In my never-ending quest to provide poorly constructed and barely coherent blog posts, I present the following...
I have been reading Jonathan Kirsch's book The History of the End of the World, about the history of the Book of Revelation and it's influence on culture and politics within the Western World. As I read it, I kept thinking about my own brushes with "end-times" theology, and I thought I might share a few of them here, in case they are of any interest to, well, anyone.
When I was a kid, a group of Bible Scholars released a report in which they stated that it was their opinion that the Book of Revelation was intended as a diatribe against the Roman Empire, and not as a work of prophecy aimed at readers 2,000 years into the future.
At the time, most people I knew were scandalized, including myself. I was, after all, a Christian at that time, and the notion that a group of academics could simply toss out a book of the Bible seemed absurd. Still, the reactions of my fellow Christians, in taking the same position that I held, was an early factor in creating my later skepticism of religion. I remember that one television station out of Sacramento did a few "man on the street" interviews to ask "normal" people what they thought of the notion that the Book of Revelation was not a book of prophecy but rather a 1st-century political tract. One fellow said something to the effect of "my grandmother taught me that, when the end comes, a trumpet will sound, and we'll be caught up in the rapture, and that's the way it is!"
My father, on seeing this, stated that he thought that this guy clearly had his head screwed on straighter than those crazy professors.
My father is a very, very intelligent man. He is not generally given to bizarre logical fallacies. But, even as a kid, I knew that "this is true because my grandma says so!" was a really poor argument. I would have accepted "the Word of God says so, therefore it's true!*", but to argue that a grandmother was a better authority on the Bible than a group of Bible scholars just seemed weird to me. While I still believed in prophecy and the Book of Revelation, I nonetheless walked away from this experience with the realization that tradition and religious belief could lead people to accept really bad arguments so long as the argument seemed to support their pre-existing beliefs.
This would, ultimately, probably becomes one of my defining characteristics - even when an argument reaches a conclusion that I agree with, if the argument is a bad one it annoys me.
When I was older and began to read history more seriously, I discovered that the idea that the Book of Revelation was about the Roman Empire and not a book of far-future prophecy was, in fact, the mainstream idea amongst both historians and Bible scholars. In fact, when one looks into the history of Apocalyptic literature (there are many more examples than just the Books of Daniel and Revelation), that those in the Bible were fairly mainstream, and all of them were essentially political tracts describing the enemies of the Jewish and/or Christian people.
A couple of years later, I became friends with kids who attended a local Baptist Church. This church, like many others in the area, had a habit of trying to recruit other people's children, and had many events specifically for this purpose. One such event - a multi-night children's program called "The Children's Crusade"** - featured skits, puppet shows, and more than a few sing-alongs. Each session began and ended with the church's pastor insisting that the children should try to persuade their parents to attend the church, and if they were unsuccessful, then the children should attend the church themselves regardless of the parent's wishes or interests***. After the pastors' initial speech, the entertainment would begin, and we would spend the rest of the evening singing along with a variety of different songs.
There were a few themes that came up time and again during these songs, most of them unsurprising given the context, such as the life and words of Jesus and select messages from the gospels. However, one theme that came up over and over again and seemed just plain weird was that of the end of the world, and specifically the Rapture. I, of course, was familiar with the concept of the Rapture (I was a Christian and I lived in an area where Fundamentalist Christian churches were common, how could I not be familiar with it?), but in my parent's previous church (they had stopped attending by the time I met the kids with whom I attended the children's Crusade) as well as in my conversations with my parents, notions of the end of the world were always downplayed. Not because they thought it would frighten us, but because it was simply tangential to their beliefs. When I would discuss this with my parents, they would point out that the Bible is quite clear that we can't know the timing of the end, and that we are better occupied trying to do good in the here and now than dwelling on a future that may not come in our lifetimes. So it was more than a bit weird to see a church focusing on the end of the world rather than on other matters over which we may exercise some control, such as doing good for those around us.
I never became too involved with my friend's church, but I did attend a few other functions, and at each one the focus was on "we lucky few who will be Raptured and not left to be tormented during the Tribulation, unlike the sinners!" (yes, Christianity teaches that all people are sinners, but I have noticed that it is common for many of the more fervent end-time believers that I have met to not regard themselves as sinners).
Some people seemed to regard this as a call to action, a need to convert others so that they would not suffer. While I certainly don't buy the belief in prophecy, these people at least seemed to genuinely care about others and were trying to do what they thought was right. Others seemed to find the same thrill in trying to work out the Book of Revelation (in conjunction with the Book of Daniel and a smattering of passages from the Gospels and the Epistles) that many viewers get from trying to make sense of Lost - in other words, for all of their lip-service to piety, they really saw this as entertainment.
...and then there were others, though a minority they were easily the most vocal of the flock, who loved the Book of Revelation and loved the notion of the Rapture (not actually from the Book of Revelation, though it is often associated with it), and had a clear and unnerving sense of glee when they described the horrors that awaited "the unsaved" - these were people who, as one radio commentator (whose name I cannot remember for the life of me) described as "Christian as Revenge." The people who hold to a belief in the Rapture and Tribulation and final judgement not simply because they believe it, but because it gives them a sense of satisfaction to know that those who they dislike will soon be in torment, and then will suffer an eternity of torture.
What unnerved me about this last group of people was that they were able to dress their own sociopathic tendencies and desire to see others suffer in a cloak of respectability that their fellow church-goers would find it difficult to disapprove of. I don't know how these people were viewed by the other church members, but I do know that there was no effort to speak out against them, as such a move could easily have been misconstrued as speaking out against the Bible rather than speaking out against sadists. the problem is that the lack of opposition allowed these folks to poison much of the church's activity, and allowed them to reinforce a bunker mentality, where all who were not "amongst the elect" (that is, not Christians, or at least not the right kind of Christians) were not simply wrong, but actually evil and out to get the "true believers." This became especially troubling, as this attitude allowed an illusory loophole out of reality whenever a fact was inconvenient - if somebody tells you that your favored politician did something corrupt, or that your cherished belief has been proven wrong, or that your favored policy won't work...well, that meant that the person giving you the bad news was on the side of Satan, and therefore was not only not to be trusted, but was actually to be actively opposed - leading to a weird echo chamber in which no dissenting opinion could be voiced, nor change of mind be had.
One of the women who lived in my neighborhood worked on a local televangelist's show out of Stockton. A guest on her show (might it have been Edgar Whisenant?)had written a book in which he claimed that the Rapture would occur in September 1989. She and her family seemed to be convinced of the accuracy of this prediction, and set about planning their lives around it. She refused to make plans past September, and when asked why would simply state that there was no point in making plans for after the Rapture. It was always said calmly, as if it were an obvious fact and not something to get excited about.
Her children would frequently talk about what they wanted to do before the Rapture. During that summer, it became increasingly normal to hear things such as "I want to go to Great America before the Rapture" or "I really want to go see Batman before the Rapture." It was very matter-of-fact. There was no sense of urgency, wonder, awe, or panic. They might as well have been saying that they wanted to see Batman before they have a cheese sandwich.
It was damn weird.
Needless to say, September came and went without the faithful being called up to heaven. I suspect that there was a sense of disappointment among this family, but they never showed it. In fact, they seemed to go back about life without any real change. When I asked them about September, they would simply shrug their shoulders and go on with whatever they had been doing.
Around the time that I completed high school, I became friends with a young woman who would within the year would join Calvary Chapel, one of Modesto's Pentecostal churches. Like many such churches, Calvary Chapel was at that time (and possibly still, for all I know) obsessed with the notion that the end was nigh, and liked to whip it's membership up into a frothing frenzy over the matter. I saw all of the same types of behaviors and reactions that I had seen at my childhood friend's church, but there was an interesting new phenomenon, one that I came to label Meggido Froggies.
The Meggido Froggies (I'm sure that the church had another name) were small, knit, toy frogs manufactured by church members. Inside were stuffed rice, beans, and probably other dried foodstuffs. The intent being that, when the members of Calvary Chapel had been taken up to Heaven in the Rapture, and the rest of us shown how foolish we had been by not being Christians (or at least not the right kind of Christians), then we would have a food supply hidden away inside the Meggido Froggies so that we wouldn't have to get the Mark of the Beast in order to be able to feed ourselves. When it was pointed out that even dried rice and beans don't last forever, and that this stuff would go bad eventually, we were re-assured that the end would come long before the food had a chance to go bad (it often became clear that they were expecting the end sometime around Next Thursday, and when it didn't come, well, Tuesday seemed a likely day, didn't it?).
This particular church had a huge number of people like my friend as members. The urban poor, often with a family to feed, typically with a somewhat morally checkered past, and always with worries about where their next paycheck was coming from. That a theology of doomsday would appeal to them was, in retrospect, no surprise. When you are marginalized to begin with, a message that you will soon have all of your worries taken away and a glorious new beginning is hopeful. For the members of the congregation who were more mean-spirited and vengeful, the thought that other, better-off people will soon be in agony when you enter paradise was icing on the cake.
I was aware of the Meggido Froggies because my friend would, on occasion, attempt to convert me (once even inviting me to a baptism at her church, apparently hoping that I would join in). When her conversion attempt would fail, she would then make certain, in clear deadly seriousness, that I knew of the Miggido Froggies and the food contained therein. The contrast between the seriousness with which she spoke, the horrors that she described, and the silly appearance of the stuffed toy frogs was sometimes a bit too much to take.
She also informed me of some of the more wing-bat things that her clergy said. For example, her church apparently taught that the reason for the popularity of shows such as the X-Files was due to demons and the anti-Christ (who was remaining secret) laying the groundwork so that people would believe that the Rapture was not the work of God, but instead was a mass UFO abduction.
What my friend and her church seemed to fail to get was that those of us who had the wherwithall to question the existence of a widely-accepted god would also be likely to question the notion that aliens crossed the galaxy solely for the purpose of probing the rectums of a group of Pentacostals and nobody else.
In the end, my friend left the church. Curiously, she became part of a polyamorous grouping (not really a couple, and I'm not sure of a better word than "grouping"), and would hold forth on the rightness and naturalness of this arrangement just as she once had on the rightness and truth of Fundementalist Christianity. She then left that, and last I heard was half of a lesbian couple.
Meanwhile, me, the poor benighted atheist who she would frequently try to convert back in the Calvary Chapel days, remained a rather unexciting fellow who maintains a monogamous heterosexual relationship.
Okay, to the degree that this entry has any sort of point, it is that the belief in the "end times" as foretold in the Christian Bible leads to a bizarrely wide range of behavior. There are those who seem to take it as a given, and don't let it bother them overly much, even when they feel certain that they know the approaching day. There are those for whom belief in such a thing is simply a way for them to gain some entertainment. For others, the thought of an approaching period of tribulation causes them to become frightened for others and determined to save souls or provide for those left behind, while many of their fellows look forward to it with a sadistic, one might even say sociopathic, relish. And even for "casual" believers, questioning it with a full mountain of evidence is a sign of failure, while belief in it based on the flimsiest of reasoning is a sign of strength.
I grew up in an area where believers in the particular Darby-inspired view of a glorious escape for believers and a literal Hell-on-Earth for "infidels" were common. What always amazed me was the degree to which people who claimed to hold the same beliefs could hold them in such astoundingly contradictory ways.
*Yes, this is also poor as a logical argument argument, as it assumes that the Bible is the word of God rather than demonstrating this, but I didn't realize that at the time.
**I suspect that whoever named it this knew nothing about the history of the real Children's Crusade.
***Probably a topic for another post, but it has always struck me as hypocritical that the same people who spend their time screaming about how "secular influences" are "trying to steal away our children" have absolutely no qualms about doing precisely the same thing with other people's children.