We’re approaching the end of Easter season in the Church calendar. I love the cluster of holy days that come at the end of Easter season: Rogation (a celebration of God’s Creation and agricultural blessings), Ascension, and Pentecost.
However, the rigors of Lent and Advent—culminating in the Feasts of Christmas and Easter—push me spiritually more than other Church seasons, including Easter season. I think this a shame since Easter is the season for contemplating the resurrection, and I don’t think there is anything more important than learning to “practice resurrection” here and now, as Wendell Berry says.
Perhaps one reason for this is from the emphasis in church culture on “heaven” as opposed to resurrection as the hope and goal of the Christian life. This misdirection unfortunately leads many individuals and institutions to forget that God’s promise of redemption and renewal is for this world, not just for “souls” to be taken somewhere else. The recent spate of popular books purporting to be accounts of individuals’ (especially children’s) visionary travels to heaven hasn’t helped. This belief, I have found, often leads people to see heaven and earth as a dualism rather than a continuity.
I was recently talking about this to someone who is new to Christianity. We both have felt discomfort about popular conceptions of heaven and hell. He commented that upon beginning to read the New Testament, he was surprised to find much more about resurrection than about “heaven” as he’d heard about it.
I felt a little envious that he’d gathered this just from reading the Bible. It had taken me a decade of theological struggling, unlearning Sunday school imagery and comfortable certainties, and studying a number of books such as N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope to realize the same: “heaven” and “hell” as popularly understood are pagan carryovers into Christianity, distracting distortions at best and idolatrous heresies at worst.
One way I feel Easter season’s lack of spiritual resources is in the lack of church music about the resurrection life to come, what we are “practicing” for. For example, Part 3 of Handel’s Messiah (on the resurrection and Christ’s reign) pales in comparison musically to Parts 1 & 2 (on the Messiah’s anticipated coming and triumph through suffering), as much as I love the Biblical passages it draws from (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, etc.).
Certainly there are wonderful Easter hymns like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Low in the Grave He Lay,” and “Now the Green Blade Riseth.” The Biblical imagery of God’s Kingdom fully revealed and realized, in hymns like “By the Sea of Crystal” and “When Peace Like a River,” speaks strongly to me. But these hymns either primarily look back to Christ’s archetypal and historical resurrection or rely on imagery that has long been co-opted, unimaginatively and literalistically, as imagery of a “heaven” spatially distant from this world.
The Stanley Wiersma/Sietze Buning poem “That Stone on Five Easters” humorously dramatizes the debate over whether the versified Psalm 118 or classic hymns are more appropriate Easter music. It concludes that the ultimate Easter song will feel foreign, even boring, to those of us too provincial and indifferent in our thinking about the resurrection. The ultimate song is the Song of Moses and the Lamb, sung in Revelation 15 by those “victorious over the beast” with “harps given them by God.” Though I refuse to take the “harps in hand” too literally, I hold tight to the vision of the resurrection world it gives us:
Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.
This Easter season I’ve been turning to pop music for thinking about heaven and the resurrection. (I am loath to call it “secular” music, as if it were religiously neutral—which nothing is—or somehow not subject in the same way as church music to Christ’s lordship—which indeed all things are.)
Mavis Staples is a gospel legend whose songs revel in traditional imagery of heaven but put this imagery to use in creative ways that look forward to this world resurrected. For example, in “I’ll Be Rested,” she imagines civil rights leaders in heaven “when the roll is called,” including non-Christians like “Brother Malcolm.” She presents working toward the reality of heaven through freedom, peace, and mercy now as the hopeful task we are called to. Even more, “Step into the Light” and “99 and ½” link heaven to our current strivings that will ultimately be fulfilled by God.
Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” critiques heaven as an alternative to earth and affirms both the transcendence and immanence of God in relation to the world. Heaven is portrayed as the state of being where God is fully present and all things are in harmony, which seems unattainably far away in both time and space: “They say that heaven is 10 zillion light years away,” the song begins. God appears to be absent from Earth, and the ultimate goal of human fullness seems utterly removed from Earth. The speaker sings, “‘Where is your God?’ / That’s what my friends ask me,” and realizes that “If there is a God, we need Him now,” not in some future, far-off place. And although a world filled with God’s love is not the only reality at present, Wonder does feel God’s presence: “In my heart I can feel it / Feel His spirit,” and encourages others to “Let God’s love shine within to save our evil souls.” Wonder experiences God’s transcendent presence—heaven—in God’s nearness in the here and now. Humans’ desire to connect to God (or heaven) should lead them to a richer, spiritual experience of remaining in the world, not of desiring to leave it.
U2 sketches this-worldly images that I interpret as being about heaven. In “Where the Streets Have No Name,” they sing of a world where one’s religious affiliation and economic status aren’t determined by what street one comes from. “Walk On,” dedicated to Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is about moving towards a home of greater political freedom but also toward heaven, “a place none of us has been / a place that has to be believed to be seen.”
Arcade Fire’s music takes religion very seriously. Several of their songs critique the misuse of the concept of “heaven.” For example, they call the present “an age that calls darkness light” and “the reflective age” where we stare at screens that give us back nothing more than our own reflection and frequently use the imagery of traps and prisons to convey this. “Heaven” is one of these reflective screens.
In “Reflektor,” they sing, “I thought I found a way to enter [heaven] / it was just a reflector” and “If this is heaven / I need something more” and “Thought you were praying to the resurrector; turns out it was just a reflector,” yet they still yearn for “the other side” beyond mere reflections and distortions of the truth.
“Here Comes the Night Time”: “If you’re looking for Hell, just try looking inside” and“When you look in the sky, just try looking inside / God knows what you might find / Here comes the night time”
“Afterlife”: “Afterlife / Oh my God, what an awful word” for how it denies the goodness of this life.
“The Well & The Lighthouse”: “Heaven is only in my head” for the speaker, but “Resurrected / Living in a lighthouse / The lions and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet.”
On the other hand, “No Cars Go” rapturously tells of a journey that cannot be made by normal transportation “between the click of the light and the start of the dream,” which I read as referring to death and the resurrected life to come.
“My Body Is a Cage” yearns for the freedom that only a resurrected body could can offer: “Set my spirit free / Set my body free.”
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”