Jeffrey Burton Russell is professor of history, emeritus, at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of a five-volume history of the concept of the Devil. Before participating in a panel on what depictions of the afterlife say about a culture, he talked about his own vision of heaven on earth—and why he doesn’t think he can do much to help himself get there.
What’s the last thing you bet on?
I went to a slot machine in Las Vegas and got 17 cents back; that was good …
What teacher or professor, if any, changed your life?
A professor in Belgium named Halkan was my mentor in graduate school. He was a wonderful man, a hero of the resistance—helping Jews escape from Belgium to England. He was a wonderful mentor both in terms of his personal life and activities, and was a very kindly teacher. I loved him.
What good deed in your life is most likely to get you into heaven?
I don’t think any deeds get anybody into heaven. It’s got to be divine grace; it’s got to be God-given.
What’s the most overrated thing about Santa Barbara?
The mountains, because they’re dry most of the time. Our creeks are very sporadic.
If you could go back to college today, what would you major in?
I’d probably still major in history but I’d probably consider philosophy, and I’d also consider physics.
What’s your favorite church in the world?
I think the cathedral at Chartres. A great French cathedral.
Do you know any poetry by heart?
I have a very bad memory.
What’s your favorite condiment?
What’s the last thing that made you laugh?
Where’s your paradise on earth?
My own personal paradise on earth would be a quiet lake in the Sierra Nevada surrounded by pine trees, with little breezes going through the trees and rippling through the lake, and I’d just be there on a comfortable chair forever and ever.