Mountain Tops

Idaho can be a peaceful place. I’ve spent parts of many summers there. I grew aware, over time, that the northern panhandle had an association with white supremacists, but if you stick to the touristed areas you don’t run into them. During the Ruby Ridge standoff I was busy trying to establish my teaching career in Wisconsin while living in Illinois—I guess my commuting life began all the way back then. I didn’t have much time for the news, and I don’t recall hearing much about the tragedy. It was shortly eclipsed by Waco. Jess Walter’s Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family presents perhaps more than you need to know about this story with no winners and much strange theology. In case you missed it too, here are the basics:

Randy and Vicki Weaver were an Iowa couple who were drawn into the Christian Identity movement. This was a white separatist, apocalyptic survivalist faith. Convinced the world was going to end, they moved to a remote part of northern Idaho and built a cabin on a rocky ridge and stockpiled guns. Being a white supremacist was actually considered bad in the 1990s (now it’s mainstream Republican ideology) and federal marshals and the FBI got involved. The Weavers had four children and that complicated things. Predictably, the government attempt to shoot an extremist family out of their religion ended tragically. The Weavers’ only son Samuel was the first killed, and then Vicki. The locals, including many skinheads, gathered at the base of the mountain in support of the Weavers as the feds led a military operation into a nearly two-week standoff.

Apart from being too long, Walter’s book is an important reminder of many things at this time. Even though America had a Republican president in 1992, white supremacy was considered dangerous and was characterized as domestic terrorism. The standoff at Ruby Ridge quickly became a cause célèbre for religious freedom, no matter how strange beliefs might be. Ironically, even as the trial was going on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco was being stormed. Now we have a “president” who makes it plausible that a “k” has somehow dropped out of Waco, or at least has been tripled. The national narrative is America is for whites only. It’s as if Martin Luther King Jr., Woody Guthrie, and Abraham Lincoln never existed. I would say “How the mighty are fallen,” but that might sound a little too religious for some. Even the Religious Right has, since that time, left the Bible out of the equation.

As Others Think

As analysts step in where angels fear to tread, we have been given expert opinion on why ISIS’s terror in France was counterproductive to its goals. A few voices have chimed in stating that the result of escalation is just what an apocalyptic group hopes for. Rational people, having no idea how a fundamentalist thinks, are scratching their heads. Long I have wondered why universities and other bastians of higher education haven’t sought the advice of experts. No one can understand fundamentalism who hasn’t experienced it personally. Problem is, most people who have experienced it are experiencing it still. Those of us who thought our way out of fundamentalism are passed over repeatedly for university posts, while those better connected (surely not of fundamentalist stock) are handed influential positions from which to scratch their heads. You want to understand fundamentalists? Ask someone who’s been there.

There is nothing rational, in the common parlance, about fundamentalism. It has, however, its own internal logic. If you believe with every mitochondria in your body that the Bible (or any holy book or doctrine) that you were taught is true, and truly believe it, no amount of reason can convince you otherwise. This is (partially) because the ultimate cause of all events is open to question. Science does not address ultimate causes—it can’t. The endlessly creative human mind, however, can rather simply conjure them. If God is the ultimate ultimate cause, and if God said, x, y, or z, then other interpretations are simply wrong. If God has decided an apocalypse is necessary, what use is reason in the face of the impending certainty? Is there no way out?

There is. Some of us have made it. We, no matter our credentials, are not generally well-connected drones of the middle class. Fundamentalism is prized by the poor. Those who have no future on this earth look for another, better world. This is a perspective I understand very well. Our increase in ease of communication and exploding technology with ease of access have only given new tools to those who think in terms of ultimate causes only. You can’t talk a suicide bomber out of action with reason. You need to know the language of belief. We glory in our lack of belief and rationalism. We, however, close our eyes to the fact that the vast majority of people in the world are believers. And we won’t talk to them because they make us uncomfortable. We have written our own recipe for apocalypse.

From NASA's photo library

From NASA’s photo library

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.

Camping Out

Garsh-darn-it, I’ve missed the end of the world again! I’ve been so busy lately that I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to that which really matters. So here I find myself in the post-apocalyptic world and still waiting for a bus. Was that all there really was to life? I mean, I just found out that the world was ending on the day of. Couldn’t I get at least 24 hours’ notice? (I wish we’d all been ready?) A group called eBible Fellowship, followers of the late Harold Camping, figured out that his prediction of the end for May 21, 2011 was only the shutting of Heaven’s doors. I’d been wondering where that draft was coming from. According to the Radnor Patch, the actual end of the world, according to eBible’s calculations based on Camping’s spiritual algebra, was yesterday. That could explain a lot.

Apocalyptic groups have often had a problem getting the exact day right. No surprise there, however, since the Bible says even Jesus doesn’t know. Historically, there have been a number of options available to the budding apocalyptist. You can simply go very quiet and hope nobody notices. You can commit mass suicide (not recommended). And others would seem to suggest that you can claim it did happen, but that we just haven’t noticed yet. That was the response of some of Charles Taze Russell’s followers when 1914 saw the continuation of the world, despite a war that has scarred it ever since. Maybe the world has ended many times before. Still, the rest of us still find ourselves too busy to notice.

Here it comes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Apocalypticism is most prominent among those groups that hold to a biblical dating of the world. If it has only been here about 6000 years, then its imminent end seems entirely plausible. Those who take a longer view, more on the order of billions of years, seem a little less worried. That’s not to say that the world couldn’t end. A reasonably sized asteroid could finish it for our species. We wouldn’t need a supernova to do us in. Still, we can learn something from the chiliasts. We can learn that introspection is not a bad thing. We don’t need to hoard weapons, canned goods, and water, but we can stop once in a while and ask if all this insane running around we all do is really worth the effort. Since the world has ended, I’m thinking I might slow down a bit. I’ve got a lot that I still want to accomplish, but given that it’s all over, what’s the rush? I just wonder if they’ll buy this kind of reasoning at work.

Missing Apocalypses

Sharknados aside, we seem to be in a lull of apocalypses at the moment. In the run-up to the change of the millennium and 2012, we perhaps had our fill of dire predictions of the end of all things. Funny how the fears seem to run so high when the Grand Old Party is telling us what to believe. When we settle down and try to wrestle with real-world issues with real-world ideals, the need for watching it all burn seems to settle down in the back seat and let the adults drive for a while.

IMG_1309

I recently came across The End Times Bible (now out of print). Published in 1999, this Bible had a not-so-subtle message that the end of all things was nigh. As it had been before, and, knowing human nature, will be many more times again. I imagine myself, in a Left Behind fantasy, watching a neophyte trying to make it in the post-apocalyptic world with a Bible. References to the end times are rare in Holy Writ, and dreadfully obscure. Reading Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsey you might think the Bible has step-by-step directions for negotiating the wrath that is to come. As if the Bible were a recipe book and you wanted chocolate-chip cookies. Ironically the world is full—over-full in point of fact—of people with advanced degrees in Bible who’ve spent years and years of their lives learning to uncover the minutest hints that the Bible gives. Most of these folks are unemployed and wouldn’t mind sharing a bit of that simplistic apocalyptic pie baked up by the premillennialists. And yet, the world goes on.

Even as I was researching The End Times Bible, however, I began seeing references to the next apocalypse. Some are hopefully suggesting 2019, since, apparently, God likes round numbers. The reprieve we’ve been feeling, I have no doubts, is only temporary. In the course of human events we will have alarmists elected to high offices and once again panic will begin to build. The Maya let us down, and Howard Camping up and died. No worries—there are other arcane civilizations and the world knows no shortage of prophets in button-down shirts. Still, I’ve kind of enjoyed this little vacation without having to hush the irrational fears that God’s non-biological clock is inexorably ticking.

The biblical world is a simple one, in its own way. Created in six days just a few thousand years ago, it topples off its pillars and ends in a fiery demise in some millennial scenario, if only it can keep its own story straight. And like any good story, children will come back to it time and again.

Jonahado

SharknadoSome movies are so bad that they become classics. Some are just plain bad. The jury in my head is still out on Sharknado. The story, obviously tongue-in-cheek, is so far-fetched as to be pretentious, and anyone who knows something about either sharks or tornadoes, or both, will likely find credibility waning from the first scene. For those sensible among my readers, who’ve not seen the movie, the title gives it all away. A global-warming-induced hurricane hurries toward Santa Monica with its forever young sun-worshippers. The hurricane floods the California coast, bringing sharks to the city streets. As our protagonists drive around somewhat pointlessly, the sharks attack their car, eventually eating everyone who’s not family. At one point the family tries to buy rations at a liquor store, only to have the news announce that this is the apocalypse. The store owner scowls that it’s the government, not God, that’s bringing this upon them. Then the waterspouts appear, morphing into tornadoes carrying sharks, still hungrily chomping at everything as they fly through the air.

Ironically a biblical theme comes about with the swallowing of Nova. As she falls from a helicopter (don’t ask), a great white shark snaps her up in mid-air, and since she’s about the only character you can care about, the movie seems to have reached its nadir. As the tornadoes dissipate and the sharks coming raining down, the eponymously named Fin is swallowed whole by a huge great white, while still holding his chainsaw. We already know that this latter-day Jonah will make his way back out, and we are supposed to be surprised that this is the very same shark that holds the reborn Nova, who admits her real name is Jenny Lynn. Like Neo in The Matrix, she is the convert to a new faith, this time in the family of Fin, whose only fault, it seems, is that he cares too much for others.

While a made-for-television B movie (although C or D might be more appropriate), Sharknado demonstrates the popular conception of the apocalypse. Not that it will involve flying sharks and destructive wind-storms, but that the end of the world is somehow inevitable. We have convinced ourselves that its a matter of when, not if, the world will meet its demise. Global warming, clearly our fault, is blamed by the movie (as is the government), but the story is that the flimsy culture we’ve constructed is subject to utter ruin by a hurricane and maritime predators. Or I could be reading far too much into this. Religious tropes may be picked and chosen at will. And when things really go wrong, like accidentally switching on Sharknado, we have a ready arsenal of religious ideas at hand to blame. And the apocalypse may be the least of our worries.

ABCD

Among the sensitive crowd known as biblical scholars, the chronological designations Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) have long been in use. Perhaps it is because, at some point in the recent past, Christian scholars realized that the Hebrew Bible, until then called the Old Testament, was also the Bible of Judaism. All of history, in the European version, is divided by the figure of Jesus, or more properly, Christ. BC stood for Before Christ, after all, and AD not for After Death (which would leave an embarrassing gap of about three decades), but Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord.” The conventions of BC/AD had become so entrenched that few bothered to linger over the implications, but implications there are. A case might be made, purely on historical grounds, for maintaining BC. There was a time before Jesus—even the Bible agrees on that point. And, again, from an historical view, the worldview of Christianity forever changed the direction of events for at least two millennia thereafter. It still does, if we pay any attention to the posturing of the Religious Right. We have to start counting somewhere, don’t we, to know where we are in time?

Anno Domini is a tad more colonializing. Short for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, “in the year of our lord Jesus Christ,” those two letters make an assumption that the shared lord of the readers is indeed Jesus. For centuries in Europe and the New World, apart from those Muslims that from time-to-time made their presence felt, and the Jews who were conveniently suppressed, this worked for just about everybody. If you disagreed, after all, you were welcome to return to your backwater homeland and count your time by burning hour candles between your toes, if you wished. For the forward march of history, it was onward, Christian soldiers. AD held a proselytizing imperative. But then Christians began to notice two more ancient religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, both with pedigrees that predate AD. Not that this was a problem from a missiological point of view—we can just convert them, after all—but scholars began to consider the implications.

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Time is inexorable. At least in our experience of it. No one stopped to begin counting when Adam and Eve were wandering about Eden, and the simple reference to the lifetime of a monarch seemed sufficient for most pre-capitalist business. What fueled the change to attempt an absolute time was the conviction that it was all about to end soon. Jesus seems to have predicted an imminent apocalypse; “some who are standing here will not taste death,” Luke tells us Jesus said. If that is the case, AD is the final countdown. With a delayed onset. Instead of Anno Domini, it might stand for Announcing Doomsday. And since that clock is still ticking, it might be time to acknowledge that we do indeed live in a Common Era.