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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Why Not To Prepare For The Rapture Today 
21st-May-2011 09:09 am
Holy Grail Vision of God
In talking about strange specifics of American Christianity with my students, I have to say that few things boggle me as much as the sorts of predictions like today's confident end-of-the-world announcement by Harold Camping, a California preacher whose prediction has been taken up with great hilarity by media outlets and people around the world. In the United States, there is a very particular brand of Protestant theology called Dispensationalism that arose primarily in the 19th century. (You can read about it in this Wikipedia article, though I've not looked at it too closely and won't vouch for it academically, or, more interestingly, you can read about it in George Marsden's fascinating masterpiece Fundamentalism and American Culture, which is a real treasure for understanding these parts of American history and culture.) One way or another, this very recent (in terms of the history of Christianity) theology is very much at the roots of much of popular Protestant understanding in America. The trick and the trouble is, this theology is understood by most of the people who hold it as not being a theology, but as "right out of the Bible." These people tend to be suspicious of "theology," which they view as human-created additions to, or accretions upon, the naked word of God found in the Scriptures. Thus, an ignorance of their own historical and intellectual roots often combines with a naive reading of Scripture, utterly unaware that they are reading the words of Scripture through a distinctly 19th century American lens, and not nearly so much in the raw, "back to the Bible," 1st century "just Christian" way they imagine themselves to be reading the text.

It is this American theology that gave rise to ideas like "the Rapture," an "end of the world" event that Christians prior to the existence of the United States, never really even imagined, but which in this American religious tradition is understood to be "right there in the Bible" by those holding this theology and (usually unconsciously, unless they've seriously studied the historical roots of their own movement) superimposed onto the text of Scripture itself. Oddly, in this way, these people become exactly that which they strongly fear: people who impose and value a human tradition over and above a reverence for Scripture itself. Dispensationalist Christianity has created an entire industry based upon ever-revised predictions of things like the timing of the end of the world, or the identity of the figure in the New Testament called the Anti-Christ. As various world calamities and horrific figures come and go (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Hussein, etc.) a new batch of best-selling books appears as people work feverishly to "decode" the Scriptures and produce the correct information about The End. That people caught up in this theology and spirituality don't start noticing, over the decades, that it is an industry (one that can make a few people no small amount of money) is one of the things that boggles my imagination.

But here's the real clincher: I'm particularly amazed that it is those Christians who tend to describe themselves as "Bible-believing" who particularly get caught up in these games. Protestant theologies that lean toward the fundamentalist are based off of a theory of Scripture that tends toward the strictest – and often distortingly literal – idea of an "inerrant" inspiration of Scripture. That is, these theologies tend to understand God as providing the text of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in such a way that allows for little, if any, contribution of the writers' historical and cultural limitations in the text. (That's my quick stab at a description: it really is, historically and theologically, a complex story and set of ideas.) So these sorts of Christians identify themselves as especially or distinctively faithful to what they understand as the most basic, honest or literal sense of the text.

I say that I'm "amazed" that it is Christians who particularly identify themselves as "Bible-believing" that go in for these sorts of predictions, or have created an industry around them, because the New Testament so clearly warns off anyone from trying this sort of thing. Jesus himself says his return will be "like a thief in the night," or that "no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself." Paul commented on the futility of trying to guess "times and dates" for this very reason. And yet, a portion of American Christianity has turned this into the center of their focus and spirituality, spinning around these questions over and over again. If I'm going to take Jesus literally, I find myself thinking that these widely-announced "end of the world" dates are probably the very best time to get out there and rob a convenience store, with time for a change of heart and honest repentance later on.

"Bible-believing Christians?" I wish! Silliness like this sort of avoiding the obvious to decode the imagined is another distraction from Christianity's real credibility.
21st-May-2011 07:13 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you mention Marsden, because he's pretty good on these issues from what I know (my husband works on the fundamentalist-modernist stuff). And that you emphasize the complications of all this... I get very wary when "inerrancy" comes up because I don't trust most scholars not to lump inerrancy in with fundamentalism, fundamentalism with dispensationalism, etc., when it's all a great deal more complex than that. It's tricky enough being an evangelical in academia without frequently having to push back against people's assumptions about what inerrancy is, and of course figures like Camping (who as far as I know isn't any kind of mainstream dispensationalist...interestingly, his background isn't at all in dispensational evangelicalism but in the Christian Reformed Church) lead to irresponsible lumping-together and flippant dismissal of disparate branches of Protestantism.

22nd-May-2011 04:05 am (UTC)
I know. I spent some years as an evangelical myself, before I realized that I had, in fact, accidentally catechized myself with all my patristic and medieval reading, and that I had moved myself back to the Catholic position, which was the tradition I was raised in, if not well educated in. But that's why I did try to qualify in this entry that I was playing fast and loose in giving a simple definition of what was involved in inerrancy, as well as giving a broad generalization about dispensationalism. (To be sure, I've not looked closely at Camping's teaching: I made the assumption, as I think is usually accurate in these kinds of theologies, that I would likely find all sorts of dispensational roots underneath it. Your comment that he had a Reformed background is interesting, although I certainly remember most people I knew who thought in dispensationalist ways were also steeped in Calvinist theologies as well.) Obivously, there's a sense of "inerrancy" in Catholic theologies of the inspiration of scripture, although those are generally so flexible as to not seem like inerrancy at all to those in stricter Protestant schools of thought. So I'm sorry if I overstated in this: my struggle is always in trying not to say too much (my Mum, who's a history buff herself, still finds it wearisome that her historian son thinks any well-told story needs two or three centuries of background to get going), but saying something briefly necessitates the loss of nuance. The age-old trade-off. But in the particular case of broadly public predictions of the end of time, in the face of a few pretty blatant dismissals of such speech or activity in the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament itself, I felt more safe in expressing a certain frustration.
22nd-May-2011 04:38 am (UTC)
Yes, I'm right there with you in the frustration, and, just to be clear, I think your post is quite well put! Thanks for these additional thoughts.
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