Will We Play Harps in Heaven? And Will the Playing of Such Harps Constitute Hell? Oh, and Are We Already Playing Those Harps?

Where did the idea first come from that the saints in heaven play harps? I don’t know if this is the first Christian reference to harp playing in heaven, but it does go back a few hundred years. It’s from the ending of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678):

[A]nd lo, as they [Christian and Hopeful] entered [the Heavenly City], they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There was also that met them with harps and crown . . .”

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann, in the prologue to his book Tragedy and Philosophy (1968), once wrote rather tartly of harp playing in heaven:

The Christian dream of heaven with its sexless angels and insipid harps betrays the most appalling lack of imagination, moral and aesthetic. Who could bear such music, sights, monotony, and inactivity for one whole month without discovering that it was nothing but hell? Only those devoid of intellect and sensitivity, poor drudges who identify exertion with oppression. Wretched brutes, they would enjoy their heaven while the mass of mankind suffers ceaseless torments. Some trust that the spectacle of endless tortures will increase their bliss, while others, priding themselves on their greatest sensitivity, feel quite certain that their ecstasy in heaven will preclude any remembrance of the suffering of the damned.

A tough critique of those who, seeming pious in their harp playing, are nevertheless blissfully unconcerned about the torments of their neighbors, and so lack love. But before having a smug chuckle at the religious person’s expense, Kaufmann turns his harsh eye upon the atheist and humanist, suggesting that books and writing can function as the harps that atheists and humanists also play to similar effect (the drowning out of attention to one’s fellows):

If research and writing can dwarf all the pleasures of such heavens, are not the humanists also miserable drudges? Taking an opiate and then sitting in one’s corner, smiling blissfully, oblivious of the torments of one’s brothers, is considered as respectable as heaven if the drug is scholarship. But is it less hellish?

Hmm. That question hits me pretty hard. Do the entertainments that our culture offers—from drugs to books to the Internet (!)—add up to just a lot of “harp playing”—ways to turn up the volume on our pain, and drown out life and love? In other words, are theists and atheists rowing in the same impoverished boat? If so, what room is there for smugness towards others?

Is this the heavenly revelation?:

Get out of doors and do something nice for somebody today? The heart is the harp? William Wordsworth might offer his sonnet “Nuns Fret Not” in response to Kaufmann. It seems to be a calm defense for staying in our mousey cloisters:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, unto which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found. 

I’m glad that Wordsworth gave us this poem, and didn’t use his time ladling out soup to orphans in London. I suppose it’s selfish to say such a thing. But choosing between the aesthetic and the ethical is one of life’s irreconcilable dilemmas (along with loyalty to family v. loyalty to country). As Sophocles would tell us via Antigone, sometimes things don’t tidily reconcile.

So follow your harp (heart)?

Furness-fells, by the way, is a mountain range in England’s Lake District. And here’s an image of the cloistered scholar (St. Jerome) playing, in his contemplative mind, his lonely intellectual harp. That’s also where you get life’s music. And the world needs that kind of music too. Music and love and mountains. The world needs a lot of things.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Will We Play Harps in Heaven? And Will the Playing of Such Harps Constitute Hell? Oh, and Are We Already Playing Those Harps?

  1. Pingback: Silver Bells in the City Lansing Mi « Hollywood Celebs

  2. Frank says:

    The origin of the tradition of harps actually comes from The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 38, verse 20, “The LORD is our savior; we shall sing to stringed instruments in the house of the LORD all the days of our life.” Bunyan borrowed from that tradition, as have many other writers.

    The origins of this concept come from our own limited human mind being unable to grasp the joy of heaven. The writer of this part of Isaiah interpreted the joy of heaven in the form of what he thought was beautiful. It was the best way the writer had to explain heaven. We can each use our own imagination in the same way. If we write it down, it will be criticized a few hundred years from now, too.

  3. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for the biblical reference. I also think of Apollo playing his stringed instrument. Heaven is an Apollonian form of control.


  4. Frank says:

    I cannot make the connection. Apollo was a Greek god of music, but the lyre (harp) was a common instrument. Your last sentence begs the question, “Control by whom?” That leads to, “Why control?”

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