Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Why Evangelical Eschatology is Both Evil AND Batshit Crazy

I knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened: Hal Lindsey has begun to compare Barack Obama to the Antichrist.

As soon as Obama began turning heads in Europe, I knew it was coming.  In case you're not familiar with evangelical eschatology (i.e., their reading of how the world will end), a brief rundown is this: The Book of Revelation is a literal prediction of events that will occur in the future just before the end of time, and those events include all the standard apocalyptic goth signifiers: the ocean turning to blood, a third of the stars falling from the sky, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (famine, disease, war, and--in an astonishing triple redundancy--death).  As part of this, the world gets taken over by a one-world government run by a charismatic leader who offers world peace, but who is really pure evil and who has an agenda to destroy all the Christians by forcing them to deny Jesus (to "take the mark of the Beast") in order to buy anything.  

This has been a consistent theme of the nutcase right, who have been suspicious of the League of Nations, and then the U.N., and most recently the E.E.C., all of which are seen as an example of bringing the world together and thereby softening it up for demonic takeover.  It's a stupid way of looking at the world (and a completely irresponsible way of reading Revelation or of prophecy in general), but that didn't stop Hal Lindsey from writing The Late Great Planet Earth, which took a verse-by-verse analysis of Revelation (those locusts are clearly Soviet helicopters!) and which became the bestselling book of the entire 1970s.  So these terrible terrible ideas have found fierce purchase among an entire generation of naive literalists who were scared into Christianity (always an ugly motivation) and who will believe anything--anything, no matter how morally appalling--as long as the Bible "tells them" to do it.

Until now, the most obvious example of the pure evil of this concept was the reign of James Watt as Reagan's Secretary of the Interior.  His tenure was a disaster for the environment because he believed that Jesus was returning soon, so why not use up all our resources now?  It's a bit like saying, "Why not break all my toys, since Santa will replace them at Christmas?"  You'd be gambling a helluva lot of precious things on the existence of Santa Claus.  And someone else would eventually wind up paying for your delusion.  We the taxpayers aid for Watt's divinely inspired anti-management for years.  

The two main effects of this have been on U.S. foreign policy, in the knee-jerk resistance to anything the U.N. does, and the knee-jerk support of everything Israel does, for no better reason than that the Bible "says so."  (Israel needs to exist for the Armageddon countdown to be set in motion; Christian "prophecy" writers often talk about the creation of Israel as a modern miracle and fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.  They're less keen to observe that the prophecy was self-fulfilling; the hope for a Jewish state was kept alive through the 1930s and 1940s by Christian evangelicals in America and England.)  

Theologically, this has the same problem that I alluded to in my earlier post about the evangelical version of the sacrament: it's a mere checklist with no reason to exist; a pure knuckling under to what is seen as a Biblical injunction that has no obligation to make historical, ethical, psychological, scientific, or human sense.  (Bruce Bawer makes this point quite elegantly in his chapter on eschatology in Stealing Jesus.  He asks, why would God turn the oceans to blood and darken the sky forever?  What possible purpose does it serve, except to be creepy?  Why, at the end of time when his message is presumably most important, does God reveal himself to be profoundly and bafflingly weird, bloodthirsty, and terrifying?  And why, Bawer asks, do evangelical Christians not even seem disturbed by this presumably real face of their God of Love?)  

So far, so unpleasant.  But now that we have a Presidential candidate for the first time in ages who is actually, genuinely popular all over the world, the nutcase religious right is about to become completely unhinged: they will take this man--an obviously skilled politician who is smart, informed, pretty non-corrupt, and genuinely good at smoothing things out--and claim that precisely because of these traits, he is likely to be the most evil inhuman creature in all of world history.  

I trust that it won't work.  I trust that, if anything, it will further alienate the eschatological wing of fundamentalist Christianity from sensible mainstream Americans, and will further distance this approach to the Bible from that of the under-30 generation of Christians (as David Kinnaman has already noted is happening).  

What terrifies me about this, though, is that it only takes one deluded fuck to wield a rifle.  (To "deluded" you could add "frightened" and "hungry for importance" and every other unloving adjective that tends to motivate extreme religious types; they combine readily.)  And if ever a theology was perfectly designed to mass-produce assassinating lunatics, it's evangelical Christianity's completely unhinged, scholastically irresponsible, and generally unspeakably idiotic view of the end of the world.

Let me add, however, that I'm one of the few optimists I know when it comes to thinking about an Obama Presidency. Everyone keeps flashing back to Kennedy and MLK and worrying that Obama might get assassinated just like them. I disagree.  The world is different than it was in the '60s, we're not quite as culturally unsettled, and unlike either Kennedy or Luther King, Obama has made a career out of being careful and not pissing people off.   I don't see how any sensible person would have a strong objection to his candidacy, and I fully expect Obama to survive both terms (barring a catastrophic misstep somewhere or a choice to only do it once), and in so doing, change our national myth forever.  I would also point out that it's actually a little harder to kill people by surprise now than it was in the 60s, what with the expansion of surveillance and the interconnection possible via the Web.  It sucks that we have less privacy, but there is that upside to it.

But if I'm wrong, and someone does decide to try to kill Obama, I predict right now that it's going to be someone who ascribes to the evangelical view of the end of the world, and who uses that theology to justify his crime.  (And if, god forbid, Obama gets shot, with modern medicine there's good reason to assume he'll survive--and this will just inflame the apocalyptic idiots further, because the Antichrist is supposed to die of a head wound and come back to life too.  You literally can't win with these people.)  

Articles like Hal Lindsey's should be a warning sign to evangelicals: a demonstration that their helpless devotion to a literal reading of scripture--even of those parts that were never meant to be literal--has ugly side effects.  It leads to a worldview that can actually look directly at an opportunity for greater world peace and react with unthinking panic and fear and even hatred.  And the fact that some of them really think that this is what Jesus would do is an insult to Christianity, and to goodness in general.  It's possibly the greatest tragedy that a well-intentioned person can commit.  And that's the price of letting an ancient, inflexible book take your actual conscience hostage.



Blogger Robert Hutchinson said...

Firstly: whew! I just finished reading through all of the archives of your blog, over the span of a couple of months, and it was well worth it. If you recall who I am at all, it would probably be as Ertchin from the NPL. I quasi-whined a while back, either on Livejournal or the mailing list, that it seemed like the few NPLers who lived in or near south Georgia had all moved away right before I joined, and I think you responded.

As to that Lindsey article: ugh. Just ugh. "Wouldn't anybody besides me personally like to see somebody in the White House who doesn't think America needs apologizing for?" America can do no wrong, and if it does, well, we'd have to apologize to non-Americans, and we can't do that, because they're not Americans.

I do enjoy how he's willing to compare Obama to the Antichrist without actually naming Obama as a possible candidate for the job. I guess that would just be crazy talk.

8/10/2008 9:02 PM  
Blogger Laura Toepfer said...

If it helps at all, the Nation has a great little article showing how McCain is the antichrist.

8/10/2008 9:23 PM  
Blogger Kathaclysm said...

My question is, if the belief is that Obama (or any other person) is the Antichrist, wouldn't they want that person to live to fulfill their destiny of bringing about the second coming? If they're supporting Israel because the bible says so, and they believe everything in the bible is literal truth, the apocalypses is unavoidable and the Antichrist is a necessary part of that.

Like you said, you can't win with those people.

8/11/2008 8:43 AM  
Anonymous Amanda G. said...

Why does "You've been left behind" keep running through my head when reading this? Heard you on TAL and enjoy your work, especially since I grew up in a Fundamentalist home. Thanks!

8/11/2008 9:24 AM  
Blogger Judith said...

I'm always fascinated by how many Christians (particularly the rabid evangelical sort) are so adept at spotting the Anti-Christ and the presence of Satan in the world. But, of course, you can't be a fear monger if you can't point out the dangers, right? Sheesh!

8/11/2008 9:55 AM  
Blogger Jaime said...

Okay, not to toot my horn, but check out the info at the tail end of this post. It is a service you will not want to miss out on:

8/17/2008 12:46 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home