Aug 13, 2010

Questions of context of beliefs

Apocalyptism isn’t consistent across the history of American evangelicalism. It waxes and wanes in apparent but unexplained and unpredictable cycles. Interest is intense in some periods, such as the late 1970s and early ’80s, almost completely absent others, such as the 1930s, and just an underlying murmur of an issue at other times, as it appears to be today. But why? Why is it that dispensational American evangelicals are sometimes so obsessed with millennialism and apocalyptism, talking as if everything had to do with the rapture and the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast and the tribulation, and other times, without there being any apparent change in the actual beliefs, these topics barely register and seem to be wholly peripheral concerns?

The appearance of cultural concerns among American evangelicals, such as homosexuality, abortion, the definition of marriage, pornography, alcohol use, card games, dueling, or etc., seems to be pretty consistently correlated with actual developments in the broader culture. Theological concerns and debates among American Christians also seem to be either more or less consistent, though their history, such as the question of predestination, or to be clearly connected with some development or event, such as the debates over glossolalia and Open Theism. By comparison, the advent of millennialist concerns seems wholly mysterious. What accounts, for example, for the wild success of the Left Behind series? What, if anything, was it about the mid 1990s that prepared people for the fictional depiction of the rapture and rise of the Antichrist? What was it about the post-Civil War era that can explain the broad acceptance of C.I. Scofields’ dispensational premillenialist study bible? What did the 1840s, with its Shakers and Adventists, have in common with the 1980s, with its Jesus People and Christian communes? If, as has been said, “millennialism grounds the transcendent promise of salvation for the elected few on the Word of God and projects it onto a particular social group in history," why does this happen some times more than others?

To put the question that seems to sometimes hover just at the edge of the discussions’ frame in a broader, perhaps, or more general way, we know that people believe, and we know why people, in self descriptions, say they believe in the evangelical apocalyptic, but what are the motivating factors? What are the conditions or social contexts, what are the questions that these pessimistic millennial beliefs are answers to? How can we account for these beliefs, or explain the contexts for these beliefs, especially given the fact that, unlike, say, the belief that a belief in the divinity and sacrificial death of Jesus has a saving effect on the believer, or the belief that there will be an afterlife that will rightly and finally reward and punish people, this is a belief that has, in its intensity and frequency, varied rather wildly even in the relatively short span of the history of American evangelicalism?