Thursday, March 29, 2012

Left behind after the three days of darkness rapture the late great planet...

Rod Dreher has an interesting post up today about small-a "apocalypses," prophesies relating to these, and the temptation to follow them:
This makes me reflect on a short but intense period of my own life — I was 12 — when the monster-selling 1970s Christian apocalyptic book “The Late, Great Planet Earth” fell into my hands. I was a kid who read the newspaper constantly, and brooded over what I saw there. The year was 1979. Iranian militants held American hostages. Inflation ripped through the US economy. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Always, talk of nuclear war with the USSR. I well remember on Saturday morning driving back across a field with my dad, coming home from the hunting camp, looking up at the sky and thinking, “A Soviet ICBM could explode right up there 19 minutes from now, and we would all be dead.” It shook me up. [...]

I burned brightly with that stuff for about a year and a half, then burned out, and was done with religion for what turned out to have been years. The prophecies “Late, Great” made turned out to be false, mostly, but over the years, I’ve come to judge myself less harshly for falling under its sway. I think that’s because I have more sympathy for human weakness in emotional crisis, and the desperate need to discover (or to impose) meaning on chaos. But at the same time, reflecting on that experience has made me more aware, and skeptical, of my own susceptibility to apocalyptic themes in public discourse. The thing is, there really are apocalypses! Not big-A Apocalypses — though as a Christian, I believe that history will culminate one day in an End, though it may be thousands of years from now; nobody knows the date — but small ones. The Apocalypse is the end of the world; small-a apocalypses are the end of a world. The end of the Roman Empire in the West was an apocalypse. The Fall of Constantinople was another. Bolshevism and Nazism were both apocalyptic political cults that brought about real apocalypses for their victims and their victims’ cultures. If I were a pious Arab Muslim living in the Middle East at this time in history, I could well imagine that I would look to apocalyptic prophecies and figures (e.g., the Dajjal) from my own tradition to explain the losses and traumas wracking my culture and civilization, and to give consolation that All Will Be Well in God’s Good Time.

As Kermode, Gray, and others point out, apocalypticism (and utopianism, it’s sister) is by no means only a religious phenomenon. As I said, Bolshevism and Nazism were secular political forms. Today, you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse. (But, remember: just because they’re terrified of it in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t).

Some critics of apocalypse enthusiasts accuse them of taking pleasure in the prospect of the damnation of unbelievers. Many no doubt do, but I think this idea is misleading. When I was part of that Late, Great mindset and culture, I didn’t know anybody who relished the thought of sinners falling into the hands of the Antichrist, and suffering horribly. Surely some did, but not as many as you may think. To reiterate, the consolation offered by the Late, Great vision was rather this: 1) it offered an explanation for hard-to-understand, scary events in the world; 2) it assured you that none of this was random, that as chaotic as things seemed, God was actually in control, and things were unfolding according to His plan; and 3) as awful as things were getting, God was going to rapture His people off the planet before the worst happened.

Catholics have a tendency to look askance at small-a "apocalyptic" prophecies, particularly those from other traditions. Sure, you can meet a Catholic who has gotten caught up in the "Left Behind" and Rapture notions, or who has read something like The Late, Great Planet Earth, just as you can meet Catholics silly enough to take The DaVinci Code seriously. But before we Catholics get all superior about people who think that one day half of our neighbors will just disappear and the rest of us will have to muddle through the End Times (or the Nearly End Times, etc.) we should remember that Catholics have plenty of small-a "apocalyptic" stuff of our own to contend with.

Take, for example, the Three Days of Darkness.

This prophecy, which all of its adherents insist comes straight from the visions of reputable saints and blesseds, supposedly warns of a coming trial during which darkness will fall over the whole earth, and the only light will come from blessed beeswax candles (but they must be 100% pure beeswax, possibly from some approved source, or else they won't work when the Darkness comes). The power of Hell will be unleashed upon the world, and all humans except for the chosen with their candles will die in unspeakable torment as demons roam free to torture and destroy. The ordinary rules of Christian love apparently get suspended as the faithful are warned not to open a door or even a window, not even if they hear their own parents or children screaming for mercy and salvation outside, because either they're really hearing demons, or else they're being tested--for if their parents and children are outside, then God has chosen to smite them, and opening a door or window to let them come in will result in the immediate deaths of all the saintly and holy gathered in the home.

Mark Shea mentions such prophecies here and here, among his various writings. I find his take quite sane and sensible. To me, it's entirely possible that saints and mystics have had various disturbing visions of the End Times, but when those visions are somehow twisted into becoming specific survivalist instructions for a tiny handful of Catholics that include God's secret commands to purchase and store particular kinds of blessed candles and to be prepared to resign one's nearest and dearest to the unleashed powers of Hell in order to save themselves so that they can be among the ruling class of some new age of perfection which will last until the real End Times, the prophecy has gone from being something of possible spiritual benefit to being something that encourages people in the worst sorts of prideful faults and errors.

Interestingly enough, the Three Days of Darkness prophecy now has a sedevacantist twist: some of the words of the mystics who have had visions of darkness and a chastisement for the Earth include a mystical "reordering" of the Church, when St. Peter (and possibly also St. Paul) will come down from Heaven and personally select the new Pope for the tiny fragment of humanity that had their blessed candles ready and were in the state of grace, thus surviving the terrible trials. Some sedevacantist groups appear to see this part of the prophecy or message as a vindication of their present belief that there hasn't been a true pope for decades now, and that God will first plunge the world into terrible torment, killing off at least two-thirds of humanity, and then select a new pope who will condemn Vatican II and everything that came from that council, praising only the faithful remnant who managed to keep the True Faith intact without a pope since the death of the last true pope (Pius XII for some, but various "secret pope" contenders for others).

So why do people fall for this stuff? I asked that question at Rod's blog, and a poster countered by asking the same question about Christianity in general. But there's a big difference, to me, between believing that Jesus Christ is Who He says He is, and further that He founded a particular Church to safeguard His teachings (since He knows quite well how prone human beings are either to putting words in God's mouth on the one hand or to turning God's free and open revelations into gnostic or esoteric knowledge meant only to benefit a handful of "insiders" on the other) and believing that every vision every mystic, saint, or (in some cases) charlatan has had amounts to some sort of special insight, some literal truth into how to survive when God smites the Earth one of these days. In fact, if we really believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, it's easy to test these prophetic words and secret visions, because Jesus Christ would not instruct us to forget charity, or store up candles in secret without telling our neighbors, or keep our doors firmly shut in the faces of loved ones--or even strangers, for that matter--if the world were truly being smashed with all the power of Hell.

If our faith is in Him, we need not chase after the Rapture, or pine for the Three Days of Darkness, or secretly hope to survive the Tribulation. All we need to do is take up our cross and follow Him if we would be saved.


Turmarion said...

I used to belong to a library email group where they'd mail you the first chapter of various books that were new or happening (this was pre-Kindle, of course). One week the chapter was the first chapter of Left Behind. I've never had the slightest desire to read that series, but the chapter was sitting in my inbox, so I read it.

Having done so, I have to say that, putting aside my theological objections to it, it was one of the most poorly written pieces of literature I've ever read. I had thought that maybe it would be entertaining or interesting or at least diverting, but it was only by grim determination that I made it to the end of the chapter. Needless to say, I never read the book nor the series; but I've gone from thinking that its worst offenses are theological to thinking that they're literary.

After that it was very much evident to me that the only people who could possibly read this dreck were people so fascinated by the apocalyptic message that they could ignore the vehicle in which it was delivered. Either that or there's a heckuva lot of people out there with no literary discernment at all. In any case, it confirmed that the whole series is just apocalypse porn.

Kirt Higdon said...

I agree with Tumarion - one chapter was all I could take of the Left Behind series. I met Hal Lindsey a few times back in the day when LGPE was popular. Lindsey was preaching to crowds of hundreds at UCLA at the time and I was living in an apartment building with many UCLA grad students who were fundamentalist Christians and fans of his. Those people threw some pretty good parties too if you make allowances for no alcohol. But the ambience was somewhat anti-Catholic and Lindsey was not nearly as impressive as a one-on-one conversationalist as he was as a writer and lecturer.

The three days of darkness apocalypse has been around for decades now - not a constant thing, but it keeps popping up. I've lived through more apocalypses than I can remember, including Y2K. That one was popular with secular and religious people alike.

fredo baggins said...

"(supposedly warns of a coming trial during which darkness will fall over the whole earth, and the only light will come from blessed beeswax candles (but they must be 100% pure beeswax, possibly from some approved source, or else they won't work when the Darkness comes)."

By any chance do the people who promote this apocalypse sell the blessed candles?

Eunike said...

"By any chance do the people who promote this apocalypse sell the blessed candles?"

Well, of course they can't sell the candles if they've been blessed . . . though they might be accepting donations . . .

Anonymous said...

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I stumbled across a copy of David Wilkerson's "The Vision," which is in a similar vein of predicting an imminent Tribulation. (I think my mom got it from some charismatic/Pentecostal folks she was hanging around with at the time.) That book, to be blunt, scared the crap out of me for weeks because it made me think that it was probably a waste of time trying to please God if He was so mad at the world that He was going to inflict misery on innocent people as well as sinners.

A few years later I read some old, super duper traddie Catholic books about purgatory that described people spending thousands of years in the flames of purgatory for what seemed like very minor sins (e.g. playing cards). Those books did NOT inspire me to greater holiness -- in fact just the opposite. I concluded that if I was going to burn for thousands of years after my death anyway no matter how hard I tried to be holy, then why bother trying to be holy? Just try to do the bare minimum necessary to avoid hell and forget about the rest. It took me a long time to realize that the concept of purgatory put forth in those books was, shall we say, a bit distorted.


Anonymous said...

Erin: For a few years now I have followed the blog of a really far-out, right-wing, devout-Catholic nutcase, whose blog I think you would recognize.

He is big into, "The Man of Evil is amongst us, the Anti-Christ is here now", blah-blah-blah.

This silly ditz actually believes in the beeswax candle story. In fact, he told me where I could buy these holy beeswax candles. No, I haven't bought them, yet! And don't plan to!

Erin Manning said...

Can you sign with a nickname next time, Anonymous? :)

Scott W. said...

"Those people threw some pretty good parties too if you make allowances for no alcohol."

A room full of fundies and I can't have a drink? [shudder]

Scott W.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Can anyone answer my husband's burning (teehee) question about the 3 days/candle thing?

If the only source of light is from the candles, how will you know if the match to light them is lit, and if you're waving it near the wick? Be an awful shame to have all those candles and be unable to light them...

In one 3 day version I heard, anyone caught outside will die instantly. Under the circumstances (3 days of demonic temptation v. death and judgement on the spot) we decided the preferred way to 'handle' the three days is frequent confession, making sure to get caught out so we die instantly, and then watch the whole mess from purgatory or heaven. I mean, demonic torment is creepy--I'd much rather face my Lord and savior!

Pauli said...

I burned brightly with that stuff for about a year and a half, then burned out....

Pretty much a summation.