Against Apocalypticism

Well, I am glad we dodged the Mayan Apocalypse. I wager that you are too. Having the Earth's polarity suddenly reverse, being sucked into outer space, or being plowed over by a mysterious rogue planet would have been awful ways to end our civilization.

Most people probably took the Mayan Apocalypse as light-heartedly as I did, though clearly there were some who really thought the end was nigh.

What worries me, however, is that this story, which became a preoccupation of at least a few, is symptomatic of a more pathological apocalypticism that has begun to permeate American culture.

If modern American apocalypticism has a clearly identifiable source, it is in the dispensationalist branch of American fundamentalism. This movement has its deep origins in the middle 19th century, when the British preacher John Nelson Darby proposed that the Bible might be read as a kind of secret code which conveys, to those who know how to connect the dots, knowledge of the end times.

Migrating to American shores in the early 20th century, this movement enjoyed some thrilling success at revival meetings and helped to shape early pentecostalism, but it remained on the fringes of American Protestantism until sometime after World War II. In its most popular contemporary form, this apocalypticism applies a painful literalism to the Book of Revelations, St. Paul's letters and other biblical texts to predict that a rapture is imminent in which the righteous will be swept up into heaven (naked, we are solemnly assured), where they will be spared the tribulations about to befall the Earth. There will then follow a climactic war between the forces of Anti-Christ and the armies of God culminating in Jesus' final triumph at the end of days. (An excellent history of the early history of this movement can be found in Gary J. Dorrien, "The Remaking of Evangelical Theology," pp. 28-32.)

I personally reject this view of Christianity. On such matters as the end of the world, I much prefer the actual teaching of Jesus Christ -- we know not the day or the hour. To treat the Bible as a magic key for unlocking the mysteries of the end times has always struck me as vaguely blasphemous. In my mind, the apocalyptic texts of the Bible should be understood metaphorically, as reminders that life is fragile, the world is finite, and that we must shepherd and sustain this tiny blue-gray speck of rock and dust we inhabit in a vast and hostile cosmos. It is surely an error to read these texts the way the apocalypticists do.

But in the 1970s, this fringe interpretation of the Christian message began to find a foothold in mainstream circles. In 1970, Hal Lindsey published "The Late, Great Planet Earth," which was picked up by Bantam Books in 1973 and sold 7 million copies by the end of the decade. In 1979, Orson Welles lent his basso-profundo voice to narrating the movie version of the book. Suddenly, a large audience was led to believe that European integration, the establishment of the State of Israel, and conflict in the Middle East were all unfolding as fulfillment of end-time prophecies embedded in the Bible.

Interest in apocalyptic themes accelerated in the 1990s and early 2000s when, over the span of 12 years (1995-2007), there appeared the 16 volumes of the "Left Behind" series, purporting to tell the story of the final days -- from the rise of Anti-Christ, through the Battle of Armageddon, concluding in the triumphal return of Jesus Christ. Good story-tellers, Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins, the series' authors, have reputedly sold 65 million copies. Movies and even video games have been spun off from this successful franchise.

I personally believe that this popular obsession with apocalypticism has done incalculable damage to the Christian message. It is easy to ridicule, after all, and it obscures the true essence of Christianity: bearing one another's burdens, tending to the poor and dispossessed, seeing Christ in the least among us, everything, in short, that love of neighbor and love of God is all about.

But not only has this apocalypticism harmed Christianity, I fear that it has seeped into the larger American culture and has wreaked unholy havoc there as well. Turn on the television and you find that a kind of apocalyptic haze has descended over much of the programming. You will encounter programs about killer asteroids, gamma-ray bursts, doomsday preppers and what happens when the nation's electrical grid fails (as depicted in the popular new series, "Revolution").

Moving beyond popular entertainment, it seems that a miasma of apocalypticism has also overtaken America's political right wing. There was a time when America's greatest conservative minds were engaged in defending the permanent things, finding value in art and tradition and great music. There was an ennobling aestheticism in all of this, even if the politics were antedeluvian.

But this is no longer true. Now what passes for conservative thought is preoccupied with the failure of Western Civilization and with assigning blame for its collapse -- failing schools, overpaid teachers, communist professors, immigrants lacking appreciation for American values, socialist presidents, etc., etc., fill in the blank, you know the drill. When people who should know better like Charles Krauthammer start sounding like wanna-be Rush Limbaughs, then you are watching a movement in sad and terminal decline.

And this apocalypticism has a trickle-down effect. It penetrates the coverage of economic news. Consider Rick Santelli, the bond guru on CNBC. There was a time, not so long ago, when he would make entertainingly incomprehensible statements a few times a day about fluctuations in interest rates. But now Santelli-as-nerd has yielded to Santelli-the-prophet-of-doom. Ever since calling for the creation of the Tea Party in the spring of 2009, Santelli has been making ever more frenzied observations about the imminent collapse of the economic order. The European Union is a Ponzi scheme, the Federal Reserve is destroying the nation, a creeping socialism is overwhelming old-fashioned free enterprise. Santelli, I am pretty sure, doesn't take this stuff literally, but some of his viewers surely do.

And Santelli is mild compared to the doom-mongering economic websites. Take a look at "Zero Hedge." To be sure, Matt Taibbi has credited this site with exposing corruption on Wall Street. But more often than not, the site is just shilling various end-of-the-world confabulations. Just consider some headlines from the week after Christmas. On Dec. 26, there appeared: "A Canadian Summarizes America's Collapse: 'Everyone Takes, Nobody Makes, Money Is Free, Money Is Worthless." On Dec. 27, we find: "Presenting the Decline of the West in Two Easy Graphics." And the logical corollary to all this, on Dec. 28: "Gun Control Will Trigger the Next American Revolution."

Now enter the survivalists and gun enthusiasts, stage right. If the economy is teetering, about to collapse into a Mad-Max dystopia, if society is devolving into a Hobbesian war of all against all, then we must be vigilant, we must defend what is ours against the marauding hordes desperately pounding at the gates. An entry by M.D. Creekmore on "," dated Nov. 30, 2010, summarizes this dangerous and disturbed world:

"I'm sure many of you would like to have a retreat on one-hundred acres, nestled in the remote Idaho wilderness. A room full of high tech weapons and gear. A customized humvee in the drive. A bunker stacked from floor to ceiling with MREs, and the latest freeze-dried foods."

There is evidence that Nancy Lanza, the mother of Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Newtown school massacre, subscribed to some of these views. She owned the high-tech weaponry after all, and would confide to those willing to listen her belief in imminent economic collapse. She stacked her house with supplies and could be found many weekends with her son shooting their guns at local target ranges.

God help us all.