OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.

Not Quite Eschatology

Realized eschatology, if you’ll pardon my French, is a term that describes the “already/not yet” aspect of the “end of the world.”  In other words, some theologians suggest that the eschaton—the end—has elements of both the present and the future in it.  The term came back to me yesterday as we returned to our old apartment to take care of things the movers left behind.  (And “left behind,” I realize, isn’t really a biblical eschatological concept at all.)  Joined by our daughter, I felt a bit resentful of her time being taken from our new home to spend in the old.  I felt an almost adulterous desire to leave the old and cleave to the new—hadn’t we already paid, and overpaid, for that apartment many times over?  The house, on the other hand, is new (to us) and still requires much attention.

As we organized the remaining items, broke down boxes we didn’t use this time around, and waited for the Got Junk guys to arrive and haul it away, I noticed our daughter gazing wistfully at the empty space that had once had our imprint all over it.  It dawned on me that she’d spent her teenage years here—after the Nashotah House debacle, this was the place she’d lived the longest.  This empty apartment was, for her, home.  I began to feel insensitive about my earlier anxiety to leave.  We all live between at least two worlds—our pasts make us who we are in the present.  The world of our teenage years is fraught with emotion and memory.  The world looked so different at that time, as I sometimes forget.

Moving is one of the most stressful situations human beings encounter.  We have a love/hate relationship with our past.  To me the apartment represented a place we occupied out of a kind of desperation.  Five states to the west, we had to move to New Jersey with little money and tons of boxes—one of them Pandora’s, with hope nestled inside.  We told ourselves the apartment was temporary—maybe a year—only until we could buy a house.  Twelve months turned into a decade, then more, with each year accreting memories in every crack and corner.  Part of us will always be in that apartment, for every place people have lived before is haunted.  On our way back to our new home at the end of the day, we were each lost in our thoughts.  Perhaps not so much realized eschatology as experienced reality, we’d spent a day in a present that will never fully arrive.

What Rapture

rapturecultureEvangelical culture must be an endlessly fascinating area of study for sociologists. So pervasive that many people who aren’t religious buy into aspects of it, this social movement has shaped American thought in often unexpected ways. Take the rapture, for example. Here is a non-biblical concept, invented in the late nineteenth century and so thoroughly disseminated that most people simply accept it as standard Christian belief. It’s not. Amy Johnson Frykholm pieces part of this puzzle together by focusing on the Left Behind series. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America is one of those books where you find plenty of food for thought as you go along. Not that the novel series itself is profound, but the impact that it has is.

The origins of the rapture go back to a way of thinking called dispensationalist premillennialism. That alone could be why so few people know about it! All this phrase means is that some Christians believe history is divided into distinct periods (dispensations), one of which is the end of the world. Among dispensationalists, there is disagreement on when the rapture will come, and those in the majority believe it will happen before the millennium (not the Y2K millennium, but the millennium of God’s reign on earth before the world ends—the next dispensation). These are the premillennialists. It’s easy to think that since this system is pure mythology it must be simple. It’s not. This is a complex mapping of the future based on an intimate knowledge of obscure verses from the Bible. The Left Behind series, written by Jerry Jenkins under the guidance of the finally departed Timothy LaHaye, brought this idea into mainstream culture. There was even a movie.

Many educated citizens don’t realize that Left Behind has a Harry Potter-like following. Sales of the series are into the millions of units and many of those who read them take them somewhat seriously. Frykholm interviewed such readers to find out what they actually thought about the series and whether it was something they believed in. As might be expected, answers differ considerably on these points. For me one of the real takeaways is that we ignore evangelical culture at our own peril. I learned about the rapture form Chick tracts—I’ve posted about them before—that I read in my childhood. By the time of Left Behind I’d been through enough courses that I knew it was all based on a fictional event. But many don’t realize that. And many of them showed up in the last presidential election.

Behind Left Behind

Now that September’s here, we can begin thinking back over the summer, scratch our heads, and say “huh?” We’ve been so blinded by the Trump that we haven’t had time to reminisce over what’s been happening fundamentally. I mean among the Fundamentalists. This summer Timothy LaHaye went to his reward, followed this week by Phyllis Schlafly. I’m sure they’re basking in an all white, straight, and Protestant Heaven. For those of you unfamiliar with LaHaye’s name, you’ll know his fruits. The Left Behind series was his brainchild and many other aspects of this not-yet-raptured world spun from his squeaky-clean mind. He and Ms. Schlafly spent their lives telling others how to be good. I’m sure their only regret is that they won’t be here to be raptured away so they can see the look on the rest of our faces. No matter, they’ve gone to a better place.

Also this summer Lyle Jeffs, another sort of Fundamentalist, also disappeared. Under arrest for some suspected crime or other, Jeffs escaped from the FBI by worming out of an ankle monitor. His attorney, however, has suggested that Jeffs was raptured instead. Come to think of it, that could explain these other disappearances as well. It’s a regular Bermuda Triangle of Fundamentalists, it seems. The rapture is the ultimate excuse because the Almighty can trump any suit, any hand. Maybe they all just wanted to get off the earth before this fall’s elections. Fundamentalism, it seems, is missing from the political docket this year. Whereas since I’ve been able to vote candidates have been raising issues of concern to the more right-wing contingent, this year the fundies seem to have vanished. Maybe the rapture did occur after all.

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You see, I’ve read enough of the scenarios to know that those left behind are always confused. They don’t believe in a rapture and the missing people are only part of the problem. Things are going awry (again, look at the politics and differ!). What will life be like in this post-rapture world? How will we survive with our conscience gone? All things considered, it’s going pretty well. Missing the rapture was one of my greatest childhood fears. Like all good Fundamentalists I assumed I wouldn’t be deemed worthy of that first reaping. I’d be left to suffer through tribulation and, hopefully, beyond that salvation might lie. LaHaye and Schlafly got out before the action started. Lyle Jeffs, his lawyer suggests, did too. The FBI found olive oil all over the ankle tag and, perhaps, the signs of a struggle. I’ve watched enough movies to know that when someone is raptured, however, all their clothes are left behind. The only way mortals ever face the Almighty is naked as the day they were born again.

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.

Contriving the Rapture

In the light of last month’s failed rapture attempt, I decided to read a book that I picked up some years ago that had been written in the wake of the millennial scare. Having grown up with nightmares of the rapture, I learned during my first college class on the book of Revelation that it was relatively modern meme, invented in the nineteenth century. Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed seemed a good way to refresh my memory without having to go through all those boxes of books in the attic to find my original textbooks. Rossing, a Lutheran minister and New Testament professor, brings to light some very important facts beyond the historical roots of this theological fabrication—facts that should concern religious and secular alike. The rapture was invented by John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren and convoluted biblical scholar. Basing his roadmap of the future singularly on Daniel 9, he concocted the rapture to make sense of his apocalyptic epiphany. Drawing diverse sections of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the Gospel of Matthew, and the book of Revelation together, he mixed thoroughly, half-baked it, and pulled the rapture out of the oven.

The idea caught like wildfire. Today young people who’ve never read the Bible and who’ve seldom attended religious services know what the rapture is. What they do not realize is that nearly all of the Christian tradition rejects it, seeing it for what it is—a Johnny-come-lately of amateur theology that sees the Bible through the lenses of dilettante-sensibilities like those of Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code man). Instead of seriously reading the Bible and trying to understand it, society prefers to see it as a little bit of magic in the midst of our scientific and technical world view. It is a safe place where bits of the supernatural are preserved and that defies rational explanation. Rossing’s book does a good job of exposing the wrong-headedness of LaHaye’s Left Behind conclave, but she overlooks an important feature of this coterie: they have an unconfessed agenda.

The unspoken agenda is best summed up by Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad when he says, “blowing away a fleeing suspect with my 44 magnum used to mean everything to me. I enjoyed it, well who wouldn’t?” Rossing misunderstands Fundamentalism when she expresses surprise at the bloodlust present in the Left Behind novels. What she doesn’t take into account is that, as a collective, Fundamentalists thrive on self-righteousness. Feeling the same violent urges that others do—all humans experience violent emotions—they sublimate that aggression and save it for the unrighteous—God’s enemies. When the gloves come off in the apocalypse, that hatred bursts out in good, old-fashioned bloodletting—albeit with combat helicopters and high-tech weaponry. Of the Christians I know who own guns, the Fundamentalists are most avid in their rights to do so. In college I met my first Christian survivalists and I learned that the rapture was a ruse. It is a deadly mix, especially when this warped theology makes it into politics. Although Rossing’s vision of a new earth in the second half of her book may not appeal to everyone, Americans should read at least the first few chapters to learn why the rapture will never occur.

This Year’s Apocalypse

Sundays are notoriously slow news days. The local paper, therefore, ran a whimsical headline: “Will the world end on May 21? Are you ready?” Nearly 40 billboards are asking Garden State commuters (as if they aren’t already stressed enough) if they are prepared to meet their doom. This year’s apocalypse is sponsored by Howard Camping, a California prognosticator with an history of calculating the world’s end. Given that our daily experience confirms uniformitarian processes on this planet have been in place for millennia – and even longer – the belief in a cataclysmic termination of billions of years’ work is rampant as ever. The end of the world, as touted in the media, is always based on religious precepts of some sort or another. Our scientifically scheduled apocalypse is about five billion years away when the sun becomes a red giant. (The biggest threat to capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

Why do so many religions want to see it all burn? Life certainly has more than its fair share of misery and suffering. Apocalyptic scenarios abound in disadvantaged communities – the final leveler of all inequalities will put us all in the same place. Privilege creates as many problems as it does boondoggles. A truly evolved race would wish to share its good fortune to those without access to resources of the more fortunate. It is a severely effaced line between inequality and iniquity at the best of times. Those who don’t get a fair shake in this life look for a better lottery pick in Heaven’s jackpot.

But why do affluent people share this urge to watch it all explode to a theological fantasy-land? The local electrical engineer funding the billboards, is quoted by Star-Ledger staff as saying, “Seven billion people are facing their death! What else could I do?” My humble suggestion would be to put that money toward helping those who do not have enough. The underprivileged could be made to suffer considerably less with the obscene income of the Left Behind franchise. Instead that money is being funneled into questionable political causes. Maybe it is best that the world end next month after all. I’ve put it on my calendar, but I’m still expecting to be around for the 2012 apocalypse as well.

An apocalypse worth waiting for!