Who Goes There? [review]

This is my first book review after becoming part of the Ooze select bloggers.  As always, while I claim I can be bought, as you can see, buying me doesn't guarantee you will get kudoes!

I recently had the opportunity to read Who Goes There: a Cultural History of Heaven and Hell by Rebecca Price Janney.

Janney's premise seems to be that when death was an everpresent reality, heaven and hell were more integral components of Christian thought.

  • By looking at memoirs and Boston gravestones, the early American settlers, with their infant mortality rate and short lifespans made death a present reality and fear.  People thought often about where their loved ones went and where they would go.
  • People during the Second Great Awakening who were suffering in real life found comfort knowing a better life was before them.
  • Soldiers in war knew they would directly enter heaven if they died in battle for their "Christian" nation.
From these observations, her premise hinged on the numbers: Christianity hit its highest levels of social discourse and influence in times of death and wonder about the afterlife.  Still today, even as the mainline church hits its decline, the segments of Christianity (such as Pentecostalism and Baptists) that are growing the fastest are the ones most decisive about who goes to heaven. 

Is there a lesson for the rest of Christendom?  Should we emphasize further heaven and hell to grow the church again? 

What struck me most was how many pastors in history resorted to emotional ploys and appeals to emotion.  Charles Finney exhorting emotional reactions from New England "Frozen Chosen," Tract societies (still to today) using cartoony appeals to emotion, and telling a young man that his father was in hell and he had to choose eternity with hellbound father or with heavenly Jesus.  Geez.  Great examples.

The question both bothers me and hits home...what is the Christian to do with heaven and hell?

Putting trying to answer that question to the side, while reading the book, I noticed a growing sense that amidst all the facts, figures, and personal accounts (that were all utterly fascinating)...there was an evangelical slant to the reading and a slow bashing of mainline denominations lack of discussing heaven and hell.

  • The mentions of eulogies that didn't emphasize heaven/hell (which I actually found most helpful) were presbyterians, social gospel proponents, or those who said hell wasn't an afterlife but a present reality after WWII.
  • The slant goes up a notch when we get to JFK, where she writes "Kennedy didn't seem to understand that many issues are largely morally or spiritually driven" (pg 174).  Ahem...what?  (a) how do you know he didn't understand, and (b) given the great diversity of moral/spiritual responses, how else does a secular president of a secular nation bring consensus except by not being partial to one moral/spiritual viewpoint?
There's more, but it was just difficult to read a book that peppered you with so much excellent source material that you didn't realize her written text was slanted in a particular direction.  I know every book does that, but it was too transparent in this book for my taste as a scholar who tried to make a cultural history into a cultural agenda for today.

This agenda became clear in the conclusion:
  • Janney claims that our lengthened lives and medical science means that "we have nothing to fear at death."  I was a hospital chaplain and I offer funeral services to a dozen families a year: there's plenty of fear at death!
  • Janney claims that if we "endure pain and heartbreak for no apparent reason" and life is "without meaning or purpose" then that doesn't give any semblence of hope or coping.  Again, that is not my experience.  Suffering does not have to have a divine purpose to be made sense of.  The stench of determinism in this claim is incredible...we don't need to ascribe purpose or God's will to make sense of suffering.
  • Finally, Janney claims that "unless hell exists, there is no moral deterrent."  Actually, she quotes Chuck Colson who apparently knows something about deterrence given his role in Watergate.  But that aside, claiming that hell as a deterrent to bad behavior is an echo of the colonial and revivalists who wanted to scare people into righteous living via emotional appeals.  What kind of discipleship is it that relies on scare tactics to keep you in good standing?
As if there was any doubt, Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, and Pat Robertson all are on the next to last page.  Any reasonable mainline preacher?  None.  Sigh. 

Janney's call to action seems to be a repeat of history.  The only thing apparently that will save Christianity is the great numerical growth that comes from megapreacher events with emotional appeals.  In conclusion, she seems to call for a contemporary Great Awakening that will somehow have an equal effect of past spectacles even though Christianity's place in society has inverted since the last one.

In short, I really enjoyed the source material, even the stuff I didn't agree with.  Kudoes for finding all of it and putting it in my hands.  What I didn't agree with was calling this a "cultural history" when it really does provide space for the successes of the evangelical and pentecostal traditions of emotional appeals while ridiculing or painting as "failures" the groups that did not.  That's not a cultural history, that's an agenda.  So if you want an agenda, read the book.  If not, read the book...but only the source material, because that's the really good stuff.

Thoughts?  Check out other reviews on the Ooze page.


Rev. Jeremy Smith April 7, 2009 at 6:04 AM  

Yeah, mentioned in the chapter titled "Anything Goes" and is mentioned alongside Star Wars, which was emblematic of the increasingly fuzzy notions of God.

Moral of the story: Insult Star Wars...and you get a blog post like this. ;-)

Matt April 7, 2009 at 8:01 AM  

Pat Robertson is too much even for me! Thanks for the review and for the link to the Ooze's new deal. This looks like a cool setup.

Anonymous,  April 9, 2009 at 7:48 PM  

thanks for the review....when i got to the disparaging comments, i immediately checked the publisher....would you have expected something different from Moody Books? if you want a more neutral cultural history, go for a more neutral publisher! maybe there's another book on the same subject out there somewhere....

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