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June 03, 2011

  • Waiting for the Rapture
  • imageThere was a time when I believed in the Rapture. A time when, at any given moment, a heavenly trumpet would sound and those that were Saved by God would be translated into Heaven. Those left behind would experience the seven years of the great tribulations where the Beast would come into power and wars would erupt leading to the battle at Armageddon.

    I was obsessed with this sort of thing as a teenager. I would read the book Revelation (note, it does not have an “s” at the end. It is not “Revelations”). I would listen to preachers expound on the End Times and they all impressed on me the idea that what scripture was basically like a giant cryptic crossword puzzle: with the right inspiration you would figure out the clues. (Gorbachev had a wound on his head; he was bringing peace through Perestroika. Could he be the beast?) And if you figured out the clues, you knew that close at hand was a time where, any minute, I would be taken away and God would let the Earth self-destruct before judgment.

    It all seemed plausible.

    I was a teenaged fundamentalist. (Worse, I was a teenaged, full gospel believing charismatic Christian fundamentalist). It was, in some ways, the best place I could have been. My religious fundamentalism gave me certainty. I was an insecure teenager. I was too bright to be accepted by my peers; I was more comfortable with adults; I was scared to death of my hormones and I was inept with girls. Certainty worked for me in a world that was otherwise very insecure. I knew I was inherently sinful. I knew that God loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life. I knew that Jesus died as a way to save me from God’s judgment and Hell. These things helped me to feel safe. The Bible was the literal word and truth of God. That also gave me something to feel secure about.

    The whole thing appealed to my vivid imagination, the same part of me that loved comic books and watched Doctor Who and Star Trek and Max Headroom. God becoming human, taking on the sins of the whole world, and dying for me and for everyone. It was so powerful, so vivid, so amazing. And all the other stories were too: the world being created in six days, Moses in the wilderness, Paul on the Damascus road, the rapture, the tribulation, the new Heaven and the new Earth. That was my uber-narrative as a teenager. I was into it instead of The Lord of the Rings, I suppose. Only it was real, totally real. It all happened. It all would happen. And God’s love happened to me.

    How did it all change for me?

    Lots of little things. Moments where I looked at the questions I was avoiding. Moments where I was challenged. I read a book about the charismatic sect I was in that questioned its gospel that healing and wealth were divine rights. I could have looked the other way and declared that the book was anti-faith propaganda, but I read it. I was so unsettled I gave it to my youth leader, who tried to find holes in the book’s logic, but never quite succeeded.

    I read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and realized how much of it resembled my life.

    I read the graphic novel V for Vendetta, got to the story “Valerie” where a smart, beautiful, articulate lesbian is imprisoned, experimented on and eventually executed in a dystopian concentration camp and I realized my hatred of things were completely out of proportion.

    I started to realize that some of the really dumb things said in church really were dumb. People didn’t know the first things about books or newsmakers or movies or science and they said ignorant things. And for a long time, I let it off. Then I started saying to myself, “This is just idiocy.”

    I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ. This was when it came out in 1988 amid controversy, and everyone conservative was decrying it. In spite of being told by church leaders that it was wrong to go, I decided to go into Toronto to the York theatre and see it for myself. I discovered a muddled little film that was 45 minutes too long rather than blasphemous. I remember stepping out onto Eglinton Avenue on an August evening and thinking to myself, “So, Martin Scorcese has a different idea about Jesus than I do. That’s not a big deal.”

    I heard a speaker supporting creationism say that they could prove the speed of light was slowing down. Afterward, I asked if his studies were published in something like Scientific American or something else and I was told the secular agenda were against them. And in that instant I remember thinking, “You’re full of shit.” But what was worse was trying to explain to my friends, who thought this speaker was the greatest thing ever, that he wasn’t full of shit. No one wanted to hear that what he was proposing was fundamentally changing the theory of relativity and the building blocks of the modern scientific age—the speaker was against evolution. That’s what mattered.

    And one day, I finally said to myself: “What kind of a mixed up world do I live in where masturbating is seen as somehow evil and a sign of demonic oppression?”

    So many little tipping points where I realized that the world was more complex, less black and white, less simple, less safe.

    I still believe in God, in the love of God. I still believe in Jesus. I believe in the power of the stories that are told in scripture, but not in the literalness of the narrative. I believe in less things than I did as a teenager, but by the same token, I believe in more things as well. There are articles of faith that I no longer know the answer to, or I haven’t thought about in years. I’m OK with all of that.

    A couple of weeks ago, a group of people said the world would end and the rapture would come. And it felt like the internet (such as it is) had a very good laugh about those people. But I guess I want to say I understand them and think the mockers miss the point: it’s easy and understandable to want a world that simple, that real. Because it’s a way of making sense out of the mess we’re in, and it says the mess will soon be gone. On that basis we all fall for that con at some point or another, whether it be to accept a lifestyle, a religion, a political candidate or a box of soap. Who am I to judge?

    A year or so ago, I worked for a faith-based aid agency. During the Haiti earthquake, some preacher suggested the earthquake was caused by the Devil. A co-worker asked me if I disputed this. “I believe tectonic plates shifting under the earth’s crust caused the earthquake, not the Devil pulling a lever,” I said, “but I think decades of sinful and selfish behavior on the part of a lot of people looking out for themselves, made the effects of the quake a million times worse.”

    My co-worker looked at me like I was from Mars. I must have seemed like it. Because, to some people, questioning things and inviting complexity is such an awful thing. But I would say it’s a wonderful thing. A glorious thing. A blessed thing.

    Posted by graeme | (4) Comments | Permalink

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    Scott  on  06/04  at  07:30 AM

    I totally know what you mean by the epic narrative part. I got swept up in that in grade 7. I also had a very charismatic friend who brought it to life for me in a very appealing way. I still remember my mother being freaked out when she discovered a letter written by said friend’s mother.

    Rob Jones  on  06/15  at  01:04 PM

    Thanks for this post, Graeme!

    As you well know, I too shared many of your Christian fundamentalist views at one time. Since, I’ve shed them, and good riddance, for many of the same reasons as you, and through many of the means that you also employed - like reading books by people with (gasp!) other views!

    I should say that I mocked the Rapturists, or more specifically their ideas, online before the due date. I did so because I think that views like this *should* be mocked. To treat them with respect would be to take them seriously. And to take them seriously would be dangerous. This view of the Rapture, of being rescued from the world, robs people of the moral imperative to care about the world they actually live in. Instead, it emptily promises one they’re hoping to go to. It is a selfish belief.

    Like you, I understand it.I understand the impulse to feel protected by something bigger than oneself, and I certainly embraced that impulse myself for a long while. The world can be a frightening,uncertain place. But, I find that with fundamentalist thinking, you have to throw a lot of people under the bus to maintain that sense of security - gay people and women are two big examples. You also have to throw away, and even actively *block*, important ideas that will ultimately, and ACTUALLY, keep people safe: safe abortions, climate change science, and stem cell research seem to be big targets right now.

    I’m against that kind of thinking. I think it’s wrong to think that way. I think it’s harmful to the world. I’m certainly against being compelled to give up thousands of dollars to some cockamamie ad campaign for the rapture when 20% of the children one’s country is living under the poverty line. In terms of mockery, I’d say the rapturist got off pretty lightly.

    Ultimately, I think there’s a huge difference between the validity of someone’s right to hold an idea, and the validity of the idea itself. Where I wouldn’t question someone’s right to believe that God is going to bail them out(so why should they care about the world?), that doesn’t mean that the belief itself isn’t dangerously flawed, even if I understand the impulses that drive it.

    Thanks again for the post, Graeme!

    Dennis Turner  on  08/21  at  11:18 AM

    wow, this whole discussion takes me back.  smile
    I find myself in some agreement with Rob; dangerous destructive irrational beliefs should be challenged.  I’ll even take it further; it may be someone’s right to believe the FSM will swoop down and save them and smite their enemies (or smile as they do the smiting themselves) but it is my right and duty to call bullshit on them where I can, and protect those “enemies” when necessary.  This is actually how the scientific method works.  The act of publishing a theory or idea is an implicit invitation to the rest of the community to shoot it full of holes if they can.  If they cannot, the idea is accepted as having merit.  It is the lack of willingness to submit to the crucible of reason on the part of the religious community that has soured me on the whole thing.  My path away from whackjob evangelical christianity paralleled Graeme’s in most respects, but I went a few steps further.  Some would argue that I am throwing away the good with the bad, but I am no longer able to believe in ideas that have no grounding in observable reality.

    graeme  on  08/22  at  06:10 AM

    Wow, well it appears all my groomsmen at my wedding have had an opinion on this…

    I stick with what I said: I think a fundamental problem (pardon the pun) with fundamentalists is that life is defined by causes and not people. And I think that’s universal.

    Anytime the three of you want to get drunk with me and argue with this, I’m game!

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