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.

Shopping for Fear

So I decided to visit a Halloween store. These have been showing up with metronomic regularity in September for several years now and are usually good for a cheap thrill. My personal preference for Halloween is more somber than garish, but the affirmation that other people enjoy a safe scare has a way of drawing me in. Those who read this blog on a regular basis know that I frequently point out commonalities between fear and religion. They both seem to hover around the same orbit in the brain, and, in some accidentals are very similar. Horror films therefore often indulge in religious imagery, and monsters do not infrequently partake of the divine. So it is no surprise to see my thesis borne out in shops intending to capitalize on fear.

I will freely admit that there may be cultural references that I’m missing here. A movie that I’ve neglected, or some television show or graphic novel may be informing some of the images in ways I can’t comprehend. Nevertheless, we all know of the power of the crucifix when it comes to vampires. I wasn’t aware that the cross had horrific effects on other species of monsters as well. Take this guy here. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be—perhaps a zombie? It seems a little too corporeal to be a demon. The teeth just don’t look right for a vampire. In any case, he seems to have an extreme reaction to religion, with the cross melting right into his skull. Is there a conversion message hidden here somewhere? Of course it could be just a chinzy attempt to scare a real religiophobe. The cross has become the backup weapon against all supernatural evil.

The use of a grim-reaperish ghoul rising from the grave to illustrate The Rapture was a new one on me. Last I heard only the squeaky clean and friends of the Tea Party got to go on the Rapture. (Well, the latter category might explain it.) The idea of the Rapture, as it was fabricated late in the nineteenth century, involved the chance for all the good Christians to escape before things really got rough down here for us normal folk. I would’ve thought that scary guys like this joining the heavenly crusade might take a little bit of the joy out of the occasion. Or maybe they’re being left here to haunt the rest of us. In either case it is clear that consumers respond to religious sounding language and symbolism when looking for a scare. Obviously there is plenty in the store with no religious significance at all, but finding hints of religion scattered in with the plastic scares does show a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of human sentiments and emotions. It’s only appropriate when the nights are now longer than the days.

Wired for God

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. When my fascination with the newest technological marvel borders on the rhapsodic, I suddenly realize it’s all electrons and immediately the fascination dissipates. It feels like an illusion. I am a guy who likes the sensation of a paper book in his hands and prefers conversation accompanied by all the subtle biological clues of being in the same room with somebody. Maybe it is lack of imagination on my part, but I will often get bored on the Internet and pick up a book instead. One book I recently picked up, and one that challenged my perception of reality, was Rachel Wagner’s Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality (Routledge, 2011). Wagner is one of that generation of younger scholars who is asking what the implications of electronic culture are for religion. If concepts such as online prayer walls, chat-bot salvation, and storing sacred texts on the same device as secular ones intrigue you, do yourself a favor and read this book.

As Wagner ably points out, religious individuals are tapping into the vast communications’ potential of the Internet to spread their faith abroad. There are apps to help you pray online, there are electronic games to prepare you for the fictitious rapture, and there are virtual churches. We have indeed sealed God in an Xbox, and we have beamed the divine across wireless networks and learned to confess our sins in cyberspace. And physicists are starting to confirm that, at our most basic level, we are energy rather than matter after all. Maybe we are tapping into ultimate reality here. Wagner explores how the level of engagement with virtual worlds constructed by software engineers (the new gods) becomes so intense as to provide an alternate reality. It all depends on how you define what is real. And it is clear that for many people, life without the Internet is now unimaginable. Those of us born before the supercomputer scratch our physical heads with amazement. How did Nebuchadrezzar or Alexander ever conquer the known world without GPS technology? Does my iPhone have a secret life about which I know nothing?

Within our culture live many older people who have never touched a computer. They exist alongside grandchildren practically born with some iDevice in their grasp (may be a choking hazard for children under three). I have lived long enough already to have witnessed keyboarding being replaced by thumbing, and research having shifted from long treks to the library in the snow to a few taps on a glass screen that can feel the electricity from my chilly fingers. From the comfort of my lonely room sings my soul, how great thou art! Perhaps Terminator didn’t go far enough, perhaps Skynet really is god. Maybe this matrix of blood, muscle, bone, fat, and spit is really just an illusion and the Internet is true revelation. Wagner pries open some very important questions in her book. And none of us should be surprised if, when we approach the pearly gates, we find a touchpad next to the electronic lock inscribed with this legend: “Welcome to Heaven. Please enter username and password. Type in the letters you see in the box below.”

Facebook Apocalypse

Facebook can be a fickle friend. Oh yes, there are rules that we know everyone doesn’t quite obey. You are not allowed to falsify evidence about yourself on the great FB, although characters like Jesus have their own pages. The Chronicle of Higher Education this week followed the efforts of a University of Nevada at Reno librarian who tried to use Facebook for educational purposes. Donnelyn Curtis had set up Facebook accounts for two students early in the twentieth century to give current students an idea of how times had changed. The pages were summarily removed by Facebook staff, leading to the unfortunate second deaths of Joe McDonald and Leola Lewis. Second deaths always get me thinking about the book of Revelation. After all, we are now into the fatal year of 2012.

My Mayan Calendar

Few events elicit religious fervor like the end of the world. In the most highly touted end-of-the-world scenario since 2000, 2012 has emerged as the great contender for wrapping up the show we call life on earth. When I spotted a calendar to prepare the user for the end of the world, well, how could I resist? Each month on this terminal calendar features facts pointing to the culmination of this strange experiment that evolution hath wrought. If we can’t pull off a good, old-fashioned Evangelical rapture (sorry Rev. Camping), maybe the Maya can get the job done. They certainly managed to pull off an impressive vanishing act a few centuries back. Or did they? Despite the overrunning of enthusiastically avaricious Christian invaders, the Maya accommodated themselves to less-than-ideal circumstances and survived. They are still among us. Their culture, however, didn’t fare so well at the hand of the church. Nobody’s asking them about any of this.

Apocalyses occur all the time. When religions meet, one inevitably tries to vanquish the other. No one walks out of that arena without a limp. And the winners look over their shoulders for ever after. To prepare for this apocalypse, the January on my new calendar narrates how the Mayans and Egyptians shared some cultural secrets—such as how to build pyramids. How did they know about one another? My calendar says they could have walked across Atlantis, or they might have been carried by giant, domesticated condors. Either alternative seems as likely as the other. Either alternative seems about as likely as the world ending this year. But then again, already in 2012 a couple of promising young people have already been kicked off of Facebook for being dead. I think I feel the apocalypse beginning already.

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.

Eyre the Apocalypse

Finishing Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre last night proved timely from the point of view of today’s much anticipated apocalypse. (I hate to leave a book unfinished as the final trump begins to sound.) As I stress to my students at Rutgers (when I actually have a class), the Bible surrounds them whether they are aware of it or not. Quite aside from the present rapture-envy—that one’s just too easy—reading literature of the nineteenth century is an excellent way to show the Bible’s influence on western culture. Jane Eyre is suffused with biblical allusions and direct references, even with the faulty theological notions that the Scriptures had hatched in that century. Of course, the Bronte sisters, all successful novelists, were the children of a clergyman, but other writers of the period demonstrate an equally biblical worldview. In fact, much of the dramatic tension in the present novel revolves around distinctly biblical issues.

Interspersed with my reading of classical novels, I read many more recent literary explorations as well. A couple of weeks ago I completed Stephen King’s It, not a particularly favorite novel, but one that at times demonstrated that even masters of the macabre frequently draw on the Bible. For modern literature the Bible is the ultimate foundation. It would be interesting to live long enough to see if it still has any relevancy at the end of the present century. Jane Eyre, perceptive as most nineteenth century novels are, also pressed directly the wound that currently afflicts much of our nation. Cast upon misfortune, Miss Eyre is mistaken for a beggar. Miss Bronte observes, “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education,” a line that should be emblazoned upon the door of public officials who feel it is their right to withdraw funding from public education. You want an apocalypse? That’s the recipe right there.

Nevertheless, Miss Eyre presses on until she reclaims the man who had once “stood between me and every thought of religion,” dodging an impassioned missionary along the way. In revealing the manipulations of the cousin who dies on the mission fields, enriched by Miss Eyre’s beneficence, once again Charlotte Bronte displays her perception of how the church may ultimately rob a soul of its true potential. Upon learning of his death, the now Mrs. Rochester ends this penetrating novel with his words, strangely appropriate for this day of fictional endings: “’My Master,’ he says, ‘has forewarned me. Daily he announces more distinctly—“Surely I come quickly!” and hourly I more eagerly respond, —“Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!”’” Of course, St. John is here quoting Revelation 22.20. Since I am scheduled to run a 5-K in a couple of hours, if the second coming is about to happen, it would be convenient should it transpire before I end up exhausted in my own personal apocalypse.

Jane Eyre stopping one of the horsemen of the apocalypse?