Monday, May 23, 2011

The Psychology of Apocalypse: How poetry saved the world

Last weekend's abortive Judgment Day just goes to show what happens when you ignore the poets.

I didn't know anything about Harold Camping's theology, but I didn't need to know much to conclude that he was a dispensationalist. The theology of the man who garnered worldwide media attention for what turned out to be a failed prediction about the end of the world comes from a movement that began in the 19th century and has produced what we might charitably call the "Rapture industry."

Dispensationalism is a modernist school of theology within Protestantism that holds that God has ordained different and successive "ages" in the life of the church in each of which God relates to the church in some different way. God uses these dispensations to progressively unfold His revelation to the church. The exact number of these ages or dispensations depends on which dispensationalist you talk to, but they generally number from three to seven. What they agree upon, however, is that we are in the second-to-the-last age--the age that precedes the "Rapture."

The "Rapture" is the label affixed to the event whereby Jesus returns (sort of) and takes the church out of the world before the seven year tribulation because, you know, God would not allow Christians to be persecuted (despite the fact that He has allowed it repeatedly throughout history). It's the First Second Coming as opposed to the Second Second Coming, when He comes for real and kicks butt and takes names. This school of thought was initially popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible.

The dispensationalist view of the end times (what is called "premillenial pretribulationism," meaning that Jesus will return before a thousand year earthly reign after he has first sort of returned to take the church out of the world to spare it from a seven year tribulation period) overflowed its dispensationalist banks first in a book published in the 1970s called The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. The book was not only a bestseller; it was the biggest selling book of the decade (even though the New York Times somehow managed to prevent it from ever appearing on a bestseller list because it was a religious book), making Lindsey a multi-millionaire.

The view later spilled out into into non-evangelical world with onset of the Left Behind books, authored by Tim LaHaye and ghostwritten by Jerry Jenkins--books which also sold in the millions and were actually allowed to appear on the bestseller lists by the secular literary authorities.

The penchant for setting dates for the end of the world is a peculiarly dispensationalist habit. If you go back, you can find Lindsey doing it, although he did a better job of rhetorically hedging his bets than the more reckless Camping. For Lindsey, the date was 1988, which passed with a similar lack of apocalyptic action and a much smoother exit strategy by the author.

I call dispensationalism "modernist" because, like modernism in general, it is marked by the tendency to quantify the unquantifiable. This is the largest part of its appeal: it gives you definite answers, neat timelines, and simple, literal explanations. In fact, you've got to hand it to them: the dispensationalists produce the best charts. They have charts for the ages of the church, charts for the Rapture, charts for the millenium, charts for the tribulation.

In the early 1980s, the wags at a Christian satire magazine Wittenburg Door published a detailed End Times chart that showed the rapture of the newly rich Hal Lindsey's Porsche. Had it not been published so relatively early in his life, it might also have included the eschatological trajectory of all four of his successive wives.

The failure of dispensationalist End Times claims are due largely to a simple lack of poetic sense among its adherents. Apocalyptic literature is a literary mixture of the real and the visionary, the mundane and the fantasic, and the literal and the metaphorical that has a sort of surreal quality. It presents persons, places, and events that may have both a figurative and a concrete application, and that can have multiple referents. Time plays tricks and even numbers cannot be quantified.

What does the Beast represent? What is the meaning of his seven heads and ten horns? Who is the Anti-Christ? Who or what is Babylon? Under the gaze of a non-literary mind, each of these must have a definite one-on-one allegorical referent. The figurative must be pursued and rendered literal, and no metaphor can escape without being captured, tagged, and totaled.

There is little tolerance for poetic latitude, and there is no patience for the inexact.

To listen to people like Pat Robertson (another famous dispensationalist) try to explain the meaning of the Book of Revelation is a painful exercise because he is dealing with a form of expression that he simply does not understand. Poetry is a language with its own rules and its own methods of interpretation. It is a language with which these people are simply unfamiliar.

This is why Bob Dylan is a better theologian than Tim LaHaye. He at least understands the poetic. In fact, I've got a test that all interpreters of Revelation should have to pass before they are allowed to make public statements on the Book of Revelation. Here's how it works:

Test #1: The aspiring eschatologist should first be asked to interpret and explain Dante's Divine Comedy. If he cannot, then his prophet's license should be temporarily suspended.

Test #2: Next, he should be asked to explain the following poems: "The Second Coming," by William Butler Yeats; "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," by William Blake; and "The Hollow Men," by T. S. Eliot. If the candidate cannot perform this procedure either, he should be required to refrain from making public statements on the End Times altogether.

Test #3: If the aspiring prophet has failed the first two tests, he should be asked to make sense of the lyrics to the following songs: "The Earth Died Screaming," by Tom Waits; "When the Ship Comes In," by Bob Dylan; and "When the Man Comes Around," by Johnny Cash. If he stumbles here too, he should simply be put out of the city with a week's worth of provisions and told not to come back.

He's hopeless.


Andrew said...

As one who grew up dispensational and mastered all those charts as a child, I can agree with your concerns. However, you make one statement that utterly lacks nuance and completely fails to understand the essence of dispensationalism.

Like everybody else who wants to caricature them, you want to say that dispensationalists believe in a pre-tribulation rapture because they think the church must be delivered from persecution.

Now, I'll grant you that Lindsay and LaHaye/Jenkins pretty much trashed the dispensational scheme and made a public embarrassment of it by turning it into a comic book form of theology.

But I've also known some sober and thoughtful dispensationalists who weren't so childish and profiteering in their approach. the two things they always made clear is that it is an act of defiance against scripture to try to predict the date of the rapture and that the cause of the rapture of the church was not our Lord's quest to deliver them from persecution.

It's much deeper than that. The purpose of the GreatTribulation is not to purge the church. It is the time of Jacob's (Israel's) trouble, and it is a seven year period during which God will deliver Israel from their unbelief and usher them into the earthly millenial kingdom.

The church is a heavenly people with heavenly promises. Israel is an earthly people with earthly promises. Everything comes from that dichotomy.

If you ever want to get a clear understanding of the dispensationalism, which has some very deep insights mingled in with its fatal errors, just contact me.

Lee said...

We should be clear here that not all Protestants subscribe to dispensationalism. Some churches -- e.g., my church, the Presbyterian Church in America -- has no "official" stance on end-times theology.

Some people in my church, however, believe that many of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation have already come to pass. According to this narrative (partial-preterist, I think, is the correct term for it), John wrote the Book of Revelation ca. 64 AD as a warning of impending persecution to the various churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire. This would have been highly unusual, as Rome was in general very tolerant to indigenous religions within their empire. Also, according to this narrative, the prophecies culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, as a settling of the accounts with Jewish religious leaders for their accumulated sins, including the inciting of the Romans against the Christians to ignite this era of persecutions.

In this decidedly non-dispensationalist reading of Revelation, "the Beast" is Nero, who was emperor when the persecutions started. One of the things Nero liked to do was to attack chained-up victims sexually, making sounds like a wild animal while doing so. The term "Antichrist" occurs in John's other letters, not in Revelation, and is thought by partial-preterists simply to mean the heresy of gnosticism.

One could read your post, Martin, and come away thinking that you believe poetic content is all that there is in Revelation. But I don't think John was so much a poet as he was the last of the great, fulminating Old Testament prophets. Much of the imagery he employs is in the style of earlier prophets predicting the end of great cities such as Babylon and Ninevah.

KyCobb said...


Good reasoning. You should apply it to Genesis as well, instead of supporting the teaching of intelligent design pseudoscience. If one recognizes that Genesis is poetry, not meant to be taken literally, then there is no conflict between christianity and evolutionary theory.

Evan Oliver said...

Dispensationalists do not, as a rule set any kind of date for the return of Christ.The few who do command little respect from serious premillennial theologians such as Dr. Burns at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Also, in Revelation, I would submit that there is as much evidence that the text should be taken as 'poetic' or allegorical as there is in the early chapters of Genesis.

Keep up the good work and stay strong in the Lord.
With Respect,
Evan Oliver

Michael O. said...

Thanks for this. I can only add that Biblical literalists should notice that militant atheists tend to be literalists as well, and both get it wrong from opposite sides.

Singring said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Singring said...

'I can only add that Biblical literalists should notice that militant atheists tend to be literalists as well, and both get it wrong from opposite sides.'

Not really. Atheists just point out that either you claim the Bible is the true and inspired word of God or it is not. As soon as you admit to 'poetry' or other wishy-washy literary forms or errors or any other problems with the book, the entire concept of Christianity crumbles into an incoherent mess because you can then simply proceed to pick and choose whichever verses, lines, paragraphs you think are accurate at any given time and ignore the rest.

Earth is spherical and not flat? No problem - those Bible verses are obviously metaphorical.

There is no evidence of a global flood? Well, that was clearly just an allegory.

Stoning unruly children to death?
Why, that was the old law of course, we shouldn't be doing those thinsg today, no sir!

But the ten commandments, the sayings of Jesus, the ressurrection?

Those are all hard facts of course, even though they stem from the exact same book you just discredited as a source for truth in every other way.

It is this cognitive dissonance that drives atheists around the bend sometimes. They simply try to illustrate that if you don't take the Bible literally in every aspect, then by what justification do you take only some aspects of it literally?

The answer is, of course, that most religious people (i.e. the 'moderates') take from the Bible whatever tickles their fancy and meshes with the current scientific knowledge and moral standards of society.

Hence we find 30,000 or more Christian denominations, because just like in any other diverse set of people no-one can quite agree as to which parts are the ones that are treu and which ones are ficticious.

Anonymous said...

[Thanks, Vital. It's vital that all see what I found on the net. Al]


How can the “rapture” be “imminent”? Acts 3:21 says that Jesus “must” stay in heaven (He's now there with the Father) “until the times of restitution of all things” which includes, says Scofield, “the restoration of the theocracy under David’s Son” which obviously can’t begin before or during Antichrist’s reign. ("The Rapture Question," by the long time No. 1 pretrib authority John Walvoord, didn't dare to even list, in its scripture index, the too-hot-to-handle Acts 3:21!) Since Jesus can’t even leave heaven before the tribulation ends (Acts 2:34, 35 echo this), the rapture therefore can't take place before the end of the trib! (The above verses from Acts were also too hot for John Darby - the so-called "father of dispensationalism" - to list in the scripture index in his "Letters"!)
Paul explains the “times and the seasons” (I Thess. 5:1) of the catching up (I Thess. 4:17) as the “day of the Lord” (5:2) which FOLLOWS the posttrib sun/moon darkening (Matt. 24:29; Acts 2:20) WHEN “sudden destruction” (5:3) of the wicked occurs! The "rest" for "all them that believe" is tied to such destruction in II Thess. 1:6-10! (If the wicked are destroyed before or during the trib, who'd be left alive to serve the Antichrist?) Paul also ties the change-into-immortality “rapture” (I Cor. 15:52) to the posttrib end of “death” (15:54). (Will death be ended before or during the trib? Of course not! And vs. 54 is also tied to Isa. 25:8 which is Israel's posttrib resurrection!)
Many are unaware that before 1830 all Christians had always viewed I Thess. 4’s “catching up” as an integral part of the final second coming to earth. In 1830 this "rapture" was stretched forward and turned into a separate coming of Christ. To further strengthen their novel view, which the mass of evangelical scholars rejected throughout the 1800s, pretrib teachers in the early 1900s began to stretch forward the “day of the Lord” (what Darby and Scofield never dared to do) and hook it up with their already-stretched-forward “rapture.” Many leading evangelical scholars still weren’t convinced of pretrib, so pretrib teachers then began teaching that the “falling away” of II Thess. 2:3 is really a pretrib rapture (the same as saying that the “rapture” in 2:3 must happen before the “rapture” ["gathering"] in 2:1 can happen – the height of desperation!).
Other Google articles on the 181-year-old pretrib rapture view include “Famous Rapture Watchers,” "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," “X-Raying Margaret,” "Edward Irving is Unnerving," “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” "Walvoord Melts Ice," “Wily Jeffrey,” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers,” “Roots of (Warlike) Christian Zionism,” “Scholars Weigh My Research,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” "Pretrib Rapture Secrecy," “Deceiving and Being Deceived,” and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" – all by the author of the bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” (see Armageddon Books).