Review of Heaven on Earth by Jon Butler

The Journal of Religion, Vol. 93, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 384-386

Reviewed work: Landes, Richard. Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xix+499 pp. $35.00 (cloth).
Jon Butler, Yale University (Emeritus).

Richard Landes’s thick Heaven on Earth is more and less than the sum of its complex parts. Obviously, scholars interested in millennialism should read it. But political historians are Landes’s most urgent audience, followed by scholars concerned about religion and politics anywhere in any century. Its ultimate value and frustration lie in Landes’s persistent argument about the importance of millennial dynamics that drive many political movements, including movements like the French Revolution that ostensibly denied any religiosity, or Marxism and Communism, which formally rejected religion altogether. If religion and politics lie at the heart of frustrations with Heaven on Earth, they also give the book the intellectual thrust that makes it the persistently challenging read it promises to be.

Heaven on Earth argues straightforwardly that a “near universality of millennialism” (xi) shapes many revolutionary political movements from the times of Akhenaten (1360–1347 BCE) to the present, and it deliberately focuses on ten case studies of “non-Christian and non-Jewish movements” (xi) to give the argument an aggressively non-Western, seemingly secular edge. Landes frequently references Christian and Jewish millennialists and millennial prophets from Joachim of Fiore and Sabbatai Zevi to Jim Jones and millennial Zionists. But Heaven on Earth advances its universalist argument by examining what Landes sees as millennial dynamics at the heart of nineteenth-century Xhosa cattle slaying, Papuan cargo cults, the French Revolution, Marx, the Bolsheviks, Hitler and the Nazis, UFO cults, and the Islamic Jihad.

Heaven on Earth’s most powerful insights derive from its emphasis on millennialism’s cultural malleability. Landes argues that the search for a perfect time, an end to tribulations, and in some cases the destruction of enemies occurs in widespread cultures and settings and with many different consequences, though most are disastrous. He lays out millennialism’s origins in “perfectionist social thinking,” insists that millennialism may have secular as well as religious origins, and finds that no matter their different origins, millennial movements “span an ‘apocalyptic curve’ of inebriating acceleration out of, and disorienting free-fall back into, ‘normal time’” (xvii). Landes insists that the movements are “sometimes magnificent, but always doomed” (xvii). Thus, Heaven on Earth persistently denies millennialism’s viability even as it explains its remarkably broad, persistent appeal, a tension Landes most often manages with considerable panache.

Each of the ten case studies makes fascinating reading. Landes’s discussion of cattle slaying among the Xhosa of Africa and its resulting starvation of thousands of Xhosa men, women, and children is as heartbreaking in its descriptive power as it is analytical in plotting the millennial progression from hope to death. Aimed at British subjection, the movement consumed its own people. As Landes writes, “Everyone lost but the British” (119). Landes’s discussion of millennial themes in the French Revolution probably will not persuade its most prominent historians. But Landes makes a powerful case nonetheless and often uses historians’ words to do so. The twentieth-century French historian George Lefebvre wrote that calling the Estates-General in 1789 “awoke hopes both dazzling and vague of a future when all would enjoy a better life” and “became a dynamic source of revolutionary idealism” (254). The French millennial impulse also produced a violent apocalypse in the “terror” that took down not only the King and royalty but revolutionaries not revolutionary enough. A wool merchant proclaimed in 1790 that “the reign of God will flourish in this Kingdom” and would bring in an “age of miracles” (260). But it merely brought Napoleon, who imbibed a “hierarchical millennialism” (285)

Heaven on Earth is a wonderfully energetic, argumentative book whose vigor also produces distensions, some probably unnecessary. We’re scarcely seven paragraphs into the preface before Landes is griping about “scholars” (he mainly means historians) who not only will object to his dependence on secondary works but also will remark that he’s not up-to-date even in these, which he sees as payback for his “implicit reproach to them, that they have neglected the millennial dimension” (xiii). Perhaps. Many historians will find Landes’s arguments not only interesting but also even possibly persuasive, so Landes’s churlishness at least seems premature. Indeed, the complaint could go the other way. Although Landes carps throughout Heaven on Earth about historians’ neglect of millennial themes, he mentions work by Ruth Bloch and Stephen Marini on millennialism in the American Revolution and Paul Boyer’s widely cited and politically astute When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (New York, 1992) only in footnotes when he could have employed them and others to underscore the potency of his own approach (xiii, 35).

More consequentially, Landes’s effort to theorize about post-Enlightenment millennialism stumbles over jargon about “the prime divider and the paranoid imperative” (216), “the proto-democratic quaternity” (222), and the “shift from zero-sum honor to positive-sum integrity” (226), concepts whose meaning is more often assumed than explained. The discussion of Nazi millennialism would have benefited from a broader dialogue about the ways it meshed with Nazism’s secular and political discontent to raise the importance of each. And yes, many readers may feel uncomfortable with the inevitable dependence on secondary sources when Landes discusses the Jihad after 1979, not because Landes has chosen the wrong sources but because a fair number inevitably border on journalism that inevitably lack scholarly fullness, almost no matter how sophisticated.

It is not mealymouthed to say that the problems of Heaven on Earth highlight its importance. Heaven on Earth challenges much accepted wisdom about millennialism’s largely Christian and Jewish character as well as the secularity of post-Enlightenment politics. It is a book worth arguing with, which Landes obviously entices in his preface: “My fondest hope is that I get accused of ‘smashing in open doors’” (xiii). Some readers surely will smash back.

RL: I’d like nothing better. Sometimes I wonder if this book has not sunk like a stone in turbulent waters.


One Response to Review of Heaven on Earth by Jon Butler

  1. Since we are living in the era of Alinskyite millenials governing the nation, this work should not be dismissed by people who only believe in ‘real-politic’.

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