Thursday, April 14, 2005


It would be easy to dismiss NBC's new Revelations miniseries as just a TV version of disaster movies like The Swarm and Meteor (the latter of which I always thought could have used an exclamation point, but I guess that will have to wait for Meteor! The Broadway Musical) if it weren't for the unfortunate fact that great numbers of people actually take this stuff seriously.

The current obsession with the end times and the book of Revelations, evinced by the enormous popularity of the Left Behind series, among other things, is, I think, rather easy to understand. Fundamentalist Christians perceive themselves as being under attack by godless culture which scoffs at their faith, and it's extremely satisfying to believe that all those over-educated coastal types who look down their noses at real Christian Amurcans will get theirs in the end. Indeed, there is an entire tax-exempt industry which exists to promote and profit from this belief. Having been raised in the church before lighting out for the greener pastures and beautiful open spaces of reason, I myself am more familiar than I'd like with the strange, tendentious, and highly questionable theology, known as Dispensationalism, behind this mindset.

Here's a primer on Dispensationalism. No, they're not kidding. Yes, it's perhaps odd that people would subscribe to such an eccentric reading of the Bible, but on the other hand these are people who believe that it's actually possible to build a boat big enough to house two of every species of animal on earth, that a man could be swallowed by a great fish and then vomited up on to shore with few to no ill after-effects, and that genocide is okey dokey in order to clear the inhabitants off of land which your tribal diety has promised to you, so one shouldn't be too surprised.

At best, Dispensationalism is perverse pop theology. There have been groups which believed that the end was nigh literally since the beginning of Christianity. Indeed, the writings of the apostles give every indication that they expected Jesus to return in a matter of days or weeks after he ascended, possibly after he'd had a chance to change clothes and get something to eat (nothing beats a patty melt in heaven). There have always been religious cranks who played upon the stupidity and fear of their flocks in order to gain power and notoriety for themselves (to be fair, there have also been those who believed what they were shoveling), but Dispensationalism really kicked into gear with the creation of Israel in 1948.

One of the major tenets of Dispensational theology is that it sees no distinction between the biblical kingdom of Israel and the modern state of Israel, the creation of which is understood as the literal fulfillment of prophecy and a prerequisite for the Second Coming. This is the single most significant factor in American Christians' very partisan support for Israel, as they believe that the Jews must inhabit all of the territory of the ancient kingdom in order to properly trip the Rube Goldberg End Times Contraption. Most Dispensationalists oppose any sort of negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine which involves Israel relinquishing occupied Palestinian territory, which is to say that they oppose peace.

And now they're being catered to by our liberal media.

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