Tag Archives: Heaven on Earth

Secular End Times & Apocalyptic ‘Roosters’: Review of Heaven on Earth by Gordon Haber

  • September 13, 2011
  • Gordon HaberGordon Haber’s fiction and criticism has appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The New York Sun,The ForwardZeekThe Nebraska ReviewKilling the Buddha and Heeb Magazine. Currently he is at work on a novel about the Jewish Messiah.
    • Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
    • Richard Landes
    • Oxford University Press, USA (2011)

    We like to downplay our fascination with the apocalypse. When it shows up in pop culture, we treat it as metaphor: an alien invasion represents our fear of immigrants, zombies our fear of pandemics, and so on. Or else we’re dismissive: when Harold Camping predicted Christ’s return on May 21st, many treated him as a figure of fun, a cartoon prophet with a placard.

    And yet The End is perhaps the most persistent theme, well, ever, suggesting that we need to take it seriously—and not simply in terms of cultural criticism. We ignore the apocalyptic mindset at our peril, as millennial movements have a tendency to end in bloodshed, to the point where they create their own localized apocalypses.

    Read the rest at the site.

On the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11: Roland, Suicide Martyr

[NB: I wrote this shortly after 9-11. Here it is again, lightly revised, primarily for clarity.]

I reread the Song of Roland with my medieval history class last week, for maybe the tenth time.  After 9-11, it had a new resonance.  From my first reading in graduate school I had noted the simplistic religiosity it expressed, but had not realized how much a close reading can help us understand the world of religious terrorists.

The Song, one of the earliest poems composed in (Old) French sometime around 1100, recounts the tale [non-fictions in italic] of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew whom 400,000 Muslims (a band of Basques) attacked through the treacherous machinations of his step-father, Ganelon, in the passes of the Pyrenees while he commanded the rear guard (baggage train) of Charlemagne’s withdrawing army.  Instead of blowing his horn to warn Charlemagne and the main body of the army to come help him, he preferred to take on the enemy with his band of 20,000 men, among whom were the “twelve peers”, the greatest fighting men in the kingdom.  Although he succeeded in routing the enemy, his entire band of lusty Frankish warriors, including the noble archbishop Turpio, all died in the process.

Roland, too great to fall even to a massive barrage of spears and arrows, died from bursting his veins in blowing the horn too loud when he finally realized all was lost.  Charlemagne, upon learning of this terrible loss, returned and, with the help of God who stops the sun to enable his pursuit, wiped out the enemy, taking their main city and converting the surviving population to Christianity.

Roland and his men, and the story tellers and their audiences show no interest in their enemies (except perhaps as valiant warriors whose greatness serves to enhance the glory of the Christian victory) and know virtually nothing about them.  Muslims worship Apollo and Mohammed and idols. (This, of course, stands in striking contrast with the reality that the Christians faced a culture that was considerably more monotheistic and aniconic than the dominant religiosity in Latin Christendom, with its trinitarian and dualist debates, and its relic-stuffed statues to which both masses and elites bowed down.)  The Muslims of Spain, in the composer’s view, had the same primitive political structures as the West, a rural monarchy whose army derived from a system of mini-kings (lords) and their vassals exercising direct control over commoner populations (peasantry).  These Franks, apparently had neither knowledge of, nor interest in Muslims: for them this cultural “other” was pure and crude projection, a shadow self – everything bad, degraded, abominable. As a child might put it, they are “stupid and bad.”

But such simple vision works well with a world in which those who fight evil are, by definition good. Roland’s Christianity in the song is prominent and simple. “The pagans are wrong, the Christians are right,” he shouts as they enter battle with Muslims (1015).  The archbishop, who kills as lustily as the rest, assures the warriors, “One thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you; you will take your seat amongst the Innocents (1521-3).”  When the enemy dies “His soul is carried off by Satan (1268).”  Roland and his band die “martyrs” surrounded by the hundreds of corpses of his slain enemies.  “Since the apostles had there was never such a prophet [as Roland] for maintaining the faith and winning men over (2255-6).”

How aware is the composer of the irony he presents?  Does he show any awareness of the incongruity of Jesus and his disciples, martyred without resistance because they turned the other cheek, alongside this zealot, dead from excess pride and love of glory, surrounded by a final body count that puts Sylvester Stallone to shame? Almost none.

We may see a glimmer of it in the victory scene, when Charlemagne gives the conquered population its choice between conversion or death, and many die and still more convert, “true Christians all.”  To this scene of crude power-politics, the composer adds that the major babe of the story, the wife of the conquered king, will be brought to Aachen so that she can convert “out of love.”  (Women so often do bring out the anomalies.) One might read this as a highly sarcastic discourse about Christianity, one that despises the crude barbarity of these thick-skulled warriors (they wear helmets) with their ludicrous idea that true Christianity spreads by such violence; that martyrs die drenched in the blood of their victims, dead because they are not “the last man standing.”

But whatever the ironic layers a literate composer might fold into this tale, the audience for this blockbuster action-flick overwhelming saw no problem here. The aristocracy of the 12th century relished this tale, the first full epic text in French. They resonated effortlessly with the world of plundering elites, who annually go to war for booty and dominion, a world where the unquestioned rule of interaction is the dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled.”  In their world, might makes right: “Strike barons, do not delay. Charles is in the right against these men… God has allowed us to administer His judgment” (3366-8).  Even Ganelon, the evil traitor, can escape if he can prevail in trial by combat.

Nor should we see this belief in God as “mere ornament.” God’s role, so prominent in both their angel-inspired and divinely-assisted battle, is to chose sides. The Christian invocations in the text are passionate. These men really believe that God is Christian and on our side – “Gott mit uns.”  Indeed, the epic makes most sense as the crusader tale told countless times on the way to Jerusalem between 1096-99, a paroxysm of sacred violence, murderous suicide martyrdoms, and religious massacres. Through the Crusade, whose cry was “God wants it!”, a religion of peace had sanctified violence, making crusading at once an act of salvific destruction and love – Destroying the world to save it.

No matter how powerful, if grossly crude, the religion of the text, something else moves these warriors and their audience far more pervasively than even this violent piety – honor.  For honor Roland will not blow his horn: “God forbid that any man alive should say that pagans made me blow the horn (1073-5)”  And this honor shows the same egotistical orientation as the religion.  Oliver speaks of the honor that feels obliged to others – it is not honorable but foolish to fail one’s lord – but he cannot sway Roland whose overwhelming concern is his name.

And behind such narcissistic honor lies an equally powerful fear of shame. Facing impossible odds with reckless abandon Roland cries “My desire becomes all the greater [to enter the fray without calling for help].  May it never please the Lord God and his angels that France should ever lose its fame because of me.  I prefer to die than to suffer such shame (1088-91).”  As we listen to the conversations these action-heroes have with each other, we listen in on a world where all is shame and honor, where passionate “loves” vie with equally powerful hatreds, where anger and ferocity serve the [divine] cause of vengeance. Wounded fatally, Oliver realizes that “never will he have his fill of vengeance now (1966).”  For these warriors, the greatest act – one that will bring you straight to heaven – is taking people down to the grave with you… the more, the better.

As for more “reasoned,” positive-sum sentiments, they carry no weight in the calculus of action. The possibility that Roland will bring calamity on his own men by his pride, carries no weight with him. Everyone and everything exists to bring him and his fellow warriors greater glory. Even in his final death scene, Roland thinks only of glory. He does not for a moment say even a word about his fiancée. She, in turn, dies at the news of his death, claiming “May it not please God or his saints or his angels that I live on after Roland’s death (3718-9).”

This utterly narcissistic obsession with honor, with its accompanying patriarchal beliefs in which women should die for the honor of their men, illuminates the accompanying religiosity.  These men live in a world of violent dominion, revenge, and overweening pride; they have hijacked Christianity, whose basic spirituality they cannot even begin to glimpse. As Clovis allegedly said, when hearing of the crucifixion of Jesus: “If me and my men had been there, we’d have avenged his death.”

The obvious parallels to Bin-Laden’s warriors are painful and suggestive:

  • The notion that in killing as many enemies as possible before dying one is guaranteed a place in heaven, while the enemies go straight to hell.
  • The incapacity to see the cultural “other” in any but the crudest projections of one’s own shadow.
  • The accompanying absence of self criticism.
  • The utter self-centeredness of the “hero” for whom the lives of his own, much less his enemies, mean little.
  • The idea that violence can best serve to spread one’s “true” religion, that an orgy of violence can be salvific.
  • The terrible importance of honor, the unbearable nature of shame.
  • The total subordination of women to the demands of men’s honor.

My article in Tablet and Victor’s challenge

I recently published a piece on millennial Jihad, cognitive warfare, and the al Durah affair at the Tablet Magazine. Among the comments, was a particularly interesting set of challenges from Victor. Given the limitations there (2000 characters per comment), I’m responding here.

The problem with all such essays (I’ve spent two days following all the links on this piece, including the Stuart Green paper on Cognitive Warfare, which touches on Soviet propaganda efforts – very interesting), is that they’re long on delivery and short on remedy. The final paragraph he cites seems to be saying that we should adopt jihadi tactics against them (honor-shame sensitivities), but against whom? Who are the jihadis? Can we really say that all Arabs/Muslims are jihadists, or even a majority of them? Can’t a case be made that by engaging the jihadis, and not other elements of Arab societies, we’re reinforcing the jihadist position relative to other factions?

i’m using jihadi here to designate anyone who shares the activist apocalyptic dream of spreading sharia to the entire world. large numbers of muslims (my guess is a majority) are millennial – i.e. they want to see the world submitted to sharia, but not necessarily now or violently. apocalyptic means a sense of urgency, *now* is the time. the most violent version (what most call jihadis) are “active cataclysmic apocalyptic”, who think that only great violence will bring about the millennial world and they are its agents.

there are two further issues. 1) those who are less violent, but share the millennial dream and its apocalyptic hopes (e.g., some Salafis). we in the west like to think they’re separate, but they’re only different in the degree to which their sense of urgency leads them to violence. some European Muslims who want to impose sharia there are against violence not on principle but because a) it’s too soon, they’re still a minority; and b) the fruit will be easier to pick in a generation when the demographics will have shifted. they are demopaths.

2) a much larger circle of muslims who will (sincerely) denounce al qaeda, nonetheless find in something like 9-11 a great swell of pride and a sense of honor restored. this reaction can occur even in secular muslims and even, non-muslims, eg, christian lebanese, anti-american europeans. even tho a victory of millennial islam would be disastrous for these folks, they can’t help but be excited. Lee Smith’s Strong Horse nails the dynamic. if we don’t resist both the violent jihadis and their demopathic allies, the false “moderates,” we feed their strong horse… every day.

so the short answer is, yes, we can’t just engage the jihadis, but we have to engage the larger circle of people – muslims and non-muslims – who might be attracted to their range of messages.

But all this is moot anyway, because Western civilization is not going to regress to honor-shame dynamics just to fight militant Islam.

There are many would would argue that we’re regressing in that direction – patriotism, Iraq War, Islamophobia/xenophobia, fascist tendencies. And that does represent a problem. In fact, rallying around the flag is one of the classic responses to threat; and refusing to do so in order not to regress is one of our greatest vulnerabilities. What I’m trying to do is find a way to respond to the threat without regressing.

We have our own cultural propaganda efforts – Hollywood, for one – the only problem is that these are not focused; they reflect our lives and values, but are not aimed specifically at undermining jihadism. Stuart Green focuses on Soviet disinformation actions in the West, how 85% of the intelligence budget actually went to such activities. First, before we model ourselves according to the Soviet Union, whose own citizens did not believe it’s propaganda, perhaps we should first see some research demonstrating effectiveness of Soviet disinformation efforts.

Among the many things worth reading, try Robert Conquest, “The Great Error: Soviet Myths and Western Minds,” chapter 7 of Reflections on a Ravaged Century, a book I regret not having read while writing my own. One choice quote with great import for the current state of academia: “One might suggest that a course on the credulity of supposed intellectual elites should be one of those given, indeed made  compulsory at universities – even, come to that, at theological colleges” (p. 149).

Second, assuming these efforts were successful, why is it that we can’t replicate such efforts? Has the knowledge been lost to do this? Is there a lack of generation commitment on the part of leadership? Why aren’t we practicing information operations in peacetime?

As Green says, you can’t win (much less fight) the battle of the Midway if you don’t know you’re in it. We view news media as something quasi-sacred (and so we should), not something to be turned into cognitive warfare. We can’t fight the way they do because, despite its failings, Western democracies and academics are based on certain commitments to honesty and truth, commitments we honor far too often in the breach, but almost always by deceiving ourselves rather than openly and cynically manipulating information. (When Orme drops the genocidal part of Halabiya’s sermon, he doesn’t think he’s a propagandist.)

Moreover, their side is not susceptible to the kind of demopathic appeal they succeed in making to us. We can’t make headway appealing to their commitment to human rights and egalitarian values. (Or maybe we can, but not with the ease they can do so to our public.) All these things need to be thought out carefully.

Landes seems to think that the only way to defeat jihadist infiltration is for a critical mass of people to “awaken” and stand guard. But how many people do you know that want to engage in conflict on a daily basis? It’s just not feasible, in my opinion. We would be much better off directly implementing disinformation efforts within Arab societies.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, blah blah blah. It is. We need to wake up. Think of all those lost souls looking for meaning in their lives. Here it is. I agree that many – too many – of us would rather just get on with our lives and ignore these pesky jihadis, soft and hard. But I think the world is a much more interesting place, and democracy a much more vivifying challenge, when we try to grapple with the threat in creative and humane ways. Read Lee Harris, The Suicide of Reason.

The final paragraph he cites seems to be saying that we should adopt jihadi tactics against them (honor-shame sensitivities), but against whom?

The entire culture is subject to honor-shame dynamics in ways that we are not – indeed, I argue democracy is only possible when we gain some control over the honor-shame instincts (some call it anger-management). Any culture in which it is legitimate to kill a daughter because she has “shamed” the family, is also a culture in which it is legitimate to exterminate an enemy that has “shamed” the culture/religion. The two are linked, and they both express a remarkable psychological fragility and vulnerability. We tend to back away from this, to avoid “provoking” violent (and deeply immature) behavior on their part. We don’t need to gratuitously humiliate them, but we need to pick our fights and win them, and make it clear that certain forms of behavior will bring on humiliation.

William P. Collins, Library Journal Review of Heaven on Earth

Short but sweet. Can’t complain.

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
Richard Allen Landes
Library Journal (07/01/2011)

In a significant contribution to the study of millennialist movements, Landes (history, Boston Univ.; “Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements”) studies the varieties of such movements across the centuries, movements that hope for a human society made perfect via an apocalypse creating heaven on earth. Landes points to apocalyptic arcs in secular history that have led us out of and back into normal time. Such movements can be dangerous when believers gain authority, whether in the founding of new religions, in secular revolutions, or in holocausts.

Landes contrasts “owls”—recorders of normal time in history—with the “roosters” of apocalyptic time who voice the hidden transcript. He carefully analyzes common elements in tribal, agrarian, modern secular, and postmodern apocalyptic movements and warns that today’s mutually reinforcing apocalyptic threats—”anthropogenic global warming” and “global jihad”—are subject to dichotomous left-right political posturing rather than sober reflection and action, amplifying the dangers of both.

VERDICT This work places Landes high among millennialism historians such as Michael Barkun (“A Culture of Conspiracy”) and Catherine Wessinger (“Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence”). Addressed to educated readers interested in religious, political, and social apocalyptic movements, it succeeds in both analyzing past catastrophic millennialist movements and predicting what the future may hold.—William P. Collins, Library of Congress Copyright 2011 Reed Business Information.

ISBN: 0199753598 | EAN: 9780199753598
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA  | Publication Date: August, 2011

Update: Heaven on Earth, the Beginning is Near

According to my publisher, the hardcopy of my book is off the press and on its way to me.

Please (if you are so inclined)

a) order the book here;

b) go to facebook and “like” the book here (so far I only have nine “friends” and I need twenty for it to achieve some kind of status);

c) spread the word.

Thank you.

Richard Landes