May 27, 2010

Ceding the assumption

The problem with "literalist" End Times prophecy is not that it's not literal. It couldn't be literal.

Literalism, as fundamentalists mean it, is impossible (and makes no sense), but some of the arguments against it can't seem to quite focus on the philosophical aspect here, and end up inadvertantly accepting it in order to go after a specific exmaple. A literalism instead of literalism.

Attacking it on the grounds of hypocrisy might seem to work initially -- like wildly racking up points in a pin ball game -- but unless you make the subsequent point that literalism is, in itself, incoherent, impossible, and a silly standard, then you have, in the process of attacking literalists for not successfully being literal, actually served to support literalism as a right standard.

This is what John Wiley Nelson does in "The Apocalyptic Vision in American Popular Culture," when he lays into Hal Lindsey for Lindsey's inconsistency on "plain" and "literal" readings of Revelation. Nelson's right, of course, and this is fine as far as it goes, but a literalist reading isn't even possible, and by attacking a specific literalist reading on the grounds that it falls short, Nelson ends up ceding the assumption of literalism.

It's like they say about the battle and the war.

There are a lot of ways to twhack End Times writers, but they're not all good. End Times writers are wrong, and their literalism is wrong, but the problem is not (just) that it's not literal.