Influential Brethren

Outsized ideas from under-recognized sources always captivate me.  I have to admit that my own childhood fascination concerning, and fear of, “the rapture” still haunts me.  While our house isn’t large, the other day I couldn’t see or hear my wife anywhere when I knew she was home and my first thought was that she’d been raptured and I’d been left behind.  Please don’t try to console me with logic; I know very well the problems with this initial assessment and knowing the history of the idea of the rapture can’t stop the primal fear when it strikes.  So it is with religious ideas inculcated in the young.  That’s why I knew I had to read Massimo Introvigne’s The Plymouth Brethren as soon as I heard of it.  The Plymouth Brethren, and specifically one of their formative leaders, John Nelson Darby, were the inventors of the rapture.

Introvigne’s book doesn’t trace rapture history (other books do that), but he does narrate, in an admirably succinct treatment, whence the Brethren arose.  In the nineteenth century in the British Isles, some were very concerned that Christianity had gone off the rails.  Accommodating with secular society, it had become heavily doctrinal and, worse, political.  Breakaway groups were common, including those who went back to the “Bible alone” as the basis for assessing what being Christian truly was.  The Plymouth Brethren developed in this atmosphere and they still remain a relatively small Christian sect (I use that term completely neutrally).  Even though they themselves splintered over time, they were never a very large group.  They, however, invented the rapture.

John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the movement, believed history was divided into dispensations, or periods, predetermined by God.  The dispensation in which we now live (and in which they lived two centuries ago) would include a dramatic rapture that would allow Darby’s understanding of eschatology to fall within the system he developed.  This idea was picked up by Cyrus Scofield and included in his enormously influential Scofield Reference Bible.  That Bible, although many evangelicals considered the Plymouth Brethren as a kind of “cult,” was used as the unquestioned roadmap for the end times.  It was picked up by such promoters as Hal Lindsey and Timothy LaHaye and made into a meme that just about any educated person recognizes.  We all know what “the rapture” is, although the Bible itself doesn’t spell it out at all.  Introvigne’s book is very informative on the Brethren but his chapter on their ten main divisions is, necessarily, a touch confusing.  Well balanced and fair, this is a great source for those who wonder who these people were that gave us such worries when our wives have “disappeared” into some other part of the house.

Biblical Popes

It was the end of the world. The year was 1979, if I recall. One of those occasional manias that sweep the nation weighed heavily upon my high school. My English teacher—for her class was at the very hour of the appointed end—sensibly scrapped her lesson plan for the day and had us each write an essay. Would the world end or not, during this very class period? We then shared what we wrote. I recall one answer—not my own—quite clearly. “The Bible says when the reign of Pope is short after the long reign of the previous Pope, the world will end.” (This was just after the death of Pope John Paul I.) A moment’s thought revealed that there are no Popes in the Bible. How could anybody think there were?

Of course, we were at the end of a decade whose bestselling book was Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth. It was part of what analysts call John Todd Phase of the world’s end scenarios. Or was it the Pat Robertson Phase? In any case, all kinds of obscure signs floated in the air. But Popes in the Bible? Had any of my classmates even read the Good Book? This may have been the only occasion when it was beneficial to have been raised a fundamentalist. I’d already read the Bible many times through and it said nothing about Popes. Not even the Catholic translations.

The iconic role of Holy Writ in secular society is greater than many people suppose. “The Bible says” is practically gospel because few people will check it out. I knew from my conversations with clergy, even as a teen, that few ministers had actually read their own foundation document the whole way through. That leaves them vulnerable to the “cloud of unknowing” whether something is biblical or not. The only way to find out is to sit down with the tome and start reading. Although today such sites as BibleGateway make reading the Good Book online remarkably easy, it’s still a commitment of many hours immersed in an arcane world and mind-numbing lists of who begat whom once upon a time. Examined closely, the Bible is an odd book as far as Holy Writ goes. The same applies to the scriptures of many world religions. Somewhere along the line someone decides that this book, or collection of palm leaves, or set of scrolls, has divine origins. And since world scripture is vast, there’s got to be something about Popes in there somewhere, for when the next end of the world scare comes along.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Mark of the Beast

namingantichristI grew up believing in “the Antichrist.” As I came to realize that much of the New Testament pointed to contemporary problems (for them) with the Roman Empire and that what appeared to be predictions were actually safe ways to discuss forbidden topics, I began to worry less. It was about the past, not the future. Recent political events have ratcheted up my anxiety level again—maybe there is such an evil after all. Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession is an important book in this regard. Although end-time worries have diminished among some now that we’re safely into a new millennium, for the true believer none of that matters. The Antichrist is a great motivator. I hadn’t realized until reading this book just how much of contemporary culture has grown from this fabricated fear.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning. In the Bible there is no figure known as “the Antichrist.” The generalized word antichrist is used only twice and in neither instance is the book in question Revelation. Early Christians speculated that the beast of Revelation might be “the Antichrist” but that identification wasn’t solidified until the beginnings of the Fundamentalist movement in the late 1800s. By the time Fundamentalism was a fully developed system, by about the 1920s, believing in the Antichrist and trying to identify him had become a cottage industry. I grew up in the shadow of Hal Lindsey and the pressing concern that “the Antichrist” was alive in the world today. Face it, The Omen loses something if he isn’t. This strange, non-biblical belief has come to define a large number of true believers.

Fuller’s book is important for the insight he brings into why some “Christians” are avowed enemies of peace, toleration, and the improvement of human conditions. Those who believe their tribe is the only correct one hold the double standard of ethical treatment of those inside and scorn and hatred of those without. This view believes that the world is to be condemned, natural resources used up, wars started, and civil rights suppressed, in the name of Christ. Perhaps you may begin to see why a chill ran down my spine as I was reading this book. We need to try to understand this perverted way of looking at the world in order to understand the forces that would rather see a dictatorial billionaire run the country than an eminently qualified woman. Reason’s got nothing to do with it. It’s all about conviction. Failure to understand that is perhaps the surest way to bring about the end of the world. We ignore religious thought to our own peril.

Omen, O Man!

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Of the unholy trinity of late-60s to mid-70s horror movies Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), the last always seemed the least effective to me. Having recently read about the Devil in American popular culture, and having a rainy Friday evening alone, I decided to give it a try again. Based as heavily on Hal Lindsey as it is, once one outgrows dispensationalism it is hard to be frightened by the idea of biblical end times. Everything from making up verses in “Revelations” to utterly bogus Holy Land geography (Megiddo is north of Jerusalem, not south—did the writers not even own a map?) contributes to a set of untenable tenets, even among the bibliterati. The film relies mostly on shocks and startles to earn its horror stripes, and after you’ve seen the movie once, these lose their power in subsequent viewings. Nevertheless, on this rainy May night, so close to June 6, I noticed new ways in which the movie undermines its own message.

The premise, of course, is that Damien, the son of the Devil (who apparently has a thing for bestiality), is plotting to take over the world through the means of politics. Having been watching the events of the past few months I have to wonder how the Devil could improve on progress through such channels. But I digress. His step-father Robert Thorn, US ambassador to London, discovers his “son”‘s identity and tries to kill him. With a strong anti-Catholic bias (the Antichrist is born in Rome, the seat of the church, and is protected by Roman clergy) the film nevertheless spawns sympathy for the Devil. As a child, Harvey Stephens hardly appears diabolical. Maybe it’s just because my brothers and I also spilled goldfish from their bowl once, but it seems to me he acts just like most little boys do. Who really wants to go to church at that age? As the movie approaches its climax, he’s represented as the biblical good-guy.

Thorn has to confirm Damien’s satanic identity. Like Delilah, he creeps up on the sleeping boy and cuts his hair. Convinced by a man who introduces himself “I am Bugenhagen” that he has to stab the boy, Thorn in a white car outraces police (so there might be a bit of prophecy here after all) to sacrifice the child on the altar. The movie casts Damien as both Samson and Isaac within a few short minutes. Apart from the film’s use of violence against women’s bodies (Thorn won’t allow an abortion, Kathy seems to have a penchant from falling from high places in slow motion, Baylock gets a fork in the neck) it actually seems ambivalent about the evil of the boy. An unfortunate birthmark does not a devil make. We’ve made it through the change of the millennium and many other hazards, yet dispensationalism is still with us, as is its anticlimactic Antichrist, Damien. He’s less scary than the real politics of an entirely secular age.

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.

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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.

Rorschach Test

Rutgers University, College Avenue Campus. I recall coming out on a sweltering night once in a while during a summer term, only to find a street evangelist inveighing against undergraduate evils. He, and it was invariably a he, may have delved into the darker sins of graduate students, but I didn’t stay around to find out. Colleges attempt to educate while street preachers try to halt the process. Shall we go forward or retreat? I occasionally run into off-campus preachers on my university visits. I still look like a professor, I suppose, so I am treated to their version of salvation along with the people less than half my age, facing all the temptations of adulthood. The last evangelists I saw were handing out tracts about the evils of tattoos. I know tattoos are very popular, although I’ve personally never seen the draw. With one eye cast warily ahead, I think of what happens when that firm bit of skin starts to sag and the bold decoration begins to shrivel to make us look less like rebels and more like crepe paper left too long in the rain. Besides, I could never think of a picture that I’d want attached to me for the rest of my life. Too many changes come along, best leaving tattoos for those who appreciate a strong dose of irony.

Tattoo

Our evangelist friends, of course, object because tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. I am the Lord,” so the Lord declares in Leviticus 19. I resisted the urge to ask my ersatz savior if his clothing contained any blends of materials, forbidden earlier in the same chapter. Or if he trimmed the hair on the sides of his head. Or rotated his crops. The problem, according to the tract, is that tattooing was considered a heathen or pagan activity as Christianity spread to new lands. Presumably the very popular cross or crucifix tattoo design had not yet evolved. The tattoo is a tribal mark, indicating loyalty to a (presumably unChristian) group. My tract sets itself out on a history of tattooing, and suggests that it became popular as a form of entertainment, suggestively knocking on the door of that devil, idleness. They even cite Rick Warren as making church too entertaining. This isn’t supposed to be fun, people!

The real problem is that tattooing is getting society prepared to receive the mark of the beast. With echoes of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth (now severely dated), the tract tells us that the mark is a tattoo and that among the most popular designs is the dragon. China, which venerates the dragon, is hostile to Christians—coincidence?! And, it should be noted, “Studies have shown that WOMEN who get DRAGON tattoos become more SELF CONFIDENT and ASSERTIVE” (emphasis in the original). And that, they want us to believe, is a bad thing. At least with Fundamentalists, agendas are rarely hidden. Too many assertive women and scheming foreigners are trying to lead us to the very tattoo parlor of the beast. Who knew that so much could be unpacked from half a verse in Leviticus? The name Levi, by the way, some suggest, comes from the same root as leviathan, the dragon.