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Jul 18 2005

The allure of rapture violence

I must say that since I recently started reading about the rapture (see here and here for previous posts on it), it has fascinated me. (Some readers of this blog who had never heard of the rapture before I started posting on it have told me they were startled to find people they know accepting the idea of it very matter-of-factly, as if it were nothing special.) Not that I take the basic idea of huge numbers of people being transported suddenly up into heaven seriously, of course. That strikes me as a wild flight of fancy that belongs in the same genre as Star Wars or Harry Potter films, i.e., enjoyable largely because it is so outrageously improbable.

No, what interests me is the sociology behind it, especially the question of what it is that attracts otherwise presumably regular people to believe in this dark tale of violence, revenge, cruelty, and blood.

The basic rapture story is that at some point (devotees think “very soon”), a select group of people will be raptured up to heaven by Jesus, and from that vantage point they will observe the Antichrist ruling the world, leading to seven years of violent struggle between the good and bad forces left behind on Earth. As the Left Behind novel series illustrates, the people propagating the rapture myths do not see the violence in the rapture story as something that is a necessary evil, to be passed over quickly before the final victory of God. No, they actually wallow in it, imagining it in the most lurid of details. In his highly entertaining review of the books, Gene Lyons recounts one passage:

Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. . . . Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.

and says that “the slaughter runs on for close to eighty gleeful pages.” (my emphasis)

I find it hard to fathom the attraction of something like this. I have never understood the appeal of violence, even fictionalized, so that I avoid films that have excessive amounts of it. This dislike started early for me. I remember even as a very young child hating circuses, mainly because they had people (like trapeze artists) who were risking death and injury just for the sake of entertaining others, and this just made no sense to me. I could have tolerated it if the trapeze artists and tightrope walkers performed with a safety net. I can understand that some people (like firefighters, police, and soldiers) have to take risks as part of their job, but they at least take as many safety precautions as they can. Taking huge and avoidable risks just for entertainment seems absurd to me.. The recent mauling of Roy Horn by the tiger in his act sickened me because the senselessness of it all.

I know that many people do not have the same reaction to violence as I do, but there is a difference (I feel) between being able to tolerate violence as a an unavoidable component of life and actually enjoying it, and it is the latter response that I find hard to understand. I know that there are people who flock to the scene of some disaster, hoping to see the injured or dead, and then relish repeating what they have seen over and over to whoever will listen. That kind of attitude is incomprehensible to me. But Barbara Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed suggests that one can get addicted to violence. She quotes Chris Hedges who said that as a former New York Times war correspondent in El Salvador, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, and elsewhere, he became addicted to war. It was like a narcotic and he had to tear himself away from it.

It is clear that rapture enthusiasts have no such qualms about the violence associated with their story. Perhaps the reason that violence may be more enjoyable to them is that they are able to see themselves as purely in a spectator role, like those who, safely from a distance, watch Siegfried and Roy with their tiger. Rossing (p. 138-140) suggests that this might indeed be the case. She suggests that since rapture believers are confident that they will be among the chosen few who are taken up to heaven and escape the carnage, they see themselves as essentially like TV viewers up in heaven, safely watching the violence from that Lazy-Boy in the sky, as if it were some spectator sport. It was interesting that some rapture believers apparently got excited by the recent bombings in London, believing that it signaled the beginning of the rapture.

Rossing argues that all the violence associated with the rapture is a misreading of the Bible. It is quite possible to interpret the Biblical second coming of Jesus in a peaceful way but rapturists insist on interpreting everything in the most gruesome way, trying to put in the most blood and gore possible.

For those who do not believe in the rapture, it might be tempting to dismiss the rapture phenomenon as harmless fantasy, and treat devotees the way we treat those who indulge in (say) violent video games. After all, if I do not believe the rapture is going to happen, why would I care if others do?

But Rossing suggests that we should not be so complacent and that belief in the rapture has public policy consequences that affect all of us. More about this in the next posting.

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