A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: Dispensationalism

LaHaye and Jenkins, “Left Behind” (1995)

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days (1995).

Suddenly, without explanation, people disappear en masse. Cars crash into medians, driverless. Passengers vanish from airplanes midflight. Piles of clothes suddenly replace loved ones. All the world’s children, gone. A woman in labor finds her belly suddenly deflated; she delivers only a placenta (46). Welcome to the world of Left Behind. Boasting a company of characters named like the cast list of a 1970s porno—Buck Williams, Chloe Steele, Bruce Barnes, and Dirk Burton among others—Left Behind narrates a spy-thriller version of old-fashioned dispensational end times theology. The book operates on two levels. On the one hand, it’s an entertainment novel. Pure airport fare. A band of stock characters needs to solve a mystery, but forces ranging from the paranormal to the United Nations frustrate and complicate their efforts. In the end, the conspiracy goes much bigger than they thought, one problem (why did everyone disappear?) finds resolution but reveals bigger problems to follow (the antichrist is rising, but who?).

On the other hand, Left Behind is a thoroughly, unabashedly, Christian book for a conservative Christian audience. It puts a creative spin on the old dispensationalist practice of reading current events for signs of the times. Left Behind imagines a not-too-distant future that looks and feels suspiciously like the present (c. 1995): one character (Buck) finds that “the connection to his ramp on the information superhighway was busy” (32). Another character, searching for an explanation for his wife and son’s disappearance, pops in a DVD made by his wife’s pastor—the DVD player having first appeared in, that’s right, 1995 (202). So the book’s setting is the future, but it might as well be tomorrow. This gives practically unlimited creative license when the authors to get down to the dispensationalist business. This book does not read signs of the times as dispensationalists traditionally do, but rather conjures the times. Working backwards, it drapes the prophetic future onto the form of the present rather than looking at the present for signs of the prophetic future.

Ernest Sandeen, “The Roots of Fundamentalism” (1970)

Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. (U Chicago, 1970).

Sandeen isolates millenarianism as the lifeblood of American fundamentalism. In his appraisal, fundamentalism marks just one important phase in the larger history of millenarian theology. Instead of looking to the infamous “five fundamentals” (inerrancy, virgin birth, atonement of Christ, bodily resurrection, miracle-working power of Christ) as time-honored Christian principles upheld by old-fashioned believers, Sandeen treats them as theological innovations that emerged from the millenarian tradition. Though Americans had developed indigenous strains of millenarianism in the Millerite and Mormon movements of the early 19th century, the variety that led to fundamentalism came as a British import. In general, British millenarianism gave the American version four characteristics: i) zeal for interpreting biblical prophecies, ii) special interest in Jews and Zionism iii) the doctrine of the premillennial advent, and iv) a futurist stance toward the book of Revelation (8-9, 12, 36-37). In particular, John Nelson Darby’s dispensational premillennialism that won the States. With its doctrine of the secret rapture and its division of the New Testament into “Jewish” and “churchly” texts, dispensationalism became the dominant form of millenarianism in America by the 1870s.

But, even with Darbyite dispensationalism on the scene, American millenarianism wasn’t yet fundamentalism. Fundamentalism of the “five fundamentals” variety emerged only when British-style millenarianism formed a sort of informal alliance with “Princeton theology.” Developed by figures like B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, Princeton Theology stood out for its commonsense, rationalistic approach to the authority of the Bible. These thinkers insisted that a) the inspiration of scripture extends to the words of the text themselves, b) the Bible is not only reliable, but claims to be inerrant, and c) the inerrant verbal inspiration of the Bible only applies to the “original autographs” penned by the biblical writers (125-127). Sandeen argues that around the 1890s, when this theological approach met dispensationalism at Moody’s prophecy conferences, fundamentalism proper was born (172).

Coming of age intellectually in the post-Marsden age, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Sandeen’s work was in 1970. Obviously, the book shows its age—I cringe at the mere thought of someone writing today about fundamentalist history only by looking at the theology of its “great (white) men.” Cultural or social history this ain’t. Nonetheless, the book still holds an important place in the historiography for several reasons. First, Sandeen saw himself as one of the only historians to take fundamentalist theology seriously. There’s very little condescension in these pages, and Sandeen makes a tremendous effort to treat fundamentalism as a movement with significant theological depth. Relatedly, Sandeen insisted that fundamentalism made measurable contributions to the development of American theology. That is, fundamentalism wasn’t just a relic of some bygone age doomed to die a slow death, but a living theological tradition. Third, Sandeen corrected the misconception, probably started by H.L. Mencken, that fundamentalism thrived only in the rural South. Quite contrarily, in Sandeen’s story, fundamentalism emerges as a sophisticated intellectual movement located primarily in the major cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Forty years after I publish my book, I’ll be well pleased if some smartass PhD student still finds any value in what I’ve written…

Review by A.T. Coates

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

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.

Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People (2000)

Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000. (2000)

Yaakov Ariel’s Evangelizing the Chosen People dances through a minefield. Examining missions to Jewish people in (and from) American Christians, Ariel sensitively renders both sides of a history more accustomed to harsh polemics. On the one side, he examines the institutional histories and theological motivations of Christian missions to the Jews. On the other, he attends to the Jewish responses to those missions—which were far more varied than many people might like to admit. Ariel’s book advances two important theses: 1) dispensational premillennialism provided the fuel in the engine for American evangelical missions to the Jews, 2) in surprising ways, missions have shaped Jewish-Christian relations in America. In Ariel’s estimation, dispensational premillennialism was the primary motivator of American missions to the Jews: it offered frameworks for Christian understandings of Judaism and Jewish people, and instilled in many Christians an urge to convert “Israel.” In dispensational theology, the Jewish nation has an important role to play in earth’s Last Days: those who remain alive after the Great Tribulation will convert en masse to Christianity and usher in Christ’s millennial kingdom. Thus, Jews hold an ambiguous place in dispensationalism: they need to convert to Christianity, but they are fundamentally different from all other people and have a special role to play in God’s future plans. This twin emphasis on specialness and difference, Ariel argues, has created a number of paradoxes in Jewish-Christian relations. The Christians who worked the hardest to convert Jews often became ardent supporters of Zionism and nationalist projects in Israel. Because they thought Israel had a special past and future, missionaries learned much about Jewish life and became ambassadors to other Christians on behalf of Jewish culture and religion. Such missions have made it possible for Christian groups like Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism to emerge and to be welcomed into the evangelical fold. Because of the dispensationalist character of missions to the Jews, Ariel argues, today in America there are Christian congregations who celebrate Jewish ethnic heritage, churches where teenagers read the New Testament at their bar mitzvahs.

This book is heavy going. Ariel builds his case by carefully tracing the histories of many important missionary institutions, moments in mission history, Jewish responses to Christian missions, and twists in the story of Jewish-Christian relations. Most non-specialists will probably have a hard time appreciating the significance of this work—some sections seemed repetitive and dull, piling detail after detail about dispensationalist missionary organizations. But for those willing to move at Ariel’s pace, the book proves rewarding. Careful and sensitive, this book takes its subjects very seriously even as Ariel’s sense of humor shines through: “If the association between evangelical missionaries and Jewish Orthodox scholars was amazing, the encounter between the Southern Baptist missionaries and the Canaanites was almost in the realm of the unthinkable” (151). This encounter “in the realm of the unthinkable” connected a conservative Southern Baptist missionary with the hippest edge of the Israeli avant-garde on the issue of the separation of synagogue and state. Though his interactions with Israel’s cultural elite, that missionary helped to forge a new language for Christianity: converts started calling themselves meshichi (“messianic”) instead of the more familiar term notzri (“Christian”) (155). Later in the book, Ariel carefully shows how this language became central to the self-understandings of Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism in America. Though he calls them “new religious movements” (222), Ariel notes that adherents think of themselves as “ur-Christians,” having special affinity with Jesus and his disciples. Reversing a long history of responses to missions, these groups see conversion to Christianity as a way of connecting with their Jewish roots, of finding “authentic” Judaism and Christianity (198). The chapters on Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism would make for great discussion in an upper-level undergraduate class.

Paul Boyer, “When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture” (1992)

Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992)

It’s hard to imagine myself back to the time when someone needed to write this book. But when it first appeared, Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More mapped academic terra incognita. In 1992, neither Google nor Amazon existed and relatively few people had heard of the internet, some retailers did not accept credit cards, the Wall had just come down, and Left Behind hadn’t even been published yet. Into that context, Boyer’s book appeared, insisting that many Americans believed Jesus would return during their lifetimes. He argued that a) the belief that the world was rapidly approaching its end—particularly premillennialism—formed a major current in American Christian history and b) prophecy beliefs were alive and well during the postwar and Cold War eras, shaping public opinion on matters like economic policy and foreign affairs. Boyer offers careful readings of a massive body of material—and peppers his history with funny, fascinating tidbits. For example, he explains how a Canadian $1000 bill from 1954 got pulled from circulation after some citizens observed a smiling devil in Queen Elizabeth’s hair. This, of course, meant that the country had aligned itself with the antichrist to conduct trade during the Last Days (283). Though occasionally sarcastic, at its best this book offers sensitive explanations for the “grassroots appeal” of dispensational premillennialism’s esoteric eschatological schemes. “Meschech” kind of sounds like “Moscow,” and Moscow is directly north of Jerusalem on a map, so it’s easy to see why Americans might have interpreted Russia as the northern invader of Israel named “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel 38 (see 155-156).

Though a little stale in its theoretical outlook, most of this book seemed surprisingly fresh 20 years after its publication. Boyer himself suggests that readers skip the first 112 snooze-inducing pages, which offer a sweeping overview of the apocalyptic genre, apocalyptic beliefs throughout premodern Christian history, and the emergence of premillennialism in America. The real meat of this book comes in its analyses of popular texts since 1945. The five chapters of part II point to themes we still grapple with as scholars of conservative Christianity: one big one being the ambiguous status of Judaism. As Boyer notes, dispensationalists were willing to grant Jews “a glorious past and future,” but they did not know how to fit the present into their eschatological schemes (219). At least abstractly, conservative Christianity afforded Israel and essentialized “Judaism” important roles in the past and in the End Times. But dispensationalists simply didn’t know what to do with living, unconverted Jews. Remarks Boyer, “at the heart of dispensationalism lies the assumption that Jews are essentially and eternally different” (220). Being trained by two experts in Christian Zionism—Yaakov Ariel and Shalom Goldman—has probably overdetermined my interest in this subject, but I think we still have a long way to go in unpacking conservative Christianity’s interest in Israel and its ideas about Judaism’s “biblical authenticity.” I still can’t figure out why so many evangelicals love Seder suppers and Marc Chagall’s paintings, but still insist that Jews need to convert to Christianity. But I digress.

A person could still assign chapters of When Time Shall Be No More for an undergrad course on Christianity post-1945. As I hinted above, this book has grown only a little musty with time. It completely disregards images, occasionally makes snide judgments about the quality of the material it examines, and—worst of all—focuses unrelentingly on prophecy beliefs. But it still holds tremendous value for scholars of postwar conservative Christianity… and it offers a wealth of primary sources for the future dissertation writer.

Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98.4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

Matt Sutton’s recent article “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?” breaks important ground in the study of conservative Christian antiliberalism. Though they agreed that FDR probably wasn’t the anti-Christ himself, many fundamentalists interpreted his New Deal policies in apocalyptic terms. With the Bolshevik revolution, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the reconstituted Roman Empire under Mussolini, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel (after the British capture of Jerusalem in 1917), fundamentalists knew the Last Days were near at hand. Says Sutton, “Premillennialism served as the filter through which the faithful understood American politics” (1061). They saw the expanding powers of the US federal government under FDR as a sure sign that the anti-Christ was about to appear on earth. If Roosevelt wasn’t personally the antichrist, he surely wanted to usher in the kind of world where the antichrist would feel at home. Fundamentalists would not stand for it.

Sutton draws two arguments out of fundamentalist responses to FDR. First, he concludes that fundamentalist antistatism did not emerge in the NAE of 1942 nor the Moral Majority of 1979, but instead “developed among fundamentalists during the 1930s, parallel to and corresponding with the birth of modern liberalism” (1053). Second, he suggests that international politics and global events importantly shaped fundamentalist theology and politics in America. No navel-gazing isolationists, fundamentalists understood their faith in global terms and looked to international events for evidence that the rapture was coming soon. Premillennialist political critiques at home arose as fundamentalists carefully scanned the globe for signs of the times.

Sutton’s argument about fundamentalist interest in international affairs corrects a glaring oversight in the field. Sometimes, we scholars lose sight of the fact that fundamentalists were referring to real events, real places, and real people when they talked about “wars and rumors of wars,” Gog, Magog, and the Beast. With his characteristic artistry, Sutton beautifully depicts an encounter between two fundamentalist missionaries and Mussolini that illustrates this point: “by the time the Nortons had finished with Mussolini, he apparently believed—and maybe even hoped—that he was the long-awaited world dictator, the antichrist, prophesied in the book of Daniel” (1059). The story reads as a kind of humorous aside in the article, but it stands on the tip of an iceberg. The very fact that American fundamentalists could have detailed knowledge of Mussolini’s activities, travel to visit him, and read reports of such encounters soon after they happened speaks volumes about the cultural world in which fundamentalism thrived. As Sutton’s title suggests, this was indeed a global age, one in which industrial presses churned out international headlines around the clock, Lindbergh flew an airplane to France, and people’s home radios plucked world news right out of the air.

This article left me wanting more. I felt especially unsatisfied by the one-paragraph treatment of the late 1920s. From about 1925-1932, fundamentalist premillennialists went from supporting “big government” initiatives like prohibition and anti-evolution to vehemently opposing FDR. This essay simply skims over these crucial years, attributing the premillennial critique of the New Deal to a renewed interest in eschatology prompted by the nation’s economic collapse. In his book on this topic, I hope Sutton will spend more time in these crucial years—I think there’s an interesting story to tell there.

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