June 16, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT GIVES ADVICE


Goat Rope is pleased to feature another learned discourse from bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Entrepreneurship Center, which models itself closely on the WVU Entrepreneurship Center.

Dr. Dimwit has also requested that we once again state most emphatically that despite widespread and persistent rumors, he is not now nor has he ever ghost-written the weekly political columns of the (WV) State Journal.

By providing a forum for diverse human and animal viewpoints, the Goat Rope hopes to counter today's tragically polarized state of civil discourse and promote a culture based on mutual respect, deep listening and courtesy.

THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

Crudamacaroni! What's up with this blog this week? It's not just stupid--it's weird.

You guys need to lighten up and relax a little. I recommend spending time with BIG hens.

On second thought, forget that. Leave the BIG hens to me. And don't even think about the one in the picture. She's with me, got it? Yowza!

That's the beauty of the free market. And that's the truth.

You bet your cloaca.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

APOCALYPSE WRAP



Caption: Forget about the Forbidden Fruit. Venus decides to eat the Forbidden Tree.

This is the final post of a five part series on America’s current fascination with end time religion and its historical background.

To recap, in their original context, apocalyptic literature encouraged oppressed and persecuted communities to remain faithful in their nonviolent resistance to unjust and violent empires.

Outside of that context, the results are a little different. If there’s any lesson about the history of apocalyptic movements, it might be this: while no one knows what the future holds, the past would indicate that they don’t generally bring out the best in religion, politics or human behavior.

One problem with thinking and acting as if the end was at hand is that it encourages the same kind of short term thinking which can lead to desperate and regrettable actions in other human endeavors.

For example, when business leaders focus exclusively on the short term, the results can be disastrous for the community, workers, shareholders, and the business itself, as the case of Enron demonstrates.

As game theory demonstrates, people are more likely to cooperate with each other for mutual gain if they assume long term interactions. Conversely, in short term scenarios, they are more likely to defect or relate to others in hostile or uncooperative ways (see Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation).

More concretely, if one is convinced that a New Earth is about to come, there’s not much sense in trying to protect and conserve the earth we have. For examples from the past about how short term thinking about nature has resulted in human and ecological disasters, see Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

People who are convinced that God is about to strike the earth with plague and famine in fulfillment of prophecy are not likely to work hard to promote health or end hunger or live out any of Bible’s calls for justice and compassion.

Apocalyptic thinking can become disastrous when politicized, in part because it leads one to view one’s own side as all good and the Other, whoever that may be, as totally evil. This also the theology of suicide bombers.

Good religion reminds us that while we may have to take a stand in the conflicts of our time in the interests of justice, all conflicts on earth are between sinners.

Jesus taught that we should remove the logs from our eyes before we try to remove the speck from another’s. That’s hard to do when we are convinced that we are the children of light and everyone else are children of darkness. As Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.

There’s also something religiously dangerous about trying to gain converts on the basis of fear. To accept a religion to avoid suffering through the Great Tribulation and burning forever in the lake of fire is a little like agreeing to marry someone under threat of torture…not very likely to lead to a healthy relationship.

With or without an apocalyptic worldview, no one knows how long we have to live or what individual and collective ordeals or opportunities are ahead. The best we can do is live a full life in this world and try to do what is necessary so that others can do the same.

Two examples from the Jewish and Christian tradition suggest a better approach to Last Things than obsessing about the end.

According to the first century Jewish sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai, “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet the Messiah.”

On the same arboreal note, the Reformer Martin Luther once said, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: APOCALYPTIC

June 15, 2006

APOCALYPSE NEW



Caption: Seamus McGoogle urges people to remain calm.

This is the fourth post in a series on America’s current fascination with end times religion and its historical background.

The current booming end of times religious industry in America owes much of its success to the novel views of a little known English preacher named John Nelson Darby who lived between 1800 and 1882. His views gained little attention in England but had much influence in the United States. Indeed, his views almost constitute a new religion that might more accurately be called Darbyism.

Originally an Anglican clergyman, he later joined the Plymouth Brethren and developed a new schema for the end of the world based on a series of Dispensations of God’s revelation.

While Christians have always affirmed the second coming of Christ as an article of faith (which has been interpreted in a variety of ways), Darby, through an interpretation of diverse scriptures joined by contextual contortions, asserted that there would be essentially two second comings.

In the first, which would occur before a terrible period often called the Great Tribulation, he argued that true believers would disappear from the earth and be literally transported to heaven. This came to be called the Rapture.

Meanwhile on earth, a terrible period would ensue of plagues, war, famine, false religion, and the rule of the Antichrist. It would culminate in the battle of Armageddon, at which point Christ would physically return and rule on earth for 1000 years. After that, there would be a final struggle with Satan, followed by the final judgment, and the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth where the faithful would live in the New Jerusalem.

Since the Rapture has become a fixed idea for literally millions of Americans, it is important to realize that this doctrine was completely unknown in Christian communities until Darby proclaimed it in the mid 1800s.

It is not to be found in the earliest Church fathers such as Irenaeus, Ignatius, or Justin Martyr or in the teachings of Christian leaders of the later Roman period in the eastern or western churches such as Basil, Augustine, or Athanasius; it was unknown to medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, or Abelard; it formed no part of the Reformation theology of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli; it was unknown to the Wesleys or to such American firebrands as Jonathan Edwards.

What many people believe to be the centerpiece of Old Time Religion is really a new dogma.

Darby’s innovation got a major boost with the publication of Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible in the early 1900s. Here Darby’s interpretations, timelines, and cross-references appear along with the words of the Bible and seemed to many to be part of the text rather than an interpretation.

In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s bestselling (and often revised) Late Great Planet Earth gained a wide following and reached a mass audience at a critical time. Similar views were promoted in other books, in pulpits, on the radio and through the broadcasts of televangelists.

In the scenario envisioned in earlier editions, the Antichrist would rise to power in Europe (the 10 headed beast in Revelation was thought to be 10 European nations involved in what was then the European Common Market). After the Rapture, Armageddon would come when the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist troops would invade Israel.

Since the Soviet scenario didn’t pan out, Darbyites continually changed the script to keep up with the headlines. Around the two Gulf Wars, Iraq was the center of focus. The hot current franchise for some is promoting the US conflict with Iran regarding nuclear energy and the first steps to Armageddon which would again draw Russia into the final battle.

Darbyism is the frame (the details change with the headlines) behind the enormously popular Left Behind series by LeHaye and Jenkins. The title refers to those who were not raptured and must live through the tribulation.

It is important to remember that since the 1980s and especially today, Darbyites influence those who make US foreign policy. Now that’s a cheery thought. As the Jewish Virtual Library wisely puts it, "It is precisely when the belief in the Messiah's coming starts to shape political decisions that the messianic idea ceases to be inspiring and becomes dangerous."

One of many problems with Darbyism is that it is like a kind of theological kudzu, an exotic plant which, once introduced, chokes out other plants or in this case the fruits of Christianity. “Combat faith”, and getting ready for the rapture become the main focus and trump what Jesus called the weightier matters of justice and compassion or Micah’s call to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

Next time: concluding reflections on the apocalyptic imagination.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

June 13, 2006

APOCALYPSE NOT



Is it the last trumpet or the doorbell? Folks have been wrong before.

This the third in a series of posts on America’s current fascination with end times religion and its historical background.

A recurring theme of the last 2000 years has been the failed prediction of the end of the world. The batting average of those who did so is 0.00.

Early Christians and many Jews felt that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and related events in the first and second centuries were signs of the end. Apocalyptic expectations may even have led some Jewish groups to participate in those ill-fated revolts. Similarly, persecutions under Roman emperors and, ironically, even the later fall of Rome were seen by some Christians as the beginning of the end.

Many saw the plagues and warfare of the late middle ages as a sign of the coming end. In fact, if you think the 21st century is bad, check out the 14th in Barbara Tuchman’s classic history, A Distant Mirror. By the end of that book, El Cabrero was clicking his feet together like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" and saying “There’s no place like home.”

The Reformation gave Catholics and Protestants ample opportunity to accuse their respective leaders of being the Antichrist. In fact guessing the identity of the Antichrist (based on imagery from Revelation and Daniel) has been a pastime in some Christian circles for hundreds of years. Aside from the pope, a favorite target among early Protestants, other candidates have included people like Napoleon and Hitler. In the 1970s, El Cabrero remembers some people saying it was Henry Kissinger.

Apocalyptic religion flourished in America in the 19th century. One very influential figure was William Miller, who wrote a bestseller titled Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ About the year 1843. Miller reached thousands of people through his writings and oratory.

He was even bold enough to set an exact date (never a very good idea): March 21, 1844. There are stories of business people who liquidated their assets and farmers who neglected their crops in anticipation of the end. The non-event has been christened The Great Disappointment. One person who experienced this described the night later wrote, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I hve never experienced before.”

Needless to say, Miller’s book had a pretty limited shelf life after that.

Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses initially predicted the second coming to occur in 1873. Later the date was revised to 1914 (he was almost right).

Anyone old enough to read this may recall the hype that surrounded Y2K. Some well known preachers now eagerly advocating war with Iran and Russia as a way to fulfill their interpretation of the Bible rode that wave for all it was worth (and are evidently incapable of embarrassment).

There have also been other, more marginal, apocalyptic cults which often had tragic endings. These include Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, all of which ended in multiple deaths. Some white supremacist groups, such as the Christian Identity movement, have strong apocalyptic beliefs.

The last century has also supplied examples of secular apocalyptic movements which believed that the “solution of the riddle of history”—to use Marx’s phrase from the 1848 Communist Manifesto—was revolutionary upheaval which would bring about lasting justice and peace. Those haven’t worked out too well either.

It’s probably safe to say that excessive obsessing about the end of the world doesn’t bring out the best in religion, human behavior, or politics. It hasn’t yet anyway.

Next time: the little known English preacher whose novel interpretation of the Bible and last days became a contemporary multi-million dollar industry.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

APOCALYPSE THEN



Caption: Historically, goats like Cornelius Agrippa influenced the popular image of the devil...with good reason.

Note: this is the second post in a series about America's current fascination with end times religion and the history of the apocalyptic tradition.

In general, end-of-the-world scenarios grow in popularity when the present moment and likely future prospects seem grim. That was certainly true of the rise of apocalyptic religion in the Jewish tradition.

In the covenant theology of the Torah, the Hebrew people believed that faithfulness to the God of justice would ensure the peace and well being of the people. Prophets arose periodically to call the people, and especially the elite, back to fidelity and righteousness. God was viewed as acting in and through normal history. The basic idea in the minds of many was that if the people did right, they would do well.

The problem was that it didn't work out that way. Particularly after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century before the common era, it seemed that the more the Jewish people tried to be faithful to the covenant, the more they were persecuted by conquering empires. This was the setting for the rise of apocalyptic religion, which many scholars trace to the 2nd century BCE (or BC).

In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV, the ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom in Syria, attempted to impose pagan religion on the Jews. He banned traditional observance, mercilessly persecuted observant Jews, and even desecrated the Temple with a statue of the Greek god Zeus. Many scholars believe that the apocalyptic book of Daniel took its current form during that crisis.

Daniel is a wise and pious Jewish young man in the service of the king of Babylon. He and his friends resist the temptations of idolatry and survive ordeals. Toward the end of the book, Daniel is granted a vision of the last days when God would destroy all unjust empires after a series of cataclysms. In the end, God would raise and judge the dead and the righteous would be rewarded with everlasting happiness.

In other words, the end of history would make up for the evils of history.

For the next few hundred years, which were pretty grim for the faithful, apocalyptic literature like Daniel would become fairly common in the Jewish and later Christian communities. Often, this writing is full of strange images of symbolic animals, disasters, cosmic struggles, numerology and elaborate symbolism.

According to The Oxford Companion to the Bible, apocalyptic literature

is a record of divine disclosures made known through the agency of angels, dreams, and visions. These may take different forms: an otherworldy journey in which the "secrets" of the cosmos are made known (the so-called vertical apocalypses), or a survey of history often leading to an eschatological crisis in which the cosmic powers of evil are destroyed, the cosmos is restored, and Israel (or "the righteous") is redeemed (the so-called horizontal or historical apocalypses).


The basic purpose was to give the faithful the courage to endure persecution and resist the onslaughts of imperial violence.

These tendencies were strong in first century Judaism. According to the first three gospels, Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Scholars and believers (often the same people) have debated what he meant by this for 2000 years. After his crucifixion, Christian believers interpreted it as his second coming, when he would return in glory and judge "the quick and the dead." Early Christians expected this to happen at any moment.

The main apocalyptic book of the New Testament is Revelation, in which John has an encounter the risen Christ while on the island of Patmos. He describes his visions of a series of cataclysms that end in the return of Christ, the last judgment, and the coming of a New Heaven and a New Earth. There were other Christian apocalypses which didn't make it into the New Testament canon.

As in the case of Daniel, Revelation was written in the context of horrific persecution, in this case of Christians by Roman emperors, which began with Nero in the 60s and continued sporadically for more than 200 years.

To quote the Oxford Companion again, these works

were in many cases the product of their age and its political and economic climate. As tracts for the times, they were written to encourage those who were oppressed and saw little or no hope in terms of either politics or armed might. Their message was that God himself would intervene and reverse the situation in which they found themselves, delivering the godly from the hands of the wicked and establishing his rule for all to see.


Once the books of Daniel and Revelation were included in the biblical canon, which in the case of Christianity was not settled until the 4th century, they would prove to be a rich storehouse which fed the apocalyptic imagination of many people from then to now.

Often, in times of crisis, people would believe that the events described there were about to unfold. Next time, we'll look at some of those cases.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

June 11, 2006

APOCALYPSE NOW?



Some believe that a peaceable kingdom where the lion will lie down with the lamb (or dogs, cats, and birds will laze together as in this photo) will come after a period of great tribulation.

You may have noticed some of media hype last Tuesday about the significance of the date: 6/6/06.

Some people associated the day with 666, the "number of the Beast" mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation, which a large number of Americans interpret literally as a prophecy regarding the imminent second coming of Christ.

One television report even claimed that some parents-to-be deliberately postponed caesarian operations until the following day to avoid giving birth on that date.

Millions of Americans, including a sizeable portion of the electorate, believe that we are living in the last days and base their views of current events on that belief. Books and videos about the last days, such as the "Left Behind" series by Tim LeHay and Jerry B. Jenkins, have reached millions of American and become a major industry. Apocalyptic themes often dominate religious broadcasting, sometimes to the neglect of any other religious message.

In the next few posts, El Cabrero will explore a little of the background and history of apocalyptic religion and its impact on the current situation in the US.

(Full disclosure: El Cabrero is a practicing but not very proficient Christian from the Anglican tradition with a background in sociology and a long standing interest in the history of religious ideas.)

First some words. Two terms that commonly come up in discussions of this topic are "eschatology" and "apocalypse." Eschatology (not to be confused with scatology, although in some versions the difference is subtle) refers to last things, as in death, judgment, and the end of the world. Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover or reveal, hence the English name of Revelation for the last book of the New Testament).

Apocalyptic religion and literature developed in Jewish and later Christian communities in the two hundred years before and after the time of Jesus. The main apocalyptic books in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) and the New Testament are Daniel and Revelation respectively, but these are only two examples of a common literary form (more about this next time).

This approach to religion developed in response to persecution of Jews and later Christians by violent empires. The underlying message is for believers to remain faithful and resist (usually nonviolently) the temptations of empire until God decisively intervenes in history.

At a very basic level, apocalyptic religion is one of many attempts to deal with the problem of evil, which is a persistent question in monotheistic religions, one that becomes more pertinent in times of social unrest, injustice and persecution. The term for this effort to prove the justice of God in a very unjust world is theodicy, from the Greek words for God and justice.

Consider the following three statements: God is good (as far as people are concerned); God is all powerful; and evil exists. If any two of these are true, there is no logical problem for believers, but asserting all three requires some explanation.

For example, if God is good and all powerful and there is no evil, there's no problem. The same is true if God is all powerful but not all good and there is evil. Ditto if God is good but not all powerful and evil exists.

But those who believe in an all good and all powerful God in a world where evil exists and seems to prevail have worked hard for thousands of years--from the biblical Book of Job to bestsellers such as When Bad Things Happen to Good People--to come up with a satisfactory explanation.

There are many proposed solutions to this problem, none of which are always entirely satisfactory, particularly if one is on the receiving end of evil. One is that evil has no reality. Another maintains that it is the result of human freedom. In the Book of Job, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and basically says that it's beyond our insignificant human comprehension, which isn't bad as such explanations go.

Some of the deeper approaches to this question in Christian theology maintain that this is a profound mystery but that God shares in the sufferings of the world through the crucified Christ.

Apocalyptic religion answers the question this way: God is good, but the present world is under the domination of evil forces hostile to God. In the fullness of time, God will intervene, often after and through a series of cataclysmic events and sometimes through the agency of a messianic figure.

In the end, there will be a final judgment where the good who have suffered and died in this life will be resurrected in glory and the evil will be punished, sometimes forever. The sufferings of the innocent will be compensated by an eternity in paradise.

One doesn't have to be too much of a psychologist or follower of Nietzsche to see that this can sometimes express an all-too-human desire for revenge. The early church father Tertullian, who lived in Carthage in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Christian era, maintained that the sufferings of the damned in hell would make up part of the pleasures of being in heaven.

While there has always been an eschatological dimension to Christianity (this is less true of Judaism), it has seldom been the main focus of religious teaching. When it has been, the results have generally been disappointing.

Next time: the development of apocalyptic religion in the biblical period.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED