Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Left Behind?

The trouble with fanatics is that it's impossible to debate them unless you share the same fanaticism. For everybody else they might as well belong to a totally different species, one that is wired in ways unfathomable to the rest of us.

This is the conclusion I have reached after several millennia of trying to approach fanatics of all types from Alexander the Great onwards. They can't compromise: it would negate their fanaticism, and this means that it's a total waste of time to try to argue issues with them. They already know the answer: it's written in a book somewhere, from Mao's little red one to the Koran or the Bible. The only reason why fanatics have brains is so that there is some weight inside the skull to stop the whole appendix from floating upwards.

Our most recent fanatics in the news do want to float upwards. I'm naturally speaking about the Millennarian Christians in the United States, the evangelical fundamentalists. According to Sadri and Sadri, there are seventeen million hard-core fundamentalist Christians in this country, and another seventy million are closely affiliated with this way of thinking. They share several religious views, including the belief in the natural hierarchy of men over women, which makes me view them with somewhat of a jaundiced eye. But even for those who don't feel as strongly about general equality as I do, some of the fundamentalist views should come across as shocking, and the one about floating upwards especially.

Many of these people believe in the immanence of armageddon; the end of the world as we know it:
An important aspect of fundamentalist resurgence in America is its belief in divine deliverance at the hands of an avenging messiah. A set of beliefs, known as "Bible prophecies," based on a relatively recent interpretation of the New Testament's Book of Revelations, predicts a chain of events leading to a bloody end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. To gauge the reach of this creed one need only note that the works of two of its advocates, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, enjoy a staggering circulation of more than 20 million copies in the US.
Why should the rest of us care about religious views of a few million Christians in America? Because Bible prophecy may very well become self-fulfilling prophecy. Religious predictions of the end of the world are not exclusive to Christianity; nor are they always self-fulfilling - or else we wouldn't be here to question them. Only under certain conditions are such beliefs likely to affect the actual course of history.
The danger is that those conditions obtain in the case of American millenarians. Millions of politically organized and single-minded believers have come to expect that the world will end in a devastating global war within their lifetime. They do not merely attempt to read political developments around the world as signs of the fulfillment of their end-of-time scenario. They also try to stir these events in the direction of their chiliastic scenario of an impending Armageddon using their considerable political influence in US. Hence there is cause to fear that eager and resourceful "end-of-timers" may, indeed, "will" worldwide strife into existence.

As noted in this quote, the popular expression of this belief in the end of the world is in the Left Behind -series of popular books by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins (Jenkins does the writing if you can call it that). To date, these have sold sixty-two million copies, almost solely in the American South. The average reader is a middle-aged, white married woman with children. If you are not an eager reader of this series, you can get an idea of the storyline from this short summary:

The first volume, "Left Behind" (1995), kicks off with the Rapture—the sudden snatching up of millions of the faithful into heaven—and subsequent volumes follow airline pilot Rayford Steele and journalist Buck Williams, left behind to tough it out down here on earth through the seven-year Tribulation and the rule of the Antichrist. The 12th and final installment (not counting a planned sequel and prequel), called "Glorious Appearing," has the return of Jesus, the battle of Armageddon and the Judgment.

The many critics of the series see a resonance between its apocalyptic scenario and the born-again President Bush's apocalyptic rhetoric and confrontational Mideast policies. And they see LaHaye's far-right political agenda behind having fetuses Raptured from pregnant women's wombs, and making the Antichrist the secretary-general of the United Nations. Roman Catholics aren't happy that the Antichrist's assistant is the pope, and while "Left Behind" shows the common evangelical sympathy for Jews, they exist to be converted and to fulfill Christian prophecy. (For Jenkins and LaHaye, of course, so does everyone else.) And minorities may find the books' attempts at multiculturalism condescending. "I ain't seen no Bible for years," says one character, a "heavyset Latina." "What got me was that it wasn't fancy, wasn't hard to understand ... All them Scriptures sounded true to me, 'bout being a sinner."

Fetuses snatched to heaven from their mothers' tummies! The head of the United Nations as the Antichrist with the Pope as a helpmeet! Rapture! The description makes me salivate with excitement; I really want to read these books. Unfortunately I have read enough of them to know that the writing is dreadful and the social values what one would expect from fanatics. The only good women are housewives, for example.

The important question about the Left Behind -series is naturally whether its popularity means anything more than the popularity of, say, the Harry Potter -series. We all like to escape this world once and a while, and it doesn't usually mean that we believe in the alternative world that we just visited to relax. I don't know the answer to this question, but my experiences in reading the various comments-sections on the internet suggest that there are quite a few people who have taken these books as a real world prediction, and are now active in exhorting the rest of us to keep our bags packed lest we miss the use-by-date of Rapture.

Except, of course, that no Rapture would lift a snake goddess up into the blue. Rather the reverse, I suspect. I would probably be in cahoots with the head of the U.N. and the Pope, as one of the Axis of Evil. And the Rapturers must leave their worldly goods behind. They are going to be lifted naked, so if you suddenly see piles of rather conservative underwear by the roadside, you may be witnessing the Rapture from the wrong side of the fence. Or perhaps just glimpsing some of the secret conservative underbelly...

I'm making a very serious mistake so far, by making fun of the fundamentalists who believe in armageddon in our day. It's not that I find them that funny, to be honest. They are actually very scary people. But when things are scary I tend to laugh. Can't help it. Still, there is a very serious side to this whole phenomenom, and that is the fact that there are millions of people in our very midst who eagerly hope for the war that will cause Jesus to come back, and some of these people, at least, are not averse to pushing things along a little to speed them up towards their gorgeous conclusion. Now this is frightening, especially if the Rapture is actually planned for the year 4378. What do you think Jesus will say when he's pulled down to earth in the middle of his lazy Sunday breakfast or something, and all because of a few million lunatics who have destroyed this earth? I wouldn't hang around to hear that.

This particular group of fanatics is very organized (aren't all fanatics organized nowadays?), and they use their organizations to influence the United States policies, including our foreign policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict. A recent Village Voice article recounts in terrifying detail how this influence-mongering is done. (Read it when you're not all alone in the house.) The fundamentalist voice doesn't preach for the Two Countries -solution, because the Bible doesn't mention anything beyond Israel in that part of the world. And that's the part of the world where the fundamentalists want the final war to take place so that Jesus will be forced to come back. Think of the Christian values that are revealed by this view! Some of these fundamentalist are in for a real shocker when they trudge towards St. Peter at the gate.

But if they succeed in hastening the date of armageddon it doesn't really help us very much that they'll face their rightful comeuppance in the hereafter. It is here and now that we should be concerned with, and the most urgent problem we (the normal, sane people) have to tackle is the fight against fanaticism. Some of us may want to try to talk to the fanatics, to spread peace and understanding that way. Far be it from me to deny them this approach, though it will not work. Others might want to get politically active so that there are more discerning people in important places. Write to your political representatives and the press! Ask who owns the Washington Times and what else this man controls in this country. Ask who gets weekly access to the President of the United States and who doesn't hear from him ever. Involve all the sane Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists in the great ecumenical movement against idiocy. Act!

The world sometimes seems totally overtaken by fanatics of one ilk or another: we have the militant Islamists, the Christian fundamentalists, the Orthodox Jewish extremists, the Hindu nationalist extremists and even a few smatterings of the old-fashioned extreme Stalinists. Yet in actual numbers us wishy-washy and mind-your-own-business people are by far more important, and if we could only get off our collective butts and open our mouths for something else than Coke and French Fries, we could still fix this world to its usual not-so-great state. The alternative should not make us feel too rapturous. So act!