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Earl Doherty

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Are American evangelicals living in an asylum...
or should they be committed to one?
(July 26, 2006)

Watching CNN interviews of several Christian pastors and writers over the last week has left me wondering whether we are residing in a nation of lunatics. The Christian evangelical community is all agog over the latest crisis in the Middle East, seeing it as the biblically prophesied prelude to Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. Never mind that they’ve entertained the same fantasy half a dozen times in the last few decades (and countless other times over the centuries). I seem to remember biblical fulfillments in 1983, 1989, 1997 and of course 2000, and probably a few others while I wasn't looking. It is impossible to treat such people with anything other than ridicule (and not a little dismay), and even the CNN interviewers seemed to have trouble keeping a straight face.

According to Joel Rosenberg, author of the apocalyptic novel The Copper Scroll, the present conflict in Israel and Lebanon was prophesied in Ezekiel 38-39 and Zechariah 12:1-3. Of course, mainstream biblical scholarship has long recognized that these passages do no such thing, but refer to events of the prophets’ own times and their immediate wishful thinking about their own futures. This is the period of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the Exile of much of the Hebrew population to foreign lands in the 6th century BCE. A number of prophets during this period spoke in the name of the “Lord God” and made various prophecies about a return of the exiles and a restoration of Israel; this was to be followed by an uprising of the surrounding peoples against the restored nation, from which Israel would emerge victorious. Those latter peoples are identified as “Gog, Rosh, Meshech and Tubal,” all terms for nations currently in existence in the prophets’ time, in northern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Zechariah 12:1-3 also speaks of “the nations of the earth gathered against Jerusalem,” but they too would be dashed against Jerusalem’s rock, with its people triumphant through the power of the Lord God. This passage is generally dated some time after the restoration, reflecting a degree of disillusionment that the grand prophecies of the Exilic period had not lived up to their promise, Israel now being under the heel of the Persians. (Rather than abandon such prophecies as failed fantasies, they were simply shunted off to yet another impending future, a practice still in vogue in our own time. Nothing can dissuade or discourage the apocalyptic mind.)

The other thing that prophecy scholars cling to is their “atomistic” methods of interpreting scripture: ignore contexts, selectively choose words and phrases and force them into the desired mold, allegorize uncooperative terms (even within their declared context of taking the word of God literally). The nation referred to above as “Rosh” has actually been suggested to mean modern Russia, a claim that even the ultra-conservative New Bible Dictionary argues is probably wrong because “this name is not attested in the area, and a very distant people named thus early is unlikely in the context”; and so they opt for Rosh as referring to Assyria. (Too bad the NBD is not so consistent in evaluating unlikelihoods and uncooperative contexts in other places.) That entire section of Ezekiel 30-39 also speaks in its earlier part of the Lord God’s wrath and destruction to be visited upon Egypt, something notably missing in this modern prelude to Armageddon, but this is conveniently ignored. Ezekiel 38:11 speaks of the nations attacking a restored Israel, where its people live “quiet and undisturbed, undefended by walls.” One wonders when such a quiet state of affairs was ever in existence in the new Jewish state since it was established in 1948, or why Ezekiel overlooked the walls presently thrown up around Gaza and the West Bank. 38:15 also speaks of those attacking nations as “all riding on horses.” Perhaps this is the way Ezekiel chose to represent modern tanks and Katusha rocket launchers, so as not to confuse his readers.

Speaking of which, if these passages were not meant to refer to ancient contemporary conditions, how would their readers have made sense of them? How would the prophets declaring them have gained a popular following; who would have bothered to preserve writings that had no contemporary relevance? Did Ezekiel himself understand what he was doing, that he was writing about events 2,500 years in the future? Did God reveal to him that he was simply serving as a mouthpiece to alert Joel Rosenberg and Jerry Falwell 25 centuries hence that the end of the world was nigh? If not, was God, long before his Chosen People had rejected Jesus Christ, already disowning them to the extent that he was deliberately misleading his prophets and people as to the meaning and purpose of these writings, ready to leave them in the dark for centuries and betray his apparent promises to them? Of course, Jesus himself kept up the charade, since he too intimated that the end of the world was due shortly after his time. He was seconded by the apostle Paul (whose writings, after all, are God’s word) who certainly looked like he believed it was coming in his generation.

Did it not occur to Joel Rosenberg to wonder why an omnipotent God—let alone a sane one—would operate in this fashion? Burying these obscure references in ancient writings, confusing millennia of readership, in order to provide an alert to American evangelicals at the beginning of the 21st century? If I were God, I’d be highly insulted at the aspersions this cast on my integrity, my rationality, my sense of humor and fairness. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that God was simply bored out of his mind (how does a Deity keep himself interested across the passage of eternity?) and had altogether too much time on his hands. Perhaps he was losing that mind, tormenting us over the centuries like a disturbed adolescent who plucks the wings off butterflies. Or perhaps it was a test of our rationality, seeing how far we would carry this nonsense before breaking down, or waking up to reality—a test too many of us are still failing. None of this is any more fantastic or ridiculous than what current evangelicals are themselves imputing to their God and his bizarre prophetic indulgences.

The co-author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, Jerry Jenkins, was interviewed on CNN along with Mr. Rosenberg. The lead-in to that interview was a report of the recent unearthing of an ancient manuscript of the Book of Psalms, which when dug out was found to be open at a certain psalm whose words had a seeming relevance to the present mid-east war. (I missed recording that lead-in, but it may have been Psalm 83, which speaks of a league of nations against Israel, seeking to eradicate her.) Jenkins, when asked to comment on this, said in all seriousness that “God finds ways of communicating with us.” Well, how about speaking to us directly, rather than going to the trouble of burying a book for millennia, open at a tantalizing cryptic passage? This does little more than allow people like Rosenberg and Jenkins to write books that separate millions of foolish and gullible people from their money (62 million and counting for the Left Behind series).

The CNN interviewer asked Jenkins point blank: “What do you answer to people who say that Jerry and Joel are crazy, to take a book written more than a thousand years ago and try to apply it to today?” Jenkins answered that since “all the Old Testament prophecies of Christ coming as a baby were literally true, what if the New Testament prophecies were also to be taken as literally true?” (He was referring to the Book of Revelation.) This hardly answers the “crazy” accusation, but it is based on ignoring modern biblical scholarship on the Hebrew bible, which has seriously undercut the traditional Christian perception that those so-called prophecies in the Jewish scriptures were about the future Jesus. And it certainly overlooks cutting-edge critical scholarship of the New Testament, which has come to the conclusion (even if it doesn’t deny the actual existence of Jesus and the simple fact of an historical crucifixion) that the elements of the Gospel story have been created by its authors out of those Old Testament passages, in the process known as midrash. (Making it not surprising that so many “events” of the Gospels have “fulfilled” the “prophecies.”) CNN, in another recent feature, included an interview with a liberal Christian pastor in New York City, Kevin Bean, who called all this evangelical furor “fiction created like a Stephen King horror movie.” Revelation, he claimed, was not to be taken so literally. That it corresponds to present events is, in his words, “a crock.” Yet 59% of the American population believe that Revelation’s events will literally occur at some point in the future, 17% during their own lifetimes. An evangelical “Rapture Index” on the World Wide Web puts its numerical indicator at 156, which, according to CNN, represents a “fasten your seat belt” level.

That other feature on CNN included scenes from a Pentacostal Church in Dallas, with its pastor Craig Tredwell declaring to his congregation that “your salvation is tied to events in the Middle East! Are we in World War III now? It certainly looks like it.” He told them that the Bible prophesies that “two billion people will die!” This is based on Revelation 9:15 which tells us that four angels will be let loose “to kill a third of mankind.” (The longer God puts off the apocalypse, the greater the number of people who have to die in fulfillment of this prophecy.) Why is there such an emphasis by the fundamentalist mind on the horrors scripture promises to the world? Why are they so eager to impute to God so much atrocity and disaster to be visited upon his creation? The evangelicals interviewed on CNN (and it is, of course, a repeated motif wherever they appear) were fixated on one thing above all: the mayhem, suffering and death that would attend the end of the world. They seem to anticipate it with relish, God’s scorched earth policy in bringing about his schemes for ‘salvation.’ One has to assume that the fundamentalist mind craves such things. Certainly, that seems to be the case in their appeal to Revelation as a literal prophecy of what is to come. The Book of Revelation—a paroxysm of hate created by a mind bordering on the psychotic! What would the evangelicals do without it? It has been their lifeblood, their intravenous support for nineteen centuries. Hail and fire upon the earth, stars falling from the heavens, locusts and scorpions, plagues, malignant sores, earthquakes and seas of blood, slaughtering angels on fiery steeds. (And that’s just on Monday.)

There is a type of mental illness that impels its sufferers to injure themselves, to cut and draw blood, to flagellate their bodies. (Is it to feed their obsessive sense of guilt, self-worthlessness, perhaps due to childhood abuse or indoctrination?) It may even lead to the urge to torture others, to inflict pain on those around them, to take satisfaction in seeing the sufferings of others. One of the “delights” promised to the saved is to be able look down from heaven upon the eternal torments of the damned in hell. I am not a psychologist, and I doubt that the psychological profession has ever undertaken a serious study of what drives the fundamentalist mentality in its fascination with such things, but there can be little question that it does speak to some form of mental illness. Our CNN interviewee, co-author of the Left Behind series, Mr. Jerry Jenkins, was such a modest looking man, with a soft white beard, fatherly eyes, calm and reasoned in his demeanor, even while maintaining the need to interpret Revelation literally. Yet what visions of chaos and destruction and the bloodletting of his fellow human beings by the heavenly armies of God fill his mind, comfort his nights, while he awaits the events heralding the Rapture and the arrival of his Redeemer. He and so many others support the Jewish state of Israel, but the latter is required for their End-time fantasies, for according to them, the Jews in Israel will ultimately suffer a holocaust that will make the Nazi effort look like a visit to grandma’s.

But the scariest thing in the CNN interview with Rosenberg and Jenkins was the former’s statement that he had been consulted by the White House, by Capitol Hill, by the CIA, (he even threw in unnamed Arab leaders), in order that they might “understand the Middle East through the lens of biblical prophecy.” The CNN interviewer asked with incredulous chagrin, “Are you saying that they are incorporating it into foreign policy?” Rosenberg hastened to say, “I wouldn’t go that far,” but one has to wonder. One hears that the White House and other government departments under Bush’s Republicans are warrens of Bible study and prayer groups; we know that the Reagan administration in the 80s was very attuned to biblical forecasts (James Watt had no concerns over the environment because the Second Coming was around the corner). I would very much doubt that in their innermost counsels biblical prophecy does not play a role in the thinking and the policy of the Bush administration. And that is frightening indeed.

Jenkins volunteered that biblical prophecy was intercept from the mind of God, and thus a fairly remarkable intelligence. Perhaps after consultation with Rosenberg, the CIA has a new category called ‘divine chatter. (Too bad it didnt pick up some of that chatter prior to September 11, from a God who we are assured blesses America.)

“We are in or near the final seven years before Armageddon!” declares Pastor Craig Stedwell in Dallas, Texas. His congregation stands in their place, arms and voices raised in glory of the Lord. It is one thing to do this to oneself as an adult, to welcome the destruction of your world and fellow humanity, to commit intellectual suicide and turn your mind to mush. But what of the children? What is it doing to them? How are they expected to grow up mentally healthy when they are fed from the youngest age such lunatic views about the universe around them and what they can expect in their own near future? What gives any parent or community the right to inflict this kind of abuse on innocent minds not yet able to exercise critical thinkingand probably forever to be deprived of that ability? Why are scars on the body forbidden by law, but scars on the mind and psyche that in many cases cripple a child for life are not only permitted but accepted as part of the natural order of things? Why should we cast a benevolent gaze (let alone a state supported one) upon institutions which perpetuate such primitive and self-destructive fantasies, which seek to impose millennia-old ignorance and superstition on the life and laws of modern society?

Yes, this is the 21st century. We now know that the earth goes around the sun, that there is no Hell a few miles below the earth’s surface, that endless space extends skyward with no sign of Heaven or God. We know that the universe was not created in 6 days less than 10,000 years ago, but that it has been around for billions of years and that life on our own planet has evolved over the last couple of those. We are increasingly understanding the natural workings of the world around us, and the workings of our own human natures. We ought to realize that there are no angels and no devils, that study or dissection of the human body gives no evidence of a soul or spirit. We ought to see that there are no provable miracles, that prayer accomplishes nothing that cannot be put down to coincidence and statistics, that believers are no more ethical than atheists, that no one has ever come back from the dead, or even communicated from there, to give us any indication that there is an afterlife. We ought to admit that no theologian has ever satisfactorily accounted for the existence of evil in a universe run by an all-loving God, and that believing in a God or a personal Savior has never advanced human progress and the betterment of life on this earth by one iota, and more often than not has impeded it. We ought to discredit the very principle of religion, that one given group possesses the sole truth (invariably in opposition to science and reason), is the recipient of divine favor and destiny, and has a right to resort to war or terrorism to establish its God-given supremacy. We ought to…yet we persist in perpetuating our primitive faiths to the clear detriment of society and mental health, of human rights, of international cooperation and good will, indeed the very survival of the planet. (Consider the Vatican’s continued opposition to birth control as “the will of God,” a lunatic and destructive stance if there ever was one, whose effects we can see, if not admit their cause, across the world.)

The insanity which religion has created throughout history and continues to heap upon us in the present day is scarcely to be measured, and before we wake up to it we may well be headed to an apocalypse not even the Bible has done justice to.

Earl Doherty

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