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Dreams of Glory: The sources of apocalyptic terror

by
02 November 2006

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Let’s try theological disarmament: Michael Perry on a call to expungeapocalyptic ideas from the Bible

The world is very evil; but one day soon God will return in glory, rescue the virtuous, and consign evildoers to the flames — burning up all gays, abortionists, stem-cell researchers, Muslims, Communists, liberals . . . (add ad lib, according to your preferences).

This is what Pat Robertson and the Christian Right are preaching. George W. Bush agrees; but knows that America has been provid-entially raised up by God to save the world from "the axis of evil". No wonder the Islamic world abhors the prospect of American global dominance.

Richard Fenn, Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, believes that this scenario legitimates fanaticism, and keeps alive "the most chauvinistic, nationalistic, violent, and apocalyptic aspects of the Christian faith". He therefore calls for "uni-lateral theological disarmament", to expunge all traces of it from the Bible and Christian teaching.

Historically, apocalyptic ideas go back long before Christianity. Psychologically, their roots lie in the sense of being a downtrodden minority, afraid of the future, and fearful that the situation now is a punishment for past misdemeanours.

Hence the demands for penance and asceticism, and for "the renunciation of all individual [personal] markers of uniqueness, significance and distinction" — a call for cloned Christians, which flies in the face of the evidence for the amazingly exuberant variety of different persons in the communion of saints.

Jesus, says Dr Fenn, would have none of this. He did not talk about future pie in the sky, but called his hearers to seize the present opportunity, without being distracted by sabbatarian scruples, family loyalties, or other excuses. Later scribes, haunted by the terrible destruction of holy Jerusalem, added the apocalyptic elements to Jesus’s original teaching. (Dr Fenn uses the familiar ploy of attributing the things he likes to the historical Jesus, and the things he doesn’t to later disciples, who misunderstood him.)

He overstates his case. Few exegetes would hold that the original teaching of Jesus was devoid of apocalyptic elements; and the removal of inconvenient material from the New Testament is a dangerous tactic. Better to admit that Jesus did teach that God would eventually right all wrongs and punish all sinners, but to avoid fundamentalist exegesis, and leave the eschatological timing and method — and the list of saved and damned — in the hands of him who taught us not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.

Canon Perry is a former Archdeacon of Durham.

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