t byfield on Mon, 30 May 2011 20:37:05 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Rapture billboard

m.reinsborough@qub.ac.uk (Sun 05/29/11 at 09:34 PM +0100):

> does anyone have more info on this Rapture dynamic that happened in USA.
> is it true that a surprisingly large number of people in the USA belief
> in "rapture"

Current evangelical ideas about the rapture are only the latest incarnation
of millennia-old Christian eschatological traditions. While it's true that
millenarianism hasn't been a big feature of European history for quite some
time, it did play a decisive role in various restructurings of the European
political order(s) -- a very positive role, in many cases. So though it may
seem and in many ways may be atavistic in the worst senses of the term, I
think it's important to look beyond those obvious aspects for more positive
potentials. I don't mean that we should literally try to find some silver
lining in what these people are saying; instead, I mean more generally
that apocalyptic outbursts are often the extreme, symbolic expressions of
much broader anxieties about and critiques of, say, profoundly corrupt
political and religious authority and polarizations of wealth distribution.
Put simply, when established powers can't provide any coherent narrative
pointing toward a better future, it isn't surprising that some people would
look to 'higher' powers for these narratives.

Questions about the disposition of wealth has been one of the central
features of past millenarian movements. So, for example, in the years
surrounding the turn of the first millennium, exegetical emphasis on New
Testament passages dealing with wealth (e.g., Matt 19:24, "it is easier for
a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter into the
kingdom of God") played an important role in the transfer of land from
aristocrats to monastic orders. This contributed mightily to a number of
positive developments: the cessation of ubiquitous low-level pillaging, the
stabilization of artisanal techniques, the rise of literacy, and so on --
which in turn contributed heavily to what's come to be called the

This time around, these 'critiques' were treated much more glibly in the
way you'd expect from the media -- memes about entrepreneurs offering to
care for pets that get left behind, pathetic stories about what the kids
and neighbors think, and the like. But rather that side with the
patronizing journos yukking it up and against the radio-believin' rubes,
it's worth noting that the paradoxical problem of wealth through a decisive
historical rupture was at the center of a lot of pop discussion of this
non-event. And, right now, it's not like the rapturists are or should be
the only people in the world concerned with this.

What I haven't seen is any serious discussion with American millenarians
about the question of wealth -- and given that Harold Camping's followers
are just a tiny slice of the Americans who believe that some kind of end is
near, and there are lots of variations, that omission is worth noting. It's
partly attributable to the fact that, as far as I know, rapturists
completely sidestep the issue by consigning everything material to
perdition -- so, by their own account, there's no point in thinking about
it because it's the very definition of irrelevant. But that, in itself, is
significant: there have been lots of variations on apocalyptic thinking in
which such things *did* matter (e.g., schools of thought in which humanity
needed to prepare for or even build heaven on earth, in some cases through
violent expropriation of wealth). 

Another curious feature of this round of rapture is the fact that (again,
to my knowledge) it didn't really address gender issues. That terrain seems
to be owned by evangelicals who are obsessed with reproduction issues.
God's sudden intervention into world history and the fate of fetuses might
seem to be pretty disparate, but at points in the history of theology
they've been deeply intertwined. For example, in Thomas Aquinas's _Summa
Theologica_ there are some pretty astounding discussions in which he
posited the possibility of infants who (and whose parents too) unwittingly
subsisted entirely on a diet of aborted fetuses. The common thread involved
question about what body would be assumed into heaven. Would saints in
heaven bear the marks of their persecution? Or would their bodies be
restored to some more 'perfect' state? And if so, what constituted
perfection? Hence the question of unwitting cannibals whose bodies 'belong'
to others. These kinds of inquiries are so amazing that it's hard to see
the larger question that animate them: what legitimately belongs to each
human being? Given when he was writing, in the mid-1200s, you could argue
(I would) that these questions were oblique, symbolic meditations on new
understandings of wealth -- basically, the seed of what eventually evolved
into theories about human rights.

I'm pretty sure that Camping's followers almost uniformly oppose sexual
autonomy. But the fact that their activism has focused on a gender-neutral
rapture rather than on opposing 'abortion' is just as noteworthy as the
fact that many evangelicals who are less abruptly millenarian are consumed
with actively opposing sexual autonomy. From where I sit, that's a pretty
low bar; but, still, I think it's a tacitly positive aspect. It's easy to
scoff at a bunch of kooks who 'miscalculated' the end (and what end hasn't
been miscalculated, right?). It's much harder to look beyond the non-event
for the seeds of promising developments. A few of them may be hopelessly
embittered by this experience and give up, but the vast majority of them
will remain solidly within the evangelical fold -- and, hopefully, do so on
the basis of ideals that place less emphasis on patriarchal revanchism. An
evangelical movement that supports women's freedom to choose would be a 
fine thing.

Christianity isn't my cup of tea at all, even less evangelical
Christianity. The extent to which they've distorted this country's politics
has severely tested my very secular 'ecumenical' tolerance. But I'm also
really tired of antireligious bigotry, in part on pragmatic grounds (very
secular, right?): evangelicals are here to stay -- in a big way. Laughing
at the more extreme manifestations of these beliefs is unwise and, I'm
tempted to say, unjust. In the past, these kinds of radicalism have had
some very progressive dimensions, and I'd like to see that happen again.
But they're heavily dominated by leaders who are bitterly antimodern,
anticosmopolitan, antiurban, anti-intellectual, and above all antifeminist;
and those leaders benefit from their *correct* assessment that
future-oriented, cosmopolitan, urban(e) intellectuals typically see
evangelicals as imbeciles and losers enslaved by primitive ideas. You don't
need to comply with their entire belief system to acknowledge that, however
obliquely, however remotely, their beliefs evince deep anxieties about
where the world is headed. Indeed, I think there are deeper and more
specific affinities to be found. But you won't find them until you admit
that many 'progressive' issues aren't necessarily or intrinsically secular.


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