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BUSH WATCH...The Rapture People
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Armageddon in an age of entertainment
By Gene Lyons.
excrpts from Harper's Magazine, November 2004.
After living in the Bible Belt for more than thirty years, I've learned several things about our fundamentalist Christian brethren: First, theirs is an embattled faith, which requires an ever evolving list of enemies to keep its focus. It includes Satan worshipers one year, "secular humanists" the next. Panic over backward masking on phonograph records yields to fears that supermarket bar codes harbor the Mark of the Beast. Some years back, Procter & Gamble was forced to deny widespread rumors that a moon-and-stars logo on boxes of soapsuds symbolized corporate diabolism. More recently, purging school libraries of Harry Potter's witchcraft has emerged as a cause. As if the real world weren't scary enough, chimerical threats must be found. It often appears that no form of occultism is too arcane or preposterous to provoke alarm.
I've also learned that fundamentalist Christianity's spiritual entrepreneurs are never more dogmatic than when they are ignoring, if not contradicting, the essence of Jesus Christ's teachings. The basic con is to insist upon the historical and scientific accuracy of every syllable in the Bible-then to analyze its symbolism, unveil hidden acrostics, and decode secret messages known only to initiates. The Book of Genesis is reduced to a biology text, and Daniel becomes a crystal ball. Thus are delivered the comforts of certitude and the enchantments of sorcery in a single beguiling package.
This is not to suggest insincerity. As Swift noted in A Tale of a Tub, his 1704 satire of religious extremists (by which he meant Catholics and Presbyterians), the successful propagandist is most often his own first victim. But it does begin to explain the huge commercial success of the Left Behind series of eschatological thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a twelve-novel extravaganza combining a blandly paranoid worldview with crackpot theology to produce a form of biblical infotainment seemingly irresistible to a reported 42 million readers. (This is apparently a cumulative sales figure; the number of individuals slogging their way through the series is much smaller.)
* * *
Forget all that sentimental gibberish about blessed peacemakers, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. If there are references to the Sermon on the Mount among Left Behind's roughly 1 million words, I failed to find them. Depicting the "End Times" as an action/adventure melodrama similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator films, the books portray midwestern suburbanites and born-again Israeli converts as Warrior Jesus' allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-anointed "World Potentate," who looks "not unlike a younger Robert Redford" and speaks the language of science and liberal internationalism.
Yet the media's response to all of this nonsense has been remarkably polite. In America, of course, with commercial success comes a degree of cultural respectability. If millions of consumers succumb to a childish revenge fantasy that takes the Christ out of Christianity and treats the Bible as a cosmic Daily Racing Form, we dare not scoff at the merchandise. Indeed, the religious right is the biggest beneficiary of the "political correctness" it affects to deplore. Views H. L. Mencken once derided as the "idiotic hallucinations of the cow states" now command respect more or less proportionate to their market share.
So it is that the authors find themselves consulted regularly on matters ecclesiastical by publications ranging from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. A 2002 profile in Time magazine pronounced Dr. LaHaye an "influential theologian." (Academic titles are very big among graduates of Bob Jones University.) "Within a few hours after we met for the first time," its author enthused, "LaHaye gave me advice about my career, my love life and my salvation-and yet his questions didn't feel intrusive. He's that genuine."
Genuinely deluded is perhaps closer to the truth. Written as the sidebar to a classic newsmag cover story about the "trend" toward apocalyptic melodrama in post-9/11 America, the Time profile did mention LaHaye's attacks on Catholicism as a "false religion," but it soft-pedaled his zeal for the granddaddy of nutball conspiracy theories: the "Bavarian Illuminati." Adepts believe that this shadowy cabal of European-Jewish bankers and secret fraternities such as Skull & Bones has stage-managed world events since the late eighteenth century. (Some contend that America was betrayed into sin when George Washington was secretly assassinated and an impostor named Dr. Adam Weishaupt assumed the presidency.) In his 2002 book The Rapture, LaHaye indignantly defended himself against a John Birch Society critic who accused him of being in cahoots with the Illuminati. To the contrary-LaHaye pronounces himself an avowed enemy of what he calls the "satanically-inspired, centuries-old conspiracy to use government, education, and media to destroy every vestige of Christianity within our society and establish a new world order."
* * *
"How fading and insipid," Swift wrote, "do all Objects accost us that are not convey'd in the Vehicle of Delusion?" And indeed, such preposterous views haven't prevented LaHaye from advancing in the world. As an ecclesiastical go-getter, he has few peers. A co-founder, along with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, of the Moral Majority, LaHaye now heads something called the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy, at Liberty University in Virginia. Another of LaHaye's visionary projects is the secretive Council on National Policy, which functions as a sort of theological popular front of evangelical preachers and politicians on the far right. And his alliance with Jerry B. Jenkins (writer of the Gil Thorp comic strip, former editor of the Moody Bible Institute magazine, and author of more than one hundred quickie books, including celebrity "autobiographies" of Billy Graham and Orel Hershiser) has turned LaHaye into a best-selling novelist.
As the careers of such disparate authors as Ayn Rand and D. H. Lawrence demonstrate, eccentric ideas are no impediment to writing novels. Almost any worldview compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, can serve as the scaffolding of readable fiction. Orwell wrote about what he called "good bad books," arguing that "intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian"; what is necessary are strong convictions, an interest in individual human beings, and a powerful instinct for narrative. We're all capable of suspending disbelief for the sake of a good story. So how seriously should we take the dust-jacket blurbs from reviewers who compare the Left Behind series to the work of pop-fiction luminaries like Tom Clancy and John Grisham? Or, to put it another way, can anybody not infatuated with LaHaye and Jenkins's theological views read the novels for pleasure?
The answer, I fear, is no. On a purely mimetic level, the novels scarcely exist as realistic or even as allegorical fiction. These are novels for people who don't read novels. Far too much of it is sheer didacticism: the characters don't converse so much as they preach....
...Scholars of the End Times genre may see the "Russian Pearl Harbor" business as an oblique tribute to Hal Lindsey's 1970 bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth. Ironically, given American fundamentalism's historic ambivalence about Jews, it was the 1948 founding of Israel, coming as it did near the end of the millennium, that gave the End Times prophecy industry a boost. Hence Israeli Jews play a strange role in the Left Behind series, existing to be converted or slaughtered. As God's chosen, they are to be protected from harm until the battle of Armageddon, at which point they must either accept Jesus as their Messiah or die.
Suddenly, high over the Atlantic a miracle takes place: "Only thing I can compare it to," another pilot tells Rayford, "is the old Star Trek shows where people got dematerialized and rematerialized, beamed all over the place." Indeed, all over the world, millions of born-again Christians have vanished into the mystical ether-leaving behind their clothing, their eyeglasses, even their dentures-along with every child under the age of twelve. Airplanes are crashing, automobiles are veering driverless and out of control, and fetuses are disappearing from their mothers' wombs, as the born-again and the unborn alike are abruptly "raptured" to heaven.
More about this curious doctrine, concocted in the nineteenth century by a Glasgow evangelist named John Darby, in due time....
...How seriously the rest of us need to take a primitive revenge fantasy like the Left Behind novels is hard to say. While daydreaming about Armageddon, most readers, I'm guessing, are also signing off on thirty-year mortgage notes and keeping their life insurance up to date. Intellectually, the "rapture racket," as Barbara R. Rossing calls it in her lucid and passionate book The Rapture Exposed, owes its origins to nineteenth-century turmoil over Darwinism. A professor of the New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Rossing argues persuasively that certain people are attracted to Darby's "dispensationalist system with its Rapture theology because it is so comprehensive and rational-almost science-like-a feature that made it especially appealing during battles over evolution during the 1920s and 1930s."
Today it reads like very bad literary criticism, although it's admittedly tempting to admire the sheer ingenuity of a biblical "system" that turns Beelzebub into a "peacenik" and Jesus Christ into a bloody-handed avenger. The Rapture, one of LaHaye's fifty non-fiction books, is densely packed with charts, tables, graphs, and lists of biblical citations that, if rearranged in the proper order, constitute thunderous proof that Christ's Second Coming will be a two-stage event-first the "rapture," then the killer Lamb of Revelation on the rampage. There's even a diverting passage in which, making a great show of scholarly objectivity, LaHaye comes close to revealing his own hocus pocus. He concedes, "No one passage of Scripture teaches the two phases of Christ's second coming separated by the Tribulation." But, he adds, "no one passage teaches against the pre-Trib view," either. Of course, the Bible is likewise silent on the Treaty of Versailles and the designated-hitter rule.
By no means are all, or even most, evangelical Christians comfortable seeing their faith turned into fortune-telling. Rossing quotes an array of contemporary theologians who reject what one disapprovingly describes as "this perverse parody of John 3:16: 'God so loved the world that he sent it World War III.'" As noisy zeal overwhelms more reasonable voices, however, the Left Behind hubbub strikes me as symptomatic of the degraded state into which American Puritanism has fallen. In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the runaway religious bestseller of the seventeenth century, Christian's allegorical journey to the Celestial City involved an essentially inward quest. His encounters with the Giant Despair and Mr. Worldly-Wiseman forced him continually to search and re-search his mind and spirit for evidence of Satan's wiles. LaHaye and Jenkins convert what was once the spiritual and psychological drama of salvation into escapist melodrama, Puritan self-examination into messianic narcissism. Satan is the Other, basically anything you fear and don't understand. The books are pagan tribalism writ large, complete with soothsayers and magic spells. All of history has conspired to turn suburban Americans into apocalyptic superheroes. The end is near, and dude-you're, like, the star! --posted 03.15.05
Letters: The Rapture People, II
Re: Letters: The Rapture People... I can't help but put my two cents in on this one....The point I made to my boys...the other night...is this; If we are not related to everything on this planet we in fact become the "Aliens" or if I'm not from here why should I care about the Earth and the environment or who should die because none of it really matters, right? Which leaves it as people in wait for the Mothership to come and pick them up and take them to their real home. Now that made them laugh and it is funny but not, all at the same time because there really are people who do believe that. I think you call them the rapture people. Really, I think you misuse the term.
It is a sad testament to how far we as a People have fallen and though there are those who say they have no need for something real to hold onto; Science vs. Religion is no better than Reublican vs. Democrat when it comes to rising above the BS. of this world we live in. They are both and all parts of the BS. we so desperately need to escape, none of them capable of being known as Man's saviour.
Science in its pure form (without interjection of personal opinion) is as simple as "the study of things in an objective manner so arguement will cease concerning the things we don't know."...Religion is and always has been the worship of the Unknown God.... Of course you could always say, that's [just an opinion] and that everybody has one of those but then I'd have to say; The ego self is the maker of opinions but the selfless self is and always has been, what not only the Bible is about but what is stated in all the Holy books and religion is to be found in none of them....
Heaven and Hell are states of being and the Bible reveals the truth and hides it, all at the same time. It just depends where you are standing when you look at it.
So could you read between the lines? The thought of rapture is one is taken and one is left. When the selfless self remains, all will be revealed.....Joe
You say I misuse the term but you never attempt to define it, except to note at the end of your letter that "the thought of rapture is one is taken and one is left," which, to me, is a gross simplification of the rapture literature as described in the Moyers' piece (below) and as available in the raw through a normal Google search. (Is your "Mothership" story based on one of the narratives from the later years of the "X-Files"?)
More importantly, your letter illustrates one of the main points of Sam Harris' recent book "The End Of Faith," that it's impossible to carry on a meaningful dialogue*, which is required in a democracy, when one person does not think it's necessary to think outside of one's unsubstantiated belief system. Nevertheless, I welcome your responses. --best wishes, Jerry 02.22.05
*"Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us." Harris, p. 48. I would add rules of evidence and rational argument.
In His Service,
Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true -- one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index.
That's right -- the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the "Left Behind" series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious-right warrior Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.
Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): Once Israel has occupied the rest of its "biblical lands," legions of the antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon.
As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to Heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.
I'm not making this up. Like Monbiot, I've read the literature. I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelations where four angels "which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man." A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed -- an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144 -- just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter Heaven and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.
So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist Glenn Scherer -- "The Road to Environmental Apocalypse." Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed -- even hastened -- as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
As Grist makes clear, we're not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election -- 231 legislators in total and more since the election -- are backed by the religious right.
Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian coalition was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who recently quoted from the biblical book of Amos on the Senate floor: "The days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land." He seemed to be relishing the thought.
And why not? There's a constituency for it. A 2002 Time-CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the book of Revelations are going to come true. Nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks. Drive across the country with your radio tuned to the more than 1,600 Christian radio stations, or in the motel turn on some of the 250 Christian TV stations, and you can hear some of this end-time gospel. And you will come to understand why people under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected, as Grist puts it, "to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth, when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a word?"
Because these people believe that until Christ does return, the Lord will provide. One of their texts is a high school history book, "America's Providential History." You'll find there these words: "The secular or socialist has a limited-resource mentality and views the world as a pie ... that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece." However, "[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth ... while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people."
No wonder Karl Rove goes around the White House whistling that militant hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers." He turned out millions of the foot soldiers on Nov. 2, including many who have made the apocalypse a powerful driving force in modern American politics.... --posted 02.21.05
Behe's piece on "Intelligent Design" is nothing new and has been thoroughly and completely addressed and laid to rest by the scientific community over the past decade. Publishing this op-ed turns science into a popularity contest. I am disturbed that giving space to Behe is dumbing-down the discourse on what counts for meaningful opinion. Contrary to Behe's claim, Intelligent Design is most certainly religously based, as is any claim made that depends on some external big other that oversees, coddles, punishes etc.
The movements within this country to water down science, including assaults on teaching the big bang, do nothing but increase the ignorance and delusion on which social discourse is based. In turn this ignorance and delusion paralyzes the society in being able to employ critical thinking about what matters in our relations with other countries and the environment. --Christine Tomlinson, 02.07.05
Designing A Duck
By MARSHALL I. BELIEVE
Birth of Christ, Pa. -- IN the wake of my recent lawsuit over the teaching of Darwinian evolution, there has been a rush at my church to debate the merits of my rival theory of intelligent design. As one of the faith-based scientists who have proposed design as an explanation for biological systems, I have found widespread confusion about what intelligent design is and what it is not.
First, what it isn't: the theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based idea, even though devout people opposed to the teaching of evolution cite it in their arguments. To repeat, my theory is not a religiously based idea. Uh-uh, no way, nada.
Rather, the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic. The argument for it consists of four linked claims.
The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature. Modern Darwinists agree that life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.
The next claim in the argument for design is that faith-based scientists have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligent design. Darwinists assert that their theory can explain the appearance of design in life as the result of random mutation and natural selection acting over immense stretches of time. Faith-based scientists, however, think the Darwinists' confidence is unjustified.
The third claim in the design argument is also controversial: in the absence of any non-design explanation that convinces us, faith-based scientists are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.
Fourth, whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which, polls show, overwhelmingly and sensibly thinks that life was designed.
To conclude, the strong appearance of design allows a disarmingly simple argument: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck. Intelligent design should not be overlooked simply because it's a duck.
Note: Many thanks to the New York Times for responding to our many calls and letters by opening up its pages to faith-based science.
Marshall I. Believe, professor of faith-based sciences at Nehi University, is the author of "Quack Like A Duck: A Faith-Based Refutation Of The Big Bang Theory"
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