As Phil Barron has said, Just because nobody you know got raptured doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Lot of fun was had, lot of good jokes got made in the run-up to last weekend’s end of the world. Didn’t seem quite as funny afterwards when people began to count heads (or clothes that still had believers in them) and it turned out there were really a lot of people who not only expected to be Raptured but had been truly looking forward to it and were hearbroken to find themselves still here on earth.
It’s sad to contemplate how many lives aren’t worth continuing to live to the people living them.
I don’t understand the religion behind this, although I certainly can understand the despair. I grew up believing and among people who believed at least enough that they remembered to keep the Lord’s Day holy every week. Most people I knew kept it holy on Sundays, the rest kept it holy on the actual Sabbath. My family was Catholic, my best friends were Jewish. I went to Catholic school. I was an altar boy. My first job was as the Shabbos goy at the Orthodox synagogue my friend Chuck attended. Every Friday evening at sundown I walked up there, the rabbi met me at the door, and I went around turning off all the lights. Saturday morning I went back, took the key out of the mailbox, and turned all the lights back on. Part of my pay was permission to raid the refrigerator on days there was a bar mitzvah scheduled. Such desserts? I’m telling you. Most of the families on our street were Jewish or Catholic. But one of the houses was owned by the nearby Methodist Church and so there was always a minister and his family in our circle. The son of one of those ministers was a friend who went into the family business. Part of his ministry has been getting himself arrested while marching for causes that fall under the heading “Social Justice.”
My friend Chuck thought about becoming a rabbi but he went into the family business himself instead and became an ophthalmologist.
My mother’s aunt was a nun. There was a priest in the family, a monsignor, whose actual blood relation I never got sorted out---he was the cousin of a cousin, I think, but I’m still not sure on which side. But he officiated at all the weddings and was there for all the funerals up until his own.
I could begin my autobiography with the opening for a great joke, A priest, a minister, and a rabbi…
What I’m getting at is that I grew up among people who sincerely, devoutly, and whole-heartedly believed in God..and didn’t give Him much thought.
We said our prayers, went to church or synagogue or temple, celebrated our respective holy days with the proper rituals---the baby Jesus and Santa, the Eucharist and jelly beans---we kids were dutifully sent off to Sunday School or Hebrew School, that is, those of us who weren’t lucky enough to go to parochial school where we got our doses of religious ed daily and so didn’t have to give up free time after school or on weekends to have it drilled into us. But all of this was done routinely, almost automatically, with a minimum of fuss, worry, thought, or discussion, if you don’t count our whining about having to go to church every week and our parents “explaining” to us how for an hour we can put up with it as discussion. Even the nuns who taught at my school seemed more fervent about baseball than about teaching the Catechism. They never ended our school day early to break out the bible or start saying the rosary, but they’d do it to roll in a TV during the World Series. This is probably how I got the idea that I can’t shake to this day that God is a Mets fan. I imagine debates in theology classes beginning with the question, If God is a Mets fan, does this mean he is A.) a cruel and unjust God? B.) That He is not omnipotent? C.) He really is committed to this idea of free will and so He’s not going to step in and stop the Wilpons from trading Jose Reyes no matter how stupid and destructive that would be?
To say that we practiced our religion would almost be like saying our parents practiced their jobs or we practiced going to school or practiced playing Capture the Flag.
We believed and took our belief, and everyone else’s, for granted.
Nobody talked being born again. Nobody spoke of being saved. In fact, talk like that was considered rude. What business is it of yours if I’m saved? As for anyone who had the nerve to claim they were saved, well, that was a sure sign they probably weren’t or that they were setting themselves up for a fall. My first grade nun was full of stories about vain little girls whose beautiful hair would fall out and boastful little boys who fell from the tops of the lampposts they’d climbed to show off. Going about bragging about your personal relationship with Jesus would have been treated as a vanity like those little girls’ pride in their curly locks and those little boys’ pride in their monkeyshines. Tell people you had a personal relationship with Jesus and they’d think that Who you really a personal relationship with was Yourself of Whom you were thinking awfully highly.
So if there were any Born Agains or Fundamentalists in town, they had probably learned to be embarrassed to bring it up.
Of course, we were always polite to any Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons who came to the door.
Whatever we were, Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, we all held as our first article of faith, Treat others the way you’d want to be treated yourself, which in practice was usually translated as Mind your own business and leave other people to mind theirs.
Nobody, but nobody, spent much time talking or even thinking about the End of the World.
I don’t remember any nun or priest mentioning the Book of Revelation. I do remember stories about what was going to happen before the Second Coming. There was going to be a big battle in heaven in which the angels led by St Michael would defeat the invading forces of Lucifer, but I don’t remember being taught this so much as told it, the way we were told stories about the martyrs and saints, with the adults telling the stories somehow giving the implication that we unconsciously picked up on that these stories were allegories and their lessons weren’t literal. At any rate, I don’t remember being disappointed or feeling betrayed when in the course of reading a Thor comic book I discovered that the battle of the angels sounded an awful lot like Ragnarok, the Norse myth of the end of the world.
I’m sure the nuns taught us all sorts of intellectual defenses against faith-challenging discoveries like this, but the main one and the one that stuck was that our faith didn’t require us to believe that all of this stuff was literally true.
Judgment Day was coming, the sheep would be separated from the goats, but it was a long way off, too far into the future for any of us to have to worry about it. What we had to worry about was getting through the present. The world would end, sure, but way before that happened, we would die, and when we did it better be after having led a good life. And that was the purpose of religion, to give us strength to get through the present while leading a good life, that is, while putting into practice that first article of faith, treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.
It gets down to this. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who believed the Bible was literally true and that we were living in the End Times and that meant, in effect, that I didn’t believe that anybody really believed that stuff.
First off, if you were going to believe the Bible was literally true, you had to ask yourself, which one? My friend the now Rev. Skip and my friend Chuck the Orthodox ophthalmologist and my teachers, the baseball fan nuns, studied different Bibles. Skip’s bible was missing whole books from the Old Testament, Chuck’s bible wasn’t even called the Bible and it was written in Hebrew.
I went to college in Boston where the culture was even more Catholic, at a school where a great many of the students were Jewish. In Iowa City, where I went to grad school, things felt vaguely more Protestant but that was mostly a matter of the pizza being lousy and not being able to get a bagel at all.
It wasn’t until the blonde and I had moved to Indiana and we were settling in in Fort Wayne that it began to sink in that there were people, a lot of people, who did not take their religion or mine for granted. And these people were not only not embarrassed to talk about their religion, talking about it was an important part of practicing it. Generally, I was able to avoid talking about it with them, either by steering clear of them entirely or, when I got trapped into a conversation, by making it plain right off I was Catholic and from New York, which tended to shut things right down since I was clearly a hopeless case. The one God-botherer I couldn’t avoid regular contact with was a smug, self-righteous, hypocritical jerk whose religion was an excuse to sneer at people who weren’t, well, him. He wasn’t really interested in whether or not I was saved. He just wanted everyone to know he was. I was tempted to take him as typical until I remembered I knew a lot of smug, self-righteous, hypocritical liberals of every and no faith whose attitudes about their politics were pretty much the same as his about his faith.
So I didn’t get to really know any Born Agains or learn much about what they actually believed and why and how they were able to keep the faith in the face of so much evidence that they were wrong.
I did figure out that many of them didn’t think Judgment Day was as far off as I thought it was and that when they talked about preparing ye the way of the Lord they weren’t being allegorical. I don’t know how close they thought we were living to the End Times. It didn’t seem to be close enough to mark it on the calendar, but close enough that it might happen in their lifetime so we’d all better start getting ready. They weren’t talking about getting their souls ready to meet Jesus. They were talking about getting the world ready, the way you get the house ready for important and demanding guests coming in for the weekend. They expected Him a lot sooner than later and they believed there were certain things he wanted to find done for Him when He got here.
Still, I had a hard time believing they believed this at all, let alone that they were actually looking forward to it. I still have a hard time believing it. I think---find it easier to think---that the popularity of the Left Behind novels just proves that Fundamentalists like a rip-roaring action-adventure story full of fisticuffs and gunplay as much as we heathens, they just need to have the Good Lord’s seal of approval on anything they do that’s fun. Like Christian rock. It lets them enjoy all the sex and glamour and glitz and sense of rebellion and freedom while telling themselves they’re not, they’re really enjoying the feeling of God’s grace and doing the Lord’s work.
As much as they seem to be looking forward to the Second Coming, I can’t help suspecting that most of them are hoping Jesus will keep putting it off for a while longer. They’re happy to be alive and looking forward to staying that way for at least a few more decades.
That’s why I’m inclined to take it for granted that anyone who was actually looking forward to being raptured Saturday was really looking forward to escaping a life that had one way or another become an unbearable burden.
In the book I mentioned I’m reading the other day, Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, which I’m planning to review (Spoiler alert: I like it.), McClure recounts a weekend visit she made to a farm where the couple who owned it taught classes in old-fashioned and homespun skills like canning and weaving and shoeing horses. McClure was looking to get more of a feel of what it was like to live the life Laura Ingalls and her family lived on the frontier. But she soon discovered that the farm was actually something of a workshop for Christian survivalists who weren’t looking forward to being raptured but were preparing to survive the Tribulation. Among the other people visiting the farm that weekend, was a woman who’d come down with a church group from a small and dying town in Wisconsin. The woman was recently divorced and had been having trouble finding a full-time job to support herself and it’s sad to realize that here was someone who was looking forward to having to can her own peaches and sew her own clothes and get through the nights by the light of candles she’s dipped herself as an improvement over her life at it was now and that world couldn’t end any too soon for her.
Of course, my sympathy for such a person doesn’t extend into a sympathy for the religion she’s chosen for her comfort. For one thing, I don’t see it as providing any comfort only distraction. For another thing, it’s still a religion that teaches willful ignorance and active bigotry. And for a third thing, there’s the matter of just what it is they believe Jesus is expecting to have done before He deigns to come back. He’s given them a to-do list that includes the conversion of the Jews.
Converting the Jews isn’t simply annoying their Jewish friends and acquaintances with the question, Are you saved? It means turning Israel into a Christian nation which is going to happen, you know, after.
Armageddon in the Mideast.
There are a significant number of people who believe that it should be a goal of U.S. foreign policy to bring about World War III.
Most of these people vote Republican. Of course, most Republican politicians are canting hypocrites whose attitude towards their constituents’ faith is How can use this to get votes and money? But I don’t know which ones they are and how many of them there are. There are some who are in fact true believers. Sarah Palin is one of them. And the scary thing is, the ones who aren’t are either neo-cons themselves or allied with the neo-cons, and the neo-cons have their own Second Coming myth.
The neo-cons believe that apocalyptic war is inevitable. They’re also looking forward to it, not because they want the world to end, but because they believe we’ll win it. What they want is the second coming of the United States as the world power, a position we held for, what? A couple of years after the end of World War II? Whatever. The neo-cons want to live in a world in which the United States enjoys perpetual peace and prosperity by achieving complete world dominance. Once we get those pesky Iranians out of the way, we can take care of the Chinese. It’s almost ironic how they believe the way to perpetual peace is permanent war but that’s how it is. This, of course, is insane and it would strike most voters as insane if the Republicans actually ran on it as their foreign policy platform, which it is. But they can cloak it by appealing to the Fundamentalist Christians by demagoguing on Israel.
Whether we make fun of the disappointed Rapturists or feel sorry for them, we have to keep in mind that they are not in fact representative of Right Wing Christianism. For most of the Right Wingers the End Times are going to include things a lot more dangerous than just cars barreling down the road suddenly driverless.
This reminded me of something that happened to me when I was teaching in Indiana.
One day I was sitting in my office reading when a textbook salesman knocked at the door. I invited him and he while he was making his pitch his eyes were scanning my bookshelves with professional interest. But then he spotted a book and his whole tone and expression changed.
“Oh, I see you have a bible!” He wasn’t sounding like a salesman who saw an opportunity to sell some theological textbook in his catalog. He sounded like a believer who was thrilled he’d found a like-minded co-religionist.
Practically without thinking, though, I replied, “That’s so I can quote scripture for my own purposes.”
He smiled weakly, muttered a few hasty words of goodbye, and backed sheepishly out the door.
I’ve always thought of it as one of my better lines. But maybe I should have kept my mouth shut and let him talk.
I might have learned something.