Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sensing Superiority At The End Of The World

It's crummy to make fun of folks no matter their stripe. There's only one real reason the culture has picked up on "the rapture is gonna happen" meme from the Internet: because it's really fun to feel superior. More than being funny, it makes everyone feel very smart and enlightened. Otherwise no one would care about a slow-talking elderly man with a radio station and a public access show that most everyone ignores, even if he's putting a date on the end of the world.

Most people who claim the Bible as a normative text for how they live their life aren't crunching numbers to get a timetable for the end of the world. Most people who obsess over the end of the world are, in a round about way, working out their own anxieties in a world that they don't feel that they fit into. They also feel a warped sense of justice in dividing people into "us" and "them", where being the "us" makes them feel safe and justified in the little existence they've carved out for themselves, never having to deal with "them" ever again.

The whole "rapture" is not an ancient concept. I read a lot about it a bunch of years ago when it got really hot in evangelical Christian circles. I was interested in it because it made some uppity claims about Catholics and that was my main area of study. It has an interesting history that is a grand commentary on the state of American religion. But much like the Westboro Baptist folks, a relatively fringe group gets press so another group of people can gawk. This kind of cultural rubber-necking comes at a price, namely by offering them free advertising. Obviously, most no one thinks the world is ending or that certain kinds of Christians are going to disappear today (or more accurately, an hour ago).

Catholics don't believe in the largely Evangelical belief in the "rapture", a theological construct that tries to reckon a precise timetable of the end of the world with the Bible. This is mainly because the Bible itself does not demand to be read that way. The Bible is many voices, and at a key level is a community memory of God working among a certain people committed to writing for posterity. Apocalyptic texts (like Daniel or, most famously, Revelation) were written in the context of intense struggle and persecution. As a genre of literature, apocalyptic writings in antiquity were highly symbolic and were a way for a community to reconcile both their hope in God and trust in His sovereignty with the most trying of circumstances. If there is any "coding" to apocalyptic literature that can be gleaned from the text, it's in literary structure and not charting the end of time. The use of numbers and dating spoke to the intended audience in a way that may be largely inaccessible to us, but the main message of these texts is clear: in the end, it is not evil or suffering or death or destruction or persecution that had the final say, no matter how it is conceptualized or personified. In the end, God has the final say, and with Him, also goodness, and healing, and restoration, and reconciliation.

I cannot imagine that something like that wouldn't have a receptive audience.

So as May 21st comes to a close, my hope is that this is a day remembered not for a failed prophecy worked from the clumsy calculations of an elderly Bible-believing Christian who most people ignored before and who most people will return to ignoring tomorrow. One of the most grating stereotypes of Christians is the projection of a sense of superiority (it is even more irritating when it is true). But catch yourself before the end of the day, because you might be doing it too.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

1 comment:

  1. Tom,

    I agree with most of what you said, but i think there is more at play here. This is not a friendly, loving Christian preacher talking about the rapture - this is a angry, hate-spewing bigot. His God is one of vengeance and fire; mine is a God of compassion and joy. And so part of the media outcry here is, i believe, a subtle (or not so subtle) disarming of a person using their misguided faith to hurt others. Same goes for Westboro - yes, they are getting free press every time a news outlet covers them protesting a soldier's funeral, but they are also being exposed to the general population.

    So yes, we shouldn't demonize an old man for being wrong about his rapture-math and, of course, the right thing to do is to forgive and forget and let him live out the end of his life in the no-doubt psychologically painful manner that a lifetime of disappointments will cause. But i can't help but feel that there is also a little bit of hopefulness here - maybe, just maybe, after seeing how these doomsday predictions never pan out, more people will turn to God for genuine comfort and find a God closer to mine than to Camping's.

    Brian Salvatore