Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Guilty Pleasure

I have to confess to a rather perverse fascination with the varieties of that US style evangelical and pentecostal and fundamentalist Christianities. I regularly house-sit for friends, one household having cable TV. I can't resist checking out the Australian Christian Channel most of whose programmes are either made in the USA or are based on the US Christian TV model. I also like to check out the various websites. It's a habit I picked up doing my PhD when I woud regularly check out the GodHatesFags and other such sites for tasty bits of Sodom and Gomorrah inspired homo-hatred.

Most fascinating of all for me are the various sites of the Left Behind Religion that has so thoroughly infected US Protestantism and their eager promotion and expectation of the imminent Rapture. According to this teaching, before the appearance of the Anti-Christ in the Last Days, which will be times of Tribulation and horror for all on planet Earth, there will be a pre-Second Coming coming of Christ who will come to take away all the Real True Christians, saving them from the horrors of the End Times. Such theology lies behind the execrable Left Behind series of novels, which Fred Clark reads and superbly deconstructs for us over at Slacktivist. Traditional Christian theology, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox has taught some kind of rapture or gathering together of believers at the Second Coming but the notion of the Rapture as a kind of get out of gaol free card for true believers either before or during the end times tribulations is an invention of the 19th century. No matter how much Left Behind Christians might search the past there is no evidence that anyone, be they mainstream Christians or imminent end of the world pre-millennialist Christians, ever held to the get out of gaol theology of a pre- or even mid-tribulation Rapture prior to its 19th century invention.

Nevertheless despite its novelty and even, considering the full theological package of Dispensationalism that it comes with, its extremely heretical, perniciously heretical nature, Rapture theology seems to have throughly infected a very large part of US Protestantism, both evangelical and pentecostal. Consequently there are a plethora of sites promoting Rapture theology, arguing the timing of the Rapture vis a vis the end times Tribulation, and calculating when it's going to happen. Most Left Behind Christians expect to leave the rest of us behind soon, and since I discovered and began following the phenomenon around 1999 I've witnessed quite a number of false alarms, dates that the Real True Christians were expecting themselves to be lifted off the planet, swept up into the arms of Jesus and taken "home". At least two dates have passed since the Presidential elections in the US last year (many Left Behind Christians are convinced Obama is the Anti-Christ). The means of caluclating these lift off dates are extraordinarily diverse and complex, incorporating bizarre calendrical computations, varieties of
biblical numerology, the bible codes, and Jewish practices of gematria. I've even discovered there are arcane prophecies pertaining to the number of Presidents of the United States and various other aspects of US history and geography, which are also brought to bear to determine whether lift off is imminent. As a biblical scholar, I confess to finding it fascinating just as an example of use of the bible in popular culture alone. I am also struck by how much, despite the claims of most of these believers to hold to a literalist belief in the innerancy and presumably transparency of the biblical text, such elaborate external devices are employed to wrest from the biblical text the hidden date of final lift off. After all, they can identify all the events of human history together with the final outline of all the major and many of the minor event of the last 7 years of planet Earth from the biblical texts so surely that date is there,too, but carefully hidden so that the Anti-Christ wont find it and put a spanner in the works.

As I said, there is a plethora of sites devoted to these fantasies, the most interesting ones contain bulletin boards where people post in their latest dreams, prophetic messages, calculations, speculations and quite often denunciations. One of my favorites is Five Doves and I've been reading it off and on for quite a few years, often on a daily basis. The main part I read is their bulletin board known as the Latter Day Letters. I confess I'm hooked. Perhaps it's the principle that there are none so bizarre as those who start from the same place as you but go in such a different direction, In other words, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jew, Muslim, neo-pagan certainly have their interest but the tunes they play are different to mine. But these people are Christian or claim to be but the tune they play is like some weird distortion of mine but even more compelling for that. How do they believe these things? How have they come to this place?

Oftentimes, I read in good humored fascination. Other times it's like a sociological study of a major US sub-culture. Many times I'm appalled and there have been times when I had to take a break, I just found it so vile. The lead up to the US elections last year was one such time. I just couldn't stomach what I was reading. Although there are some contributors from other countries, most participants are USan. And most of these clearly hold to some doctrine of US exceptionalism, another and very home grown US Christian heresy. Indeed, my flatmate once reminded me that 'Americanism' was condemned by Rome as a heresy back in the 1890s, although sadly it doesn't seem to have included US exceptionalism.

This morning I was reading the Latter Day Letters and found something that particularly horrified me and reminded me just what a pernicious heresy Left Behindism is. As I said above, despite so many disappointments, the Doves remain all a twitter with imminent Rapture expectation. And they are always encouraging each other with signs and portents, just about anything can be a sign and portent. The ancient Roman augurs have nothing on these people. This morning a woman called Dee put up a post, Out of the mouth (sic) of Babes! Encouragement for the rapture!

It would appear that Dee got together with her sisters recently. Unlike Dee ,they don't believe in Left Behind Christianity. Dee does and had had dreams about it which she tried to share with her sisters. They greeted her dreams with scepticism which left her feeling uncertain 'a bit down about it'. She took to reading her Bible that night and then she received what she believes to be signs,

My husband was watching a NASCAR race and my four year old and seven year old were playing in the room where we were. A commercial came on, but I wasn't paying attention and my four year old immediately says to me 'mama, look! A man is going UP with all those balloons!" It was a commercial for the movie UP. I had just at that moment been thinking my discouraging thoughts about the rapture NOT being imminent or at all right as she said this. I kind of smiled to myself as the image brought to mind the rapture to me. Just as that happened my seven year old got on the keyboard we have, and started playing the wedding march and he immediately turned to me and said "mama, the wedding song!"

I tell you that both of them said these things to me in the span of less than a minute and JUST as I was doubting the nearness of the rapture as I was reading the Bible. I think it was a little nudge from the Lord telling me not to give up hope and that the rapture IS NEAR!! BTW, my seven year old has never played the wedding march before in my presence and what are the odds that a commercial for the cartoon 'UP' would come on during a NASCAR race and at the same time I was thinking my discouraging 'there is no close rapture' thoughts?
But then she goes on to say:

After this happened I called my almost nine year old into the room just to see if he would say anything 'rapture like', but he didn't. So then I started worrying that he will get left behind (my emphasis). was a subtle little moment, but got me excited again.

I really am at a loss for words reading that. Dee doesn't seem to have gotten overly worried about her 9 yr old's chances of being left behind because, despite such worries, she's "excited again." It's an oft repeated story of the kid who comes home from school to find no one home and thus believes they've been Left Behind. I know someone in Brisbane who experienced just that in their childhood. I can't even begin to contemplate what that must feel like that. And I wonder if Dee's 9 yr old got any inkling that his mother was seriously considering that he might be Left Behind and just what that might do to him. At least LaHaye and Jenkins, the authors of the dreadful Left Behind series, allowed for all pre-pubescent children to be raptured away with the Real True Christians, but clearly not all Left Behinders think like that.

It reminded me of something I read in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's breathtaking The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Zornberg reads Genesis in company with both 2000 years of rabbinic exegesis and insights from contemporary sociology, anthropology, psychology and philosophy; if you haven't read this book I strongly recommend it. Anyway, when writing on the Flood in Parash Noah of Genesis she describes Jewish traditions concerning the cruelty of the people of the Flood. She quotes Rashi's commentary on Genesis:

"But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty": these are the people of the Flood, who were cruel. The sages said: When God raised the depths over them, and they saw the fountains of the deep threaten to submerge them, what did they do? They had many children... and some of them would take their children and place them into the depths, pressing them down mercilessly.

Zornberg then observes:

Rashi adds that then children were placed under their parents, in order to "block the openings of the deeps." The violent imagery of callousness, in which a child - one's own child - becomes a bung against one's own destruction, represents a failure of memory, of imagination (1996: 57).

Says it all really.


  1. Rapture theology seems to have throughly infected a very large part of US Protestantism, both evangelical and pentecostal.Don't worry. Such theology is far, far less common than it might appear on the internet. Its just that this minority talks way too much.

  2. That's certainly a relief to hear you say that. But they certainly talk an awful lot if the content on the Australian Christian Channel is anything to go by, not to mention the internet.

  3. They definitely dominate Christian television in North America too. But the thing is, nobody really watches Christian TV over here (Thankfully).

    Even the historically dispensational schools have been leaning toward a mediating position or even Covenant theology for the past several decades. A good example of that is the Left Behind books - the author Jerry Jenkins is on the board for Moody Bible Institute, but for some reason, Moody Publishers had absolutely no interest in publishing his rapture fiction.

  4. You might be overlooking a couple of points here. While the early church didn’t have a full blown so called “pre-trib” rapture doctrine they may have had something like it. The earliest known complete commentary of Revelation c 258 by Victorinus Poetovionsis proposes that the 6th Seal marks the point at which the final persecution of the Antichrist begins, a point at which “the good will be moved, escaping persecution”.

    Especially if one doesn’t take the seals, trumpets and vials simultaneously and Victorinus seems to see in linear fashion along history then some extended period of tribulation is definitely understood and one might thus have to call the early Christian view more like what today is called “pre wrath” than “pre-trib” rapture theory, a scenario allowing the church to suffer some trials and see the Antichrist. There would anyway be no sense in the idea of people being snatched away to safety or salvation at the moment Christ is returning to earth to judge or establish a kingdom - one might as well stay on earth and benefit!

    Another point to consider is that eschatology is the one doctrine which perhaps tradition should least be brought in to certify and explain. The reason why not is that there is always the idea with such material that any apocalyptic scenarios are oracles sealed like the Daniel visions to the day, better known and understood towards the time of their enactment. On that basis there would be no automatic ground to assume the first Christians as opposed to later Christians would have the best understanding, especially as very early on Christians ditched the whole Jewish heritage for a controversial line in replacement theology.

    This related almost all and any prophecy to the church rather than the restored Israel which like the Messiah is the central subject of Jewish prophecy, the last issue Jesus and his disciples are reported to discuss and thus presumably didn't expect to be cancelled out as they have been.

    While it may be surrounded by a lot of American redneck silliness the method in the madness of the specifically pre-trib argument of modern times is a result of people increasingly going back to likely original Jewish meanings that the church had too soon forgotten or rejected. Not to know the day nor the hour is talk familiar to the Feast of Trumpets which spreads over more than a day and is a feast associated with Marriage - and recall the so called Rapture is the marriage of the Lamb or the Church. The Snatching Away or Escape is announced like the Jewish marriage by a Trumpet but traditionally there are rituals like sudden untimed arrival of the bridegroom who takes the bride away for 7 days before the full ceremony. The pre-trib theory’s seven years of woe on earth that the bride escapes is thus linked to the marriage and Feast of Trumpets.

    Whether one likes it or agrees with it or not is irrelevant to the point that upon examination pre-trib is probably the reading that offers the highest level of consistent meaning within the total picture along with embracing Jewish symbolism.

  5. "the method in the madness of the specifically pre-trib argument of modern times is a result of people increasingly going back to likely original Jewish meanings that the church had too soon forgotten or rejected"

    The problem lies in working out what such original Jewish meanings were. The 19th century pioneers of this type of Left Behind theology had little understanding of the Judaism(s) of their own day let alone that of 2000 yrs ago. We're only recently beginning to get a proper appreciation of the very complexity of ancient Judaism, it's symbolisms, theologies, cosmologies and their continuities and discontinuities with the broader religious milieux of the Greco- Roman world. None of what I've seen of these end time theologies give any evidence of the slightest comprehension of these issues. Instead it's a very simplistic, literalist, reductionist and I would say anti-Christian theology these groups promote.