World Ending May 21, 2011

Apparently, in eight cities around the United States, billboards have appeared trumpeting May 21, 2011 as the date for the second coming of Christ and, thus, for the end of the world.  The date has been announced by the founder of Family Radio, who seems to base his prediction on a complicated date calculation involving the biblical story of the flood and the biblical suggestion that one day to God is like a thousand human years.  In one article, a woman from North Carolina is quoted as pronouncing this to be “a certainty”.  She went on to say that “The Rapture is going to be a great day for God’s people but awful for everyone else.”  The man making the prediction, recalling the story of the flood, points out that only eight people out of all humanity at that time were saved from the floodwaters, and that he is saddened at the idea that on May 21, 2011, most people will, again, perish, because he expects few people to take him seriously.

If we set aside for the moment the difficulties raised by this prediction in terms of how the predictor is reading Scripture (that is, literally), what we are left with is a very disturbing image of both God and of “God’s people.”  One has to wonder how an event which is described as resulting in the eternal deaths of the vast majority of human beings could ever be said to be “a great day for God’s people.”  That idea seems to contain within it a trait found among some Christians that has long disturbed me:  a kind of delight in torment and destruction of others at the hands of God.  It is this trait that has driven the wildly popular Left Behind series of books and it is reflected in the woman’s comment about the alleged end of the world on May 21.  The unbelievable spiritual arrogance of such an attitude betrays the messages of compassion and humility that lie at the heart of the Gospel.  How could any follower of Christ ever contemplate the destruction of others and call that “a great day”?

Perhaps even worse than this is the image of God that lies behind this sentiment.   According to the religious perspective of these doomsday supporters, God also seems to take some kind of delight in the destruction of most of humanity while showering divine grace and eternal bliss on the precious few who constitute the genuinely faithful.  What these folks seem not to grasp is that this image of God bringing destruction on others, while found in various places in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not find much of a home in the New Testament (though, it must be admitted, it is not completely absent).  One of the key paradigm shifts that is contained within the teaching of Jesus involves this idea of an angry, vengeful and destructive God.  That idea ultimately relies on an ancient and traditional understanding of power that places those who have power as masters and rulers over those who do not.  Jesus points to this traditional paradigm (and one that is deeply embedded in humanity) when he says to his followers, “You know that rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”   He goes on to say, “It will not be so among you but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave….”  (Matthew 20:25b-27).   Jesus, through his teaching and through his own life and death, offers us a different image of God, one in which power is rooted in service, sacrifice, the giving of life.  Jesus redefines the very meaning of power in order to bring us humans into harmony with the divine way of exercising power.  It is an important and decisive shift, and it is one which is not reflected in the end of the world rapture gloom and doom of the Family Radio people.

Some will protest, of course, that there is end of the world talk in the New Testament, including the Gospels, and, of course, most particularly in the book of Revelation.  Yet, we must look at the fuller, more complete picture which the Gospels present to us of the teaching of Jesus and at how Jesus actually lives and dies.  As far as the book of Revelation goes, its inclusion in the New Testament was controversial at the time, and many, many biblical scholars see it not as talking about the end of the world but rather about the end of the Roman Empire.  And, its language is highly imaginative, metaphorical and coded, all of which present huge challenges for interpreters.  Most importantly, it does not represent the teaching of Jesus, but the reflections of a part of the Christian community long after Jesus.  We must always measure our interpretations against the teaching of Jesus and the example of his life.  And I cannot see how these cheerleaders for the rapture can harmonize their perspective with a complete reading of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Most of my readers will undoubtedly share my perspective and agree that the proponents of May 21, 2011 as the end of the world are, well, wacky.  However, their determination to proclaim their message as a Christian message should make all of us who seek to be followers of Christ uneasy.  For they, and others like them, are fast becoming the public face of Christianity, and to the degree that they are that public face, the Christian tradition becomes distorted and loses credibility with the larger community.  I happened across a survey result a while ago (which I have not been able to locate again) that showed that increasing numbers of Americans perceive Christians in overwhelmingly negative terms.  They see Christians as intolerant, judgmental, bigoted, and narrow-minded just to name a few.  Folks like those at Family Radio are largely the reason for that, as they present to the world an image which the media is only too happy to pounce upon:  the image of a vengeful God delighting in wiping out the bulk of humanity, while the privileged few true believers are admitted to paradise.

Those of us who also claim the Christian tradition, but with a very different understanding of who God is and what the Christian faith is about, need to be more willing to put that alternative image forward, and we need somehow to demand that we be payed attention to.  I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure how to go about this yet.  But I am tired of seeing a distorted presentation of our tradition becoming the norm in the eyes of the public.  The Gospel is Good News, not the National Enquirer.  It is about transformation through love and forgiveness, not through threats of divine violence.  Maybe we should start putting up billboards about that.

A Perspective on Prayer

I recently read this reflection on intercessory prayer by the Rev. Lori Erikson, a Deacon in The Episcopal Church.

Ever since author Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with serious cancer this past summer, he’s drawn nearly as much attention from Christians for his illness as he has for books like God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

The evangelically atheist author (and that’s not nearly as much of a contradiction as it sounds) doesn’t want anyone’s prayers but has been deluged with them anyway. He didn’t appreciate “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day” on September 20 and most certainly doesn’t belong to the Facebook group Christians Praying for Christopher Hitchens. But people around the world keep praying for him anyway, some with pure motives and some with what is no doubt a certain amount of schadenfreude (that indispensable German word indicating pleasure in the misfortunes of others).

The controversy over whether to pray for atheists highlights just one of the many theological issues relating to prayer. Think about intercessory prayer, for example. As a Christian, I’m for it, particularly when people are praying for me. But what does it mean, exactly, to pray for someone? Do we need to remind God to pay attention to Aunt Beth who’s going to have surgery on Tuesday? If we don’t, will Aunt Beth suffer as a result? And what about praying for a new job or for help with financial difficulties? Why should God pay any attention to a middle-class American when there are millions of desperately poor people in the world who need help so much more?

Or think of that staple of the news media, that lucky fellow who has escaped harm in the tornado, hurricane, or other disaster-du-jour. “God answered my prayers,” he says, looking appropriately soulful. His sentiments, of course, imply that God didn’t bother to answer the prayers of all the people who are now in the hospital or awaiting burial.

I may sound flippant, but I honestly struggle with these issues. I remember when our son nearly died from meningitis and it was enormously comforting to hear of people praying for him. At one point a friend visited him in intensive care, and when she came out of the room she told us that she could feel the energy of all those prayers enfolding him. How could I not hope that those prayers were helping Owen as much as the beeping machines and bustling nurses? For in times like that, the unseen world can seem far more real and vivid than the ordinary one, the one with grocery stores and cable news and people arguing over whether to pray for atheists.

Most of all, I think of how it changes me to pray for someone, how it forces me to focus on something other than myself, even for just a few seconds or minutes. That’s a good thing, surely, to be pulled out of the solitary dance of self-obsession.

So maybe we are to pray for each other not because God needs the reminder, but because we do. And maybe those prayers form a web of protection around someone who is vulnerable, allowing divine energy to concentrate itself and re-weave what was broken.

Most days, I just try to live in the mystery of it all, praying for Christopher Hitchens and Aunt Beth and whoever else needs to be put back together. Rather than look to theologians for guidance, I prefer to follow the lead of the poet Mary Oliver:

Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

— Lori Erickson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many national publications. She writes about inner and outer journeys at http://www.spiritualtravels.info and serves as a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, Iowa.