The Long View: We All Fall Down

The best paragraph in this fascinating book review by John J. Reilly is this:

As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.

As a modern, it is actually kind of hard for me to find fault with the lead character’s stubbornness. The power to be able to say “No” is rather appealing. But as the ashes of Notre Dame cool in Paris, it is worth reflecting that the woman who is honored above all other people in our culture, except for her Son, said “Yes”.

Pierre Téqui‏  @Pierretequi   Photo de l’intérieur de  #NotreDame  La voûte du transept s’est effondrée

Pierre Téqui‏ @Pierretequi

Photo de l’intérieur de #NotreDame La voûte du transept s’est effondrée


We All Fall Down
By Brian Caldwell
2000, Infinity Publishing.com
(2006, Reissue by Alphar Publishing)
253 Pages, US$15.95
ISBN 0-7414-0499-0


Yes, the Antichrist is evil and his agents are vivisecting nightmares from splatterpunk fiction. Anyone who understood that would never accept his mark; certainly not now, when the visible fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation proves that the Second Coming of Christ is less than seven years distant. But wouldn’t making a decision for Christ be, well, inauthentic? That’s the existential decision that the remarkably foul-mouthed Jimmy Lordan has to make during the Tribulation period in this equally remarkable riff on the now-familiar themes of the apocalyptic novel.

The theme song for this book should probably be The Day the Ravens Left the Tower by the Alarm, a Welsh evangelical rock-band that used to open for U2 25 years ago. The song is about the legend that England would end when the ravens leave the Tower of London; the song ends with the rhyme, "Ring around the Rosie," which is also recited in the course of the book. The connection of the song to the book is speculative, but the Generation-X edginess is obvious enough. The protagonist is a member of that generation, a teacher of English at a high school in Michigan but a native of Boston, a city to which he returns twice in the course of the story. (The book is in three acts, rather like a screenplay, and they are presented nonsequentially.) We see Jimmy sliding into early middle age in the early 21st century after his devout wife disappears in the Rapture and the world begins to come apart at the seams.

The pre-tribulation millenarianism that the story assumes is explained only in briefest outline. This is quite unlike the custom in apocalyptic novels, whose primary point is usually to inform the reader of the details of that eschatology. We get just a glimpse of the Antichrist (one Sir Richard Grant Morrison) and that only on television, when he welcomes the sadly depopulated United States into the One World Community. The story is not about world history, but the choices that cosmic catastrophe bring to Jimmy. Readers accustomed to the air-brushed atrocities of the Left Behind series may well be shocked by what they read in this book. As Jimmy explains to the penitent homosexual who tries to help him perform at least one good deed before the Second Coming:

"George, do you have any idea how many times in the last few years I’ve woken up without the slightest fucking clue where I was and what was happening? My wife disappeared from my bed, I watched my father get shot in the face, I thought I was going to die in a nuclear attack, I spent a month getting tortured, a building I was in collapsed, killing everyone but me. I’ve wandered insane through the Israeli desert, spent two years surrounded by Christ-freaks in a camp protected by God, a month on a prison ship watching kids get raped. I’ve been beaten by an ex-student who worked in a death camp and got attacked by a swarm of locusts."

Actually, Jimmy’s adventures are even worse than that, because here Jimmy is telling only what happened to him, not what he himself did. There is quite a lot of graphic sex in this book. It’s not gratuitous, since it serves to establish character, but it is often vindictive.

The Rapture in this book serves to set us a philosophical puzzle by removing metaphysical doubt. Suppose we knew for a fact that theism is true, as we well might surmise in the face of the clockwork fulfillment of the pre-tribulation Endtime scenario. Obviously, the worship of God would then be advisable on utilitarian grounds. However, does the power of God make it morally imperative that we love Him?

This is not a new question. The Book of Job is the text to which all other treatments of the matter are commentaries. In this connection, Immanuel Kant laid down the principle that a command, even the sort of command that God seems to spend so much of His time issuing in the Bible, cannot be the basis of a moral duty. Perhaps the most entertaining relatively recent treatment of the issue in fiction is Robert Heinlein’s Answer to Job. That book, too, is set during the Endtime, indeed during the Endtime in several parallel universes. Theodicy fails to justify the arbitrary salvation and damnation of the characters; in the end, God Himself is ultimately convicted of tyranny. The problem with that conclusion, though, is that it rather incoherently appeals to a justice that transcends God. We All Fall Down takes the issue in a more radical direction. We see it stated here by Jimmy’s highly amputated cellmate, Stan, as he explains why he once refused to inform on a prison gang that had abused him:

"You wanna keep saying no, then ya better find your Inch, boy. Find it and protect it. Ya can cry and scream and beg and curse. Ya can do any damn thing ya gotta do to get through it, but as long as you don’t say yes, you win. Long as ya keep yer Inch for yerself, long as ya don’t pussy out and give it to Morrison or God, you win. You win and they lose."

The power not to say “yes” seems even more intolerable to Antichrist’s government than mere Christianity. As is usual in apocalyptic fiction, people who refuse to receive the mark of the Beast are arrested. Receiving the mark is called “tagging” here; as has also become a literary commonplace, it means you need an implanted microchip in your hand to buy or sell. The authorities quickly execute the Christians, once it is clear they are sincere. In contrast, the authorities take infinite pains with the small number of people who have not converted to Christianity but who refuse to be tagged as a matter of personal integrity. They beat the recusants in ingenious ways over a period of weeks; by and by they snip off ever more noticeable bits of them, all the while engaging in the sort of thoughtful dialogue familiar to us from O’Brien’s exchanges with Winston in 1984. Jimmy’s rudeness during these sessions is stunning, but then, as we slowly come to realize, Jimmy is a genuinely bad man.

Jimmy’s refusal to give an Inch, in fact, raises the question whether the evil in this book comes in two distinct varieties. There is the garden-variety evil of those who willingly follow Antichrist. They worship an object unworthy of worship, and therefore suffer a fitting decline in their sanity and physical condition. Then there are the elite of the damned, people like Jimmy and his father and Stan. Their whole motivation shrinks to the defense of their personal integrity, which is defined in an amoral, even ahedonic way. In normal times, perhaps, one might take this supernal stubbornness for ordinary existentialism: the existentialist defines as real what he would be willing to die for. As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.

There is another perspective that the book does not consider, however. Though Jimmy’s recusal from the demands of both God and the Devil is not presented as admirable, it is presented as unanswerable. The final defense of the self is made to seem as self-evident a choice as the acceptance of salvation, even if the final outcome of that defense is completely horrible. This equation is not just ill-advised, however; it may also be merely mistaken.

We should note that the discernment of the absolute self has not always been thought to lead to an inescapable spiritual black hole. The method of contemplative prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing is based on the premise that, when the contemplative strips away all desires, fears, and distractions, all that remains is the naked desire for God. Furthermore, only someone who has already become virtuous in conventional ways can hope to clarify his basic nature for this purpose.

If that example seems too esoteric for Stan’s Inch, then consider that it is precisely in those extreme situations of danger, when recourse to moral theory is impractical, that many people first encounter the moral life. This is the truth of which existentialism is a caricature. There are circumstances in which moral imperatives are experienced as both commands and discoveries. Kant had a point when he said that a command from one human being to another cannot create a moral duty, but he was wrong when he assumed that experience cannot be commanding. In this sense, the moral life can be said to be a direct experience of the substance of God.

At the risk of taxing the concept behind the book with more analysis than it should be required to bear, let me also suggest that the choice for salvation and the defense of the Inch may not be so incompatible as We All Fall Down takes for granted. Readers may be familiar with the C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength. It involves an occult conspiracy that could well have been the beginning of the Endtime, if it had been permitted to get off the ground. The story includes another interview between an interrogator and a victim whom the interrogator is trying to convince to make a decision very like the one the forces of Antichrist were trying to foist on Jimmy Lordan. The victim in the Lewis novel refuses, too. He does not refuse because of theological scruples, but because he sees that what he is being asked to do would be the end of him in some more fundamental way than merely dying. However, far from being the event horizon of a spiritual black hole, the victim’s refusal is his first discovery of the moral life, and then of the transcendent. In deciding to resist, he had decided, all unknowing, to fight on the side of the angels in whom he did not believe. In other words, by defending his Inch, he had also accepted the grace of salvation.

This book uses eschatology to simplify certain questions, which is fair enough. Still, I could not help wondering as I read what would happen to the logic of the story if complications had been introduced. Suppose anonymous Christians had been raptured. Well, that’s another story.


Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth

If I could find a reasonably-priced copy of this book, something like the proceedings of the annual meeting of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, I might pick it up. I’m sufficiently intrigued by John’s précis that I want to read all the contributions. I’m also curious whether the Damian Thompson listed is the current editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald. I suspect so, but a quick internet search didn’t turn up the article in question.

John provides links to his contributions to the Center for Millennial Studies conference.

Soft Landings

The World After Modernity

After the Third Age

Each one is well worth a read, and they can function as a useful summary of John’s thinking on the subject of millennialism at the close of modernity.


War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth
Theories of the Apocalyptic
Edited by Stephen O’Leary and Glen S. McGhee
Equinox Publishing, 2005
290 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 1-90476-888-1

Millennialism is not a new subject. Casual readers are likely to have encountered the topic in such books as Norman Cohn’s classic (if dated) study of early modern millennial “revolutions,” The Pursuit of the Millennium, or Leon Festinger’s application of Gestalt theory to the evolution and breakup of a flying-saucer cult, When Prophecy Fails. Considered most broadly as the expectation of an imminent, collective, terrestrial, and total transformation of the world for the better, millennialism has long interested not just theologians and anthropologists, but also social scientists, experimental psychologists, literary theorists, and political scientists. In the 1990s, scholars in various disciplines prepared to observe what was expected to be an outbreak of millennialist activity in and around the year 2000. One of the chief venues for discussing the results of this activity was the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, which held international conferences from 1996-2002. War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth is one of three anthologies in the Center’s “Millennialism and Society” series, which contains papers by the Center’s members.

The writer of this review was also a member of the Center. None of the papers I presented at the annual conferences appears in this volume. One is here; another is here; the last is here.

The Center and its conferences provided unexampled opportunities for scholars who otherwise would have had little occasion to encounter each other professionally to discuss their own findings and theoretical models. The result was not quite a general theory of millennialism, but the definition of a set of important methodological and substantive issues. One thing the Center did not provide, however, was a forum for discussing contemporary millennialist outbreaks, since, for the most part, they did not occur. In the 1990s, of course, there were some mass suicides by apocalyptic cults, and attendant to the year 2000 itself there was an extraordinary (and expensive) wave of anxiety about the ability of the world’s computer systems to handle the date change. However, the social reaction to the millennium was not what the members of the Center had anticipated.

In this anthology, Damian Thompson suggests in his contribution, “The Retreat of the Millennium,” that classic revolutionary millennialism may no longer be possible in the developed world. Millennial and apocalyptic idea systems are if anything more easily available than they have ever been, but as entertainment. The “structures of plausibility,” which is to say, the social networks that turn ideas into movements, are so transparent to modern mass communication that self-reinforcing communities of the elect cannot form. To me this seems improbable. Modern communications are quite capable of facilitating the organization of new movements. Often these are movements with apocalyptic premises, though in the West itself these ideas are more likely to have a scientific or pseudoscientific basis. In this anthology, David Redles’s contribution, “‘The time is not far off…’: The Millennial Reich and the Induced Apocalypse,” we see that the Nazi movement in Germany was in many ways a millennialist movement, one that seemed quite consistent with modern conditions, indeed with modern conditions when the only media were the mass media, which one would think would favor consensus rather than cultic views.

One of the dangers of millennial studies is the temptation to expand the concept excessively. Still, one of the great merits of this book is the range of phenomena that the authors usefully treat as millennial. Marc Fonda, for instance, in “Postmodernity and the Imagination of the Apocalypse,” suggests that postmdernism is implicitly an apocalyptic mindset. It does exactly what millennial ideologies do: it “sees through” consensus reality and unmasks it as a fraud; it is at war with the recent past; and it makes its adherents profoundly uneasy. Implicit in every work of deconstruction is the desire for a new synthesis. Postmodernism is a transitional frame of mind that hopes for its own supercession by a new age. That insight chimes very neatly with Joel Martin’s “Before and Beyond the Sioux Ghost Dance,” which develops the idea that millennial movements resemble “rites of passage,” but for collectivities rather than individuals.

The anthology does not neglect millennial movements in the narrow sense. There is Rosalind Hackett’s assessment of the relatively recent Maitasine uprising in northern Nigeria. The movement in question was of doubtful Islamic provenance, (its founder called Mohammed “just another Arab”), but it set the pattern for Christian-Muslim confessional strife unto this day. A real surprise for many readers will be David Cook’s “The Beginnings of Islam as an Apocalyptic Movement,” which looks back to a time when it was not clear that Islam was not just another exotic Christian sect. In any case, the piece argues that early Islam was able to expand as quickly as it did because of its ability to harmonize with the millennial expectations of the Christian communities in the regions it conquered.

A recurrent issue in the study of any millennial movement is how it reacts when events seem to cast its historical scenario in doubt, or even plainly refutes it. This issue goes to the fate of modernity, or so says John Turner in “The Deflating power of Progress,” which argues from a Nietzschean perspective that even the faith in modern science is a millennial ideology that cannot be sustained indefinitely. As Cathy Gutierrez explains in “The Millennium and Narrative Closure,” millennial movements construct history in a novelistic fashion, so that the end gives meaning to all the preceding events. The millennial models are different, however, in that they must always defer closure, or risk disconfirmation. Glen McGhee’s critical piece, “A Cultural History of Dissonance Theory,” observes that Leon Festinger’s concept of “cognitive dissonance” has held up rather well to empirical study, but not his claim that millennial groups commonly react to evidence contrary to their beliefs by proselytizing. (That piece also does an almost perfect back flip by showing how the development of dissonance theory actually resembled the evolution and dissolution of many of the millennial groups it was designed to explain.)

Albert Baumgarten’s “Four Stages in the Life of a Millennial Movement” shows how millennialist groups often survive their earlier histories as active apocalyptic movements to be come stable social institutions. They may maintain their millennialist ideas in some form, but interpret and background them in a way that makes ordinary life possible again. This is also a key point in “Roosters Crow, Owls Hoot,” the contribution by the Center for Millennial Studies cofounder, Richard Landes. Millennial ideas are often a part of the social environment; their influence depends on the success or failure of the proponents and opponents of an apocalyptic interpretation of current events. Ted Daniels actually begins this anthology with a discussion of the role of prophets and the conversion experience in sparking millennialist movements. “A Cups Catastrophe Model of Cult Conversions,” by Leslie Downing, applies a Gestalt model to the process of sudden conversion.

The end of the world disappointed many of the participants in millennial studies in the year 2000. In retrospect, that seems to have occurred not because the subject lacked value, but because of a failure to imagine the ways in which millennially motivated behavior would manifest itself in the 21st century. I would argue that the final contribution to the book, Charles Strozier’s “From Ground Zero: Thoughts on Apocalyptic Violence and the New Terrorism,” errs on the side of being too metaphorical. The War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations have more than incidental apocalyptic elements. We ignore them at our peril.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-13: Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016  Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016

Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I note that Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi did win election to the upper house in Iran in 2006, but that his party did not gain a majority in the legislature. The Wikipedia article is broadly consistent with Dr. Timothy Furnish’s description that John J. Reilly quotes here, but as this is pretty far outside my knowledge base, I don’t have much to add besides that.

I do like John’s use of Bayes’ Theorem in explaining millenarian decision making. In light of new information, what was previously crazy might not actually be crazy at all, if the new information is true.

John links here to a Youtube video of Julius Evola, and the years were not kind to the man. He actually looks a bit like Grandpa Munster in the film footage, whereas in his youth he was a rather dapper Dark Lord.

Finally, despite John’s caustic comment on the perennial Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I think Niall Gooch has the best defense of the movie’s merits.


Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch


As if the US Congressional elections were not exciting enough, an impending vote in Iran could be even more important, if we are to believe Patrick Poole:

A showdown over the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran is underway as the December 15th election of the Assembly of Experts, the top political body, rapidly approaches. The election of the Assembly of Experts has been a particularly contentious issue in Iran, as the traditionalist hardliners have already invalidated many candidates representing both the moderating party led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the burgeoning extremist party led by President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The burden of that piece is that a victory by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi would be unfortunate, because he is a millenarian of the first water in an eschatological tradition that views the eschaton as something one should help to bring about, not just to wait for. I cannot evaluate that assessment, since this is one of those areas I know only through secondary sources. However, Timothy R. Furnish of Mahdiwatch has a Ph.D in Islamic millenarianism, and he has this to say:

I think that his taking the helm there would virtually ensure eventual war with Israel and/or the U.S., for two reasons: Mesbah-Yazdi's geopolitical views – which include approval of first-use of nuclear weapons – make him perhaps the ultimate Shi`ite jihadist; and his eschatological fervor, which brings to mind previous historical examples of bloody Mahdist movements, such as Ibn Tumart of 12th century Morocco and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan.

For my part, I would say that only very rarely does millenarianism in power take the form of a man with a plan who makes a nuisance of himself while trying to carry out a step-by-step agenda that leads to the eschaton. Rather, it encourages risk-taking by denigrating the importance of the present state of things, which is seen as merely transitional. It's really an instance of Bayes' Rule: a policy that might seem too risky in ordinary time appears less hazardous because of the added information about a possible future provided by the millenarian model.

* * *

Niall Ferguson seems to have become interested in Alternative History because the First World War, whose economic history was his original concern as a scholar, cries out for such an analysis. That's because it was obviously a war of choice, at least of choice about how and when the war broke out. That is also true of the Iraq War, which has also occasioned a great deal of AH speculation, either about the war itself, or about alternative-historical parallels. David Warren here favors us with an example of the latter:

I was rewriting history, while walking along some cold lakeshore the other day. My thought was: if Churchill had only come to power in 1937, Chamberlain would have been installed to replace him in 1940.

Had Churchill been in power, and refused to sign Munich, he would have been blamed for the outbreak of war.

I can just hear the prattle in an English pub, circa 1950. "He pushed Hitler to it! Had it not been for Churchill, Hitler would have been satisfied with the Sudetenland, and England would never have had to surrender. Everything was Churchill's fault!"

Today, everything is Bush's fault.

Actually, Germany's strategic position was much worse in September 1938 than a year later, when the war in Europe actually began. Russia was still unfriendly, there would have been time to send Poland serious support, and an invasion of Czechoslovakia would not self-evidently have been an easy matter. A war begun in 1938 would have been confused and tentative, but it might have been the better solution. One suspects the same will turn out to have been true of the Iraq War. Would 2008 really have been a better year if a nuclear-armed and millenarian Iran were then demanding that Saddam Hussein's government come clean about its WMD programs?

* * *

But if Bush is not to blame, then how about this fellow? Yes, unless I am mistaken, that is no less a person than Julius Evola (compare his picture here) speaking about the metaphysical significance of Dada. Here he is speaking in French with Italian subtitles. I'm working on it.

* * *

You think America is forgetting the meaning of Christmas, do you? Well, according to Jeff Jacoby, matters are much worse across the Atlantic:

FROM THE land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery...But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "

May I suggest that "A Christmas Carol" was the top of the slippery slope of which the "Seasons Greetings" card is the bottom? "A Christmas Carol" is a sentimental ghost story, excellent of its kind, but in no way intended to reinforce the religious significance of Christmas: rather the opposite, I suspect. In this it resembles Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a nightmarish tale of existential dread.

And what have I done for Christmas art? I did this poster.

xmas2006a.jpg

Anybody have a problem with that?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View 2006-10-11: Springtime for Doomsday; Mainstream Crusade; Tridentine Indult; Idomeneo; Secure Yourself

A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the few Catholic apocalyptic novels. It remains one of my favorites, because of how seriously, and how imaginatively, Miller took Catholic doctrine.

Will Wilson's brutal tweet about the online LARPing of Catholic space empires is on point, and the best response I could imagine is the Catholic imagination of Walter Miller.

In this blog post, John also works at the essential dilemma that we face today regarding freedom of speech and the deplatforming tactics of groups such as Antifa. If all the West really stands for is allowing Nazis and other assorted ne'er-do-wells to have rallies, then it isn't worth defending. John discussed this in the context of the intentionally offensive cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, but the principle isn't really different now. John made an argument that allowing intentional transgressions was a necessary friction, but I think that time may have passed us by.

In 2002, John made an argument that healthcare was a public good, not a public right, and I still like this argument. He said that you couldn't call healthcare a public right in the same sense you could call the right to confront your accuser at trial, because healthcare depended upon an elaborate infrastructure of technology and training, while if you were going to have a trial, your accuser could simply be produced.

I think teasing out the subtleties of this argument would be a book, at least, but I think there is something here. 

In a similar vein, the relatively homogeneous Western European societies that developed ideals of free speech had a remarkable ability to tolerate cranks and dissent, within certain bounds. Think of Toad in the Wind in the Willows. The relatively unhomogeneous Western societies we have now, don't. Much like healthcare, our capacity to tolerate blasphemy and hatred depends on our capacity to provision public life with a common meaning. When that is lacking, it doesn't matter what the constitution says; no one is getting what is promised.


Springtime for Doomsday; Mainstream Crusade; Tridentine Indult; Idomeneo; Secure Yourself

 

Alas for Millennial Studies, which made the mistake of trying to institutionalize itself in connection with the year 2000. Today, I think, few people would deny that the area is of more enduring significance. Consider, for instance, Thomas Hibbs' comments on the enduring significance of Walter Miller's 1959 novel about the interval between the Third and Last World Wars, A Canticle for Leibowitz:

[A]t a time when we are inundated with ideologically charged and artistically mediocre end-times stories — the latest entry is the CBS TV series Jericho — it is perhaps time to recommend Canticle, a novel that serves to put in question our simplistic apocalyptic oppositions between science and religion, knowledge and faith, even Jews and Christians. ...

End-times stories have become quite popular in recent years. In a recent New York Magazine piece, entitled “The End of the World as They Know It,” Kurt Anderson observes that from “Christian millenarians and jihadists to Ivy League professors and baby-boomers, apocalypse is hot...”

Buffy and other apocalyptic stories stress the recovery of a lost knowledge of good and evil, but this knowledge is typically needed, not so much to inform a living culture, but merely to fend off destruction and to do so by violent means. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, by contrast, the accent is not on destruction or even holding back destruction through violence but on preservation. The goal is integration and unification, however difficult that objective might be.

I have been saying that for years; I may be saying that until doomsday.

* * *

What are we going to call the rollback of Islam? The Reconquesta? Anyway, we will soon need a term if even a journal as clueless as The New York Times notices that Across Europe, Worries on Islam Spread to Center

Europe appears to be crossing an invisible line regarding its Muslim minorities: more people in the political mainstream are arguing that Islam cannot be reconciled with European values...Now those normally seen as moderates — ordinary people as well as politicians — are asking whether once unquestioned values of tolerance and multiculturalism should have limits....

When Pope Benedict XVI made the speech last month that included a quotation calling aspects of Islam “evil and inhuman,” it seemed to unleash such feelings. Muslims berated him for stigmatizing their culture, while non-Muslims applauded him for bravely speaking a hard truth....

In Austria this month, right-wing parties also polled well, on a campaign promise that had rarely been made openly: that Austria should start to deport its immigrants. Vlaams Belang, too, has suggested “repatriation” for immigrants who do not made greater efforts to integrate...The idea is unthinkable to mainstream leaders, but many Muslims still fear that the day — or at least a debate on the topic — may be a terror attack away...

Perhaps most wrenching has been the issue of free speech and expression, and the growing fear that any criticism of Islam could provoke violence.

On the subject of free speech and expression, we should note Stephen Schwartz's report that there was less to the Idomeneo controversy than met the eye:

First, the Berlin Opera performance of Idomeneo was threatened with cancellation because German authorities decided that showing the decapitated head of Muhammad would offend Muslims and cause violent disorders.

Such a claim might have borne some weight, except that there was no evidence that any Muslims anywhere had ever heard about the opera or cared at all about it. Excitement among the Berlin officialdom was caused by a telephone tip from an individual who surmised the opera might cause problems. As this column is written, however, German Muslim leaders have called for the opera to be shown as planned.

Second, the appearance of the severed heads in the opera was a novelty created by producer Hans Neuenfels, to express his own hatred of religion. It does not appear in Mozart's original work, which is set on the island of Crete at a time when nobody in the Hellenic world knew anything about Buddha, and Jesus and Muhammad had not yet been born. Islamophobes (because people who irrationally fear and hate Islam do exist, unfortunately) soon blew the brouhaha far out of proportion, declaring that the Berlin Opera had surrendered to expressions of Muslim rage that, as noted, did not exist, and as much as declaring that the very survival of human liberty depended on the opera being presented in Neuenfels' version.

The latest news assures the opera public and global opinion that the Neuenfels production of Idomeneo will be mounted as planned, the head of Muhammad will be displayed, and the Western understanding of freedom will be, at least temporarily, saved.

That's an encouraging outcome, I suppose. It leaves us with the satisfaction of seeing cultural provocateurs fleeing from their own shadows. More important, maybe, is that it saves us the embarrassment of needing to defend this godawful production. As I have noted, the avant garde has become subversive of liberty:

The fact is that if democracy meant nothing else than that blasphemy could be freely circulated, or that pornography was always available at the touch of a button, or that Michael Moore got to make as many tendentious films as he wanted, then democracy would not be worth having; certainly it would not be worth dying for. The fact is that we put up with these annoyances because they are necessary frictions. We have freedom of the press and contested elections because, on the whole and over the long run, they produce good government and the improvement of the human estate. They produce virtue. The lethal danger that postmodernism and libertarianism pose for the West is their embrace of the transgressive. Their mixture makes Western society repulsive abroad and, in the long run, causes the freedoms on which they depend to become a matter of indifference at home.

These people need to read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

* * *

Speaking of forward-looking preservation, we see that Benedict XVI is about to do something else that needed doing:

THE Pope is taking steps to revive the ancient tradition of the Latin Tridentine Mass in Catholic churches worldwide, according to sources in Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI is understood to have signed a universal indult — or permission — for priests to celebrate again the Mass used throughout the Church for nearly 1,500 years. The indult could be published in the next few weeks, sources told The Times...The new indult would permit any priest to introduce the Tridentine Mass to his church, anywhere in the world, unless his bishop has explicitly forbidden it in writing.

I know people to whom this move has been almost an eschatological hope. We should remember, though, that priests educated after the 1960s do not know how to say the Tridentine Mass. As for the older ones who do know how, most of them would not do so even at gunpoint. Still, this is a positive development. The old liturgy needs to stay in circulation so it can be mined for ways to perfect the vernacular liturgy, particularly with regard to music.

* * *

Finally, take note of the website in which that Stephen Schwartz item above appears: Family Security Matters. In part, it describes itself thus:

We want to be your best resource for accurate and practical knowledge that will make your families and communities safer, stronger, and more secure. This problem is too important to wait for someone else to solve it. So explore our site, sign up for membership and FSM's Daily Security Updates, and come back often to learn everything you need to become active participants in America's struggle for security and peace.

This smacks of one of Mark Steyn's suggestions in America Alone, that it would be better if ordinary people took responsibility for their own physical security rather than waiting for the government to make them safe.

As Mr. Burns said when Smithers assured him that the Jade Monkey had been found in the glove compartment of Mr. Burns's limousine: "Excellent. It's all falling into place."

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View: Kingdom Coming

If you need a reminder that political swings are not the end of the world, in any figurative or literal sense, then this book, and the less histrionic American Theocracy should help vaccinate you against future outbreaks.

Only twelve years ago, otherwise sane and responsible people were warning that theocracy was imminent in the United States. This wasn't plausible then, as subsequent events have shown. Whatever dramatic theory you are entertaining now isn't actually likely either.


This review appeared originally in the March 15, 2006 issue of Kirkus Reviews.

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
By Goldberg, Michelle
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (224 pp.)
$23.95
May 15, 2006
ISBN 0-393-06094-2

 

American democracy and the Enlightenment itself are menaced by would-be theocrats and their Republican operatives.

Salon.com reporter Michelle Goldberg sometimes noted how reasonable were the politically engaged churchgoers she met as she traveled the country to research this book. Nonetheless, the book usually rises above its better nature to brand conservative Christian influence in public life as proto-fascist and a Western version of Islamism. The subversives are everywhere, passing anti-gay-marriage initiatives and lobbying for anti-abortion judges; more subversives are on the way, because homeschooling is simply an incubator for revolution. The menace is “Christian nationalism,” a movement whose elements she seeks to refer to the Reconstructionist theology of the late R. J. Rushdoony. Rushdoony was a genuine theocrat, a postmillennialist who held that Christ would return after believers had thoroughly Christianized the world. In contrast, the premillennialism of American evangelicals holds that Christ would return to a collapsing world. This implied that political reform by believers would be ultimately futile. One of the great stories in the political history of the past generation has been the search of newly vibrant American evangelicalism for a political theory. The author infers that Reconstructionism is the new master philosophy, in part because conventional politicians and religious leaders sometimes appear at the same public events as Reconstructionists. (There is no mention of the systematic efforts by some evangelicals to engage Catholic social theory). We do get some good reporting, however. We learn that the fiscal controls on the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiatives are loose. Also, the author slows down enough during her investigation of abstinence-only sex education to let its proponents make a case she finds unpersuasive but plausible. Nonetheless, the author says that now is the time to fight the Christian nationalists, not to placate them. She ends by exhorting her readers to retake the country from the grassroots up.

If you think that Christianity is the new Communism, then this is the book for you.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review

Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 374 pages
Published February 23th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B079NGCX1T

Turning Point is an ugly book. It is ugly, because war is ugly. And this is warre, war to the knife. Firebombs, orbital strikes, death and destruction.

The war my grandfathers waged  By English: Ishikawa Kōyō - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681456

The war my grandfathers waged

By English: Ishikawa Kōyō - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681456

In theory, when statesmanship and diplomacy and the just use of force have been applied prudently, none of this is necessary. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. And then, when good men find their back against the wall, they will do things that are more horrible than even they could have imagined they would do, if you had asked them before the deed was done.

This is also a book about divided loyalties. In the self-image of the Legion, they are loyal servants of the Republic. In practice, the oligarchs of the Republic use them and hate them, and the Legion returns that hate in spades. The Legion is already divided against itself, and against its masters, but truly, the split runs deeper than that. 

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every leeje, with the result that brother will turn upon brother, and the galaxy will burn. There are hints that something far worse than venial and self-serving politicians, even worse than Goth Sullus, tyrant holdfast, is lurking in the darkness. Yet, I still have hope, hope that the worst can yet be avoided, even if we don't quite know what that could be.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Turning Point (Galaxy's Edge Book 7)
By Jason Anspach, Nick Cole

Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

 

My heart is broken. Broken for the good man Goth Sullus once was. Back when I wrote up Galactic Outlaws, I left a long comment on Jon Mollison's response to me saying that I thought Sullus was once a man of honor too. It turns out that was true. And now I know exactly what pushed him over the edge of the galaxy.

I don't know that I would have done any better, in his place. He endured more than any man should, and accomplished more than most. He genuinely wanted to protect others. Thus his fall, when it comes, is all the worse.

Going back to Socrates, there is a principle of moral philosophy that no man really seeks evil: we all seek what we think is good. It is through our brokenness and weakness that evil comes about, because we aren't really up to the task of seeing what is good and what is not. This Greek idea was fused with a Hebrew one, that our ability to seek good is actively thwarted by things that really do want evil.

In the Aristotelian tradition, there is also a principle that only something truly good can really become evil in a meaningful way. This is because of the identity of being and goodness: having a greater capacity, a greater power, is a good thing in and of itself, a kind of perfection. A man who lacks intelligence and self-control lacks the capacity to be as dangerous as someone bright and disciplined. 

The Fall of the Rebel Angels  By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - www.fine-arts-museum.be : Info, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34089605

The Fall of the Rebel Angels

By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - www.fine-arts-museum.be : Info, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34089605

Thus the angels, when they rebelled, were far more dangerous than men, because they had greater perfections. Thus too, Goth Sullus, the man, longer of life, more wise and powerful than the average man, is something far worse than the average man when he loses his humanity.

Except that he doesn't really lose it. He gives it away. Why he chooses to do that is a great and mythic story. I think I can almost understand why some people see Sullus as a tragic hero. After a very long lifetime of trying to protect people from themselves, at the final hour when the demons from outside the galaxy are about to sweep in and conquer when the races of galaxy are squabbling amongst themselves, he gives up everything in order to gain the power to protect those who in many ways don't deserve his sacrifice.

Cain slaying Abel  By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18279148

Cain slaying Abel

By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18279148

And yet, there is something about his sacrifice that seems, unworthy. If pressed on why I think so, it is a lot of little things. Much like Cain, after his sacrifice, Sullus kills his brother. He is indifferent to the fate of little girls, especially little girls he arguably owes a debt to. His deepest well-springs of motivation seem to be fear and revenge. It was Nietzsche, perhaps in light of the tradition I cited above, who said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

There is a kind of man for whom the abyss holds no fascinations. The kind of man whose life is duty, who is an immovable rock. The man who became Goth Sullus, is not that man. When good, his archetype is Merlin, the powerful wizard who manipulates behind the scenes. When bad, his archetype is Faust, the man who gambles for power and knowledge.

Turning from myth to history, the first emperor, the man who unites all under heaven, can either be an inspiration, or a tyrant, hated by all who follow, even when they follow in his footsteps.

Not Tyrus Rechs, but almost as implacable

Not Tyrus Rechs, but almost as implacable

In Imperator, we get much of the backstory of the Galactic Republic. The Savage Wars, so frequently referenced in the earlier books, were far more horrible than I had imagined. Savage AF. The things that Rechs and Sullus saw are nigh unimaginable, but since I wasted my youth with videogames, I can come pretty close. 

We don't need eyes to see where we are going.

We don't need eyes to see where we are going.

The Savage Wars, and the depraved millenarian lighthugger societies that spawned them, are a reminder that no matter how bad you think things are, there is almost always a way for it to be far, far worse.

One lighthugger had tried to develop the powers of the mind by living in total darkness and going long periods without sleep. When the UNS found the ship and cracked the hull, the people they found within referred to themselves as demons. They said the humans who had once occupied their bodies were all gone now. They said they, the demons, had come in from the outer dark. Their minds were shattered. They were stark raving mad.

They were mad, right? Right?

In addition to the origins of the Galactic Republic, and the fate of the long-lost and fabled Earth, we get some tantalizing hints of what made Tyrus Rechs who he was. We see Rechs through the eyes of the man who will eventually kill him, because of a broken promise. That betrayal, the inevitable consequence of a temptation that was not resisted, was perhaps fated.

We'll have to wait for his standalone novel to truly see Tyrus Rechs for who he was. In the meanwhile, we can now see Goth Sullus for what he was, and what he has become.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator (Galaxy's Edge)
By Nick Cole, Jason Anspach

The Long View: An Angel Directs the Storm

Calm  and  serene  he drives the furious blast; And, pleas'd th' Almighty's orders to perform, Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm. ~  Joseph Addison   By Gustave Doré and me, Angel 007 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradise_Lost_1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5885087

Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleas'd th' Almighty's orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm. ~ Joseph Addison

By Gustave Doré and me, Angel 007 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradise_Lost_1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5885087

This is a fine example of John's best work. In retrospect, President George W. Bush did some crazy things, but his critics were often even crazier.


An Angel Directs the Storm:
Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire
By Michael Northcott
I.B. Tauris Co Ltd., 2004
200 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN 1-85043-478-6

 

The title of this book comes from a famous question that John Page asked his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, about the American Revolution: “Do you not think that an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm?” The book’s author, a Reader in Christian Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, takes this apparently innocent question about the role of Providence in history and uses it as an emblem for this thesis:

“It is a tragic deformation of Biblical apocalyptic that in America for more than two centuries millennialism, far from unveiling [in the sense of unmasking] empire, has served as a sacred ideology that has cloaked the expansionary tendencies of America’s ruling elites.”

Northcott’s argument is compounded, in large part, of the ecclesiology of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, the eschatology of Rene Girard, the geopolitics of Andrew Bacevich, and the postmodern political prose poetry of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Unfortunately, these people are not obviously in agreement about fundamental issues, and the author makes little effort to reconcile them. What holds the book together is a rambling, Soviet-surplus critique of the United States, updated by the propaganda of the antiglobalization movement.

Some of this filler material is amazing. We learn, for instance, that 67% of the children of US veterans of the first Gulf War have some serious birth defect. We further learn that Islamism is, simultaneously, an artifact of American funding; an indigenous reaction to American-imposed post-colonial underdevelopment; and a modern, pseudo-Islamic ideology that mirrors America’s neoliberal globalism in being totalitarian and universalistic. The author even moves the great die-off of elderly people during the European heat wave of 2003 from France to Chicago. By the end of this book, American malefaction has become so ubiquitous as to be virtually unfalsifiable.

This is a shame, since there are real issues here about the nature of American political culture and the interrelationship of eschatology, soteriology, and macrohistory. The author makes a remarkable hash of all of them.

It is true, as Northcott points out, that the principle of “the priesthood of all believers” gave American political culture a bias toward voluntarism and the market. More important, it is also true that the Puritans in America saw their story as a reprise of the Book of Exodus, but on a larger scale, and with world-historical significance. There really is a strong millennialist streak that runs right through American history (the best-known discussion of which remains Tuveson’s “Redeemer Nation”). From the colonial era, and into the 20th century, the dominant model of history was “postmillennialism,” which holds that society would be perfected within history, during the millennium, only after which would the Second Coming occur. After the Revolution, a synthesis of ideological republicanism and Puritanism arose. It assigned an important but subordinate place for the Church, as the institution that would educate citizens in virtues needed to make the polity function. Northcott is not pleased:

“American postmillennial apocalyptic involves the claim that the American Republic, and in particular the free market combined with a sort of marketised democracy, is the first appearance in history of a redeemed human society, a true godly Kingdom. But true Christian apocalyptic, the Christian belief that Christ has come, that the spirit of Christ is present in the Church, and that Christ will come again, points Christians precisely to the temporary and imperfect nature of all efforts to establish the reign of God on earth.”

There are tensions in Northcott’s critique, to put it mildly. He posits, reasonably enough, that the philosophy of John Locke has strongly affected American political culture. The author then asserts that the Lockean understanding of government as essentially a device for protecting property is not orthodox theology, and is indeed postchristian, whatever the denominational affiliation of actual Lockeans may be. Well, maybe, but readers may find it hard to reconcile Northcott’s indictment of the sacralization of government with his antipathy to Locke’s political theory, which was designed precisely to keep government modest, both in its powers and in its ontological status.

Be this as it may, the most important development in the history of American eschatology was the transition to premillennialism, which began about the middle of the 19th century. Premillennialism, sometimes called dispensationalism, holds that the Second Coming will occur before the millennium, preceded by disaster and apostasy. It does not see secular progress as a good thing, if progress is acknowledged at all. Its influence has spread steadily; today, it is perhaps the most widespread historical model among evangelical Christians in the United States (and elsewhere, one might add). It is associated, often if not invariably, with Biblical literalism, and with support for Zionism, which is held to be a fulfillment of prophecies of the Endtime.

We are told that there is a synergy between dispensationalist fatalism and the ideology of the market, since both denigrate the possibility of collective action. This would be interesting, were it not for the fact that freemarketeers are optimists of the most annoying sort. Still, it is certainly easier to make that argument than to suggest, as Northcott also seems to do, that premillennialism is a religion of immiseration. In the US, the key figures associated with the revival of premillennialism were high-status churchmen and laity based in Manhattan. In the 19th century, this eschatology was not particularly popular in those regions that suffered social disruption in the course of industrialization. By the later 20th century, some form of premillennialism was becoming the mark of the rising classes of the Next Christendom outside the West. This only repeated its history in America, where evangelicals of all descriptions tend to be richer and better educated than the population as a whole.

Neither will it do to make premillennialism a religion of capitalism, either international or domestic. Contrary to what Northcott believes, Americans by the later 19th century were not satisfied with their “national Bank” and its capitalist ways. America did not have a central bank from 1836 to 1913 because the people in the states that later became highly evangelical were suspicious of large institutions. In fact, they also made sure that private banks could not operate nationally until relatively recently. High tariffs, restricted immigration, and suspicion of finance are the evangelical political tradition. The current association of evangelicalism with big business in the Republican Party is a historical accident, occasioned chiefly by the decision of the Democratic Party to walk the plank on the abortion issue.

It would be hard to quarrel with the assessment that Woodrow Wilson’s domestic Progressivism and his plan to make the world safe for democracy are manifestations of America’s traditional postmillennialism. That view of the world long lingered in elite circles. In fact, the sentiment never entirely dissipated, even if the theology did. There is a good argument to be made the Bush Administration’s War on Terror is just a revival of Wilsonianism with a Kantian twist supplied by the neoconservatives. However, Northcott’s analysis forces him to make a bad argument:

“[T]he mutation of the American dream into a global war with those who are said to oppose America’s interests and its values is a consequence of Enlightenment rationalism. The universal story of an enlightened humanity progressing toward peace legitimizes a perpetual war to bring it about…However it is not in the name of reason, but of an apocalyptic faith that Bush and bin Laden seek to take charge of the destiny of the world.”

Northcott asserts that Bush’s policy “is consistent” with the abandonment of the attempt to build the postmillennial Zion in America (of which the Puritan Fathers dreamed, however mistakenly), in favor of a premillennial project to aid the construction of a Jewish Zion in Israel. This is an interpretation against the text, since the fact is that the Bush Administration does claim to be acting in the name of reason. Certainly that is how the Administration talks about geopolitics. That is even how the Administration talks about Israel. Only when we dismiss the canard that George Bush is trying to trigger the Battle of Armageddon do we come to the really interesting point: under Northcott’s analysis, Christians would have to oppose any forcible attempt to maintain world order, or indeed national order.

This form of pacifism is based on a reading of the New Testament that retrojects 20th-century underdevelopment theory onto first-century Palestine, thereby turning Jesus into an ardent if peaceful anti-imperialist. To this end, Northcott adopts strange readings of such texts as Mark 12: 13-17. That is the passage in which Jesus, in response to a question about the licitness of paying taxes to the Romans, says to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. As Northcott would have it, that Jesus did not legitimize the payment of the tax:

“… Jesus already steals a march on his opponents because he demands that they show him the imperial coin – the Denarius – in which the tax was paid [since] neither he nor his disciples carried the coinage of empire… The question already names Jesus’ opponents as idolaters since they possess the coin and he does not.”

What we have here is a studied refusal to hear anything from scripture that the exegete does not want it to say (from my limited experience this is characteristic of Girardian exegesis). Northcott does not confine this practice to small points. Here is a broader misreading for you:

“The real meaning of Revelation is that the Roman Empire – variously the ‘beast,’ the ‘dragon’, the ‘whore of Babylon’ – and the Roman emperor – the Antichrist – are already defeated.”

To this, one may say that anyone who thinks that the word “Antichrist” appears in the Book of Revelation could have his license to practice eschatology revoked. In any case, we need to remember that if Revelation really were just an anti-Roman tract, it would not be very interesting, and we would not be reading it today. Anti-Roman sentiment is, of course, present in that book: the Whore of Babylon is Rome. However, she is killed at the behest of the Beast. The message is that, bad as Rome is, it’s really just a front for something much worse: of the archons, of whom St. Paul wrote, who really rule the world, and against whom it is the real business of Christians to struggle.

To be fair, we should note that the author acknowledges that Jesus did not preach political resistance, even of the passive Gandhian variety. We are also told, eventually, that Paul commanded obedience to the state, but then we are also told that Paul meant that the powers of the state were legitimate only when they were used for right purposes. At the risk of getting into a proof-texting contest, I find this hard to square with the remark of Jesus to Pilate that Pilate’s power was “from above,” even when Pilate was about to have Jesus executed. Theocracy is a poor notion, but it should not be confused with the immemorial Christian principle that the state is a part of a providential order, and not simply a feature of a fallen world.

The preferred eschatology of “An Angel Directs the Storm” is an almost complete preterism. Though allowing that the Lord will come again at some indefinite point in the future, under circumstances we cannot now imagine, Northcott repeatedly reminds us that all prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. Indeed, history ended then, with the resurrection. This is why, for instance, the doctrine of Just War is invalid (though Northcott says that George Bush managed to violate it anyway). The New Testament shows:

“[T]here is no more need for war; in the language of the Book of Revelation the war in heaven has already ended, Michael and his angels have already put down the elemental powers and the fallen angels…Christians are called not to fight against them, rather to enact their defeat in the communities of worship and reconciliation.”

Northcott’s pacifism rejects pietism. Pietism, he says, comes from the error of putting the soul in the care of religion, while leaving the body to the control of the state. That error, in turn, comes from viewing the Church as one association among many, rather than as a comprehensive community. The politics of the Christian community is “the non-coercive quest for peace and justice in a sinful world.” Christian community does not require self-segregation: far from it. Christians should pray for the welfare of the city into which they have been sent, and work for its welfare, as Jeremiah advised the exiles from Judea. They must never take charge, but hold those to account who try to take charge, particularly if they try to take charge in God’s name. On the global level, Christians are to reject the temptation to control history’s outcome, which was among the things that the devil unsuccessfully tempted Jesus to do.

The confusion here is obvious enough: Northcott has a divinized concept of history. Hegel did too, of course, but Hegel was trying to replace theology rather than practice it. Perhaps this will clarify the question:

The fate of the modern international system is important, because the international system is a very big thing. The atmosphere is a very big thing, too, but we usually don’t accuse people who study or to try to influence it (by controlling industrial emissions, say) of usurping a divine prerogative. The historical world is different from the atmosphere, of course, particularly in that the historical world consists of human groups in conflict. Northcott says that God does not choose sides between these groups. To that, the short answer may be to stop telling God what to do.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century

Peak Oil

Peak Oil

There was a minor panic over theocracy in the United States during the George W. Bush presidency. We'll get to Damon Linker's book on the subject soon, but he was far from the only one to perceive the national mood had shifted from the post-Cold War relaxation that characterized the late 1990s. 

John Reilly's point here was to remind his readers that the "City on a Hill" mode of politics is a perennial in America. It waxes and wanes, but it never leaves us. There has been an effort to retcon contemporary secularism into the Deism of the 18th century, but this attempt very much misses the point of a movement that would seem pretty conservative and religious by modern standards.

One point where I will object to John's critique of Kevin Phillips' book is this:

God’s Peculiar People of Dixie, however, have traditionally been inclined to isolationism, even xenophobia. The recent American attempts to recast the international system are distinctly unsouthern.

By my reading of history, most of the crackbrained exhortations to invade and annex Mexico and Canada in the antebellum era came from the South. The South provided lots of eager soldiers in the the wars of the twentieth century too. The real home of isolationism in the US, at least in the twentieth century, was the heavily German Midwest.

As for Peak Oil, it continues to be the case that God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.


American Theocracy:
The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
By Kevin Phillips
Viking Penguin, 2006
462 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 0-670-03486-X

 

Addressing the nominating convention of the Progressive Party in 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt told the audience, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” John Kennedy, in his inaugural address 49 years later, expressed a similar sense of a transcendent dimension in American politics: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” And of course, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson began with a statement of principles of natural law and political legitimacy that Thomas Aquinas would have approved. The fact is that Americans have always thought of their country as in some sense elect, even if only as an Awful Example. There has never been a time when theology and morality have not informed the rhetoric of American politics, and sometimes its substance.

With this in mind, we can appreciate the full novelty of the campaign over the past 40 years to laicize the operations of government and to extirpate religion from the common culture. The latest specimen of this endeavor is American Theocracy. The author is Kevin Phillips, a Republican political strategist who achieved fame in 1969 with the publication of The Emerging Republican Majority. That book correctly pointed out that the South was tending Republican, and predicted that the Republican Party would soon have a lock on the presidency and a good chance of taking control of Congress. In American Theocracy, however, Phillips admits that there are features of the Republican ascendancy that he had not anticipated. Indeed, he sometimes sounds like the horrified couple in “The Monkey’s Paw,” who use the last of three wishes to “put it back the way it was!”

The book uses a critique of political religion to tie together parallel critiques of US oil policy, particularly Bush family oil policy, and a set of alarming observations about the growth of public and private debt in America. The upshot is a prediction of national decline. The forecast differs from the similar predictions made in the late 1980s (by people like Paul Kennedy, for instance) chiefly in suggesting sudden and catastrophic decline. To make his macrohistorical points, the author employs lengthy and stunningly inapposite analogies from the histories of Habsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Great Britain. With regard to the last, for instance, he argues that the evangelical revival in Victorian Britain was a symptom of national senescence that promoted irrationality and provoked an apocalyptic climax in the First World War. In fact, of course, religious revival of one sort or another inspired Victorian Britain’s greatest scientists (Faraday, and Darwin in mirror image), its art (the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, whose echoes continued through 20th-century Art Deco), and its remarkably successful social reforms (let’s just cite Gladstone). The interpretation that Phillips gives Victorian religion sets a high standard of historical obtuseness from which the book rarely retreats.

The author makes useful points when he discusses matters he knows something about. He notes that the accident of the Watergate Scandal, which forced Republican President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974, temporarily discredited Nixon’s party and delayed the Republican ascendancy that Phillips had predicted. However, during those years, there was also an offensive by the cultural left that included the constitutionalization of abortion rights, the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which would have made it illegal for governments to recognize any gender differences), and a drive to ban religious expression from all public institutions. The artificial Republican eclipse ensured that all these developments would be intimately associated with the Democratic Party. The Republican Party, in its revival, naturally attracted the opposition to them. The result was that the Republican Party became something new in American history: “an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews. Secular liberalism had become the common enemy.”

This is interesting, though perhaps not incontrovertible. At various times in American history there have been important confessional differences between the parties, sometimes nationally and very often at the state level; and of course, as I write this, the Democratic Party is making mighty efforts to prevent its being branded the Party of Unbelief. However, even if we accept the thesis in the strong sense, the development it describes is not self-evidently objectionable. Most Western countries have some kind of “Christian Democratic Party,” after all. Phillips thinks otherwise, though, despite the fact he knows that political Christianity was not the first aggressor:

“In the 1960s and 1970s, to be sure, liberals grossly misread American and world history by trying to push religion out of the public square, so to speak. In doing so, they gave faith-based conservatism a legitimate basis for countermobilization. But in some ways the conservative countertrend has become a bigger danger since its acceleration in the aftermath of September 11.”

The danger is magnified, in his estimation, by the pervasiveness of petroleum economics and the nature of the Bush dynasty, which benefited from the larger cultural trend. America does not have just a petroleum economy, but a petroleum culture that is both inflexible and stultifying. The Bushes are its avatars:

“The war to expel Iraq from Kuwait was oil-related, undertaken in part to protect the American lifestyle, as President George H.W. Bush acknowledged. Once military power had secured Middle East oil supplies again, television news clips showed the forty-second president roaring along the Maine coast at the wheel of his rakish, high-speed cigarette boat, Fidelity. The broader symbolism leaped out: guilt complexes and hair shirts were gone, and with a Texas Republican at the helm the United States was back practicing gunboat diplomacy and taking what it wanted.”

Kuwait had, of course, been annexed by the Baathist regime in Iraq for the unforgivable offense of lending Iraq more money than the government there was inclined to repay; the characterization of the liberation of Kuwait as “gunboat diplomacy” is what leaps out from that paragraph.

We will not dwell here on the book’s account of the “Peak Oil” scenarios, or on the long, very long, history of the oil business. What struck this reviewer far more was the self-refuting nature of the author’s explanation of the Iraq War of 2003. Phillips does not argue that the war was merely “oil related”: he says the Bush Administration was in cahoots with the major Anglo-American oil producers to seize and privatize Iraq reserves in a short-term scheme to release a flood of oil onto the world market. Most of his sources for this hypothesis date from the run-up to the war. Even when they were new, some people might have been inclined to dismiss them as mere polemics. They look especially fishy in retrospect, since neither the Bush Administration nor the oil companies have seemed much interested in exploiting Iraqi oil. Phillips characterizes the lack of a post-invasion oil boom as another Administration failure. That might be plausible, if the Administration had actually attempted what Phillips says it failed to do.

Phillips may well be right when he says that popular interest among Americans in the Middle East stems in large part from the Bible. For several centuries, a sympathetic predisposition toward Zionism has not been unusual among people familiar with the Old Testament. However, Phillips focuses on people with a keen interest in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, particularly as these are redacted through the eschatology of premillennial dispensationalism. Again, these views are widely and strongly enough held to have some electoral weight, but nowhere do we get an explanation of exactly how. The author repeatedly cites Tim LaHaye and Phillip Jenkins’ Left Behind series as an incitement to a crusading and interventionist policy, but the fact is that the series itself contemplates no such thing. Neither does any other apocalyptic novel of which I am aware. Almost without exception, these books foresee a time in the near future (rather like Phillips himself, oddly enough) when the United States is in decline. The Antichrist conquers or deludes America. One could argue that this eschatology maintains a baselevel of popular American support for Israel, but American crusades just are not part of the scenario.

In The Emerging Republican Majority, Phillips predicted a “southernization” of the United States as electoral heft and economic growth flowed to the South. What surprised him later, he says, was the amplification to national dimensions of the southern versions of patriotism and religion. The United States as a whole has some sense of national election, but the South is a special case because of the Civil War. That war, and the Reconstruction period that followed, created the South. This new subnationality, according to Phillips, joined a very small class of political cultures:

“The reason for spotlighting history’s relative handful of covenanting cultures is the biblical attitudes their people invariably share: religious intensity, insecure history, and willingness to sign up with an Old Testament god of war for protection. To use a modern-day analogy, they are proud, driven people, not ones who would find it easy to get risk insurance. Besides comparing the Boer, Ulster, and Hebrew covenanting mentalities [historian David] Akenson finds other parallels in their shared Old Testament moralities of tribal purity and sacred territoriality. The reasons for the elaboration in these pages have less to do with Ulster and South Africa and more to do with the United States and particularly the South. Israelis and, to an extent, Scripture-reading Americans are on their way to being the people of the covenant.”

To the extent that this is true, it contradicts Phillips’ thesis that the Bluish Administration has harnessed apocalyptic mania for the purpose of conducting crusades. There is a crusading streak in the old elites of the northeast, though it owes less to the Puritan tradition than to Immanuel Kant’s Democratic Peace: that is in fact the logic that chiefly underlies the Bush Administration's foreign policy. God’s Peculiar People of Dixie, however, have traditionally been inclined to isolationism, even xenophobia. The recent American attempts to recast the international system are distinctly unsouthern.

Phillips thesis about the southernization of American religion, and particularly the new importance of the churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, simply does not hold water:

“By the late 1980s, after ten years of conservative appointments had remade the bureaucracy, the eighteen-million-member Church of the Southern Cultural memory was on its way to becoming a newly fledged Church of Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical Ascendancy—an extraordinary metamorphosis full of national and even global implications.”

As an example of this importance, we are reminded that in 1996 the President of the United States, the Vice President, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives were all Southern Baptists. But surely the inference is not that the Baptist denomination is hegemonic, but that it is irrelevant. Any denomination that can include Vice President Gore and Senator Strom Thurmond must be a tent as wide as the sky.

Phillips is aware that the premillennialism of many evangelicals militates against casting any social project in theological terms. Historically, the great reform movements of the modern English-speaking world were underpinned by postmillennialism, which holds that the Second Coming will not occur until after Christians have perfected the world in history. In America, postmillennialism has to a large degree melted into the principle of progress. However, there are some theological postmillennialists still. Phillips duly reminds us that some of these are genuine theocrats, with plans for a Christianized world that bears comparison with the Islamist project for a universal caliphate.

Views of this kind are variously called Reconstructionism, Dominion Theology, or theonomy. The problem is that the people who espouse these things are awfully thin on the ground. We are reminded again of the work of the late Armenian-American-Presbyterian R.J. Rushdoony, of his son-in-law Gary North, of the fact that one of George Bush’s favorite social critics, Marvin Olasky, sometimes quotes theonomist writers with approval. As Phillips himself notes, this is all a matter of “ties” and “influence” that are “difficult to measure.” He acknowledges that his description of the shadowy kingdom of Reconstructionism is reminiscent of conservative journals 50 years ago and their exposés of the great Communist conspiracy, but he also points out that the opening of Soviet files after the Cold War proved that many of these conspiratorial ties were perfectly real. That’s a good point. However, the Communist conspiracy was a menace not because of its own aims and powers, but because it existed to support the Fatherland of Socialism that was the Soviet Union. If ever there is a foreign Fatherland of Theonomy, then we should worry.

Then there is Phillip’s treatment of theologically informed social doctrine and its public reception:

“The belief that society can be seriously reformed only by saving souls, not by embracing government welfare or manipulation, has become a tenet of evangelical religion, not just a mere ‘value.’ Values are what society holds; what churches hold is theology and belief.”

How churches and societies, or values and beliefs, could ever be hermetically sealed off from each other is a mystery too great for human understanding. Be that as it may, we should note that the friendlier social-policy reception accorded religion in recent years results from the wide acceptance of the hypothesis that culture counts. The welfare reforms of the 1990s and the successful implementation of the “broken windows” strategy of policing have confirmed this hypothesis about as securely as any sociological hypothesis has ever been confirmed. Similarly with “abstinence education,” which the author repeatedly cites as an example of theocratic obscurantism. In fact, it has empirical support. Studies in the US show that it is helpful, but not a panacea, in preventing teen pregnancy. Similarly, the US promotion of abstinence-based AIDS prevention in Africa is based on the moderately successful AIDS-prevention program developed by Uganda. The author repeats the complaint of international AIDS bureaucrats to the effect that they are not in the business of promoting morality. Surely these are the last people in the world not to get the memo explaining that morality has survival value.

The author alludes to a supposed anti-scientific-bias of religion, and its deleterious effects on public policy:

“The evidence that natural-resource issues are taking on theological as well as political overtones is mounting. As we will see, theology is creeping into ever more nooks and crannies of the national debate. Although the exact portion of the GOP electorate taking an end-times view is unknowable, polls suggest that close to a majority of those who voted for Bush believe the Bible to be literally true.”

We don’t get any actual examples of how evangelicals or pentecostals are undermining the practice of geology, except a report that a visitor-center bookshop at the Grand Canyon sells a book promoting a Young Earth dating of the canyon. The important point about religion and environmental issues, however, is that almost all the mystification has come from the cultural left, by way of the New Age Movement. Public skepticism on these matters has less to due with the Scofield Bible than with the unending parade of food phobias and other alarms that the environmental movement has been promoting for the past 35 years. Most Christians of all descriptions persist in regarding environmental issues as prudential questions, even when their leaders urge them to theologically based “stewardship.”

The author notes correctly that there is quite a lot of junk-science in government circles these days, much of it religiously motivated. He recites the litany of alleged Bush dogmas that includes neglect of global warming, opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, and support for Intelligent Design. These accusations have varying levels of justice. However, we should note particularly the canonization of embryonic stem-cell research as the model of cutting-edge science. This could be a tactical mistake for ideological secularists: the opposition to the research is indeed metaphysical, but there are empirical grounds to suspect the whole approach, already badly tainted by fraud, will turn out to be a dead end. In any case, nothing the Bush Administration has proposed is likely to do as much damage to education as the “self-esteem” campaign of the 1990s.

Evangelicals, to take one loosely defined confessional category, tend to be slightly richer and somewhat better educated than the population as a whole. Their professional degrees are likely to be in engineering and other science-related specialties. The postmodern humanities, in contrast, are not just antireligious but profoundly antiscientific. Skepticism and reason in the early 21st century have become alternatives.

At least for this reviewer, the most disappointing part of this book was its treatment of American debt. The Bush Administration’s fiscal policies makes even its supporters foam at the mouth. Bizarrely, however, Phillips has relatively little to say about the federal budget. Rather, he collects 30 years of warnings about finance bubbles and stock market instabilities without quite taking in the fact that they warn against bubbles that have long since burst and instabilities that stabilized a generation ago. These warnings serve as a backdrop for a critique of the deindustrialization of America. Despite a blizzard of statistics, however, one would never learn from this account that the US industrial sector grew by a third between 1990 and 2005. The finance and service sectors grew by much more, maybe too much more, but then the relative growth of services is characteristic of all advanced economies. This book praises the Japanese and German industrial policies. I don’t think any American has done that since the early Clinton Administration.

No doubt the world really is heading for a period of turbulence as the era of petroleum fuel draws to a close. There are elements of the national financial system that are under-regulated and even abusive. For that matter, the alliance between God and Mammon that we see in the Republican Party really is unstable and will probably prove ephemeral. Does any of this unfit the United States to maneuver through the 21st century? Not at all.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 Book Review

Goth Sullus claims his throne

Goth Sullus claims his throne

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 340 pages
Published September 14th 2017 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07541JBYS

That, was intense.

I keep being surprised by the storytelling of Cole and Anspach. This volume in the Galaxy's Edge series represents only a few hours, yet it is one of the most frenetic things I have ever read. We see the course of a single battle through the eyes of the men and women caught up in it.

Pitched battle is spoken of by its survivors as disjointed and confusing in retrospect. Both an eternity and an instant. The structure of the book recapitulates this in words, switching back and forth between the viewpoints of the combatants on all sides with disconcerting rapidity. Each chapter is grounded by a location and a timestamp. For the most part, the book proceeds in chronological sequence, but the brief intervals between sections serve as a reminder of just how fast everything happened.

When Goth Sullus comes to the shipyards at the Tarrago system, it feels like the Somme, Stalingrad, and Lepanto all at once. This is something of an exaggeration, since the first two were mass conflicts, the nation at war, fought at the pinnacle of state power. War for the Legion, both the Republican forces and Goth Sullus' grimmer copies, is more like the era of heavy cavalry, where the most powerful weapons are wielded only by experts. The loss of life in the battle is astonishing, but the same thing used to happen on the Western Front every day during an offensive.

Since we are allowed to see through the eyes of so many, Attack of Shadows allows us to understand why so many good people would choose to take up arms against the corruption and venality of the Republic. We see their wounded hearts, and share their thoughts, as they seek justice, or vengeance, against their oppressors. On the other hand, we also see the that any revolution will attract its share of psychopaths, malcontents, and adventurers, who just want to watch the world burn.

On the gripping hand, despite its many faults, there are men and women of honor who still fight for the Republic, or perhaps for what they think it should really stand for, instead of what it does. These true sons and daughters of Martha, Captain Thane of the Republic Artillery, Captain Arwen of the Legion, Ensign Fal of the Republic Navy, do their duty despite the odds.

And the odds don't look good. Goth Sullus knows that the Republic is riddled with incompetence, and weakened by self-serving lies. It is easy for him to find recruits in a galaxy characterized by casual betrayal; where money and connections matter more than character or competence. And the Republic clearly deserves everything it is getting, good and hard.

Yet, for all that, I still root for the Republic, or at least for its defenders who retain their integrity. Perhaps I'm not so much pro-Republic as anti-Sullus, whose millenarian cult of personality we see blossoming. I don't yet know what drives Sullus, but I suspect that whatever it is, it has already consumed his humanity long before we ever met him. Most revolutions don't live up to their promises, and I don't have any reason to think that this one will be any different.

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-01-07: The Next China & the Next Socialism; The Next Liturgy

By Limitchik - I took this picture in 2012 with a Canon 30D, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41962542

By Limitchik - I took this picture in 2012 with a Canon 30D, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41962542

There is another silly reference to Gordon Chang here [still wrong], but this quote is interesting:

That said, though, we are probably about to enter a generation in which there will be greater distrust of market mechanisms. What distinguishes the early 21st century from the early 20th is the almost total evaporation of Marxist eschatology, indeed of any sense of historical development. The purpose of social policy is no longer paradise. The purpose can become the prudential care for all, a concept which includes public safety and public health as well as economics. Oswald Spengler's term for this was "Ethical Socialism."

What made Marxism so potent was its millenarianism, the fervor of the convert and the true believer in Marx's reading of history. These kids who are fashionably espousing Communism are more like prosperity gospel Christians. A popular and enduring movement that has had a real effect on people's lives, but at least an order of magnitude less powerful than the First or Second Great Awakening.

It is probably a good thing for everyone that the eschatological element of Marxism died out [or burned out], but I do wonder what the point of calling yourself a Communist is now.


The Next China & the Next Socialism; The Next Liturgy

 

Thoughts on China's future is the title of a posting on Samizdata by James Waterton, who has recently visited that country. There he found that the ATMs were usually out of cash, from which he surmised that the financial system might be close to imploding. (He does not cite Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China, but his logic is the same, and the anecdote about the ATMs is not frivolous: you have to use information like that because all the official statistics about the banking system are imaginary.) A major disruption of the Chinese economy would be bad enough economic news, but Waterton says the implications go far beyond that:

I am concerned by the consequences of a Chinese economic collapse, and these concerns reach far beyond any short to medium term economic pain. I fear a worldwide economic slump prompted by the collapse of China and its supposedly free market will provoke a popular backlash against globalisation and the liberal market reforms carried out in the 80s in the most successful economies of the West. Capitalism and liberalism will be blamed if people create a nexus between China's collapse, its market reforms and its intertwining with the greater world economy...Policy reversals may follow and suddenly we're staring down the barrel of a neo-Keynesian revolution. Consider what the average person knows about China's economy.

That's a good bet, but as any Daoist can tell you, it's one of those yin-and-yang developments. Libertarianism and command economics are both extreme positions. Neither ever entirely goes away, but their strongest manifestations are always ephemeral. The interesting question is whether the Next Socialism will greatly resemble the old one; or indeed, whether the Next Socialism will be a Left phenomenon at all.

There are people, many of them Latin American, for whom the 1960s never ended. Some of them are now running Venezuela and Bolivia. This is worrisome in some ways: Venezuela will be able to keep the communist system in Cuba afloat until the price of oil falls again, and Bolivia is now controlled by drug exporters. Still, it is hard to see such regimes as representatives of any historical trend, except perhaps entropy. Then there is poor Comandante Marcos and his Other Campaign in Mexico. The rhetoric is mostly good old-fashioned populism, but it has grown turgid with the language of the cultural left:

Hermanos y hermanas obreros y obreras, campesinos y campesinas de todo Mexico

"Brothers and sisters; workmen and workwomen; peasants and [I don't know: peasantinas?]": Spanish is a language where gender inclusivity really should not be an issue. Any movement that imports this associate-professor stutter is liable to meet the fate of liberation theology.

That said, though, we are probably about to enter a generation in which there will be greater distrust of market mechanisms. What distinguishes the early 21st century from the early 20th is the almost total evaporation of Marxist eschatology, indeed of any sense of historical development. The purpose of social policy is no longer paradise. The purpose can become the prudential care for all, a concept which includes public safety and public health as well as economics. Oswald Spengler's term for this was "Ethical Socialism."

* * *

Meanwhile, at the Conference of Catholic Bishops, they are debating a new English translation of the Latin Mass that Rome promulgated after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The role of Latin the Catholic liturgy takes a little explanation. The Mass is rarely celebrated in Latin. When it is, it is usually the old Latin Mass that is celebrated, the one that prevailed until the Council. However, the original of the new Mass, the Novus Ordo, is also in Latin. That is the version from which translations are supposed to be made into the various living languages. One of the advantages to this system is that the conventions of translation from Latin to the modern languages are long-established and well-known. Translation from Latin to English is a no-brainer.

At any rate, it's supposed to be. In fact, the translation committee that did the translation into English 30 years ago turned a horse into a camel. The Vatican told the English-speaking countries to fix it. Unfortunately, as we learn from the indispensable Adoremus Bulletin, there were announcements like this one from chairman Bishop Donald Trautman at the meeting of the bishops last November:

We have set aside a good one half-hour for questions and comments. Before I introduce the panel I want to thank you for responding to our consultation. One hundred and seven Latin Rite bishops responded with 1,147 suggestions. Let us look at the results of this second consultation. [Indicates slides with diagrams of surveys projected on a screen.]

With reference to the words of institution, 140 bishops said "I believe the best translation of 'pro multis' is 'for all'".

In fact, of course, the only possible translation of "pro multis" is "for many." The Latin quotes the New Testament where Jesus says his blood "will be shed for many" for the forgiveness of sins. There is a theological reason for saying "for all." Catholic doctrine has it that Jesus did in principle die for all, though that does not mean all are necessarily saved. You can make that point with other scriptural citations. You can't make it here, though, and still call the result a translation.

Finally, Cardinal Francis George, as well as many of his colleagues perhaps, was laboring under this misapprehension:

The discussion is now somewhat complicated as we all know. Instead of the two poles -- fidelity to the Latin or adaptation to the English -- there’s a third pole, and that is the pastoral concern. The people own the present translation, even though it may be deficient -- as some of us have said -- as ICEL itself has recognized when adopted a different way of going at it. But nonetheless it’s ours. And they possess that text in a dialogical worship service in a way they never possessed the Latin text. They got used to the Latin text, but it wasn’t theirs, it wasn’t their language, and it wasn’t -- you know -- so dialogical and shaped our worship in the way that the new Missal has.

The congregation knew the old Mass as scraps of familiar phrases and in translation. They owned it, however, because the text was immemorial and unchangeable: certainly it was unchangeable by their local priest, as the new Mass too often has not proved to be. They owned it in much the way that Protestants owned the archaic modern English of the King James Bible.

There is just not the same relationship to a vernacular liturgy. It is literature, and it belongs to its author.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

By Anne Rice - http://www.annerice.com/images/AnnesChamber/072706-ar.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=997592

By Anne Rice - http://www.annerice.com/images/AnnesChamber/072706-ar.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=997592

Five years after this review was written, Anne Rice found herself unable to really embrace the doctrines of Catholicism, or at least the way she felt they were being applied. Which makes John Reilly's comment apposite:

It is quite possible to accept an early date and high historical reliability for the Gospels and still believe that the people who wrote them were deluded or disingenuous. On the other hand, it is also possible to accept the message of the Gospels and still maintain unorthodox notions about their history and provenance.
That is what happened to Ms Rice.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
By Anne Rice
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
322 Pages, US$25.95
ISBN 0-375-41201-8

 

Anne Rice is best known for her vampire novels, books that combined a diligent study of social history with a non-theistic model of the supernatural. Then we learned that she had embarked on a series of biographical novels about Jesus Christ. We were assured that she had diligently studied the finest modern biblical scholarship. Moreover, the story was to be told from the point of view of the subject, in the first person. Perhaps she planned a fictionalized version of Morton Smith’s Jesus the magician. Maybe a Jesus modeled on the Vampire Lestat would paraphrase Josephus in a tale laced with atrocity and dark witticisms. And that might be if we were lucky: the first novel was to deal with the childhood of Jesus, and some accounts of those “lost years” have him visiting the Ascended Masters in Tibet.

The actual book is a complete surprise.

This story, told through the mouth of seven-year-old Jesus, is thoroughly engaging. Yes, there is quite a lot of Josephus and other standard authorities, but the book never falls to the level of a Pageant of History (or worse, of source notes). The backbone of the story elaborates a quite conventional reading of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, an account we find in Matthew’s Gospel. (Rather cleverly, Ms. Rice has Joseph the foster-father of Jesus doing carpentry for Philo of Alexandria, the philosopher who attempted a Platonic interpretation of Judaism and who clearly influenced St. Paul.) In the biblical account, Jesus implicitly becomes the new Moses. Ms. Rice sets the return of Jesus’s family to Nazareth during the revolts against Herod Archelaus, so that their experiences in riot-torn Jerusalem and Judea also become a recapitulation of the history of the Jewish people on the return from Exodus.

For better or worse, Ms. Rice has also chosen to revive some noncanonical tales about Jesus from the apocrypha, but orthodox readers will find little to object to in Christ the Lord. The Author’s Note at the end of the book does suggest there may be a little packet of dynamite in the series, but we will get to that in a moment. Let us consider now how the book works as a novel.

It is presumptuous to speak in the person of the Lord, but that has never stopped people from doing so. In this book, Ms. Rice does succeed in creating a believable voice for Jesus, down to a touch of sibling rivalry, as we see from Jesus’s first sight of the Temple:

As for Big James, my brother James who knew so much, James had seen it before, when he was very small, and had come here with Joseph before I was ever born, even he seemed amazed by it, and Joseph was quiet as if he had forgotten us and everyone around us.

The problem, of course, is that the voice of an actual seven-year-old would soon grow tiresome. At one point, we get a hint that maybe this is not the seven-year-old Jesus who is speaking:

But as I am trying to tell you this story from the point of view of the child that I was, I will leave it at that.

In any case, most of the speaking is not done by Jesus, but the members of his enormous extended family, of whom the most talkative member is his know-it-all maternal uncle, Cleopas:

Cleopas took me by the shoulder. “You’re the only one who ever listens to me," he said, looking into my eyes. “Let me tell you: no one ever listens to a prophet in his own land!” “I didn’t listen to you in Egypt,” said his wife.

Ms. Rice makes her characters bilingual in Greek and Aramaic; Uncle Cleopas even knows enough Latin that once he buys a small book in that language. The story, like the Gospels, is history “from below,” but Ms. Rice knows that the people below often have articulate and well-informed views about politics and current event. For instance, the people of Nazareth have mixed feelings about the Romans, but they despise the loathsome Herodian dynasty. As for social status, Joseph was essentially the head of a fair-sized construction firm composed of brothers and brothers-in-law. Though not well-to-do, they were not poor people, and they did not live in a backwater.

In addition to her trademark social history, Ms. Rice’s supernatural does maintain some continuity with her earlier books. A character strongly reminiscent of Lestat appears in the person of Satan, whom one suspects will get many of the best lines in later books. Jesus himself is often frightened, but he always has access to perfect peace. And of course, sometimes he sees angels:

They came again, so many of them but this time I only smiled and I didn’t open my eyes. You can come, you aren’t going to make me jump and wake up. No, you can come, even if there are so many of you there are no numbers for you. You come from the place where there are no numbers. You come from where there are no robbers, no fires, no man dying on a spear, but you don’t know what I know, do you? No, you don’t know.

And how do I know that?

For many readers, the most interesting part of the book will be the Author’s Note, in which Ms. Rice describes her research and relates something of her spiritual history. She had fallen away from the Catholic Church in college. She returned in 1998, but did not attempt a systematic study of the origins of Christianity until 2002, when she began the background research for this book. By her account, she would have been prepared to accept a distinction between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. The results of her researches were not what she expected, however:

In sum, the whole case for the nondivine Jesus who had stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified if he knew about it – that whole picture which had floated into liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for 30 years – that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.

This is not an unusual assessment. There is good higher criticism and bad higher criticism, but even the good higher criticism is no better than plausible. Classicists, notoriously, often think that the whole of New Testament criticism is stuff and nonsense. That is far from saying that scholars of Greek who are prepared to treat the New Testament like an ordinary text are necessarily persuaded by what it says. It is quite possible to accept an early date and high historical reliability for the Gospels and still believe that the people who wrote them were deluded or disingenuous. On the other hand, it is also possible to accept the message of the Gospels and still maintain unorthodox notions about their history and provenance.

That is what happened to Ms Rice. In the Author’s note, we also find this:

Before I leave this question of the Jewish War and the Fall of the Temple, let me make this suggestion. When Jewish and Christian scholars begin to take this war seriously, when they begin to really study what happened during the terrible years of the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the revolts that continued in Palestine right up through Bar Kokhba, when they focus upon the persecution of the Christians in Palestine by the Jews; upon the civil war in Rome in the 60s which Kenneth L. Gentry so well describes in his work Before Jerusalem Fell; as well as the persecutions of the Jews in the [Diaspora] during this period -- in sum, when all of this dark era is brought into the light of examination -- Bible studies will change. Right now, scholars neglect or ignore the realities of this period. To some it seems a two-thousand-year-old embarrassment and I'm not sure I understand why.

But I am convinced that the key to understanding the Gospels is that they were written before all this ever happened.

Kenneth L. Gentry (and another major authority for her, N.T. Wright), are preterists, people who believe that the whole of Biblical prophecy was completely or almost completely fulfilled in the 1st century. The apocalyptic prophecies in the New Testament (and in the Old Testament too, for that matter) were fulfilled by the New Covenant established by Jesus and by destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. In order to maintain this position, they must show that the canon of scripture was complete by AD 70. This includes John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation. Traditional scholarship was content to assign a date of composition for those books to end of the first century. After a long period when scholars speculated about fantastically later dates for those books, modern Biblical criticism has returned to that view. With a few dissenters, however, modern criticism resists the notion that any of the Gospels could have been written before Jerusalem fell.

This has become an issue because of the growing interest in recent decades in endtime prophecy. Preterism is not a new idea; in some ways, it is just a form of postmillennialism, which holds that Christ will come again after the church has reformed the world. In any case, within the last 30 years, ideas along these lines have seemed increasingly attractive to certain churchmen and theologians who were embarrassed by the theology of the Rapture that we find in the books of Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind series. Preterists argue, in effect, that the Tribulation has already occurred. The most rigorous preterists, sometimes called "hyper-preterists," would add the Second Coming and Resurrection to the list of fulfilled prophecy. (Readers may be interested in a review of John Noë’s Beyond the End Times.) Christians thus need not fear the end of the world.

Preterists had had high hopes for the year 2000. Endtime hysteria, they believed, would expand in a great bubble, and then burst in disappointment at the failure of the Rapture to occur. Christian millenarians would thereafter cast about for a new model of salvation history; the preterists thought they had the most coherent one on offer.

Maybe they did, but they suffered a form of millennial disappointment themselves. The only people who were really preaching doomsday for the year 2000 were doing so in connection with the Y2K computer bug. So, pretribulation dispensationalism (the technical term for the Rapture model) survived the year 2000, and preterism was without any obvious prospect of linking to popular culture. Now, five years later, comes Anne Rice and what promises to be a successful series of popular novels, endorsing preterist views and texts.

Although the preterists have embraced Ms. Rice as one of their own, this does not necessarily mean that she shares their views about eschatology. Her interest in the area seems confined to the dating and credibility of the Gospels. Still, her work may succeed in doing what I would not have thought possible: providing preterism with a mass audience.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Reformation

John reviews a fine one-volume history of the Reformation, marred by a jarring lapse into modern obsessions at the end.


The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 2004
800 Pages, US$35.95
ISBN: 0670032964

 

In the later volumes of A Study of HistoryArnold Toynbee came to the conclusion that world history was about the development of universal religions rather than the rise and decline of civilizations. Certainly Christianity has most often understood its core mission to be the salvation of souls, though it has rarely neglected to make the argument that this enterprise also tends to alleviate the secular human condition. The Reformation era was one of the great inflections in the development of Western civilization, however. In the history of civilization, the theological controversies of that era necessarily become history's factors rather than history's meaning. In this telling by a professor of church history at the University of Oxford, the story begins in the 15th century with a strange interplay between the theologians of England and Bohemia, well before the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, and reaches a conclusion around 1700 with the establishment of the first gay subcultures in Amsterdam and London. The book itself meanders to the end of the 20th century.

If we ask why the Reformation narrowly so called occurred, why the Lutherans and Calvinists (very roughly, the Evangelicals and the Reformed) seceded from the Church of Rome, there may be two fairly straightforward reasons.

First, the theology of the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to the Eucharist, had long been cast in terms of Thomas Aquinas's understanding of Aristotle. This understanding, called “moderate realism,” has it that universal concepts really exist, but are present in the sensual world as individual things that reflect the universals. This is a handy model in several contexts. In theology, it means that human ideas, human institutions, and even the material world participate in divine universals. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, moderate realism had fallen out of fashion in favor of nominalism, which holds that universals are just names attributed to individual things. Without moderate realism, God's knowledge became an entirely different thing from human knowledge, and the concept of natural law was undermined. Anyone with a motive for doing so could easily point out that it had become very difficult to maintain traditional doctrines in nominalist terms. Martin Luther was, of course, a nominalist.

The other straightforward cause, the author suggests, was that an economic bubble burst. The bubble in this case was the Purgatory Industry, the endowment of chantries and other institutions to pray for the souls of the dead. There is a case to be made for some commerce between the living and the dead as a corollary of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. However, by 1500 in northern Europe the institutional expression of this argument was clearly in a state of unsustainable hypertrophy. An amazing amount of capital and manpower was going into the repetitive performance of liturgies whose only visible benefit was the satisfaction of the descendents of the original donors. The Purgatory Industry was the kind of endowment that invites expropriation (let today's universities take note). It did not help that the most prominent purgatorial entrepreneurs were crooks.

Those are the straightforward reasons the author highlights for our consideration, but he does not claim they were the deep causes. This reviewer, at least, takes away two key points to remember about the Reformation era.

The first point is that reform occurred throughout Latin Christendom. Before the reform, the typical parish priest was likely to be a man with a rudimentary education; he could say the Mass in Latin and perform other liturgical functions, but he might not be able to do much else. The work of preaching and of spiritual counsel (which was closely connected with hearing Confession) was in the hands of the friars, and to a lesser extent of the older monastic orders. By the end of the seventeenth century, priests and ministers on either side of the new Catholic-Protestant divide were people of some education (in the case of England, of university degrees) who could deliver an exposition of doctrine and who acted as spiritual pastors to their congregations. The late medieval world has been called a “blocked society,” in the sense that there was a general consensus that many social and ecclesiastical abuses needed to be corrected but insufficient will to make the correction. By and by, the consensus of around 1500 about what needed reform was carried out everywhere. In some ways, the era of reformation started in Spain, with a great campaign against ecclesiastical featherbedding and a notable outburst of precise Biblical scholarship (the Inquisition was part of it, too: go figure). The Counter-Reformation associated with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was, in its own understanding, a conservative enterprise, but it was the sort of conservatism that turned what had been options into principles. One could argue (though it is not clear that the author does) the process in Protestant Europe was different in degree rather than kind.

The second point was that the great drive for reform was moved from first to last by the manifest approach of the end of days. Savonarola's Florence in the 1490s was only slightly precocious in this regard. Spain was in the lead here, two, with a simultaneous outbreak of ecstatic millennialism among Christians and Jews and Muslims, each confession with its own eschatological agenda but all three in contact. The launching of Columbus's transatlantic voyages was closely connected with this social mood. (He hoped to find the resources in the Indies to take the Holy Land from the Turk and begin Joachim of Fiore's endtime scenario.)

As is so often the case, the expectation of an imminent apocalypse expressed a perfectly accurate intuition of the fact that the world was about to change. As is often also the case, the effort to prepare the world for the Second Coming was itself one of the chief causes of revolutionary change. Church and state needed to be rebuilt, and even gutted. The Antichrist's advent was expected hourly (and indeed he was already present, in the person of the Bishop of Rome), so that leagues had to be formed and state structures integrated to an unprecedented degree to oppose him.

The degree of apocalyptic fervor varied over time and from confession to confession throughout the 16th century, of course. Millenarian enthusiasm, indeed enthusiasms of any sort, was coolly discountenanced in Reformed Geneva. Millennial excitement broke out among commoners and elites in Catholic-controlled areas, but it was almost invariably denied support by even subordinate agencies of the Catholic Church. On the whole, the expectation of the end of history tended to morph into the expectation of the beginning of a new age, and then into the idea of historical progress.

The author has a great deal to say about the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of the beginning of the 17th century, with its technological optimism and its expectation of a Protestant world informed by the sound principles of modern alchemy. This was the ideology behind the Elector Palatine Frederick's bid to take the throne of Bohemia from the Habsburgs. This was, perhaps, intended to be the first step toward protestantizing the Holy Roman Empire. The failure of this adventure at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 famously turned a set of minor disputes into the Thirty Years War. On the whole, the Protestant confessions did badly in that conflict, and would do worse still as the 17th century progressed. However, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment's essentially hermetic interpretation of history as a story of social evolution became the distinguishing feature of the modern era.

The Reformation era was also the time when the states of the classic European international system crystallized. Again, this happened on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, and in both cases the autonomy of ecclesiastical structures suffered. France, notoriously, was a world to itself in terms of state control over Church governance. However, though French governments until Louis XIV generally were more interested in social peace than in religious conformity, Protestantism was eventually suppressed, and the author has some fascinating things to say about the continuities in French history that this process reveals.

Unkind persons (Englishmen, probably) have sometimes said that the real constitution of France is bureaucracy mitigated by riots. The riots started with the refusal by the Catholic populace of French municipalities to accept the terms of royal measures of toleration, of which the most important was the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The mob discovered that they could face down edicts of the government, and they did not forget. Similarly, the royal government tended increasingly to act unconstitutionally in part because France's dense and recalcitrant system of local government often refused to take steps to protect Protestants. One does not usually think of Louis XVI as having been beheaded by the remote effects of his ancestors' good intentions, but there you have it.

Speaking of Englishmen, the author often delicately refers to “the Atlantic Isles” rather than to England, and for the most part resists the temptation to make the history of Europe in this period simply a colorful background to the evolution of the Anglican Church. Nonetheless, one cannot help sensing a note of satisfaction when he observes that the English tended to think of the Reformation as something that was done far away by, well, foreigners, and that did not bear directly on important domestic concerns.

One of the what-ifs often mentioned in connection with the Reformation is the conjecture about what would have happened if Luther had become pope. A much more plausible alternative would be the election of the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, who actually came within one vote of becoming pope in 1549. As the author points out, the cardinals had been rereading Augustine, too, and at least some of them saw the point of the Protestant theories of faith and works. Cardinal Carafa, who became Paul IV a few years later, considered Pole a heretic (not much of a distinction, frankly: Paul IV had similar thoughts about Ignatius Loyola). Pole was preserved from a heresy trial by the fact he had become Archbishop of Canterbury and was presiding over, if not quite conducting, the anti-Anglican persecution of Queen Mary. Very few of the prominent actors of the early modern era are entirely sympathetic to late modern eyes.

The author, in what might be taken to be typical Anglican fashion, tends to split the difference regarding the various theories about the relationship of Protestantism to capitalism and democracy. He suggests that Max Weber's hypothesis of a Protestant Work Ethic was really just a projection of the state of Switzerland in Weber's own time onto the 16th and 17th centuries. He also is not much impressed by the “stripping of the altars” model of Protestantism as elite vandalism of popular religious practice. On the other hand, he says that Protestantism often meant a loss of local control; what actually happened in late medieval parishes had usually been decided by the local guilds, which paid the clergy salaries and maintained the buildings. Most of that local autonomy went away, in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

In Reformed Protestant areas, whose presbyterian form of governance often overlapped with civil government, control was of course extremely local. Such churches were oligarchies of the Saints rather than democracies, perhaps, but public affairs were managed openly and decisions were made by a relatively broad base. We should note that this style of government used the actual consent of the governed to justify a remarkable constriction of liberty. The same principle applies to condominiums and homeowners associations today.

Finally, let us address what the author suggests to be the conclusion of the Reformation. The process worked out the implications of nominalism. The relationship of God to the world was no longer part of the great chain of being that extended to the relationship of the king to the kingdom and the father to the family. Even as late as the beginning of the 17th century, for instance, the Holy Roman Empire seemed to be part of the furniture of the universe. By the end of the Thirty Years War, it was just a confederation. The important point was not a change in power but in ontological status. The author argues that the same happened to every human relationship. Everything became subject to renegotiation.

The great bulk of this commendably bulky book is solid, careful, political and intellectual history, illuminated by social studies, and all of it adhering to the ordinary standards of historiography. The final section, however, is given over to the late 20th-century scholarship of gender and of sexual identity. It is oddly incoherent with the rest of the book. Suddenly, a book that had been notable for crisp facts becomes sodden with theory. The switch is a little disorienting. If patriarchy was so important for understanding the later 17th century, then why does it rarely come up when the author has sola scriptura and the millenarian tyranny of the Munster Commune to talk about? Towards the end, the author suggests that the great issue facing Christianity today is the need to adjust its views on sexual morality. Of course, it is notoriously difficult to bring a broad-scope history down to the present without overestimating the significance of the issues of one's own time. In the long run, it may well become apparent that the questions that dominate the book's end were cultural epiphenomena incident to a lapse in demographic morale rather than a latter day extension of the Whig Tradition. Be that as it may, the book's treatment of these issues does not diminish the interest or importance of the earlier sections.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Long View: The Forge of Christendom

Cricketer, historian, and author Tom Holland is here a proponent of the thesis that one of the things that truly differentiates the Christian West, Christendom, is the separation of powers between church and state that gradually evolved out of a fight over who was allowed to nominate bishops.

However, Holland also takes millennialism seriously, which adds a layer of interest for me. For many, it is one of those things that are just not mentioned in polite company. John also mentions here [I think elsewhere too, but I can't find it at present] the idea that Eastern Christianity never really developed the idea of just war. I find the idea intriguing, but I don't know the field well enough to confirm or deny. It is certainly plausible, with the relative unpopularity of Augustine in the Greek-speaking East, but on the other hand, Justinian also sent Belisarius to recover territory lost to Germanic barbarians. On the gripping hand, no one in the Roman empire after Belisarius managed to emulate his military successes.


The Forge of Christendom:
The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West

By Tom Holland
Doubleday, 2009
512 pages, US$30.00
ISBN-10: 0385520581
ISBN-13: 978-0385520584
(2008 British Edition: Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom)

 

The West has deep roots, reaching down past the Roman Republic to the level where Hellas differentiated itself from the societies of the Near East. Tom Holland, armed with an Oxford doctorate and a rolling prose style that the best Victorians might envy, has already written well-received popular histories on those subjects. (He also does vampire fiction.) Despite the West's continuities with antiquity, however, it's beginning in anything like the sense we mean it today was notoriously discontinuous. In the generation to either side of the year 1000, a new system booted that was clearly distinguishable from its Islamic neighbor and even from its sometime ally in Constantinople. In the author's telling, the first great characteristic act of the young West came at Canossa in 1077, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV conceded to Pope Gregory VII a right beyond the power of the state (the right to nominate bishops) in the Investiture Crisis. The concession was only temporary, and Gregory died in frustrated exile, but the pope's point stuck. Thereafter, the political and religious were recognized as different spheres with enforceable borders; the beginning of all civil liberties. This was something new in the world, but it was not the only novelty of the new society.

The two centuries that the book covers in detail, the 10th and the 11th, are among those stretches of history that make almost novelistic sense. The plot is driven by fear of the imminence of Antichrist and the hope for the Parousia.

The question of millennial expectation connected with the year 1000, whether that fear was important or even whether it existed at all, is one of those historiographical controversies that are prone to coup and counter-coup. 19th-century Romantic historians painted a dramatic and, well, Romantic picture of popular enthusiasm and even frenzy. The Romantics' successors, sometimes exaggerating what their predecessors had actually claimed, said the “terrors of the Year 1000” were a 19th-century myth and that the change of the millennium was little regarded at the time. Late in the 20th century, the American medievalist Richard Landes reopened the question (disclosure: I the reviewer am a member of his Center for Millennial Studies). His assessment informs Holland's book.

There was no revolutionary millenarianism around the year 1000 like that which occurred in late medieval or early modern times, Landes noted, but the fact is that the intellectual and political life of those generations was suffused by the preparation for a new age, impelled by a mood of expectation that had both a popular and an elite dimension. There was quite a bit of interest in the year 1000 itself. (Yes, people did know when it was: the information was available in every set of tables showing the dates for Easter.) There was at least as much interest in the year 1033, however, the millennial anniversary of Christ's Passion. One could argue that the West was actually born in the intervening years.

The term “postmillennialism” does not occur in this book, but something very similar to that doctrine was at work in the 11th century. Postmillennialism posits that Christ will return at the end of the Millennium; the millennial age itself, then, is a historical period during which human effort will perfect the world in preparation for that event. Postmillennialism was closely connected with the progressive, reformist Social Gospel that underlay much of the politics of the early 20th century. The idea of historical progress is really just a politely secularized version of postmillennial eschatology.

Medieval eschatology was different in detail but not in effect. St. Augustine in the fifth century (when the world did indeed seem to be ending, by any reasonable measure) had cautioned against the idea of a literal millennium as a period of historical felicity lasting 1000 years, though the Book of Revelation does mention a thousand-year reign of the Saints. He also cautioned against the temptation to apply information in the Bible to historical events in order to calculate precisely when the Second Coming would occur. He did, however, suggest that the reference in the Book of Revelation to a “millennium” could be taken as an allusion to an age of indefinite duration following the establishment of the Church by Christ that will end with his Second Coming.

In the tenth century, the condition of Western Christendom was dire enough to suggest that maybe the end was near and the 1000 years should be taken literally after all. In that century and the eleventh, sophisticated clerics tended to vehemently deny the possibility of predicting the End Time using calculations drawn from the Bible, all the while assuming a near-term eschaton in their worldview and planning.

The imminence of Doomsday had practical implications for medievals. Before the advent of Antichrist set the dramatic machinery of Revelation in motion, the world must first be evangelized and set to rights. This implied the revival or restoration of the Roman Empire in Christian form; even before Constantine, Christians had come to regard the Empire as “the Restrainer” of Second Thessalonians, the power in the world whose presence prevented the eruption of the worst historical evils, and whose final withdrawal would mean the end of the age. In the Byzantine Empire, where Rome never entirely fell, the hope for a penultimate age of peace became centered on the figure of the Emperor of the Last Days. He would restore the ancient empire and end his career by laying down his crown at Jerusalem, thereby marking the beginning of the end. This idea was easily transferable to the West, particularly after Charlemagne revived the imperial title in 800. (That was another possible date for the beginning of the endtime, by the way, arrived at through another set of calculations based on the seven-millennium model of history.)

We should recall that there is little institutional continuity between the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. The last Carolingian “emperor” died in 905, long after anything resembling an empire had lapsed. The title was revived in 962 by Otto I, who had won the Battle of the Lech against the then-pagan Hungarians in 955. Both events were part of a process that solidified the idea of a German identity. Not incidentally, the battle also ended one of the several existential threats to the still inchoate West that were defeated in the decades before 1000.

The author emphasizes that Christendom was born in a near-death experience. The measure of security that Charlemagne had been able to bring to Europe scarcely survived him. From the east came Slavs and Hungarians. In the south were the Muslims: Sicily was an emirate for much of the period covered by this book, and corsairs sacked St. Peter's in Rome as late as 846. In the north and on all the coasts there were the Vikings, and in France there were the French.

“France,” “French,” “Germany,” “German”: all are anachronistic terms for this period, the author reminds us. “East Francia” and “West Francia” are better. Be that as it may, one of the themes of the ninth and tenth centuries was the trend among the elites in what would become France toward pure predation. In most of Europe, castles were usually places of refuge or barriers against barbarian invasion. In France, they were often prison towers to facilitate the plundering of the population and attacks against the bandit lords in the neighboring castles.

In such a situation, anyone who could impose legitimate order was clearly doing God's will, even if violence was necessary to do it. When bishops consecrated German kings, they left no doubt that one of their duties was to defend their people from their appalling enemies. The papacy began a practice of endorsing campaigns in Italy and Spain for the defense of Christian polities. The practice would evolve into the theory of the crusade.

This was in marked contrast to the Byzantine Empire, a church-state that regarded war as the greatest of evils. The Orthodox Church never developed an analogue of the theory of the Just War. The state favored defensive fortress warfare and acute diplomacy to solve its problems. Despite the contempt this posture often inspired in the Latin West, it worked at least as well against the Muslims as the Western preference for the offensive. At any rate, it did until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when a fresh invasion of Turks caused the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. That defeat set the events in train that would lead to the request for help from Constantinople to the West that sparked the First Crusade. The book ends with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

On the level of diplomacy and military affairs, the elites of the West were often sidetracked by impractical schemes of universal empire. They did nation-building, but by accident; what really interested them was universal empire, always with an eschatological dimension. That dimension was no less present in the reform of civil life, however, and usually to better effect.

Any outburst of disorder was regarded by medievals as a precursor of Antichrist, or at least a type. The violence of the lawless aristocracy of the West was just as evil and intolerable as the depredations of the Hungarians, and just as much a sign of the endtime. The remedy in this context was not counter-violence, but holy example, particularly holy example as set by the most innovative monasteries. The most important monastery of all, perhaps as important for the reform of the West as the papacy itself, was the monastery at Cluny, founded in 910:

Earlier generations of monks, following the prescriptions of their rule, had devoted themselves to manual labour, so as to display humility, and to scholarship, so as to train their souls; but the monks of Cluny had little time for either activity. Instead, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, they sang the praises of the Lord: for this, in heaven, was what the choirs of angels did. Indeed, on one occasion, it was claimed, a monk had ended up so lost in his devotions that he had actually begun to levitate. Prayers and hymns, anthems and responses: the chanting never stopped. [Abbot] Odo had required his brethren to recite one hundred and thirty-eight psalms a day: more than three times what had traditionally been expected of a monk. Barely a minute of a Cluniac's life went by, in short, but it was governed by ritual, as unwearying as it was implacable. Hence, for its admirers, the monastery's unprecedented nimbus of holiness: "for so reverently are the masses performed there,” as Rudolf Galber put it, “so piously and worthily, that you would think them the work, not of men, but of angels indeed.”

Cluny, at least in this telling, was Shangri-La, but a Shangri-La that succeeded in projecting its inner peace onto much of the outer world. The monastery was an important element in organizing the Peace of God Movement, under which the armored aristocracy swore before bishops and huge assemblies of peasants to respect the lives and property of the general population. The movement went on for decades, and as the author notes, it implied the formalization of a social structure based on the private appropriation of what had once been common property. Nonetheless, the commoners apparently believed that even an unequal law was better than no law. The Peace of God was not the Millennial Kingdom, but it was regarded as a preparation for that no longer distant prospect. As it ran its course, everywhere the cathedrals were built, and the landscape took on the look of ordered settlement.

Meanwhile, the borders of Christendom were expanding through missionary effort. The author plainly admires St. Adalbert, who left important posts at Magdeburg and Rome to die a martyr in 997 in the evangelization of the east. The conversion of the rulers of the Scandinavians and the Normans (and of the Russians, for that matter) seems to have been marked by a fair amount of Realpolitik. They had a lively sense that a Christian king or duke had far more legitimacy than even the most successful tribal plunderer. These accessions left the heartlands of Christendom more secure. Nonetheless, they too were evidence that the end was near, since the end could come only after the remotest parts of the world had heard the Gospel. Surely newly Christian Iceland was as remote was it was possible to be?

Much of the book's attention is given to Spain, where the famously wealthy and sophisticated Caliphate of al-Andalus made one last drive against Christian Leon before imploding from its own internal divisions. The recapture by Christian forces of the ancient Visigothic holy city of Toledo put the strategic position of Moorish Spain past remedy.

Fatimid Egypt also comes into the picture. Caliph al-Hakim entertained eschatological notions, in his case centered on himself. His destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem in 1009 simultaneously appalled the West and confirmed its view that the climax of history could not be far off. (Latterly, in some tellings, he joined the ranks of Hidden Imams; he is still venerated or worshipped by the Druze, depending on whom you ask.)

Though the West still interacted with Islam and with the Byzantine Empire in important ways, by some point in the 11th century it had become an “intelligible unit” in Toynbee's sense of “civilization,” a society with a story that can be understood only on its own terms.

The author allows the text to reflect the sources, usually to good effect. If someone said they saw a dragon, then they saw a dragon; why argue about it, since the dragon is rarely the point of the story? When the author wants to be critical, he lays on the solemnity a bit too thick, which is actually a very medieval thing to do. The downside of this approach is that the text glides over points that are controverted. It is also economical of explanatory digressions. Still, any reader who does not know about the filioque clause will no doubt find everything he needs in the substantial bibliography and large number of footnotes. This book is a delight to read.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Augustine: A Biography

St. Augustine  By Unknown - http://www.30giorni.it/us/articolo.asp?id=3553, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6029808

St. Augustine

By Unknown - http://www.30giorni.it/us/articolo.asp?id=3553, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6029808

I don't have much to add to this fine book review of a biography of St. Augustine, other than to highlight this:

At the end of his life, with the Vandals already approaching Hippo, Augustine was carrying on a long polemic, all for publication, with John of Eclanum. (It is amazing how much the theological discourse of the early Church resembles Internet flame wars.) Brown suggests that Augustine might have done better to read Julian more carefully, since Julian was close to the sort of workable synthesis of theology and Aristotle that Thomas Aquinas was to achieve many centuries later.

Augustine:
A Biography
By Peter Brown
University of California Press, 2000
Originally Published 1967
548 Pages, Various Prices
ISBN 0-520-22757-3

A Review By John J. Reilly

 

Aurelius Augustinus, known to history as Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, lived from 354 to 430. When he was born in Thagaste (a town in the Province of Numidia: perhaps the Roman equivalent of the American Midwest), a provincial like himself might hope to pursue a career as a public intellectual in Italy and the great cities of the east. At the time of his death, Rome had already been sacked 20 years before. Roman Africa, long the most secure region of the empire, had collapsed in the space of two years. The Vandals were besieging Hippo Regius, the port city where he had been bishop for 35 years. There are many reasons for studying the life of Augustine, but among them is surely the fact that he was a highly articulate man who lived at the end of the world.

This biography by Peter Brown is now almost 40 years old. Since he finished it, Brown became one of the leading authorities on late antiquity. This edition includes an epilogue with some second thoughts and a survey of writings by Augustine that came to light in the last quarter of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine what more one could want in a book this size, but as Brown himself points out, it has certain blind spots. He follows Augustine's theology only to the extent it seems to have some psychological significance for Augustine or the culture of his period. Brown also notes that, while our growing understanding of Augustine's society makes him appear no less original, it also highlights the fact that the Bishop of Hippo did not loom as large as earlier historians had assumed. I have often felt there to be a problem with Shakespeare studies: they forget that, when Shakespeare was alive, being Shakespeare was not such a big deal. Something similar may also have been true of Augustine.

The future saint was born about 400 miles west of Carthage, a Roman city on the site of the Roman Republic's ancient enemy, and about 150 miles southeast of Hippo. The region was traditionally a granary of the Roman Empire. Augustine's hometown, Thagaste (Souk Ahras in modern Algeria) was a conventional Roman grid-city, but going to seed. Major building had stopped for almost a century, and the neat layout of streets was supplemented by warrens of shantytowns.

There are continuing questions about Augustine's ethnicity and knowledge of languages that this book does nothing to clear up. Some secondary sources say baldly that “Augustine spoke Punic,” which they identify with the Semitic language of ancient Carthage. Brown says no; he even says that the “Punic” to which Augustine and his contemporaries referred was actually a form of Berber. In any case, Augustine in later life did seem to need an interpreter to deal with the country people from the non-Latin-speaking parts of his diocese.

Augustine's education, in Thagaste and Carthage, was based on scraps and tatters of Roman authors. It involved the minute analysis of great chunks of Cicero, but as Brown points out, Augustine as a student seems not to have encountered any philosophy as a coherent system, not even in translation. He studied Greek, and he could make translations at need, but he could not write or speak it. His family was Christian, or at least Monica his mother was (his father would be baptized on his deathbed). However, part of his difficulty as a young man with Christianity was that the Latin translations of the Bible then in use were subliterary. Only much later would Augustine's friend, Saint Jerome, produce the Latin Vulgate version that would remain standard throughout the West even after Latin ceased to be spoken. Like the King James Version, Jerome's Vulgate may have been too pretty for its own good.

Augustine's first conversion, if we may use that term, was to Manicheanism, a form of gnosticism created in the 3rd century by Mani, a prophet from Mesopotamia. This doctrine held that the evil in the world was the result of there being two principles, dark and light, evil and good. The disgust with the mere physicality of human beings that people of all religious persuasions felt in late antiquity made this doctrine intuitively attractive. The late empire was nominally Christian and Manicheanism was proscribed, but it created little cells everywhere, in a manner reminiscent of Masonry, or for that matter, of 20th-century Communism. Augustine was a fellow traveler.

He quickly found problems with it, however. The sacred texts of Manicheanism were not subject to philosophical inquiry. Doctrines about the movement of the moon were central to the system, but Augustine knew enough astronomy to know that they were nonsense. There was also the deeper problem that the Manichean Light was helpless. The Elect might hope to purify themselves of darkness, but there was nothing to be done about the state of things in this life. If the Light could do nothing, then why bother about it?

According to some historians, notably Toynbee, the real date for the fall of the Roman Empire is 378, when the Visigoths killed the emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople and the empire lost control of the frontier in the Balkans. Contemporaries recognized the gravity of that event. Still, it was not so serious that Augustine could not sail for Rome in 383 to teach rhetoric at an advanced level. As a teacher in Rome, he famously discovered that Roman students were deadbeats about paying their school fees. A little later, influential contacts and natural ability secured him an appointment as a professor of rhetoric in Milan in northern Italy. In effect, he was an imperial flack, work that he did not appear to find satisfying.

We should remember that Milan was then the capital of the empire in the West. In the empire's last two centuries there were normally two emperors, nominally colleagues, with the senior emperor resident in Constantinople and the junior somewhere in Italy. The effective seat of government had actually shifted to Milan as early as the 2nd century: under the empire at its height, its rulers discovered that, strategically, Rome was in the middle of nowhere. Later in Augustine's life, the government would move permanently to Ravenna. There it was no more effective, but it was at least protected by marshes.

In Milan, Augustine completed the transition to Platonism that he had begun long before. By “Platonism,” he meant what is now called “neoplatonism,” the mystical, even ecstatic doctrine of Plotinus and Porphyry, but which people of Augustine's day saw as perfectly continuous with the school of Plato. In any case, the doctrine was a revelation to him on several levels.

To begin with, this was his first acquaintance with the idea that there could be real entities that are not material. The Light and Dark of the Manicheans were thought to be different kinds of stuff. Even the grossest superstitions of late antiquity were “materialist” in this sense, as indeed were most forms of late Classical philosophy. Augustine saw that the notion of the non-material Idea was far more useful.

More important, Augustine saw that the Good need not be helpless. Quite the opposite: it was overwhelming. In the neoplatonic view, the world we see is simply a pale image of the Good, which exists at the summit of the chain of Being, each link of which is more perfect than the one below. Neoplatonism promised direct experience of the Good, which was also the Beautiful and the True, through contemplation and asceticism. This was a rather more satisfactory goal than the ritual purity of the Manichean Elect.

Many sophisticated pagans made their peace with Christianity through Platonism, which they believed allowed the common people an image of the Good. Platonists of this sort might attend church in good conscience, without being baptized, as a social convention. Augustine was a member of this class for a time, perhaps. However, in Milan he met not just sophisticated Platonists, but also sophisticated Christians, the most important of whom was the city's famous bishop, Ambrose, later to be acclaimed a saint.

Ambrose successfully faced down emperors when the need arose. He also succeeded in overcoming Augustine's largely literary prejudice against the Christian scriptures. In any case, Augustine's experiences in Milan led up to the day in 386 when, in an Italian garden, he heard a child's voice say, “take up; read.” His encounter with scripture in response to this injunction completed his conversion to Christianity. His baptism soon followed. He then set about reforming his own life; a little later, he turned his attention to reforming other people's lives. We remember Saint Augustine because of the record he left us of his discovery of the extent to which these things were and were not possible.

During the next two years, Augustine briefly lived in a group home, a sort of proto-monastery, with similarly minded philosophical Christians. Like most people of his day, he assumed that deep conversion would require a renunciation of married life, if not quite of family life: Monica, his mother, had followed him to Italy and apparently managed his household. In any case, he canceled plans for marriage to an heiress. He also sent away his concubine, by whom he had had a son, who died as a young man. (“Concubine” sounds rather racy in modern English. In the Greco-Roman world it was a prosaic arrangement in the nature of a “civil union,” though not generally a union of equals.) Monica's Catholic orthodoxy was not the least of the influences in her son's conversion. She died just before they were all about to return home to Thagaste. She became a saint, too.

Brown notes that Augustine left Italy at just the time when it began to cease to be true that all roads led to Rome. He would do business all the remainder of his life with the government in northern Italy and with the pope in Rome, but he belonged to the last generation of provincials who went to Rome to make their reputations. Through invasion, and even more through irresponsible uprisings by local commanders, the wheels were starting to fall off the political system. Increasingly, the empire was unable to guarantee the security of its citizens, even at the cost of oppression.

Back in sheltered Africa, though, Augustine now had a reputation as a man of learning and good character, so much so that he was essentially drafted as a priest by the congregation of the basilica of Hippo in 391. Four or five years later, he became bishop. His transformation began into Saint Augustine, the great Doctor of the Latin West.

Augustine wrote quite literally a library of books. When he spoke of his library at Hippo, in fact, he seems to have been referring to a small research and publishing enterprise, dedicated in no small part to disseminating the wide range of texts he produced. Still, when people talk about Augustine, they are normally talking about two books: the Confessions, which began to appear about 400 and which deals with his conversion; and The City of God, parts of which began to circulate in 413, and which tried to make sense of the sack of Rome three years before.

Two points are particularly interesting about the Confessions, in light of what we know about Augustine's background. The first is that, despite Augustine's Platonic readiness to conceive of God as an intellectual object, Augustine seems him as the prime mover in his conversion. The book, in fact, is largely a second-person address to God, to Whom Augustine recounts how God led him through reason, through joy, and through happy accident to that garden where Augustine heard the child's voice. For someone who had recently been a Manichean, this was a very favorable assessment of world of the senses. Human nature itself was full of handles for God to grab onto.

The other point is that the story does not end with Augustine's conversion. That was unusual: conversion narratives, then and since, often assumed that the protagonist would be effortlessly holy ever after. Neither was it usual for high paganism: neoplatonic philosophers and Stoic sages were supposed to “get it,” to achieve enlightenment, and then to live an untroubled life in semi-retirement, where they would try to explain the ineffable to eager students. As we have seen, Augustine actually tried to do something like that, but discovered he was not good enough. Even after his conversion, he was still Augustine. He needed God's help at least as much after his baptism as he needed it before. Perfection in this life was not an option.

This was, perhaps, why Augustine had little patience with sects and theological opinions that promised perfection, or that even said it was possible.

One such sect was the Donatist Church, a schismatic group that was actually the dominant church in Africa when Augustine returned from Italy. It grew out of the last pagan persecutions. In those days, many Christians, clergy included, apostatized to save their lives, but later repented and were received back into the church. The Donatists were the institutional descendants of some of those who had not apostatized, and who refused to recognize the repentance of those who had. They also did not recognize the power of former apostates to baptize, or ordain their successors.

The Catholic Church did exist in Africa, in the sense of bishops who were in communion with the bishops of the patriarchal sees, and especially with Rome, whose bishop enjoyed a unique primacy even then. It was the Catholic bishops that were recognized by the imperial government. The Donatist Church differed from this universal establishment in no point of doctrine or liturgy. The Donatists differed only in claiming that they were a church of saints: they were the true Church in Africa, and maybe the only true church in the world.

Augustine attempted to heal this schism through persuasion and polemics, not wholly without success. In the final analysis, though, it was the willingness of the imperial government to seize Donatist property and place the Donatist faithful under civil disabilities that destroyed Donatism, or at least drove it out of the cities. Augustine justified persecution, at least at this relatively moderate level, for much the same reason that he had recognized the necessity of the world for his own conversion. The social environment can lead us to God, but this implies that the environment must be cleared of delusions and distractions. Augustine was prepared to use the state toward that end.

This is not to imply that when Augustine said “jump!” the Proconsul in Carthage asked “how high?” Particularly in the letters that came to light in the late 20th century, we see Augustine working as an ombudsman between his flock and a government that was becoming simultaneously less competent and more brutal. He tried to get pardons for tax protesters. He tried to get death sentences commuted. He tried to stop a new and appalling recrudescence of the slave trade. Taking advantage of the eclipse of imperial order, private entrepreneurs had taken to capturing free peasants in Africa and selling them to buyers in Gaul and Italy. They embarked their captives through Hippo, under the nose of the port authorities, who had been bribed. When members of Augustine's cathedral chapter sought legal redress for some of the captives, the slavers sued for interference with their business.

Augustine was not an uncritical admirer of the Roman Empire, which, again, was somewhat unusual for a man in his position. The tendency of his time was to increasingly regard the empire as a providential historical development, created by God to foster and protect the Church. The ideology of the medieval Holy Roman Empire was not so different; Dante's theory of universal monarchy made the Church and the Empire equivalent divine institutions.

Brown emphasizes that Augustine was skeptical of these ideas long before the sack of Rome in 410. After that event, he canonized his measured dismay of those years in his greatest work, The City of God. Brown notes that the immediate audience for the book consisted in significant part of literary refugees from Italy. In fact, the book started life in part as a series of sermons.

Augustine explains that the Church, City of God, was a pilgrim in this world. (“Pilgrim” did not suggest to Augustine that to travel hopefully was better than to arrive; he always hated traveling.) It could cooperate with the City of Man, with which it was inextricably connected. Indeed, as citizens, Christians had some duty to work for that City's good. However, the City of Man was ultimately transitory. It could not command our final loyalty.

Augustine was a patriot. He knew the empire was in trouble, but he said it might recover, as it had done so many times before. And in fact it did recover for a few years; Alaric the Visigoth turned out to be more an unsuccessful extortioner than a world conqueror. Augustine, clearly, was wise not to link the troubles of his contemporary world with the prophecies of revelation (one of the great faults of Brown's book is that we get almost no discussion of Augustine's views on eschatology). What Augustine did do was create the historical framework for a livable world. Augustine has even been called “the father of progress,” since he held open the prospect that the betterment of the secular world was at least possible.

Interesting as all this is, the issue that made Augustine's reputation was the controversy with Pelagius about free will, predestination, and original sin. Pelagius, a man of British extraction, argued against the doctrine that we are born tainted by original sin. He also argued that the human will, informed by teaching, was capable of rejecting sin and choosing the good. In many accounts of this debate, Pelagius is portrayed as the champion of reason and human autonomy, while Augustine is seen as the proponent of infant damnation and of a God who arbitrarily predestines some fraction of the human race to Hell.

Brown's thesis is that, at every point, Augustine's concern was actually to make the Christian life livable. Pelagius's account of the autonomy of the will meant that people bore a terrible burden for their own choices. In Pelagius's system, the least infraction of divine law merited damnation. Pelagians laid great stress on the value of threats of hellfire to encourage the faithful to greater efforts. To that Augustine responded, oddly like a philosopher of the Enlightenment 1,300 years later, that a man who fears hell does not fear sinning, but burning.

And in fact, the Pelagian party was not a would-be Broad Church of moral uplift, but yet another example of Late Antique spiritual athletes trying to form a tiny minority of the elect. When Augustine defended original sin, he was defending the power of the rite of baptism to offer some surety of salvation, even to infants. Augustine's version of predestination rejected the notion that one could say that conversion and continuance in grace were either personal choices or divine intervention; he did insist that the unaided human will was insufficient. He cited scripture, but this insight is really what the Confessions had been all about.

In his debates with Pelagius, Augustine articulated a concept of freedom that has fascinated and repelled the West ever since. In this view, the mere perception of a choice is evidence of the corruption of the will. True freedom, in contrast, means transcending choice. A truly free man is one whose will has been so cleared of error and bias, particularly the biases created by desire, that he can see there is only one real possibility.

This has a fine Hegelian ring to it: freedom is the conformance of the will to necessity. And like the politics that descends from Hegel, it can be breathtakingly oppressive. At its worst, it means than a government can ignore popular opposition to its policies as the product of false consciousness, or that an established church could assume that there is no such thing as an honest heretic. On the other hand, the procedural notion of freedom, as a choice that is externally unrestricted, is subtly self-contradictory. The existence of objective value in the things we are choosing among, that is, the possibility that a choice might be right or wrong, is the kind of external constraint that a procedural system has to ignore or suppress. Freedom then means the right to choose between things that there is nothing to choose between.

The philosophical question remains with us, but Augustine did succeed in settling the matter for a long time as far as dogma went. A council of eastern bishops found nothing wrong with Pelagianism (the Greek church has never very interested in psychological questions), but Augustine had enough influence to light a fire under several popes to get Pelagianism condemned. Even then it did not lack for brilliant defenders. At the end of his life, with the Vandals already approaching Hippo, Augustine was carrying on a long polemic, all for publication, with John of Eclanum. (It is amazing how much the theological discourse of the early Church resembles Internet flame wars.) Brown suggests that Augustine might have done better to read Julian more carefully, since Julian was close to the sort of workable synthesis of theology and Aristotle that Thomas Aquinas was to achieve many centuries later.

There are ironies in the aftermath to Augustine's life. The world that he was trying to make tolerable for Christians did not survive him. The Catholic Church in Africa was soon being oppressed by the Arian Church of the new Vandal kingdom. A little later, and the Vandal kingdom was conquered by the Byzantine Empire, whose Greek orthodoxy Augustine would have recognized as Catholic, but which was imposed by force over sullen populations with their own ideas. Three centuries later the Arabs came, and Latin-speaking, Christian North Africa evaporated as quickly and thoroughly as had Roman Britain.

Almost all that is left of that world is the writings of Saint Augustine. As it happened, his was the last voice from the Latin West of antiquity.


These books scarcely mention Augustine, but they essentially restate in modern terms the story of Augustine's conversion:

The Long View 2005-10-16: Rather, Miers, Benedict, O'Brien

Pope Benedict didn't get enough credit for the alarming things he said that went over everyone's heads.


Rather, Miers, Benedict, O'Brien

 

Regarding the Dan Rather scandal involving the fake Air National Guard memos, readers will recall that it was not so much the discovery of the forgery that discredited Rather as his repeated and easily refuted attempts to rebut the criticisms. A similar pattern is emerging in connection with Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court. This week, we will be treated to this:

Stunned by conservative opposition to Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, President Bush next week will bring in former justices from her home state of Texas to trumpet her qualifications for the nation's highest court.

Many persons will not be comforted by such endorsements. Certainly there was little comfort to be drawn from this week's sample of pro-nomination propaganda, which seemed to consist mostly of high praise for the sort of collegial thoughtfulness that might earn a summer intern an extra-special letter of commendation from the boss.

The White House seems to be intent on actually going through with this. It's a shame, really: everything else seems to be going so well at the moment.

* * *

Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last: So says the headline of a Sunday New York Times piece (and not behind a registration interface, for a mercy) about last week's little boomlet in disaster eschatology. The Times rounded up some of the usual suspects, who recited the received wisdom about dispensationalism and the evangelicals. If you were looking for signs of endtime thinking, however, you might have been better advised to pursue this story on Lifesite: Vatican Correspondent John Allen Notes Pope Using "Apocalyptic" Language The headline is an interesting exaggeration. The actual report by John Allen deals with the Synod of bishops that opened in Rome at the beginning of this month. Most of the report deals with the discussion about proposals for a married clergy. However, the story does mention some remarks in Pope Benedict's homily that really do become more alarming the longer you look at them. I excerpt from the Vatican's text:

The reading from the Prophet Isaiah and today's Gospel set before our eyes one of the great images of Sacred Scripture: the image of the vine...Thus, the reading from the Prophet that we have just heard begins like a canticle of love: God created a vineyard for himself - this is an image of the history of love for humanity, of his love for Israel which he chose...Will he find a response? Or will what happened to the vine of which God says in Isaiah: "He waited for it to produce grapes but it yielded wild grapes", also happen to us?...In the Old and New Testaments, the Lord proclaims judgment on the unfaithful vineyard. The judgment that Isaiah foresaw is brought about in the great wars and exiles for which the Assyrians and Babylonians were responsible. The judgment announced by the Lord Jesus refers above all to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Yet the threat of judgment also concerns us, the Church in Europe, Europe and the West in general. With this Gospel, the Lord is also crying out to our ears the words that in the Book of Revelation he addresses to the Church of Ephesus: "If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place" (2: 5). Light can also be taken away from us...

Had Benedict said simply "the Church" instead of "the Church in Europe," we would have something very close to a threat of supersession. In other words, just as the Church superseded Judaism (we can quibble about to what degree), so the Church herself might be superceded. This is essentially what the Joachimites (though not Joachim of Fiore himself) said in the 13th and 14th centuries, when they claimed that age of the Son had passed and the age of the Holy Spirit had begun. Again, Benedict meant no such thing, but he took that curve awfully narrowly.

* * *

And then there's Michael O'Brien, the author of several endtime novels from a Catholic perspective. A few weeks ago, he publicly asked the question: Are We Living in Apocalyptic Times?. To that he answered "Yes," but with the traditional gloss that the Endtime began in the time of Jesus. We all meet Judgment Day personally. In historical terms, the endtime drama is staged in every age, in different forms. Again, this is not a new thought, even for a Catholic novelist. Regarding Doomsday Today, O'Brien cites the Catechism:

Section 676 the Antichrist deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope that can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially in the “intrinsically perverse” political form of secular messianism.

In O'Brien's estimation, there is quite a lot of this about these days, though he does not make bold to say whether these are the ultimate endtimes, of which he says: "The major apocalypse will be that period of history when *everything* is tested..." I would suggest, though, that his fears about governmental intolerance are perhaps just too 20th century. The reign of Antichrist is not a tyranny, but a fashion.

Maybe.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-10-11: The Times and the Endtimes

Rumors of the demise of the New York Times are greatly exaggerated. Much like Harvard, they are on top, and will do whatever it takes to stay on top.


The Times and the Endtimes

 

Even the worst projects can be defended. I suppose, for instance, that the decision by the New York Times to require registration to view the articles on its online site probably had some perfectly defensible rationale, though it means that the Times can no longer be usefully linked to, thereby accelerating the paper's loss of revenues and increasing its irrelevance to the online conversation. This is a shame, because the Times still runs some interesting stories. For instance, there was the one that appeared on Sunday (09Oct05 Page N34) that finally explained about that $223 million bridge across the Tongass Narrows that is supposed to link Ketchikan, Alaska, with a neighboring uninhabited island:

The town is seven blocks wide and eight miles long, backing up to forest and mountains. There is no place left to go but across the channel to Gravina Island, population 50, where the airport is located. It is relatively flat and is prime real estate for development.

That sounds like a reasonable use of public money. It might even be a reasonable use of federal money. The problem is that the cost of construction seems awfully high, even for Alaska.

* * *

And while we are making fun of the Times, here's an example from the Styles Section (09Oct05 Page S2) of a good story marred by incompetent editors. It seems that, once again, Latin and ancient Greek are undergoing a revival as school subjects. Latin especially now has a following among the young. And why is this?

For some students figuring out ancient languages itself is fun. Although many English words can trace their roots back to Latin (most estimates hover around 65 percent), the language's grammatical structure is very different from that of English. Nouns are grouped into four main families, called declensions, and each can take at least five endings, depending in their part of speech.

There are, of course, five declensions (and four verb conjugations). The endings that a noun takes does not depend on its "part of speech" (a noun is a noun), but on its case. Each declension has five cases, each of which has a singular and plural form, yielding ten endings for each declension.

The point here is not that the reporter garbled these complicated facts slightly, but that fact checkers at the Times did not notice the mistakes, and neither did any of the senior editors. If the Times can't get something as accessible as Latin grammar right, then what else are they getting wrong?

* * *

Is doomsday about to flower? Comparative eschatologists worldwide were disappointed with the level of apocalyptic expectation that attended the year 2000; though as several commentators (including me) pointed out at the time, most of the interesting millenarianism associated with the year 1000 actually happened in the two or three decades that followed. With that in mind, we note with interest stories like this:

This weekend's catastrophic earthquake in South Asia in the wake of recent U.S. hurricanes and December's tsunami is catching the eye of televangelist Pat Robertson, who says we "might be" in the End Times described in the Bible

Of course, we should also note that Pat Robertson is a media artifact. Any odd thing he says will be quoted, but that does not mean he has much real influence. Far more common is the wailing and gnashing of teeth that we see at Rapture Ready, whose editors correctly note that the string of recent catastrophes has not sparked a mass revival:

Instead of seeing people turning to God, I've observed several examples of open defiance to the Creator. After Katrina struck New Orleans, John Steward of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" made a series of blasphemous remarks. In the first program to follow the storm, Steward challenged God with an, "Okay tough guy" remark. In reaction to President Bush's call for a day of prayer, Steward said, "Shouldn't we have a day of shunning the Almighty?"

A great deal has been written about the effect of eschatology on American foreign policy. (I intend to do a review of Michael Northcott's An Angel Directs the Storm, if I can shake down a review copy.) However, we should remember that all this "Crusader Nation" analysis actually cuts across the grain of the pretribulation millenarianism that is typical of modern evangelicalism. I noticed this promotional article the other day for a new book on the subject:

"Are We Living in the Last Days?": Greg Laurie takes clear, refreshing look at biblical End-Times prophecy

* Important signs of the last days
* The difference between the Rapture and the Second Coming
* Israel's significance in end-times events
* America's mysterious absence in Bible prophecy
* What will happen during the Tribulation period

I have not read this book, but the points it raises seem to be the same as those that have appeared in popular apocalyptic for the past 30 years, including the eclipse of the United States. American nationalism needs pretribulation millenarianism like a fish needs a bicycle.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-07-15: People's War; Strange Delusions

People's war now means war on the people

People's war now means war on the people

As we move away from the peak of nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, the ties that bound the People together and made them a terrible force are dissolving. Accordingly, politics is again becoming a matter for enthusiasts, and the People are often just an inconvenient obstacle. The enthusiasts have started to treat the People accordingly.


People's War; Strange Delusions

 

This story from the New York Times, Iraqis Stunned by the Violence of a Bombing, sums up pretty well the strategy and the tactics of the homicide campaign in Iraq:

Nabeel Muhammad, senior lecturer in international relations at Baghdad University, said in a telephone interview on Sunday that the insurgency was "desperate to start a sectarian unrest in the country."

"They keep looking for new methods to attack, and the Iraqi people are the only victim."

We should note how the Jihad turns on its head the thesis of Jonathan Schell's Unconquerable World, which argues that the totalization of military power in the 20th century was paralleled by a corresponding perfection of People Power. To quote my own review:

Much the same happened on the conventional level, with the development of People's War and, most perfectly, of nonviolent resistance. Oddly, the author never cites another old military dictum (attributed to Bismarck, among others) that the one thing you can't do with bayonets is sit on them, but that is pretty much what he is talking about. Essentially, insurgents around the world, peaceful and violent, found that they could overcome overwhelming military force by patient erosion of the oppressor's will to coerce. The author tells us that this antithesis of conventional war achieved universal success by the end of the 20th century...

What actually seems to have happened is that the People, however defined, has not become a historical actor, but a uniquely and temptingly indefensible target. This is particularly the case in connection with the Jihad, whose perpetrators are often only loosely connected with the populations they attack. As we saw on 911, People's War, meaning antipopulation campaigns, can reach across continents. Thus we see how thoroughly these remarks by Richard Clarke in the New York Times Magazine misconstrued the situation:

When President Bush sought recently to reassure Americans about his Iraq policy, he emphasized that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so that we do not have to fight them here at home. Unfortunately for Britain and Spain, fighting terrorists in Iraq did not immunize them from attacks at home.

I am not aware that the US government ever claimed that the war in Iraq would confer "immunity" to attacks in the West, though there is a general consensus that it diverts Al Qaeda's own resources to Iraq: unlike 911, the recent London bombings were carried out with local personnel and resources. The vital point about Iraq, however, is that if antipopulation People's War is defeated there, it will not be tried elsewhere, because it will have been proven not to work.

* * *

Here's a bit of good news from Iraq from legal expert, Alexander Thier, though the title of his New York Times Op Ed, Iraq's Rush to Failure, suggests that he did not mean it that way:

If the nascent government is able to devise a constitution by mid-next month, then they're probably missing the point. A constitution cannot be written in a few weeks by a handful of politicians at a conference table; creating a founding document requires the long ordeal of reaching political compromise and building trust...

[T]he Iraqis must reshape their constitutional process to make it more inclusive. A first step would be for the Parliament's constitutional committee to hold forums with political leaders, tribal chiefs and average Iraqis around the country. The views of these outsiders should be documented and shared with the entire committee, and also made available to the public. The hard work of compromise must stand on a platform of mutual understanding.

"A constitution cannot be written in a few weeks by a handful of politicians at a conference table"? That is exactly how the American Constitution was written; the process that produced it remains to this day the most successful exercise of its kind. It worked precisely because it was not submerged by listening-sessions and technical experts. I am starting to think that the best way to write a constitution is to isolate 12 people in a locked room with some pencils and just 20 sheets of paper. They get out as soon as they finish. Penmanship counts.

* * *

This is not to say that the American political process goes unambiguously well. The political class is subject to enthusiasms. This year's political analogue to the latest Harry Potter book is George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives. As Matt Bai explains:

That word was ''framing.''...The father of framing is a man named George Lakoff, and his spectacular ascent over the last eight months in many ways tells the story of where Democrats have been since the election. A year ago, Lakoff was an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley...

Exactly what it means to ''frame'' issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines...

If Democrats start to talk about their own ''tax relief'' plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.

Having lost the presidential election, the Democrats did manage some negative legislative successes, such as the scuttling of President Bush's Social Security plan. However, it is not clear that "framing" is not just another example of reinventing the wheel:

You might say that Lakoff and the others managed to give the old concept of message discipline a new, more persuasive frame -- and that frame was called ''framing.'' ''The framing validates what we're trying to say to them,'' Pelosi said. ''You have a Berkeley professor saying, 'This is how the mind works; this is how people perceive language; this is how you have to be organized in your presentation.' It gives me much more leverage with my members.''

I have not read Don't Think of an Elephant, but I suspect it bears comparison with Blink, that other recent example of pop cognitive science. Again, it seems to me that we are just talking about Gestalt psychology, phrased in a mystifying vocabulary.

* * *

Finally, let me take back some of the hard words I wrote in March about the FOX series, Point Pleasant. The premise was that a magical teenage girl had to decide whether she wanted to play a sinister role in the coming apocalypse. The series really was dismal, but I find now that the eschatological model it employed was not clueless, but derivative. At any rate, it chimes with the theory behind the "Babalon Working" discussed in Strange Angel, the biography of rocket scientist John Whiteside Parsons.

This mythology has been presented to the public again and again, but it seems to have little hold on the popular imagination. Framing does not seem to help.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric

William Miller

William Miller

In case anyone needs help with the terminology of millennial studies, I have a glossary in my lecture notes.


Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric
by Stephen D. O'Leary
Oxford University Press, 1994
314 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN 0-19-512125-2

 

The study of millennialism did not begin with the build up to the year 2000. Theologians, sociologists and anthropologists had been writing for decades (in the case of the theologians, for centuries) about the end of the world and about the ways that people react to that prospect. After a long period of subcultural obscurity, the subject again came to the notice of the general public in the 1980s, and a flurry of academic and journalistic treatments appeared in the 1990s. Among the most theoretically ambitious was this book by Stephen O'Leary, Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" attempts nothing less than a "general theory" for millennial studies, one that could help relate the many disciplines that have dealt with one aspect or other of the Last Things. The book develops the theory through a detailed examination of two familiar episodes of apocalyptic thinking in American history, the Millerite Movement that culminated in the "Great Disappointment of 1844," and the return of date-setting premillennialism that began, very approximately, with the publication of Hal Lindsay's "Late Great Planet Earth" in 1973.

The theory is useful, though the book does share some of the defects of late 20th-century literary studies. (I hope never to see the words "rhetor" and "topoi" again.) The historical exposition is gripping, and the author's insights are essential to anyone interested in the field.

"Apocalyptic" is really a term for a genre of biblical and apocryphal literature that flourished in the Near East around the beginning of the Christian era. It deals with a class of ideas that are part of the broader category of eschatology, the study of the final or ultimate things. The latter also includes questions addressed by philosophy, cosmology, anthropology and other disciplines. The aspect of eschatology that usually attracts the most interest, however, is the study of what societies do with apocalyptic literature, particularly with the prophetic books of Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New.

The most conspicuous social manifestations of apocalyptic ideas are often called "millenarian" or "millennial," with reference to the thousand-year reign of the Saints, or "Millennium," mentioned in Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. (To put an extraordinarily complicated matter quickly, "millenarian" usually refers to violent or even revolutionary expectations for the future, while "millennial," a more general term, can also refer to hopes for gradual improvement as history nears its end.) Though not all eschatological systems, not even all models of history, necessarily have a moral dimension, O'Leary deals with apocalypse as a solution to the problem of theodicy, of how God can permit evil to exist in the world. Essentially, the apocalyptic solution is that God will not permit evil indefinitely, and in the final accounting, all the suffering in history will have been justified.

There is a considerable literature that attempts to explain all or most millennial activity in terms of some single sociological or psychological cause. Class conflict was an early contender, but equally plausible cases have been put for millennial activity as a delayed reaction to disaster, or as a reaction to modernization, or as a manifestation of one kind of mass psychological pathology or another. "Arguing the Apocalypse" starts with the sensible observation that there is no obvious single cause underlying all the millennial activity in the world, but that there is quite a lot of similarity in the way that people talk about it. The beginning of wisdom in the understanding of millennial behavior, in fact, is the appreciation of the fact that apocalyptic rhetoric is persuasive. By examining millennial activity from the perspective of rhetoric, O'Leary is able to look at texts, the "rhetor" who expounds the text and the rhetor's audience as an interactive system.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" amplifies the long-standing thesis that apocalyptic is essentially a form of drama. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Revelation, which looks for all the world like a classical Greek play; it even has a chorus.) Now drama, according to Aristotle, comes in two flavors. There is tragedy, which features good and evil characters who proceed to an inevitable catastrophe. Dramatic plots tend to be about how sin is met with revenge. Comedy, on the other hand, is about foolish or mistaken characters who stumble into a happy ending. Error is cured by enlightenment, eventuating in reconciliation.

The Book of Revelation has both tragic and comedic strands: the Beast and his followers prosper mightily in this profane age but meet with everlasting punishment on the last day, while the sufferings that the Saints endure in this age are all set right at the end. These tragic and comedic strands also appear in the history of millennial movements, often as pure types.

According to O'Leary, the topics (that's "topoi" to you, partner) on which apocalyptic rhetors engage audiences are "evil," "time" and "authority." There is some reason to suppose that, for the earliest Christians, the evil that faced them was the malice of the devil working through the powers of the Roman Empire. The time when the evil would be amended was very near, and the authority for these propositions was the direct prophecy of the apostolic generation and then of texts ascribed to them. This type of apocalyptic is often associated with "premillennialism," the belief that the Second Coming will occur before the Millennium. Premillennialists are often profoundly pessimistic about the future, which scripture says will be filled with disaster and persecution in the days prior to the Second Coming. Postmillennialism, in contrast, is the belief that the time of the Second Coming will not occur until the end of the Millennium, during which period the church will have gradually rid the world of natural evil. The "authority" invoked by postmillennialists tends to be a metaphorical interpretation of scripture at the service of pragmatism. This distinction between pre- and postmillennialism roughly corresponds to the tragic and comedic "frames" that Aristotle proposed. (St. Augustine was a comedian? Wonders never cease.)

The Second Great Awakening, a generation of reform and revival that characterized the first few decades of the nineteenth century in the United States, produced just about every possible form of millennial activity. It's earlier phase, however, was predominantly postmillennial in theology. This Awakening was associated with a variety of reform movements, from the abolition of slavery to the prohibition of alcohol. These movements were attended by acute religious fervor. When some of the reform movements made little or no progress even after years of mass rallies and evangelism, however, some members of the generation of the Awakening began to doubt whether real reform was possible in the current world. The result was a turn toward premillennialism, manifested most spectacularly in the Millerite Movement and the Great Disappointment of 1844.

William Miller was a respectable farmer in Upstate New York who came to believe, probably about 1830, that the Second Coming would occur around 1843. A diligent amateur student of scripture, his authority was arithmetic, as applied to the complex prophetic number system of the Old Testament prophets and the Book of Revelation. The transparency and reasonable tone of his argument seized the imagination of a large fraction of the public.

Respectable and learned ministers from many denominations either embraced Millerite ideas wholeheartedly or expressed sympathy for them. (Miller himself was an influential voice rather than a prophet in the movement. Indeed, the date of the Great Disappointment, October 22, 1844, was not set by Miller, but welled up out of the movement.) Publications with large circulations sprang up to spread the doctrine, and the mass meetings used to promote the reform movements of the earlier phase of the Awakening were put to new uses. As O'Leary notes, all this activity was not intended solely to persuade people. Proselytism was supposed to be one of the features of the latter days. By proselytizing, the Millerites were not just telling people about the apocalypse; they were enacting it.

The Disappointment itself was dealt with in various ways. The kernel of the Millerite movement decided that the event actually foretold by Miller's computations was an event in Heaven that prepared for the earthly Second Coming at some imprecise point in the future. Many went on to found the Adventist movement. Other Millerites threw themselves into the Abolitionist movement. O'Leary reports that the fiasco of 1844 ensured that, for a long time to come, only the most marginal rhetors would dare set a specific, near-term apocalyptic date. However, we should also note that the turn to premillennialism evidenced by Millerism survived the Great Disappointment, at least in evangelical circles. After the end of the Civil War, the historical pessimism associated with premillennialism was one of the factors that induced evangelicals to recuse themselves as much as possible from public life and practical politics.

There are many reasons why evangelical Christianity returned as a public force in the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the chief reasons, as O'Leary notes, was that history was making their worldview more plausible. The Jews really had returned to Israel, something that evangelical eschatologists had been talking about for over a century. Furthermore, the invention of the atomic bomb made the apocalypse something that everyone could believe in, one way or another. Indeed, not only did premillennialism again challenge the implicitly postmillennial "civic religion" of the United States, but apocalyptic date-setting came back, too.

O'Leary is at pains to emphasize the differences between Millerism and the brand of apocalypticism that Hal Lindsey promoted in his fantastically popular books that began with "The Late, Great Planet Earth." Their scenarios were different, for one thing. Although the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture of the Saints existed in the 1830s, it was not incorporated into Millerism, and did not really become important until after the Civil War. Lindsey's future, in contrast, contains both the prospect of another world war and a pretribulation rapture of the Saints to Heaven that would save believers the trouble of living through the final struggle. The difference that chiefly impresses O'Leary is that, granted their premises, the logic of "The Late Great Planet Earth" is much shakier than that of William Miller and his followers.

Lindsey's warrant for starting the countdown to the end is the assurance given by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse that "this generation" would see the fulfillment of all apocalyptic prophecy. In Lindsey's model of history, the machinery of salvation paused when the Jews failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Salvation history started up again only when Israel was founded in 1948. (This approach is called "dispensationalism," as opposed to the Millerite "historicism.") "This generation," therefore, refers to the people who were alive in 1948. In his earlier work, Lindsey made bold to wax more specific. Alleging that a biblical generation is about 40 years, he speculated that 1988 would be a reasonable date for the rapture to occur, followed by seven years of tribulation, and then the Second Coming.

Even granting the greatest deference to scripture, these interpretations are not obvious. That was not the case with the Millerite computations: they may not have been correct, but were reasonably clear. Furthermore, Miller and his colleagues invited criticism and answered their critics in print, something that Hal Lindsey never did. Nonetheless, while Millerism was extinguished in a bit over a decade, the apocalyptic revival of which Lindsey was so conspicuous a part is not completely extinct, even after 30 years. This is partly because Lindsey's system was tentative enough to avoid outright disconfirmation, even after the end of the 20th century. A factor that was at least as important, perhaps, was that evangelicalism has gained a measure of cultural acceptance, and even political power.

O'Leary devotes an interesting chapter to the conservative revival of the 1980s, and particularly to the eschatological aspects of the Reagan Administration. This period posed a problem for apocalypse-minded conservatives. Not only was the clock running out on the best-known estimate for the rapture, but evangelicals now needed a theory that would justify them in helping to reform a society that was doomed in several senses of the word. In O'Leary's nomenclature, they needed to move from the tragic frame to the comic frame. To a limited degree, this is what they did.

In his later books, Hal Lindsey held out the hope that conservatives could keep America out of the hands of the Antichrist right up to the rapture, if they all pitched in to aid the process of conservative reform. This was an exhortation to his readers to become tragic heroes, united in the last stand against the forces of darkness. Ronald Reagan became, in effect, "President of the Last Days" for some of his supporters. Like his medieval type, the mythical Emperor of the Last Days, his reign ensured present safety, while in no way compromising the inevitability of apocalypse in the more distant future.

Televangelist Pat Robertson went even further in his serious though failed bid for the White House. He stopped making premillennialist predictions of doom entirely, and began to speak about the future with the sunny optimism of a postmillennial preacher of the early Second Great Awakening. The strategy did not lessen the suspicion in which the press held him, though it did cause his erstwhile supporters to suspect him of backsliding on doomsday. Still, what did not work for Pat Robertson may work in other contexts.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" ends with a meditation on just what we are supposed to do with the apocalypse. There is obviously no getting rid of it. O'Leary suggests that the best course would be to seek to keep it in the comic frame. The idea seems to be that the apocalypse can be permanently tamed by turning it into the ever-receding horizon on the road of progress. People might still dread impending disaster, but they would not think some final disaster to be inevitable, and so would not be tempted to historical fatalism.

While there is something to be said for this strategy, we should keep in mind that the comic frame is not coextensive with postmillennialism, or St. Augustine's amillennialism. Even if the images of disaster and judgment in the Book of Revelation are taken as metaphors whose application is never exhausted by any particular event in history, that does not mean that ultimate questions are not posed by historical events. To take the most obvious example, even if all persecutions are types of an ultimate persecution by Antichrist that never arrives, martyrs throughout history have nevertheless been killed just as dead as the hypothetical Tribulation Saints are supposed to be. To make the apocalypse immanent or episodic does not lower the stakes. The opposite, rather. This is the real meaning of the saying of Franz Kafka that O'Leary quotes: "Only our concept of Time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name. In reality it is a summary court in perpetual session."

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Great Disappointment of 1844

John maintained the HTML for his website by hand. I also starting making webpages in the late nineties, and that was just how you did it. As such, he had indexes by topic for his major interests, for example eschatology. I debated recreating these for a long time, but I finally decided to do it because a few items slipped though the cracks of the blog-centric chronological method I had been using to repost John's writings.

This also gives me an opportunity to escape the tedium of John's topical political blog posts from twelve years ago. While nothing looks more dated than old scifi movies, old political controversy is an especial trial to read.

Thus, let us move on to this short book review of a book that never existed, combining John's interests in eschatology and alternative history into one!


The Great Disappointment of 1844
by John de Patmos
Misketonic University Press, 2001
567 Pages, US$30
ISBN: 0-7388-2356-2

This item is Alternative History.

The Second Coming did not actually occur in 1844.

The Great Disappointment is a real hisrorical term, however.

Look under Eschatology for the review of Arguing the Apocalypse.

 

The Millerite Movement and its sequel are, for obvious reasons, the most studied manifestations of mass millennialism since the New Testament period itself. Indeed, so carefully has this grand finale of America's "Second Great Awakening" been examined that one may wonder whether there is anything new for historians to say. Certainly the author of the present study does not aspire to novelty. Rather, "The Great Disappointment of 1844" performs the invaluable service of sifting through the last generation of scholarship on the subject to provide a narrative that is both readable and current.

The optimism of America in the early decades of the 19th century was reflected in the "postmillennial" view of history that underlay the great outbreak of religious revival and social reform that we know as the Second Great Awakening. Postmillennialism, as all students of eschatology know, was the doctrine that the Second Coming of Christ would occur at the end of the thousand year reign of the Saints, the Millennium foretold by Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. The implication was that the Saints would themselves put the world in order in preparation for the great event.

The Second Great Awakening was in fact characterized by a high level of political and cultural engagement by Christians. The reform movements of the time, from Abolitionism to Women's Suffrage to the Prohibition of Alcohol, began as aspects of postmillennial religious revival. While some progress was made on these fronts, the failure of the reform movements to remake society as a whole caused many persons to despair of the possibility that the world could be perfected purely by human efforts. The time was ripe for a return of premillennialism, the doctrine that the Second Coming would inaugurate rather than conclude the Millennial kingdom, which would then develop under divine guidance.

The name that became inextricably linked with the triumph of premillennialism was William Miller, a respectable farmer and keen amateur student of scripture living in northern New York State. His reexamination of the dating of people and events in the Bible, set alongside certain familiar interpretations of the complex prophetic number systems of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, convinced him that the Second Coming would occur around the year 1843. Though his analysis was multi-layered, a key feature of his logic was a demonstration that a proper calculation of the generations mentioned in the Old Testament showed that Bishop Ussher, who had famously announced that the world had been created in 4004 BC, had in fact underestimated the age of the world by a good 150 years. Thus, the six-thousandth year of the world would occur in the first half of the 19th century. Then would begin the "Seventh Day of Creation," a concept long associated with the Millennium.

William Miller was not the first student of scripture to set a near-term date for the Parousia. Still, he was a little unusual in the transparency of his argument and his willingness to engage critics. Miller was never the "prophet" of Millerism; his authority was arithmetic, not personal revelation. It was possible to disagree with his calculations, and many people did. Still, the argument was of such a nature that it could not be merely dismissed; it had to be refuted.

William Miller reached his conclusions about the dating of the Second Coming about 1830. He soon began to disseminate them in print and, more diffidently, on speaking tours. His message took on a life of its own, becoming the template for an interdenominational network of evangelists and publications. People abandoned their ordinary affairs to propagate the gospel of the last days, often giving away their property or neglecting to plant their fields. The precise date for the great event, October 22, 1844, did not come from Miller, or indeed from any of the leading figures of the movement. Rather, it appeared among the mass of believers, who overwhelmingly gave it immediate acceptance.

Of course, as we now know, the prediction was correct. The study of the Parousia Event of 1844 naturally overshadows the Millerite Movement (as it does the contemporary Taiping and Babist movements). However, the Days of the Presence required the creation of a new historiographical discipline, which the present study only briefly outlines. The Millerite story picks up when coherent documentation again begins to become available in January of 1845.

Against the unsettled economic and cultural landscape of the early Millennial world, Millerism presents the not unfamiliar spectacle of a movement destroyed by its own success. The ironic details are well known. Even historical survey courses devote some attention to accounts of the attempts by exasperated Millerites to regain control of property that they had given away, sometimes by arguing in court that they had been temporarily insane during the months leading up to the Advent. Far more important, however, was the fact that Millerism, and premillennial Christianity in general, had nothing to say to the Millennium.

The movement had come into existence as a reaction to the theory that Christians, as Christians, had a duty to leaven the world. Premillennialists had consciously recoiled from the labor of formulating a social philosophy, or even a coherent political program. The Millerite Movement had been entirely about chronology. Though the train left at the expected time, the premillennialists found that they had no idea where they were going.

This vacuum at the heart of post-Millerite evangelicalism had profound implications for the role of religion in the English-speaking world during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a commonplace among historians that the great events of those years, the US Civil War and the First and Second World Wars, were to a greater or lesser extent "Wars of Armageddon," fought by societies for reasons that were essentially millenarian. All the great social movements of the period were also informed by the millennialist "Social Gospel." However, though evangelicals took part as individuals in the general historical process, they did not engage the great issues on a soteriological level. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that they began to emerge from the isolation of the denominational subcultures into which they had retreated. The end of the long alienation of a large a fraction of Christianity can only be applauded.

We will never cease to experience the influence of the events of 1844. Even the completion of the current Sabbatical Millennium will not nullify the process that began with the Parousia of that year. However, there are stories within that greater story, some of the saddest of which deal with the disappointment occasioned by the fulfillment of prophecy. Those stories can have an ending. Thus, though the historical debates may go on, we may hope that the long afterlife of Millerism is at last drawing to a close.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site