Monday, January 24, 2011


Custodians of the End
My last post introduced the above phrase into our discussion of the ‘end.’ I briefly followed by listing some of the more current contenders for this role of custodian of the end: survivalists, the Jewish State, American exceptionalism, the gospel of wealth, or even a literal reading of the sacred books.

Let me begin with the final contender: a literal reading of the sacred books.

Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth” is often put forth as the shining example of a “literal” reading of the end times as foretold in the Bible. In fact, it is one of the clearest examples of bringing all sorts of ideas, themes, wishes, and whatever to the reading of a text. As well-read as Lindsey is in the sacred texts (and even here his reading is sometimes suspect: in one citation he changes the tense of a verb from the past to the future in order to make his point), he is greatly more well-read in the literature of fundamentalist bible prophecy. It is much easier to appreciate what he reads into the sacred texts than what he reads out of them.

Let me suggest someone else’s take on how the sacred texts were read in reference to the end time—this is the classic work on that topic: “The Pursuit of the Millenium,” by Norman Cohn. This is not a study for the faint of heart, the present-day pseudo-millenialists who have as much connection to the portrayal of the end times in the sacred texts as the computer war-game addicts have to real warfare. That is, no connection at all.

Norman Cohn begins, and actually ends—when it comes right down to it—with the one real, startlingly original insight in apocalyptic thought as it developed in Christian history and thought. It came from Joachim of Fiore. Joachim opined that the progression of the Holy Trinity could be mapped onto Western history in the following manner: The Father was god of the Old Testament—i.e., the Jewish dispensation; the Son for the Church’s history up to and including the present era (Joachim wrote shortly after the failure of Jesus to return in glory at the turn of the first millennium); and the Holy Spirit for the New Age—the era that was just beginning now, or, at the very least, would begin momentarily.

I said the study was not for the faint of heart—because Cohn traces the millennial fervor unleashed by Joachim down through the remainder of Western history, culminating in the appearance of Marxism and Naziism.

Me, I put my eggs totally in neither basket. Instead I prefer a literary-critical reading of the texts. That is to say, all the meaning of the texts begins and ends in the texts, and in their relation to the rest of the corpus—i.e., to all the rest of the sacred texts. Here is how I begin: Jesus says, in response to the question of his disciples on when the destruction of the temple and the coming of the son of Man will happen, “…as to that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.” That seems to be a very clear and definite answer. I wish all the Hal Lindseys of the world would pay attention to that.

As to what the end time will usher in, I refer to the text from the Book of Revelation which says about what the new age will be like: “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone.” In other words, the only thing we can say is that we know as little about the new world as we know about God; the only things we can safely say is what it/he is not.

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