Monday, January 27, 2014

Premillennialists Buck the Christian Knowledge Crisis

            When I was editor of The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, I sat on a small committee of leaders who guided Faith Alive, the publishing arm of the church. Faith Alive regularly published Bible studies, Sunday School curriculum, and other religious material. Our responsibility was basically two-fold. We had to publish good material, and it had to earn money. We couldn’t run Faith Alive on a deficit—at least not forever, though we tried.

            Achieving these goals was no small task. The basic problem was that with one or two exceptions (Don Postema’s Space for God being a notable one, some hymnals the other), the people buying our material rarely bought enough to make any publication profitable.

            To make matters worse, we were constantly being urged to publish more and more basic theology and doctrine books because of the widespread perception that people in the church just didn’t know as much as they used to. I think the perception was right on. The problem, however, was not—never had been—a shortage of good doctrinal primers. The problem was that most people sitting in the pew wouldn’t ever buy doctrinal books, because they simply didn’t read, or were not interested, or wanted doctrinal fantasy like the Left Behind series of novels, instead. So we’d sit there, with some denominational committee or seminary professor begging us to publish something that would address the lack of knowledge in the pew, knowing full well that if we did, we’d fail financially. It was not a nice position to be in.

            While this probably isn’t true of those reading this blog, it is true of the church at large. We’re suffering through a time of increasing ignorance in the pews. People don’t know the Bible stories like they used to. Kids don’t go to catechism like they used to. Few people read as much as they used to. Even seminary education has become much less rigorous in nearly every denomination. Everyone has something other than study of doctrine to do: skiing, cottages, soccer camps, TV shows to follow (usually a season at a time, in massive binges), and of course, the internet to browse. Bible studies that actually require study, rather than just sharing how you feel about some text, are rare to nonexistent. 

            And yet, isn’t it interesting that one of the more successful branches of contemporary Christianity—the Premillennialist crowd—asks for, and usually gets, a lot of knowledge from its adherents? Premillennialists—of whatever persuasion—can often offer up detailed descriptions of the end of the world—pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, it matters not. They can describe how today’s news events are prophesied in scripture (they think). They can offer up obscure texts in Daniel and Revelation in breathless support of their views about when and where and how Jesus will return. And they seem to be able to do so, ad infinitum, even though none of their predictions has ever come to pass—never.

            What gives? Why is it that in an era generally marked by less and less interest in and energy for study of doctrine that this group of failed prognosticators seems to be bucking the trend?

            I don’t know, for sure. Others have drawn parallels between the Gnostics of the early church and today’s Premillennialists. The parallels are pretty easy to see. Both groups promoted arcane—almost secret—knowledge that served as a key to escaping the toils and troubles of this world. Both saw this world as basically evil. And so on.

            The apocalyptic fervour of these groups, as well as the mental and exegetical gymnastics needed to justify that fervour, speak to a profound sense of unease about contemporary culture. Not only is the world evil, but its getting worse. They feel powerless to do anything to change things, and so they look to a dramatic deus ex machina solution, and find it in their tortured exegesis.

            Among some of these groups doctrinal knowledge is the bar people need to rise to in order to really belong—sort of like speaking in tongues was the bar that some of my Pentecostal friends had to rise to be considered premium members. The more social control a community exerts over its members, the more likely it will require specialist knowledge or experience to be part of the community. Think Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, for example.

            The mastery of the airwaves that these groups have shown is another reason for their popularity. Christian Radio stations offering a menu of preachers breathlessly predicting one disaster after another, relating all of it to today’s headlines, and promising the thread that will make sense of it all are just, well, fascinating. Like late-night radio shows chronicling all sorts of conspiracy theories, or Discovery Channel shows about aliens who visited the earth in the distant past, or even right-wing political commentators who have their own spin on conspiracy and how things really are—these radio preachers appeal to people who want answers.

            To the degree that knowing about or believing such theories about how God is going to end the world as we know it is the entrance price to a church or denomination, they undermine the message of grace. The author of 1 Timothy—probably thinking of Gnosticism—puts it well: "Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wive's tails. Train yourself in godliness" (4:7). In other words, doing good is better than insisting on speculation. (I wonder if this advice is also good when it comes to speculation about the Trinity, divine substances, election, or Jesus' divine and human natures?) 

           Still, the contrast between the high “knowledge” commitment of many premillenialists and the cries of alarm about how most Christians don’t know much, anymore, is striking. What do we make of it? It may be true that for most of the history of Christianity, most Christians were illiterate, and did well to know a few key stories from the Bible and how to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. But is that what we want to settle for now? I don’t think so.

            The bottom line is that Christianity is facing some huge cultural obstacles when it comes to inspiring its members to delve deep into the well of scripture, and the wisdom of its traditions. Figuring out what to do about this problem, however--if anything—is an interesting problem.


  1. What is most striking about premillennial thinking is the draining of its social power. A generation ago, it had quite the share of mind within Evangelical circles, and even in popular culture. But now? Was it done in by the shift to computers and away from print (as has happened to Faith Alive)? Or is it something else?

    Being a sort of political person these days, I do wonder if its appeal and decline isn't related to the question of power. The premillennial subtext is not the AntiChrist but the totalitarian threat, be it the Nazis or the Reds. And because its sub-text was the totalitarian (the anti-Christ), the movement was deeply American and egalitarian (not unlike your tongues speaking, too). This ethos is different than the ethos of the Culture War that arose in the 80s and came to shape Evangelical pop culture.

    The themes of the cultural war (abortion, women in office, control of political establishments) are all subtly or not so subtly hierarchical in nature. The radical, deal-breaking of the premil story goes against this entirely. Sure, Jesus comes back as King, but human relations and politics are necessarily subordinated. What matters finally is your relationship to the King.

    As a matter of pop theology, what happened was that Premil thought became replaced with a new cultural narrative, one that was literally richer. Oh, and Reformed too: the rule of society. In place of the Red Menace there are now the Liberals, less eschatological more political; to see this progression, consider the sad path of Mike Huckabee as he adopts increasingly rabid, Tea Party-ish views.

  2. Maybe. I'd guess that things are murkier here, rather than clearer, with multiple causes for a changing map of how things are. I was struck, in my last congregation, by the undercurrent of populist premil thinking--mostly related to internet and radio PR for the premil point of view. I found it very discouraging. I also wonder whether or not the "terrorist" threat is taking on the role of the reds in another era. Certainly, I hear/read a lot about this in current premil stuff. I agree that to the degree that society becomes more egalitarian with respect to the roles of women and gay people, this threatens the power structures that conservative evangelicals see as critical to their world view. But its all worth thinking about.

  3. Thanks once again for your interesting comments. My recent readings and discussion groups suggest that "doing" the work of Jesus is much more relevant than "believing" the right theology. Having said that however, I suppose it requires at least some theological framework to be able to withstand the lure of the premil thinking.
    On another point, is the reference to "old wive's tails" from a new Bible translation? It just seems to add an additional dimension to the discussion.


What do you think?