Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Disarming Armageddon: Why Students Need to learn the linguistic and moral complexities of the Book of Revelation

Organized religion, in particular fundamentalist Christianity, has greatly impacted facets of American life in the last 30 years, from politics to civil rights to popular culture. We are in the midst of a raging firestorm, a culture war that threatens the very fabric of the nation. Yet, the genesis of our culture war, especially the most dubious questions of faith that it instigates, is rarely discussed in the American academy, except in institutions of higher learning that proudly bear a religious affiliation and that expect their students to shun attempts to discuss their religious views with people who disagree with them.

We have reached a point in the nation’s history when professors in higher education can no longer afford to pretend that religion is a purely personal, subjective belief. If universities are meant to prepare students to fully participate in society, then students need to be taught how to question and investigate everything, including their most personal religious beliefs, not just traditional academic subjects. American politics and religion are so interwoven these days, often in divisive ways, that one really cannot be studied without some consideration of the other. This is particularly important for students of history, political science, cultural studies and journalism.

Many people are afraid of talking about religion because it's such an emotional, subjective topic. And college professors (as well as high school teachers) are afraid of talking about religion in their classes because they fear students' parents will contact them, accusing them of trying to "indoctrinate" their children. In American society today, religion is where sex education was 30-40 years ago. Teen pregnancies, AIDS and STDs made sex education in schools a necessity. And now Koran-burning, the racial profiling of immigrants, and jihads against America have shown the need for universities to help students learn how to objectively examine the pros and cons of the impact of religion on society.

One boundary that needs to be overcome in college classrooms is the irrational fear of discussing matters of faith with college students. Too many college professors believe the separation of church and state extends into the classroom or that religious beliefs are too personal to discuss with students. They assume that matters of faith should be left to churches, because faith is based on matters that cannot be proven or subject to scientific inquiry. Why bother?

The very nature of academe – especially its recent embrace of tolerance for other cultures, creeds and customs -- does not provide an obvious rhetorical platform or institutional support for the questioning of religious ideology. Professors at public institutions seem to feel that study or discussion of religious ideology is not “academic” and should be the purview of religious schools or theological seminaries. This leaves a vast majority of students who attend public institutions unaware of and unprepared to understand one of the most onerous, and potentially dangerous, political movements of our time – the increasingly polarizing pull of Christian fundamentalists on American politics.

Ironically, as the fervent belief of fundamentalist Christian Americans grows that the return of Jesus Christ is immanent (and that America has a vital role to play in End Times eschatology), the nation is becoming torn asunder with a form of intolerance that universities claim to disown. For the past 18 years, I have been teaching a course at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania called “Literature of the Apocalypse.” Six or seven years ago, the composition faculty at West Chester asked me to teach the same material in a research-based writing class called “Writing About the Apocalypse.” The class has become a popular fixture among underclassmen at the university. I teach two sections of the class every year and they quickly reach the maximum enrollment of 25 students. (At least one of my students from West Chester is here today, at this lecture.) People in general find the Book of Revelation fascinating to discuss. But college students have more at stake in the end of the world than do professors. They have most of their lives yet to live. We don’t. They seek reassurance about their future. They wish to be reassured that the world they inhabit will not soon end. Taking just one (admittedly controversial) book of the Bible and examining its historical contexts, its influence on American politics and American culture and the hold it continues to possess on our collective imaginations, allows me to introduce a variety of interdisciplinary subjects that are frequently considered taboo in the classroom. It makes for a thought-provoking class, one that most students fully want to engage in.

Obviously, the world is an increasingly dangerous place in which to live. Nuclear armaments still threaten us with extinction; AIDS has not been cured and has ravaged Africa; the degradation of the planet continues at an unabated and frightening pace, despite scientific evidence that suggests we ought to be better stewards of the planet; starvation and over-population become ever more endemic with every passing month; hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes become increasingly devastating and deadly. In short, it is troublesome to try to debunk St. John’s Revelation at a time when so many of its predictions become increasingly plausible. Therein lies the fascinating pull of the subject matter and the relevance of the course for college students. By a happy circumstance, Revelation is designed to make students think about the implications of the end of the world and their own mortality, even as it tries to persuade them that the world’s end will transpire according to a biblical blueprint that grips the imagination of evangelical Christians. My two classes, which utilize Revelation as a starting point to discuss the nation’s culture war and then to introduce students to the issues mentioned above, try to place the Book of Revelation in its historical context and foster a hope that humankind has a responsibility to search for ways to keep the end from happening. “Debunking the Apocalypse” might be a better phrase to describe the arc of the two courses.

My discussion today will focus on the roots of the class, how the Book of Revelation can be discussed in a historical context that makes it less threatening to modern-day students, and the political and social impact that American religious fundamentalists have on American political and cultural life.

Because belief in a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation among fundamentalist Christians has become a driving force in American culture and a crucial component of the culture wars, it is my position that public institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to help student-citizens understand the underlying dangers of a literal interpretation of a biblical End Times. Professors of rhetoric and literature at such institutions could be helping students think about solutions for preserving the planet, instead of ceding a calamitous ending to religious fundamentalist believers. Chris Hedges, one of the nation’s preeminent chroniclers about the nexus of religion and politics in America, mentions the prominence of Revelation in his book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America:

The Book of Revelation, a crucial text for the radical Christian Right, appears to show Christ returning to earth at the head of an avenging army. It is one of the few places in the Bible where Christ is associated with violence. This bizarre book, omitted from some of the early canons and relegated to the back of the Bible by Martin Luther, may have been a way, as scholars contend, for early Christians to cope with Roman persecution and their dreams of final triumph and glory. The book, however, paints a picture of a bloody battle between the forces of good and evil, Christ and the Antichrist, God and Satan, and the torment and utter destruction of all who do not follow the faith. In this vision, only the faithful will be allowed to enter the gates of the New Jerusalem. All others will disappear, cast into the lake of fire. The Warrior’s defeat of the armies of the nations, a vast apocalyptic vision of war… It is a story of God’s ruthless, terrifying and violent power unleashed on non-believers. (Hedges, pgs. 4-5)

It is important for students to understand why Revelation was meant to give first century Christians hope. Scholars believe Revelation was written around 90 A.D., some sixty years after the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. His earliest disciples were told, and believed, Christ would return within their lifetimes. When St. John’s Revelation was handed to them, it was meant to help them cope with the persecution of their own lives; they were being crucified and fed to lions in the Roman Coliseum around this time. The Jerusalem Bible explains,

It must be understood first and foremost as a tract for the times, written to increase hope and determination of the church on earth in a period of disturbance and bitter persecution, and prophesying the certain downfall and destruction of the Roman imperial power. The imagery, largely drawn from the Old Testament, especially Daniel, allows the author to allude to the enemy, Rome, under the guise of an old enemy, Babylon; and to present the happenings of his own day, seen by their reflections in the heavens, as recapitulations or fulfillments of the great events of Israel’s past. (Jerusalem Bible, p. 320)

John wrote Revelation as an open letter of revolt and sedition. It was designed to give hope to people in crisis. But he couched his call for political insurrection in mysterious and symbolic terms to protect those who carried it. To bear such a letter on your person, calling for the overthrow of a sitting government, was a certain death sentence if it was discovered by one of the emperor’s centurions. John’s inner circle knew that “Babylon” was coded language for Rome. Hiding the true meaning of the letter was essential to the safe passage of those who possessed it. All of Revelation is rife with such purposefully opaque meanings, meant to be understood only by the community of believers. The Greek word for Revelation (apocalypse), means “lifting of the veil.”

The hidden meaning of Revelation, its reliance on violence and symbolism to imbue its meaning, is inherently problematic for Christian believers who are told all their lives of the infallibility of the Bible. Because it is God’s word, and must be believed without question, it is “logical” for fundamentalist believers to “know” John’s template for the second coming is bound to happen, just as it is described in the pages of Revelation. To try to suggest that Revelation was not meant to be taken literally, or to try to place it into its natural historical context, calls the Bible’s infallibility into question. Naturally, this would seem not only offensive but heretical to many fundamentalist Christians.

The tension between rational thinking, scientific thought and reasoning, the weighing of evidence in argument to produce consensus, is understandably but irrevocably at odds with the way religious fundamentalists approach their core beliefs. Academics frequently wrestle with the foundations of this intellectual dichotomy. At least I do. I want to believe in God and an afterlife, but I want my belief in a higher power to be based on credible evidence. Most of the evidence of the existence of God and the Resurrection and Second Coming of the Savior from my childhood as an altar boy in the Roman Catholic church fell far short of the intellectual rigors of science that explained the existence of things I could not see but trusted were there, oxygen for instance. I was told to believe without questioning the essential core truths of my faith. Yet I was trained in college as a student of journalism to question everything, especially the things that could not be proven by scientific methodology or persuasive rhetorical argument. Many professors manage to hold onto a strong religious faith despite the very obvious paradoxes that orthodox belief brings with it. But few of them find time to discuss these essential questions of their own lives with their students. They may fear the judgment of their peers for expressing a faith; they may fear there is no room in the curriculum to discuss religious questions in pedagogically narrow classes that focus on biology or economics or mathematics. They may fear that expressing religious belief will alienate some students. Or, conversely, they may fear the judgment of fundamentalist students if they question the rationality of religious belief. Despite all of these fears, it has been my experience that college-level students yearn to discuss questions about religious faith; that discussions about the development of a person’s moral core are an essential part of the educational process; and that college is the perfect time for discussion about such personal issues to take place.

In the past 10 years or so, the nexus between religion and politics has been a fertile field for writers and scholars who have warned of the rising political power of the Christian right and of the right’s thirst to hold onto the reins of power and its attempt to impose what it purports to be “Christian values” on the rest of America. It should come as no big surprise that a strong national defense (justified, in part, by the political right’s assertion of the infallibility of the Bible and Revelation’s portrayal of Jesus as an avenging warrior king) is part of their political agenda. They seek to prepare America not just for the return of the savior but to play a pivotal role in the last world war, known as “Armageddon” in the Bible, the last battle between the forces of Jesus and the forces of Satan. To a great extent, the core religious belief among American fundamentalists that the nation of Israel is the pre-determined place where Jesus will reveal his return to earth is largely responsible for America’s financial support of Israel. The formation of the nation of Israel was regarded among fundamentalists as one of the essential Biblical “signs” that the return of the Savior was imminent. Chris Hedges, Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Phillips, Michelle Goldberg and Barbara Rossing are among the few writers who have published important books warning of the increasing influence of a strident brand of Christianity and the overt connection between this strident brand of religion and the Republican party. Phillips notes that:

Between 1960 and 2000, the membership of the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention jumped from 10 million to 17 million, while the Pentecostal churches soared from under 2 million to almost 12 million. Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists likewise gained. On the more sedate side of the ledger, the mainstream Episcopalians dropped from 3.5 million to 2 million and the United Methodists slumped from 10 million to under 8 million. The meaning of these changes deepened when one compared the religious intensity, ideology and party preference of the different clergies. Strict fundamentalist-type churches gained; doctrinally loose mainline churches…shrank. The allegro movement of this realignment was swelling in the mid- to late 1980s, precisely when a born-again George W. Bush walked onto the national political stage. Liberal religion was being routed. Surveys taken for the 1988 election captured the extraordinary theological and public policy divisions between the clergy of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists and the mainline (then still unmerged) Presbyterians. Political party preference mirrored the ideological chasm. On the theological right, 97 percent of the Assemblies of God clergy and 88 percent of the Southern Baptist Convention preachers agreed that Jesus was the only way to salvation; 95 percent of the AOB and 79 percent of the SBC clergy insisted the devil actually existed; 83 percent of the AOG and 54 percent of the SBC shepherds expressed belief in the church’s “rapture.” Conversely, among the Presbyterian clergy – mainline Episcopalians and Congregationalists would not have been too different – only 30 percent identified Jesus as the only way to salvation, just 18 percent believed in the devil and a tiny 5 percent expected the rapture. Abortion, pornography and gay rights topped the concerns of the Pentecostal clergy. Presbyterian ministers, by contrast, prioritized hunger and poverty, civil rights and the environment. (Phillips, p. 216-217)

One of the core beliefs of fundamentalist Christians is that public education is too secular, and that since the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools, public education has fallen into the hands of secular humanists. According to an article in USA Today, (“Home Schooling Grows,” Janice Lloyd, Jan. 5, 2007), the home school movement has climbed steadily over the last 10 years. “The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007, up 74 percent from when the Department of National Center for Educational Statistics started keeping track in 1999 and up 36 percent since 2003…. 'There’s no reason to believe it would not keep going,’ says Gail Mulligan, a statistician at the center. Traditionally the biggest motivations for parents to teach their children at home have been moral or religious reasons and that remains the top pick when parents are asked toexplain their choice.”

In Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg notes that the influence of home schooled children is already having an effect in political offices in the nation’s capital. “The influence of these kids, trained from infancy to be Christian culture warriors, is already making itself felt. Patrick Henry College, located in rural Virginia, caters specifically to homeschooled evangelical students. It has existed since 2000 and accepts fewer than one hundred students a year, yet in 2004’s spring semester it provided 7 percent of the White House’s interns. Twenty-two conservative congressmen have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns” (Goldberg, pgs. 2-3). Michael P. Farris, notes Goldberg, refers to these (home schooling) parents as the Moses generation, because they have successfully led their children out of the bondage of godless public schools. But permanent exile from the American mainstream was never their principle goal. As Farris wrote in his book Generation Joshua, the home-schooling movement “will succeed when our children, the Joshua Generation, engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take the land.” Goldberg explains,

Like America’s past Great Awakenings, the Christian nationalist movement claims that the Bible is absolutely and literally true. But it goes much further, extrapolating a total political program from that truth, and yoking that program to a political party. It is a conflation of scripture and politics that sees America’s triumphs as confirmation of the truth of the Christian religion, and America’s struggles as part of a cosmic contest between God and the devil. It claims supernatural sanction for its campaign of national renewal and speaks rapturously about vanquishing the millions of Americans who would stand in its way. The motivating dream of the movement is the restoration of an imagined Christian nation. With a revisionist history that claims the founders never intended to create a secular country and that separation of church and state is a lie fostered by conniving leftists, Christian nationalism rejects the idea of government neutrality. The movement argues that the absence of religion in public is itself a religion – the malign faith of secular humanism – that must, in the interest of fairness, be balanced with equal deference to the Bible. (Goldberg pgs. 6-7)

At the risk of alienating conservative parents, American schools (especially institutions of higher learning) need to begin to educate American students about the rise of this dangerous threat to the traditional values of the nation: the long-held beliefs of the founders that church and state should be separate; that freedom of worship is one of the most revered rights of the people; and that no brand of religion should enjoy favor over another.

The most dangerously radical idea of all is that the inherently pacifist philosophy of Jesus Christ, as he espoused in the Sermon on the Mount, can somehow be negated and turned inside out by the Warrior Christ as presented in St. John’s fever dream in the Book of Revelation. The Warrior Jesus gives religious fundamentalists a way out of the hard work of peace; it justifies warfare and it establishes the idea that Jesus himself would engage in bloodshed of massive proportions for the sake of vanquishing “enemies” who disagree with him. The paradigm shift that the Book of Revelation represents is so far removed from the life and sayings of Jesus during his time on Earth that its removal from the Bible has long been debated at the highest levels of the church.

Perhaps no modern writer has defined the potential politically propagandistic dangers of Revelation and its powers of persuasion more acutely than Chris Hedges, the son of a Presbyterian minister (and a former New York Times reporter) who attended the Harvard Divinity School himself with the intention of becoming a preacher. In American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Hedges notes that Revelation, “a crucial text for the radical Christian right,” shows Christ’s return to earth at the head of an avenging army and notes this is one of the few places in the Bible where Christ is associated with violence. Says Hedges,

There is enough hatred, bigotry and lust for violence in the pages of the Bible to satisfy anyone bent on justifying cruelty and violence….and the Bible has long been used in the wrong hands – such as antebellum slave owners in the American South who quoted from it to defend slavery – not to Christianize the culture, as those wielding it often claim, but to acculturate the Christian faith. …Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. They must do so in the light of other biblical passages that teach a compassion and tolerance, often exemplified by the life of Christ, which stands opposed to bigotry and violence. Until this happens, until the Christian churches wade into the debate, these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate or eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God.
(Hedges, p. 6)

There has been no on-going debate about the latent violence in the Book of Revelation in American churches. Attendance is booming in Pentecostal, evangelical and fundamentalist churches that preach a literal interpretation of Revelation. Attendance is declining in moderate American churches that ignore the violent trappings of Revelation or downplay its usefulness as a map for the End Times. Pastors at such churches may fear that de-emphasizing this dangerous last book of the Bible will only further alienate believers.

Now seems like an appropriate time for America’s institutions of higher learning to take up the issue. The connections between the nation’s religious beliefs and its developing culture have never been more important, or more ominous, than they now are. To avoid discussing these important political and cultural issues with students who are curious and concerned about the nation’s future is not only short-sighted but threatens the health and welfare of all inhabitants of our planet. I can think of almost nothing in the Western canon as important to professors of literature, religious and cultural studies, history, political science, composition and rhetoric as the potential extinction of mankind that a religious World War III would most certainly bring to fruition.

If academics don’t soon learn to disarm Armageddon in the classroom, and tear up the template for the End Times that is the Book of Revelation, we risk losing everything in life we hold dear, for human extinction is a form of eternity too. Despite what passionate believers tell us, rational people must always believe it is too big a risk to expect Jesus to rescue us from our own foolishness.

Works Cited

Farris, Michael. Generation Joshua: Restoring the Heritage of Christian Leadership. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2005.

Goldberg, Michelle. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Hedges, Chris. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. New York: The Free Press, 2006.

Lloyd, Janice. “Home School Grows.” USA Today, January 5, 2007.

Phillips, Kevin. American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. New York: Viking Publishers, 2004.

The Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday and Co. Inc., 1966.