Imagining Satan (Part One)
Critics frequently dismiss this apocalyptic genre as "paranoid" and "kooky;" appealing only to people on the fringes of society.~1 Yet according to a 2003 survey, the core buyer of the Left Behind books is "female, married with children at home, average age 44, born again Christian, lives in the South, college graduate, attends church one or more times weekly."~2
Readers of the Left Behind Series~3
65% attend a non-mainline Christian church
84% are born again Christians~4
26% are Baptists
64.7% learned of the series from a friend or relative
60% have read seven or more books in the series
70% gave the books as gifts
Every volume of the Left Behind series was on the New York Times' bestseller list for weeks. Christianity Today estimates that more than 60 million copies of the books were sold by the end 0f 2004.~5 The huge sales this literature has achieved, and its audience demographic, gives clear evidence that it has familiarized far more than Christian fundamentalist true believers with a modern take on apocalypticism.
The wise appeal of this series may in part be attributable to the fact that apocalyptic and conspiracist texts-fiction and non-fiction-are familiar rather than anything new. Apocalypticism and conspiracism exist as part of continuous historic subcultures at the margins of American society. At the same time, an apocalyptic frame so pervasive it frequently escapes attention has significantly influenced mainstream America.~6
There are two basic ideas behind apocalyptic thinking. One is that that things are not what they appear to be. The other is that there will be a day of reckoning in the future in a confrontation with cosmic significance. Beyond this basic structure, apocalypticism plays out in a number of different ways. Apocalyptic traditions trace back to "Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions, as well as secular belief systems. Apocalyptic themes permeate literature, art, and music in the United States, from Moby Dick to Dick Tracy to Tracy Chapman."~7
People awash in an apocalyptic mindset often believe that an approaching confrontation will be a "cataclysmic event" or a "transformation of epochal proportion." They also have a strong tendency to believe that they are among a select few who "have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations."~8 But their responses to this secret knowledge can differ widely. Some respond with optimism, hoping the apocalyptic moment will bring a positive-even utopian-change. Apocalyptic motifs have informed the mobilization strategy of oppressed group in America, from enslaved African Americans in the black church to the 1890 Lakota Ghost Dancers.
Others respond with pessimism, and anticipate a terminal doomsday, or a tumultuous period of chaos or violence. Wessinger argues certain types of apocalyptic millennialism generate a "radical dualism" that demonizes opponents.~9 The contemporary American Patriot movement exemplifies this response.~10
Still others expecting an apocalyptic confrontation remove themselves from society and passively await the expected transformation while turning inward for solace. The 19th century Millerites are one of the best examples of the latter in American history.
Academic discussions of the apocalyptic, millennial, and millenarian aspects of social movements have a lengthy pedigree.~11 As the Western calendar millennium neared, flurries of major studies expanded this corpus.~12 Many authors argue that apocalypticism is widespread throughout American popular culture...and has long ago escaped the confines of religious belief and moved into secular arenas.~13
The specific beliefs of Christian fundamentalists about the End Times inform their theology, and their interaction with secular political life.~14 Stewart and Harding found evidence of a significant amount of apocalyptic rhetoric across American society. Their key observation was that throughout the USA, "The term culture wars marks these polemic contests that have taken on the apocalyptic discourse of ultimate stakes and final solutions, promoting hyperbole and even panic." In their view, this reached "larger publics" in America that became "swept up in contemporary conflicts over rights, race, gender, and broad questions of politics and the public sphere."~15
Announcing the identity of the Antichrist (and other participants in the End Times drama prophesied in the Bible) is a popular American pastime; although the identities of the evil conspirators shift over time in a way that reflects current events and contemporary enemies of apocalyptic evangelicals and fundamentalists.~16 Boyer notes that writers have demonstrated "great ingenuity in giving the prophecies a contemporary twist,"~17 and that at one point, Mussolini was identified as a contender for Antichrist status.~18
The 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, (which popularized the version of Protestant premillennial theology called "dispensationalism"), identified Russia as one of the key participants in the End Times drama, and suggested Russia was called Gog in the biblical book of Revelation-an idea that gained favor after the Bolshevik Revolution as Christian anticommunism flourished.~19 Following the collapse of communism in Europe in the 1990s, the End Times battle was linked by some Christian evangelicals with Muslim countries, or with Arabs, Iraq, and Saddam Hussein.~20 In American history, apocalyptic authors have scripted the Gold Standard, the Federal Reserve, and income tax as the Devil's playthings. Scriptwriters for this eschatological drama include Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, Elizabeth Dilling, John Beatty, Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Robertson. Named as antagonists are anarchists, communists, Jews, civil rights "agitators," feminists, homosexuals, and Muslims. Apocalyptic prophecy beliefs in this genre frequently are woven into conspiracy theories.~21
Apocalypticism can also be found in extreme right and race hate groups, especially in the United States.~22 On the international scene, apocalyptic prophecy was used in the construction of the infamous early 20th century anti-Semitic hoax document, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.~23 German Nazism has been theorized as an apocalyptic millennial movement, as has the neonazi version of Christian Identity in the U.S.~24
End Part One[Read Part Two] - [Read Part Three]
Dr. Brenda E. Brasher received her Ph.D. in Religion/Social Ethics (sociology emphasis), at the University of Southern California, in 1995. She is the author of Give Me That Online Religion (2nd edition), Rutgers University Press, 2004 (named a Top Ten Non-Fiction Book of 2001 by the Christian Science Monitor; and Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power, New Jersey, Routledge, 1998, (named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book). Brasher served as the Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, Religion & Society series, New York, Routledge, 2001, which was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2002. She was awared a Fulbright Scholar for field work in 2001-2002.
Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates and co-author (with Matthew N. Lyons) of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, (New York: Guilford Press, 2000). He edited Eye’s Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, (Boston, South End Press, 1995). Both books were awarded a Gustavus Myers Award for outstanding scholarship on the subject of human rights and intolerance in North America. Berlet has also contributed to edited collections, scholarly journals, academic conferences, and popular periodicals ranging from the New York Times to the Progressive.
1 Michelle Goldberg, "Fundamentally Unsound," Salon, online journal, July 29, 2002, http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2002/07/29/left_behind/print.html, accessed September 11, 2004. In her article, Michelle Goldberg is arguing that people should not dismiss the Left Behind audience as paranoid kooks.
2 Research findings from several surveys compiled at http://www.leftbehind.com, accessed December 20, 2004.
4 "Born again" as defined by Barna Research for its surveys. Respondents must answer yes to the following question: "have you ever made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today?" Then they must select the following statement about after-death outcomes: "when I die, I will go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior." See http://www.barna.org, accessed December 20, 2004.
5 Christianity Today, online special collection, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ctmag/special/leftbehind.html, accessed December 20, 2004.
6 Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1965); David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971); Frances FitzGerald, "The American Millennium." The New Yorker, November 11, 1985, 105-196; Paul S. Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1992); Stephen D. O'Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Joel Kovel, Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America (New York, Basic Books, 1994); Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Charles B. Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994); Robert C. Fuller, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy (New York: Plenum, 1996); Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000).
10 Lamy, Millennium Rage; Richard Abanes, American Militias: Rebellion, Racism & Religion (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996); Sarah Elizabeth Mahan, A Dramatistic Analysis of the Video Rhetoric of the Militia of Montana, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio University, 1997; John Keith Akins, God, Guns, and Guts: Religion and Violence in Florida Militias," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 1998.
11 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, revised and expanded, (New York: Oxford University Press,  1970); _____, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia, second, augmented, edition, (New York: Schocken Books,  1968); David Aberle, The Peyote Religion Among the Navaho, (Chicago: Aldine,  1982), 315-317; _____ "A Note on Relative Deprivation Theory as Applied to Millenarian and Other Cult Movements," in Millennial Dreams in Action: Studies in Revolutionary Movements, ed. Sylvia Thrupp, 209-214, (New York: Schocken Books, 1970); Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). See also titles in footnote 6.
12 Richard K. Fenn, The End of Time: Religion, Ritual, and the Forging of the Soul (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997); Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer, eds., Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements (New York: Routledge, 1997); Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn, eds., The Year 2000: Essays on the End (New York: New York University Press, 1997); David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin, Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998); Wessinger, ed., Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence, (2000).
13 FitzGerald, "The American Millennium;" Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage, 1996); Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse; _____, Millennial Seduction: A Skeptic Confronts Apocalyptic Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999); Brenda E. Brasher "From Revelation to The X-Files: An Autopsy of Millennialism in American Popular Culture," Semeia Vol. 82 (Summer 2000): 281-95.
14 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1982); _____ Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991); Nancy T. Ammerman, "North American Protestant Fundamentalism," in Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, ed., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991); Susan Harding, "Imagining the Last Days: The Politics of Apocalyptic Language," in Accounting for Fundamentalisms, The Fundamentalism Project 4, ed., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994); Lee Quinby, "Coercive Purity: The Dangerous Promise of Apocalyptic Masculinity," in The Year 2000, ed. Strozier and Flynn (1997), 154-165; O'Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse (1994); Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount (New York: The Free Press, 2000); Brenda E. Brasher "When Your Friend is Your Enemy: American Christian Fundamentalists and Israel at the New Millennium," in Millennial Visions: Essays on Twentieth-Century Millenarianism, ed. Martha F. Lee (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001).
20 See, for example, Charles H. Dyer, The Rise of Babylon: Is Iraq at the Center of the Final Drama? (Chicago: Moody Publishers,  2003); Michael D. Evans, Beyond Iraq: The Next Move (Ancient Prophecy and Modern Conspiracy Collide) (Lakeland, Fla.: White Stone Books, 2003); Mark Hitchcock, The Second Coming of Babylon (Sisters, Oreg.: Multnomah Publishers, 2003).
21 Chip Berlet, "Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism," The Public Eye 12:2 & 3, (Fall 1998), double issue, revised version available online at http://www.publiceye.org/apocalyptic/Dances_with_Devils_1.html; Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 2003).
22 Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997); Kathleen M. Blee, "Racist Activism and Apocalyptic/Millennial Thinking," Journal of Millennial Studies 2:1 (Summer 1999), Special Issue on Engendering the Millennium, online version http://www.mille.org/publications/summer99/blee.PDF accessed July 4, 2004.
23 Nilus, Sergei A. 1905. The Big in the Small: Antichrist as a Near Political Possibility (Notes of an Orthodox Person. Russia (details unclear). A version of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion]. The full Protocols first appeared as an appendix to this polemic by Nilus. See Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Serif,  1996).
24 James M. Rhodes, The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution, (Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1980); Robert Ellwood, "Nazism as a Millennialist Movement," in Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence, ed. Wessinger, 241-260; Chip Berlet, "Christian Identity: The Apocalyptic Style, Political Religion, Palingenesis and Neo-fascism," Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions, 5:3 (Winter 2004): 469-506.
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Imagining Satan (Part One) | 16 comments (16 topical, 0 hidden)
Imagining Satan (Part One) | 16 comments (16 topical, 0 hidden)