Thursday, May 26, 2011

Silly and contrived bits of folk theology

One Friday evening, at a fundamentalist, non-denominational Bible college, a student was returning to his dorm after supper. No one was at the front desk of the building. When he got to his hall, he saw several folded up piles of clothes. A few of the doors to the dorm rooms were open. A folded pile of clothes was sitting in a desk chair, with glasses propped neatly on top of an open book. There was silence, except for the sound of an electric shaver running; it was lying on the floor in front of the vanity, next to a folded towel.

He was studying to be a youth pastor. As he prayed, out loud, asking God why he hadn’t been taken, too, Was he unworthy? Was it too late to repent?, tears started falling from his cheeks. Then his fellow residents came out of hiding and started to laugh at him. Trying not to look embarrassed, he forced a couple of chuckles.

“You don't believe in the Rapture?!” Joanna asked me, as if I wasn’t a true Christian.

“No." I said. "Wait, you believe in the Rapture?”

I had mostly been raised going to Presbyterian churches, but at this point in my life, my family was going to a hip non-denominational seeker-sensitive contemporary church with a more eclectic set of conservative Christian beliefs. The question of whether I believed in the Rapture was suddenly more complicated than I had thought. I thought I didn’t believe in it, that only wacky fundamentalists did, but I didn’t think that Joanna was a wacky fundamentalist.

Joanna: “But I thought that all Christians believe in the Rapture. So you don’t think Jesus is coming back?”

Me: “I think Jesus is coming back, I just don’t believe in the Rapture. I’m not even sure what that is. I don’t think the word, ‘Rapture’ is in the Bible.”

We were fourteen, and I think that we were trying to have the same sort of argument that our parents would have at Bible study. One time, when Mom and Dad got home from Bible study, Mom told me that Joanna’s mom, who was leading the study, started by reading a passage from Mark and, after the reading, said, “And that’s why I’m a premillennial dispensationalist.” The discussion was, evidently, stressed, which was odd because my parents and Joanna’s parents and the other grown-ups at Bible study were friends. I don’t remember much else that was said in the conversation with Joanna. I recall that I thought that she thought that I didn’t properly believe the Bible. I had previously thought she was normal, and now I was afraid that my friend was one of those End Times people.

The distinctions between our understandings were so pedantic that I didn’t properly understand that argument until I was at least twenty. There is general agreement among Christians that Jesus is coming back someday, that the earth will be transformed, and that Christians who had died will be resurrected. The quaint beliefs that pop culture associates with Christian beliefs about the end of the world, things like people vanishing, leaving behind neatly folded piles of clothes, glasses, and their dental fillings; planes crashing out of the sky if the pilot and copilot are both Christians; computers used for processing credit cards being a sign of the apocalypse; these are bound up in the premillennial dispensationalist tradition that is American, new, and obscure.

The Rapture wasn’t called The Rapture in a way that had much traction until the mid-1800’s. The term is mostly used by premillennial dispensationalists; this group is the part of conservative Christianity that is the most likely to predict when the world will end or try to identify an Antichrist. This particular apocalyptic tradition was popularized primarily through three works: Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s Left Behind series. The Scofield Reference Bible was an annotated King James Bible with cross-references for convenient proof-texting.

I can’t find a clear reference from scripture about people leaving behind folded clothes when they get taken by Jesus, but this sensational image is a good example of how the general understanding of the Rapture, by the people who believe in it, is folk theology.

These doctrines are explained with a lot of charts. The movement gets its name from the idea that God’s grace is given out in seven “dispensations”, that there was one set of rules for being saved in the Garden of Eden, then another before the flood, then another after the flood but before Abraham, and so on. There are charts comparing text from an Old Testament prophecy, a bit from Revelation, and a list of nations, including Israel and the United States and Iraq (the new Babylon) and a resuscitated Roman empire (the European Union?). The ideas in the End Times movement are speculative, but presented as if they’re clear and plain and well-thought-out. This method is different from most Biblical literalists’ approach.

I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterians, being, by nature, reserved people, they normally have more reserved views of the End Times: an attitude that no one will know when Jesus is coming back until he does, and when he gets here, he’ll tell us what to do. People from the Presbyterian tradition are likely to scoff at the elaborate, overconfident storytelling around the Rapture.

One afternoon, when I was maybe ten, I was lying on my bed, reading, when I heard a fanfare. I thought, “Maybe Jesus is coming back today!” Then I heard, “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!” It turned out that one of my brothers was watching a video. Even though my family didn’t believe in a lot of the specifics that the premillennial dispensationalists do, and even though I knew that I couldn’t know when Jesus would come back, I still hoped that he would, soon.

“You don't believe in the Prayer of Jabez?” my cousin asked me, a little shocked.

“I believe that he prayed that prayer, and it worked out fine for him,” I said, “but the Bible doesn’t set up Jabez’s prayer as a proper example of prayer. The Lord’s prayer, or the Psalms, those are better models for prayer.” I suppose I was sixteen or so. The Prayer of Jabez was the latest evangelical fad. Bruce Wilkinson wrote a book about Jabez, an obscure Old Testament figure stuck in the middle of a list of “begets”; here is everything the Bible says about Jabez:

Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.

(1 Chronicles 4:9-10)

Somehow, Wilkinson stretched those two verses out into a book; his publisher then made more books based on that book, devotionals, journals, and so on, albums of worship music based on The Prayer of Jabez, mousepads, keychains, scented candles. Someone’s borders got enlarged.

I think that the phenomena of Rapture fandom and the popularity of The Prayer of Jabez are parallel: they are somewhat consistent with the Bible, but not clearly supported by it. They aren’t developed gradually from existing theological traditions, they feel like an idea that some guy had one time. They are convenient, neatly packaged beliefs. With the Rapture, you get the secret code from the Bible that explains the end of the world. With The Prayer of Jabez, you get a secret password that gives you access to God’s magical powers.

There is a stream in the woods behind the house I grew up in, and there’s a little island in that stream. It’s barely an island, it’s a bump of dirt in the middle of Bynum Run. One time, when I was maybe eight, the older kids told me stories about how there used to be a house on that island and that now the island is haunted and I was scared. When Dad got home from work, I asked him if he believed in ghosts. “Yes,” he said, “One. The Holy Ghost.” He smiled, and I felt less afraid. My parents are skeptical people. Whenever magicians would perform on TV, Dad would try to figure out how the tricks worked. My parents don’t believe in horoscopes or homeopathy or Reiki energy or space aliens. My parents raised me to be skeptical, and so we rejected the folk theology around the Rapture, and we didn’t pray the prayer of Jabez, and we managed to avoid other Christian fads.

I have a complicated relationship with my previous Christian self. I feel a little disappointed in myself that it took me so long to come to non-belief in God. As a bit of consolation, I’m inclined to think that, even though I was a Christian, I was a shrewd Christian. The things that I thought then, while not correct, were more carefully put together than the Rapture and Prayer of Jabez movements.

I don't believe the story at the start of this essay, about the Bible college dorm Rapture hoax. I don’t quite remember where I heard it, and I can’t find a source to for it. For a while, I thought it was true, though. Part of why I believed the story is that it confirmed what I thought, not about the Rapture, but about the people who were preoccupied with it.

And now, as I’m thinking about Christian folk religion, I think I’m a little dishonest with myself to think that I managed to only get the good, high-quality Christian doctrines. There were silly and contrived bits of folk theology that I believed for selfish reasons, but it’s difficult for me to identify, now, what they were, because I don’t want to think of myself as gullible. For example, I was a young-earth creationist, and that sort of belief seems more well-thought-out to me than the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez, but maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s just as thin. Maybe what makes young-earth creationism different from the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez is that it was a thing that I believed.


  1. "Maybe what makes young-earth creationism different from the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez is that it was a thing that I believed."

    a profound ending to a well-written post

  2. I don't think that this is a phenomenon limited to religious; there are lots of folk stories, memes, and bits of lore passed around that everyone can fall for at one point or another. I'm sure that you can think of ridiculous things that you've fallen for that aren't related to theology at all. Humans, in general, are very fond of stories wherein they gain a special sort of knowledge that puts them above the rest of the gullible yokels who expect to be Raptured or recycle or buy premium gas or vote Democratic.

    Tim Keller likes to make the point that even the most progressive and thoughtful among us will be winced at a hundred years from now because we all have a few beliefs that our grandkids will realize were incredibly stupid and mean. After all, we feel the same way about some of the most progressive folks from 100 years ago. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't care about what we think about certain issues, but we also shouldn't become terribly invested in being as correct as we possibly can. I think what matters the most is remaining humble & open enough to be told that you're wrong about something while holding closely to the beliefs that are most crucial and beneficial to yourself & to others.

    In this sense, then, I think that even though you're a pretty smart & skeptical person, you shouldn't necessarily chalk your years of belief in Christianity to gullibility. After all, many people far smarter and far more skeptical than you have believed in Jesus for far longer! You were most concerned about the more crucial things (e.g. the Resurrection & the existence of God rather than young-earth creationism), and that's important.

  3. @lhynard: Thanks!

    In this post, in particular, I noticed that a lot of the improvement in editing came from deleting things. In particular, I had a joke about "Tim LaHaye’s Big Book Of Wild Charts Showing, Clearly, How The Prophecies In The Book Of Daniel About A Bull Or Something Clearly Represent The United States As A Bull And The Modern State Of Israel As An Alligator Or Something, No, Really, The Locusts In Revelations Are Symbols of Black Helicopters" and it hurt to not include that.

    There was going to be another paragraph at the end, but I deleted it, so I'm glad that you like this ending.

  4. @Matthew: Thanks for the thoughts; this comment was particularly gracious.

    >I think what matters the most is remaining humble & open enough to be told that you're wrong about something while holding closely to the beliefs that are most crucial and beneficial to yourself & to others.

    I think you capture, well, here the importance of balancing the willingness to think critically about one's own beliefs without being paralyzed by indecision. I think that I'm having an easier time not feeling like an epistemic nihilist, relative to how I was thinking 2-4 years ago.

  5. ditto what Matthew said

  6. "Somehow, Wilkinson stretched those two verses out into a book; his publisher then made more books based on that book, devotionals, journals, and so on, albums of worship music based on The Prayer of Jabez, mousepads, keychains, scented candles. Someone’s borders got enlarged."
    Love the dry wit.

    Never being a religious person myself, I also feel like I was gullible and believed certain things that weren't true. As mentioned by Matthew, folk wisdom isn't always religious. Just remember everybody changes their mind about some things, or a lot of things.