Apocalyptic scenarios continually get spun by Dispensationalists and others who delve into the "prophetic." Their prognostications change as the news changes. They publish books that capitalize on the latest trends, books that end up on the remainders table a few months later. For a while Russia fell by the wayside as the political fortunes of what was the Soviet Union fell. But with Vlad Putin back on the prowl, the prognosticators are taking notice. John Howell, a U of Chicago Divinity School Ph.D. candidate writes about these recent developments in today's Sightings piece.
'Gog' on the Move-- John Howell
Those who followed early coverage of the 2008 Olympics will remember President Bush's interview with NBC's Bob Costas during which the two men discussed Russia's bombing of Georgia. Asked what he had said to Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremonies about the still-simmering conflict, Bush – in a sublime display of locker-room diplomacy that quotation alone cannot capture – stated, "I said this violence is unacceptable."
More interesting than Bush's attentions, however, are those of the premillennialists who contribute to raptureready.com's 'Rapture Index', a calculus for predicting the coming apocalypse, which the site describes as "the prophetic speedometer of end-time activity." Premillennialists believe that a period of apocalyptic tribulation will precede Christ's reign on earth; the index comprises forty-five "end time components" or indicators that this apocalypse is nigh, and the individual score in each category contributes to an overall numerical index. The Russia-Georgia conflict falls into index category twenty-three: "Gog (Russia)." As of the September 28th assessment, category twenty-three contributes five points, the maximum for an individual category, to the overall Rapture Index of 164—a figure that signifies (earnestly) "Fasten your seat belts" in the index's standardized scale.
Anyone who is familiar with Paul Boyer's book, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture – or who is otherwise acquainted with the ins and outs of end-time speculation – will be familiar with the longstanding tradition in end-time prophecy that associates Russia with Gog of Ezekiel 38:2, which reads, "Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him" (KJV). Some translations include "Rosh" among Gog's territories, and it is from the resemblance of Rosh to Russia, Meshech to Moscow, and Tubal to Tubalsk that prophets of the apocalypse, like the famous premillennialist John Nelson Darby, implicate the actions of Russia's leaders in the approach of the Antichrist. Boyer's text, published in 1994, is a dispatch from the close of the Cold War, one of myriad historical developments that have threatened apocalypse predictors with obsolescence. But Boyer cautions that prophecy believers operate with an extraordinarily flexible hermeneutic when discerning the signs of the times, and he anticipates various directions in which end-time prophecy might move (for example, toward the Middle East).
So in one sense the Russia-Georgia conflict rights the narrative of impending doom by reintroducing a Gog on the move; but in another sense it is relatively inconsequential: Insofar as raptureready.com's Rapture Index is a reliable indicator of end-time speculation more generally, the fact that the overall score hasn't dipped below "Heavy Prophetic Activity" in at least the past four years suggests that the end is always nigh if one is looking at things in proper, premillennial perspective.
And while it might be tempting to dismiss raptureready.com's Rapture Index – along with innumerable other web-based, end-time technologies – as a curiosity, one cannot but observe the consonance between the behavior of the Rapture Index and that of a more 'mainstream' (perhaps 'secularized'?) disaster calculus: the Homeland Security Advisory System. Since its introduction on March 12, 2002, the threat advisory has not dipped below Yellow, or "Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks," and has for the most part oscillated between Yellow and Orange, with the occasional escalation to Red. Reading the chronology of the threat advisory, which is available on the Department of Homeland Security website, one might even suppose that any change at all is due to the effort to keep the threat in view, such that crisis, or terror, becomes atmospheric rather than eruptive.
Without a premillennialist's faith in numerology, it is perhaps difficult to calculate the impact of this atmospheric terror on material instances of culture, but the days following September 11, 2001, have seen the proliferation and immense success of films and television series about comic-book saviors as well as apocalyptic scenarios. NBC's popular Heroes employs prophetic types and tropes to figure forth its narrative, and The CW Network's Supernatural, about two debonair, demon-hunting brothers, is in the process of developing a storyline wherein Sam and Dean have a role to play in halting the world's steady march toward Tribulation.
Unfortunately, the demon Lilith (yes, that Lilith) is simultaneously trying to expedite the process: The angel Castiel tells Dean that Lilith has succeeded in opening one of the sixty-six seals, which are like "locks on a door" to Lucifer. Perhaps someone should tell the writers what any good prophet of the apocalypse knows: Not only are there are only seven seals, but also, pace every postmillennial hope, there's no halting the end-of-days.
John Howell is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.