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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Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)

The Papal States . . .

The Papal States . . .

. . . have Pope money!

. . . think the pope is money.

There are plenty of stereotypes floating in the seas of religious punditry. The so-called pundits are usually anchored in quite a circumscribed set of prejudices they project onto Poland. Both liberal and conservative leaning theologians like to think of my home country, for very different reasons, as a kind of Catholic Disneyland. Upon closer inspection these flattened Western pictures of Poland mirror what Edward Said labeled as Orientalism. They paint a picture of an exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous culture. Poland as a mythical Catholiclandia is a haven for conservatives (where they have no NYT), while it’s a reactionary hell for liberals (possibly the only hell they believe in).

At the Dominicans in Krakow.

RJN singing the praises of Poland in Poland. The picture he presented was a bit fuzzy.

I remember seeing Richard John Neuhaus in Krakow (Summer 2007)  and being pleasantly surprised  by his Jack Nicholson voice. He spoke enthusiastically about Poland’s vibrant Catholic culture and its strong alliance with the United States against the secular-exception of Western Europe (in the context of a worldwide sea of religion) and added a few words in defense of capitalism. It was a (too?) bold reversal of the secularization thesis, which usually has Poland and the United States as the exceptions (in the tiny island of what used to be Western culture). I asked the poet Artur Grabowski what he thought of what Neuhaus said and he replied with, “I wish it were like that” (rough!). In retrospect it seems RJN was projecting a positively backward exoticism not only onto the homeland of Wojtyla, but also the USA.

Authors such as Hans Küng adopted different reductionist projects. Their Orientalist version of Poland was usually attached to an animus toward JP2 and an oversimplified picture of Poland’s past. They were convinced that someone who earned his chops in a black and white struggle against the commies couldn’t sees Poland as a place Church during the Communist era was clearly too simple. John Paul II didn’t connect with the complexities of the late modern West (questionable, but hey). My favorite example of this type of Orientalism was Peter Hebblethwaite who spent years hating John Paul II’s Polish stupidity. For years he was always the guy on CNN predicting who the next pope would be. The irony is he died before his book on the “next pope” was published, not to mention about a decade before John Paul II died.

With that quick setup  let’s start with the reasons why Poland, like Brazil, is not a Catholic utopia (and that’s OK):

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

1) Clericalism:  Fr. Jozef Tischner, Solidarity’s chaplain, Poland’s leading phenomenologist, spent the better part of his life fighting against Polish clericalism. The writings Poland’s leading literary figures, world class writers such as Witold Gombrowicz (atheist) and Czeslaw Milosz (Catholic), contain their fair share of anti-clericalism. With the help of phenomenology, personalism, and the mystics John Paul II put stress upon active lay holiness in ways unseen until his papacy.  Poles (including Polish clerics as you can see from the examples above) have always been healthily suspicious of Catholic clerics. You can figure out some of the reason for it by continuing to read below.

It's complicated.

It’s complicated.

2) Diversity: Until very recently Poland has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This probably has something to do with the fact that for the better part of Poland’s history, pretty much since it came into existence in 986, the papacy usually sided with Poland’s enemies. This started with Rome’s favoritism toward the Holy [sic!] Roman Empire. Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased its traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up. Poland also took in all the Jews who were expelled by Western Europe right around the same time. Nineteenth century Polish Romanticism, a significant political/literary movement (one of JP2’s greatest intellectual influences), also tended antagonize the hierarchy with its tendencies toward socialism and resistance against authoritarian regimes. Kloczowski’s A History of Polish Christianity is a magisterial overview of the variety of Polish Christianities, its history of religious pluralism and tolerance, plus it also covers intra-Polish-Catholic diversity.

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: "God's spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people."

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: “God’s spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people.”

Next I’ll tackle the following two interconnected phenomena: the collapse of Solidarity and the growing influence of Neo-Con inspired consumerism. [Catholiclandia II is now available here.]

Supersessionism: Two for the Price of One?

Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529.

Divide in two? Why not three?

Debates about supersessionism frequently flare up in America between evangelicals (generally pro) and mainliners (generally contra).  They look and sound like an outgrowth of the early modern law and grace controversies.  I would like to argue the real debate is elsewhere.

The following etymology is a helpful frame for what we want to talk about: “The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, ‘to sit,’ plus super, ‘upon.’ It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.”

Recent scholarship suggest that the definitive break between Christianity and Judaism is later than first supposed, much later, perhaps as late as the sixth century.  Things get even more complicated when you consider the following passage from Richard John Neuhaus:

“In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a ‘Jewish sect,’ which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.”

This means that both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity in some sense superseded Temple Judaism as rival versions of Judaism.  Therefore, you get two supersessionisms for the price of one, or, alternatively, two legitimate theological developments.

Justin Tse says all of this appears to be in line with Dabru Emet, the historic statement on Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective.