Apocalypse Now And Then
It’s easy to sneer at the mad crowing of wild prophets. But they can affect the course of world history—for good or ill.
By KENNETH MINOGUE
When the Rapture failed to happen on May 21, defying the prediction of a California-based radio evangelist, he and his followers no doubt felt a certain disappointment: Christ had not returned, after all, to deliver the Last Judgment. For others, though, the day’s uneventfulness was an occasion for the usual mockery and condescension. “What is quite remarkable,” wrote a blogger at the Huffington Post, “is that the ‘rapture mentality’ and the end-of-days industry should still be thriving in 2011.”
Richard Landes is not so quick to dismiss the “rapture mentality” and its kindred impulses. In “Heaven on Earth,” he argues that our civilization lacks a whole dimension of experience because it has failed to recognize the importance of apocalyptic predications and millennial aspirations. He does not deny, of course, that every prediction of grand, world-transforming woe or bliss has failed yet to arrive—as did the evangelist’s promised Rapture. But what fails, Mr. Landes insists, is by no means inconsequential.
On the contrary, the Christian religion “comes into existence at the height of apocalyptic expectation,” Mr. Landes writes, “from John the Baptist and Jesus’ millennial hopes for the imminent arrival of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ on earth.” The three monotheistic religions that we are most familiar with specialize in apocalyptic revelation.
Instead of recognizing the importance of apocalyptic thinking, Mr. Landes argues, we prefer to posit a common-sense world in which grand flights of imagination are construed as outbursts of misguided enthusiasm. Most historians, he says, make the same mistake. They view apocalyptic prophecy as a kind of falsified madness that leaves little of importance behind.
In fact, Mr. Landes says, the whole texture of our lives is deeply affected by our response to both past apocalyptic beliefs and current millennial aspirations. Nor is apocalyptic frenzy limited to the religious sphere. It also underlies the secular world of seemingly common-sense understanding.
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Heaven on Earth
By Richard Landes
(Oxford, 499 pages, $35)
We had a dose of apocalyptic anxiety not so long ago in the Y2K fear of Internet chaos. Today climate change and terrorist jihadism provoke end-of-the-world imaginings. We should not forget, of course, that during the bloodiest decades of the 20th century large areas of the world were governed by people deeply invested in Marxist or Nazi millennialism. The communist future has gone the way of most political utopias, as has the Thousand Year Reich, but social justice and sustainable living are (as one might say) alive and kicking.
Mr. Landes has written a large and impressive book that shows a vast learning. (One chapter begins: “Let us return to a series of questions posed about the aftermath of Thiota’s brief tenure as magistra of Mainz circa 848.”) And yet he also has an engagingly associative mind that lightens the burden of erudition. He does not neglect, for instance, to tell the story of Chicken Little, who thinks the sky was falling in. From this Mr. Landes generates an allegorical terminology in which “roosters” crow about new dawns, and their crowing is dismissed by “owls” who insist that reality is the dark in which we are still living. Later we are told about turkeys—Mr. Landes’s name for the millennial historians who “stand in the barnyard as roosters crow and observe their electrifying impact on the other animals.”
Since the apocalyptic roosters turn out to get things wrong, you might well expect the owls to get all the best tunes, but Mr. Landes is hesitant to condemn. The roosters play a valuable part in stimulating human endeavor, he believes, while he marks the owls down as lacking imagination. Indeed, it is the worldview of the owls that Mr. Landes aims to contest, since they are the custodians of our misleading belief in a normality only briefly interrupted by the mad crowing of the wild prophets.
According to Mr. Landes’s terminology, Jesus is a rooster, but so is Hitler with his Reich. Unusual and sometimes offensive juxtapositions cannot be avoided in such an overarching scheme. Mr. Landes says that our current belief that Nazism is the gold standard of evil is one of the reasons that we find it difficult to understand that the Nazi project was a typically apocalyptic one. One of his purposes in “Heaven on Earth” is to insist that other civilizations than our own are no less affected by the irruptions of the apocalyptic.
What Mr. Landes calls “tribal millennialism” is observable, he claims, in the case of the Xhosa in Africa, who in 1856 were persuaded by a young prophetic girl that their ancestors were returning to save them from the white man and to restore their cattle and crops to the great times of the past. To bring about this happy result, the Xhosa had merely to give up witchcraft, kill their present cattle and cease to plant crops. Successive failures of the prophecy were put down to the Xhosa’s failure to carry through the whole program.
What Mr. Landes classifies as “agrarian millennialism” is illustrated by the Taiping in China in the mid-19th century. The prophet Hong Xiuquan construed himself as the younger brother of Jesus. When the dust had settled on this millennial adventure and the imperial response to it, an estimated 20 million Chinese had been killed. Apocalyptic thinking does not always entail such a grim reckoning, Mr. Landes makes clear, but it does come freighted with history and meriting more serious consideration than many are willing to concede.
Mr. Minogue, a professor emeritus of political science at the London School of Economics, is the author, most recently, of “The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life” (Encounter).