Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Difference Heaven Makes

Although the content of this book is spot on and illuminating, it is written with such wooden, unedited prose as to be almost unreadable at moments. I kept wishing Christopher Morse had been assigned a ghost-writer to help him make the prose readable to a wide audience, in which case the book might have a fighting chance of being in dialogue with the much more widely read (but misleading and problematic) Heaven is for Real. (see below for a sample quote)

Nevertheless, here are some of the insights in the book worth pondering. First of all, although Scripture speaks of heaven very often, the heaven so described is not very similar to the heaven spoken about in popular culture. Heaven in Scripture is something (the kingdom of God) coming to us. In fact, often heaven in Scripture is described as already being in our midst (like leaven). This book should, if nothing else, send readers back to Jesus' parables to see what they can learn of heaven from them.

Second, heaven in Scripture is coming here, breaking into our present reality, but not quite as we expect. "Heaven as a basileia comes to us in this world, but not as part of this world" (22).

Or this: "Whatever riddle such a hearing poses to sagacity, if heaven in some sense is a state of affairs that takes place in our midst 'like this,' as the parables say, at once proximate or close to what is familiar, but not approximated in conformity to our preconceptions, this parabolic significance can only come to hearers then and now as astonishing news... the word heaven primarily refers to nothing less than what are proclaimed to be the current conditions under which our life is really being lived" (24; a quote that both illustrates why this book is a powerful antidote to popular conceptions about heaven and illustrates the problem with the prose)

The second chapter of the book engages three important theologians and New Testament scholars (Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, and Franz Overbeck). All three recognized a potential problem in the biblical witness--that perhaps the parousia expected by the NT authors and leaders never arrived. Although more recent work in eschatology has resolved some of the tensions, all three of these authors deserve a hearing, and Morse provides a nice overview.

The third chapter offers a summary of three typical approaches to the concept of heaven--literal, myth, saga, and promise. Each of these schemas for interpreting heaven has a representative theologian. Literal=Hal Lindsey. Mythic=Bultmann. Saga=Barth. Promise=Moltmann. Again, Morse's treatment of these is very helpful and illuminating.

Concluding chapters on the ethics of heaven and the difference heaven makes are equally helpful, and aptly summarized by the second to last paragraph of the book:

"In every 'this day' situation of life and death we face a passing away and a coming to pass, a basileia or state of affairs arriving unprecedented on the scene as at Bethany, not according to our stipulations but better, with life from heaven that is stronger than all death's opposition to it. The call we hear is to seek this basileia in the promise of the reported words of Jesus not to be afraid, 'for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the basileia' (Lk 12.32). 'Where I am, there you may be also' are the words of proimse we hear (Jn 13.3). In sum, we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, un precedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine" (122).

This is an example of the kind of sentence that needed editing in the book (I'd encourage the publishers to edit the book and clean it up and re-publish it!): "Without presuming to claim Dickinson's agreement with the content of these pages, I find in the imagery of her exacting poetic brevity an apt touchstone around which a number of points that emerge for consideration from the Gospel references to heaven may be said to coalesce" (8; yes, that's the actual sentence in the book).

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