A.T. Coates

American Religion PhD Candidate, Duke University.

Month: December 2012

Hal Lindsey, “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1970)

This generation will probably witness the end of the world.

My used copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth boasts almost 3.8 million copies of the book exist in print. It’s from 1974. One figure I saw claimed that, by 1990, 28 million copies lined American shelves. Frankly, the book contains nothing but standard dispensationalist fare: biblical prophecy refers to events in the future, our current age is coming to a rapid end, Jesus will return soon to rapture the church, everyone should expect to be duped by the charismatic antichrist, Gog and Magog are on the move against Israel. If you don’t spend your days and nights thinking about dispensational premillennialism, this probably seems like a bunch of gibberish—in fact, I can usually end a conversation just by uttering the word “dispensationalism”—but Lindsey offers no particularly innovative content. Clarence Larkin’s Dispensational Truth, William Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming, The Scofield Reference Bible, even the Left Behind novels use very similar concepts and terms. To be fair, Lindsey never describes his project as “dispensationalist.” But he probably wouldn’t protest the label. Like Blackstone’s and Scofield’s before it, this derivative dispensationalist book sold copies in the millions. Answering why could fill a whole book…

Lindsey reads contemporary global events as fulfillments of biblical prophecies. The establishment of the Israeli state and the Six Day War loom large in his text. So do the USSR and Mao’s “Red China.” World War III will happen soon, when the Soviet Union lands amphibious troops at Haifa. If America thinks it has a special role to play, it needs to think again: only widespread spiritual revival will save the nation from becoming a nuclear crater when the antichrist takes over as global dictator. The Vietnam War flies mostly under the radar. Lindsey’s book waves the banner of anti-communism and largely avoids American domestic politics. It’s much more interested in Middle Eastern and global affairs.

Lindsey makes dispensationalism culturally relevant and accessible for his contemporaries. Though he deploys the technical term “rapture,” he carefully explains its meaning clearly and puts it in a chapter called “The Ultimate Trip.” He presents dispensationalism as an alternative to a youth culture of experimentation with drugs and various kinds of spirituality: to those who yearned for a fulfilling, mind-expanding, and just-a-little mystical spirituality, Lindsey suggests poring over newspapers for Signs of the Times instead of dropping acid or chanting with the Hare Krishnas. After explaining why biblical prophets can predict minute details of the future (80), he discusses the “Great Tribulation,” “yellow peril,” and “Millennial Kingdom.” He describes what Christians’ “eternal bodies” are like (141). Mystical stuff, man. But this book isn’t entirely at home in its culture. In ways I find particularly interesting, technology both entices and troubles Lindsey. He revels in the gory details of the nuclear war he’s almost sure will come by the 80s: “Imagine cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—obliterated! John says that the Eastern force alone will wipe out a third of the earth’s population (Rev 9:15-18)” (166). Flash. It’s over. The bomb fuels Lindsey’s spiritual imagination.

But Lindsey also thinks we shouldn’t trust technology, especially computers. The digitization of records, the computerized calculations, the credit cards, all revealed the antichrist’s clever plans: “In our computerized society, where we are all ‘numbered’ from birth to death, it seems completely plausible that some day in the near future the numbers racket will consolidate and we will have just one number for all our business, money, and credit transactions. Leading members of the business community are now planning that all money matters will be handled electronically” (113). Though he’s no Luddite, clearly Lindsey doesn’t sing the praises of the digital world emerging around him. Though he relies on a network of information and images to piece together his coherent picture of our situation in these Last Days, he sees a computerized society as one waiting only for the right dictator to seize its information. Given our current love affair with networks as academics, Lindsey’s book serves as a useful reminder that networks produce fissures as well as connections, apprehension as well as applause.

Surely, the end is nigh.

– Review by A.T. Coates

Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)

Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845). Online version.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach offers eleven short critiques of Feuerbach’s dialectical materialism. In the dialectical philosophies of Feuerbach and Hegel, he argues, “materialism” appears usually as inert objects or as (objects of) contemplation. For them, real human activity happens in the mind—the material serves as mind’s dialectical opposite. But for Marx, all human activity (including subjectivity and thought) must be theorized as practical, material, and social. Even “religious sentiments” are social products according to Marx; more still, the “abstract individual” who holds “religious sentiments” emerges only under particular material and social conditions (#7). Thus, Marx rejects the idealists’ claim that the essence of human subjectivity resides in the individual mind. He insists that any theory of human society must be aware of the material conditions under which such particular notions of subjectivity emerged: “the human essence. . . . is the ensemble of social relations,” not an “abstraction inherent in each single individual” (#6).

Marx demands that theory must engage in revolutionary political activity. In the most famous thesis (#11), he writes, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real point is to change it.” This is no vague inspirational quote about “changing your world” by being a nice person or liking the right cause on Facebook. For Marx, change happens at the level of social structures and the material conditions that structure the way people think, experience, and live in the world.

-Review by A.T. Coates

Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” and “What is Iconoclash?”

Latour seems to be having a moment in religious studies right now. It is easy to see why: for Latour, religion constitutes a central element of modernity. Fetish… factish. Scientific “facts” behave suspiciously like the “fetishes” of so-called primitive religion—the truth inhabits the scientist’s microscope like the god speaks through the shaman’s mask. Latour takes the modern anthropological tools that have limned the boundaries of “religion” and turns them back on modernity itself. We accuse others of merely “believing” in gods they have made with their own hands, and yet insist that scientific facts descend unmediated into our minds, that they inhabit our apparatuses, that things must either be products of human labor (thus artificial) or completely untouched by human hands (thus true/genuine). “A Modern,” writes Latour, “is someone who believes that others believe” (42). The notion of “belief” allows Moderns to distinguish between those who are naïve and don’t know the god they believe in has been fabricated; those who are manipulative, who don’t themselves believe but convince others to do so; and those who are cynical, who know the god is made, and yet believe. Moderns don’t believe in scientific facts—they know them. Facts must be true and unmade, like the holy icon that descends from heaven

Iconoclash. When the Portuguese arrived on the Gold Coast of Africa carrying holy images of the Virgin, they invented the term “fetishism” to describe the amulets worn by the Africans. The fetishes were fabricated by people, then worshipped—such idolatry had to go. The images of the Madonna were acheiropoiete, not made by any human hand—the true, holy image. In this instance, we do not encounter iconoclast vs. iconophile, but iconophile vs. iconophile. One image gets destroyed and another is put in its place. “Iconoclasm” describes the relatively transparent act of breaking an image for the express purpose of its destruction. “Iconoclash” describes the much more complex moment where an image gets broken, but we can’t be sure why, where the act of breaking might just destroy, or it might construct something new. Latour being Latour, he swirls three kinds of image destruction together: religion, science, contemporary art. The religious reformer destroys the old idols, the scientist debunks the old model, the artist breaks down the conventions of “art.” But, as should be clear, not one of these acts of destruction dispenses with images altogether. The scientist posits a new model, the artist who hates “art” creates more art, and the Portuguese install shrines to the Virgin where the old gods once lived. Denying the power of the idols, they break them and install new icons not made by human hands, new art that breaks the conventions of art, new unmediated facts.

Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash?” from Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (2002)
AND
Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” in Material Religion 7.1 (2011): 42-49.

Review by A.T. Coates

 

Joel Robbins, “Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society” (2004).

Joel Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (2004)
Review by A.T. Coates

Robbins’s Becoming Sinners explores the concept of cultural change through the lens of morality. Based on his fieldwork with the Urapmin, a group of about 400 people in western Papua New Guinea, Robbins seeks to understand the cultural changes effected by the group’s conversion to charismatic Christianity. Though he describes the Urapmin’s Christian culture using the term “hybridity,” Robbins wants to go a step further: rather than seeing this “hybridity” as simple mixing or blending, he seeks a more robust theoretical account of the interaction between the constituent parts of hybrid cultures. According to Robbins, when the Urapmin adopted Christianity they became inhabitants of two opposing cultural systems. Unlike in other postcolonial settings, the Urapmin’s traditional bases of life (family, gardening, hunting, etc.) remained unchanged before and after conversion, as did the culture that structured them. Rather than assimilating Christianity into their existing cultural categories or having Christianity transform the structural relationships between their cultural categories, the Urapmin held their traditional culture alongside their Christian culture (7-10). But the largely individualist demands of the new Christian culture conflicted with the largely relational demands governing traditional Urapmin society. As a result, the Urapmin found themselves in a perpetual state they called “sin”: the regular interactions of social life caused them to be sinful, so the Urapmin constantly had to perform Christian rituals to rid themselves of sin. Living in two cultures left the Urapmin “troubled” (314).

As it turns out, the Urapmin are not only charismatic Baptists—they are also dispensational premillennialists. This, argues Robbins, gives them particular outlooks with regard to their place in time and space. The Urapmin explain their history in episodic terms, episodes characterized by radical disjunction. Discussing the group’s conversion, people like to say, “Now is God’s time… Now is now, and before is before.” (164). Living in constant expectation of the coming Millennium, the Urapmin experience “a sloping temporal order in which people are forever pitched forward, placing their best attention on the future and their best energy on their efforts to be ready for that future” (164). Drawing on dispensationalism, the Urapmin also conceive of space in millennial terms. They map the world according to racial categories of “black” and “white”: the Urapmin see themselves and Papua New Guinea as “black” and most of the rest of the world as “white” Christian countries. “Blacks” like themselves, the Urapmin say, have very little self-control, act more immorally than whites, and are not good at getting things done. Dispensationalism plays a complex role in this racial system. The Urapmin see Christianity as a “white” religion—Robbins himself frequently heard that Jesus was white like him, and the Urapmin felt that most “white” countries were Christian. But they also see themselves as participants in a transnational Christian community. Jesus is white, but he “came for the sinners” like the Urapmin: unlike other whites, Jesus is willing to befriend and work with them despite their insufficiencies. When they attend church on Sunday, they see themselves as participants in a worldwide white community. More, the Urapmin believe they will finally be able to overcome their racial deficiencies when Jesus returns. Thus, they spend most of their lives preparing themselves for a future change.

Robbins’s chapter “Contemporary Urapmin in Millennial Time and Space” should be required reading for any course on fundamentalism/dispensationalism in America. The chapter provides much insight into cultures of dispensationalism. Obviously, not everything about the Urapmin case holds for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. But Robbins’s anthropological approach challenges us to consider how historical American dispensational premillennialism operated at the cultural level. Robbins demands that we think about what, say, dispensationalism did to people’s experiences of the present/past/future, how it fostered transnational identities, how it interacted with cultural conceptions of space, how it related to issues of race, etc. In other words, this book has the power to do what anthropologists do best: it makes strange the familiar. Robbins challenges scholars of American history to engage and theorize Christianities as cultures, to reimagine how dispensationalism works through the case of the Urapmin.

Lawrence, “Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age” (1989)

Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (1989)
Review by A.T. Coates

Lawrence’s Defenders of God argues fundamentalism needs to be understood comparatively. Writing at a time when many wanted to proclaim the death of fundamentalism, Lawrence insisted that fundamentalism was alive and well around the world. For Lawrence, fundamentalism is a religious ideology, one modern to the core. He writes, “Fundamentalists do not deny or disregard modernity; they protest as moderns against the heresies of the modern age” (ix). As he says over and over again, fundamentalists are moderns—but not modernists. Emerging from the context of modernity, they protest against the totalizing ideology of modernism, declaring that some things can’t be systematized, counted, or subsumed under the authority of the nation-state. They love modern technology, but hate the ideological claim that science can unlock all truth about the world. With painstaking precision, Lawrence spells out precisely what he thinks modernity is, what it means for fundamentalism to be a religious ideology, and how his comparative categories yield insight into movements as diverse as Protestant fundamentalism, Khomeini’s Iran, and the Haredim in Israel.

In its day, Lawrence’s text shifted the register of scholarly conversations about fundamentalism. He insists that modernity provides the essential ingredient for the emergence of fundamentalism. Without modernity, fundamentalism cannot exist. This observation still has the potential to yield important insight. As the lively AAR panels about John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America and Jeremy Stolow’s edited volume Deus in Machina revealed, we still have a lot to learn about the blurred edges and spaces between modernity, technology, consumption, religion.

Defenders is a book of a particular generation. The preface and introduction would still work in an undergraduate classroom setting, but much of the book proceeds meticulously through the histories of arguments on the use of particular categories: so-and-so said this about ideology, which was rebutted by someone else who said such-and-such, to which still another replied with something else, etc. In defending its comparative perspective against the prevailing attitudes of its day, the book focuses quite heavily on the fundamentalist protest against modernity. Wanting to avoid the positive theological definition of Sandeen (fundamentalism is millenarianism), it carefully lays out a case for the kind of modern protest against modernism that fundamentalism enacts. But in this scheme, much like in Marty’s fundamentalism project, fundamentalism remains locked in oppositionalism. Anti-modernism makes the “religious ideologies” of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalism comparable. Family resemblances unite fundamentalisms in their opposition to modernism. Fundamentalists are 1. “advocates of a pure minority viewpoint against a sullied majority;” 2. fundamentalists are “oppositiona;” 3. fundamentalists are almost always secondary-level male elites who appeal to the unmediated authority of scripture; 4. fundamentalists are speakers of a specialized language that unites them against outsiders, 5. fundamentalists have “no ideological precursors,” emerging only as ideological opponents of modernism, whenever it happens to appear in a particular context (100-101).

 

Kathryn Lofton, “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon” (2011)

Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) by A.T. Coates

Katie Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon is one of the most exciting recent works in American religious history. As I said of the “secularism” in John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, I see this book as far more than just a text “about” Oprah. Though it certainly brings insight into its subject, it presents something much more important: Lofton, along with a cohort of young scholars, has inaugurated a new way of doing scholarship in this discipline. The book doesn’t just drape theory over its subject, but advances new theoretical models for the study of culture/religion. It doesn’t stand in admiration of the creative agency of its subject, but critiques a politics and theory that would celebrate the agentive subject. It’s difficult to avoid performing this book while reviewing it. Lofton’s book reminds me of the babysitter I had who used to come over wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, ripped jeans, and redolent of cigarettes: idiosyncratic and confident, casually nonconformist, supremely knowledgeable and world wise, and way, way cooler than me…

This book tears down the wall between religion and culture. Oprah is a celebrity and an icon, a brand and a philosophy, a CEO and spiritual leader. She has a weight problem and an anxious bench, a multimedia corporate empire and a plan of salvation. By discerning the deep religious roots of Oprah’s language, rituals, and practices, Lofton tells a much bigger story about the relationship between religion and culture in modern America. In Oprah’s realm, consumption transforms—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or none besides, if you buy the dress that flatters your figure and feel fabulous about yourself, you practice Oprah’s spirituality. If you come up to the couch and share your awakening story—whether you realize that you’re too fat, that you have been abused, that you’re gay, that you need a new hairstyle—you can transform, receive the gifts of O, and begin to experience your best life, now. Writes Lofton, “Oprah… emerges as the exemplar of… the combined categorical freight of religion, spirituality, commodity, and corporatism. To study modern religion—to study the modern American economy—requires thinking of these categories as conjoined, and not distinct” (10). In this supposedly secular modern age, Oprah reveals just how blurry the boundaries between religious freedom and consumer choice have always been.

In analytical terms, Oprah: Gospel of an Icon doesn’t always satisfy. Though Lofton offers an extended meditation on the iconic O of Oprah’s empire, we hear very little about what an icon might be, what makes this an icon and not that, how this O becomes special. On a similar analytic note, some of the deep religious resonances Lofton identifies in Oprah don’t sit easy with me: why, for example, should readers believe that Oprah’s Book Club shares more with the Chautauqua circuit than with, say, a Christian Science reading room? Why, as a revival preacher, is she more Finney than Moody? The only halfway satisfying answer I’ve come up with is that this book says so, I believe it, that’s good enough for me, and this book is too important to be bogged down with such quibbling. Often, I got the feeling that I was being swept along by this book and just had to accept its unusual sources and claims for the sake of its larger argument. Lofton cites omnivorously, from Jorge-Luis Borges to Candy Gunther Brown, from David Chidester to a University of Chicago BD thesis from 1922. In terms of sources and historical precedents, the book just seems a little too selective, its tone just a little too dynamic and not quite precise enough.

But this book’s significance far outweighs my petty objections. Like the babysitter who taught me what grunge was, it puts something new on our scholarly horizons. Lofton argues that we don’t need to fawn over our subjects to take them “seriously.” She insists that we stop upholding the imaginary divide between religion and culture. She demonstrates that our critical posture and practical agnosticism do not mean we have to remain politically disengaged, merely observing the American religious landscape with wonder. She dares to suggest that religious studies has something important to teach others about what it means to live in a modern, consumerist, “secular” age.

© 2014 A.T. Coates

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