everything in the universe be absolutely subject to the empire of force but that man can avoid it, while he is made of flesh and blood, and his thought drifts along with perceptual impressions.

There is only one choice to make. Either one must perceive another principle besides force at work in the universe, or one must acknowledge that force is also the sole master of human relations.”

Random fact for trivia night: I bet you didn’t know it’s rumored Samuel Beckett was riffing on the title of Simone Weil’s essays, Waiting for God, when he came up with the title of his most famous play.