Saturday, May 21, 2011

You Never Call, You Never Write ... Are You Trying to Tell Me Something?

By a remarkable coincidence, today is not only the fourth anniversary of this blog, but it's the day that, according to the eighty-nine-year-old evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping, will see the Rapture, the day when the Saints will be taken up to Heaven to be with Jesus, thus avoiding the Tribulation to come. (The Tribulation will no doubt include further posts here.)

It's now about 6 p.m., Indiana time, and so far the god of Christianity has failed to deliver once again. I don't think we should blame Camping for the debacle, since Jesus has a long history of breaking appointments. Christians have been stood up by him time and again over the past two thousand years or so. Many have dealt with the cognitive dissonance by pretending that he never promised to show up, trying to rationalized the cycle of abuse in which they are trapped. But blaming the victim isn't fair. It's the abuser who should be the object of public contumely.

Lots of people, including Christians, are not terribly clear about the difference between the Rapture, the Day of Judgment, the Second Coming, the Millennium, and so on. That's not surprising, since the Bible is anything but clear about them; and to be fair, the Rapture isn't a biblical doctrine but a construction by modern Christians out of the confused welter of biblical end-times teaching. (That doesn't count decisively against it, of course: numerous perfectly orthodox Christian teachings don't come from the Bible, such as the Trinity, the expulsion of Satan from Heaven, and so on.) And it's so much easier to make fun of someone like Camping and his followers if you don't know what you're talking about. Which is not very different from a lot of political and pop-science discourse, come to think of it.

End-times speculation and prediction has long been an embarrassment to established Christianity. Partly this is because the predictions and speculations always turn out to be wrong, which is bad PR, so there's a strong temptation, often indulged, to associate the belief with dirty, crazy fanatics, rednecks, "the fringe of the fringe," the "uneducated," and any other handy scapegoat.

The trouble is that this stereotype is false, like most stereotypes. I've quoted before Paul Boyer's book And Time Shall Be No More (Harvard, 1992, page 100):
Nor did premillennialism in the 1865-1920 years appeal solely to the poor and disaffected; it also found support among the middle classes, the well-to-do, and even the elite. The signers of an 1891 memorial to President Benjamin Harrison written by premillennialist William Blackstone and urging support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine included Cyrus McCormick, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Two Los Angeles oilmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals. Chicago department-store owner John Pirie hosted Cyrus Scofield's annual Bible conferences at Sea Cliff, Pirie's estate on Long Island. The head of the Quaker Oats Company, Henry Crowell, chaired the board of trustees of the Moody Bible Institute. Large middle-class Baptist and Presbyterian churches in New York, St. Louis, Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and many other cities were bastions of premillennialism in these years. As Ian Rennie has written, dispensationalism attracted some of the most outstanding evangelicals of the day – and some of the wealthiest. Whatever else may be said of, belief in an imminent Second Coming, in punishment of the wicked, and in a Millennium when the injustices of the present age will be set right, cannot be dismissed -- in the Middle Ages, in the pre-World War I, era, or in the late twentieth century -- as merely the desperate creed of the disinherited.
Those who are interested in this subject could do worse than begin with Boyer's book. They'll learn, among much else, how many distinguished scientists and mathematicians, Isaac Newton among them, have taken end-times speculation seriously and devoted a lot of study to it. While this shows that geniuses are not immune to the lure of falsehood, it also shows that you can't dismiss the belief as the deranged fantasy of poor, uneducated trash.

Nor, as I've also written before, is end-times doctrine the result of what ex-fundamentalist Frank Schaeffer called "a literalist interpretation of the biblical Book of Revelation." If the Revelation were excised from the New Testament, there would still be plenty of grist for the end-times mill, since teachings on the subject feature prominently in three of the gospels (and are assumed in the fourth) and in every other book of the New Testament. Schaeffer must have known this, so it's a mark of his own discomfort with the whole issue that he tries to blame it all on the "weird book" of Saint John of Patmos.

Numerous Christian writers dealing with Camping's prediction have quoted Jesus' teaching that no one but God the Father knows the date of Jesus' return. This writer at MSNBC, for example:
The Bible contradicts itself on the date of the Rapture, and on whether or not that date is knowable in the first place. Matthew 24:36 states, "Of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only," while Matthew 16:28 clearly suggests that Jesus would return during this disciple's lifetime: "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
This passage is riddled with errors. First, Matthew 24:36 is not referring to the Rapture, but to the coming of Jesus on clouds of glory, seated at the right hand of power. Second, Matthew 16:28 isn't referring only to "this disciple's" (presumably Matthew's) "lifetime." Third, only two verses before 24:36, Jesus tells his disciples that "this generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished." In context, "these things" refers not only to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, usually dated to 70 AD, but to Jesus' appearance on clouds of glory, seated at the right hand of power. Very similar versions of the same saying appear in Mark 13:30-32 and Luke 21:32. (Luke omits the saying that no one knows except the Father.) No writer I've seen during the recent media fuss who cites Matthew 24:36 mentions the declaration in 24:34, which doesn't speak well for their biblical knowledge or their honesty.

This material has troubled Christians for centuries, and those who haven't simply ignored it have tried to explain it. Some scholars argue that the Greek word translated as "generation" means something else, like "people," "nation," or "race," meaning that Israel would not be removed from the earth before Jesus returned. Leaving aside the difficulty that Israel was eliminated by the Romans, the word in question usually means "generation" and probably means it here, as shown by the similar saying in Matthew 16:38 that "some" in his audience would not "taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." And the New Testament writers, as I've said, believed the same thing -- that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, even if no one knew the exact day and hour. This means that the problem with Jesus' promise can't be explained away as the result of a modern misunderstanding of the biblical text. It has led to quite baroque attempts to explain why, although everything else in the gospels is accurate about Jesus' teaching, the New Testament writers misunderstood (or even invented and added) this theme, and only this theme. As Morton Smith declared in a 1955 review of a scholar who tried to get rid of the end-times material in Mark, "to accept the great majority of the sayings in [Mark] as substantially accurate reports of Jesus' ipsissima verba [i.e., his own words] ... is implausible. But to do this and also get rid of the apocalyptic sayings, is impossible."

Another recurring theme that I've seen in the recent commentary on Harold Camping's very successful media campaign has been that this is all just a concern of "fundamentalists." Some North Carolina atheists who are organizing a party to mock the "absurdity" of the whole business posted on their website that "it's a great opportunity to highlight some of the most bizarre beliefs often put forth by religious fundamentalists and raise awareness of the need for reason," said a posting about the party on the group's website." Belief in the Second Coming is not just a bizarre belief put forth by fundamentalists: it's inextricable from the New Testament, which is why most non-fundamentalists pay lip service to it, while stressing the unknowability of the exact date.

There's a wretchedly bad book that got a lot of attention a few years ago, The Rapture Exposed (Westview Press, 2004) by Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran theologian and minister. It got a warm welcome from non-fundamentalists; Rossing was even interviewed on PBS by Bill Moyer. I've been meaning to dissect it in detail for years, but for now, the most entertaining aspect of The Rapture Exposed was that while Rossing dismissed the Rapture and certain competing interpretations of the Second Coming as obviously disreputable fantasies of wicked extremists, she declared very firmly her belief that Christ would return, just as the Bible says. (I think this is analogous to guys who will fool around with other guys, they'll let themselves be penetrated in every orifice, but they won't kiss, because that would be queer.)

In a web article on "Rapture bombing," the creation of pictures of empty clothing purportedly Left Behind by the Raptured, the author concluded:
Again, religious beliefs are nothing to laugh at, and there will be very serious repercussions in the days ahead, particularly for folks who spent their assets with the expectation that they'd enter immortality on Saturday. I hope Rapture bombing isn't seen as a criticism of Christianity. Think of it as a stress-reliever for the people who have been inundated by all the hype over the past week.
All well and good, but why shouldn't Rapture bombing be seen as a criticism of Christianity? For that matter, I don't agree that "religious beliefs are nothing to laugh at": the religious themselves have never refrained from laughing at competing beliefs. In the Judeo-Christian tradition this goes back at least to Isaiah's mockery of idols [44:9-20]. Besides, if you're going to believe absurd things, you can't really demand that nobody laugh at you.

End-times fanaticism isn't a bug introduced into the Christian operating system by extremist fundamentalist hackers -- it's a feature that has been there since Version 1.0. As long as those teachings are in the New Testament, there will be people who will try to apply them. They may be foolish, they may be gullible, they certainly lack historical perspective, but they're just following in their Master's steps. What Would Jesus Do? Judging by the gospels, he'd be teaching that the end is near.