A Marriage of Heaven and Hucksterism

or, Concerning a Lecture Concerning Biblical Prophecy Concerning the End of Days and the Second Coming, Part the First

This evening at 7:00pm I attended one of a series of lectures on Biblical prophecy.

Those of you who know me or even those who have just read some of my blog posts might ascertain that I am neither religious nor that big into prophecy. But what you may not have guessed is that I still really like that stuff. I’ve come to understand that some of humanity’s best cultural output is in it’s weird things. The odd; the absurd; the cartoonish; the nonsense, especially nonsense that some people take very, very seriously. In the funhouse mirror of our kooks and crazy talk, certain fascinating features of the human psyche bulge out.

So there I was, at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church on North Forest Street in Bellingham.

I was an outlier.
It’s worth pointing out that I was an outlier in more ways than one; as far as I could tell, most people were Christians of the Seventh-Day Adventist stripe (hereafter 7DA) or at least close enough to take the lecture seriously. I think one other guy was a reporter or blogger. And everyone was old. The median age was almost certainly twice mine, probably more. Not what I expected for an Evangelical-circuit lecture, but maybe youngsters aren’t concerned about the End of Days as much.

It’s also worth pointing out that this series (“Incredible Prophecies”—their emphasis on Prophecies, mine on Incredible) is a month-long gig, with something like two dozen presentations. Tonight’s, “…About the Time of the End,” was the third so far. Given the subject material, that might be putting the cart before the horse, but then again I wasn’t the one presenting.

The speaker, Dan Bentzinger, was an interesting fellow. His mannerisms flitted between “typical evangelical preacher,” “smooth-talking infomercial host,” to even “poorly-written Mel Brooks character” at times. The effect was a bit surreal. His wife Gloria played some pleasantly forgettable piano as everyone found seats, then sang a song from one of her albums, called “Cross of Love.” She had a good voice, but the backing tune sounded like something off a workplace training video. It sort of jarred with the lyrics—though given its sentimental treatment of the Crucifixion, no melody could’ve saved it.

The presentation itself was promoted as using “state of the art video and computer graphics.” That might have been true around 2002, if I’m being charitable. They weren’t offensive, but let’s just say it didn’t compare favorably with Crysis 2. Maybe the original Half-Life?

To summarize Bentzinger’s point would be to recite a litany of bog-standard (or maybe “Gog and Magog”-standard?) end-times talking points: “signs of the times,” “wars and rumors of wars,” natural disasters, a rapid increase in calamities. Interestingly, Bentzinger only trotted out one verse from the Book of Revelation, sticking mostly to the Gospel of Matthew (with an excursion into Luke, and the epistle to Timothy). That was somewhat of a fresh approach to me, but most of my prophecy has come second-hand from the History Channel. I don’t know what gets preached in the churches.

What amuses me is how nondescript, and yet how correct, Jesus’ “prophecies” are. If you read them as foretelling a supernatural End Times, you’re lost. But as a general summary of mundane societal upheaval, he’s basically right. Things fall apart. It’s almost tautological, not eschatological.

First, however, Bentzinger turned those prophecies inward, to the Christian community. I don’t know how many end-times preachers undertake this sort of soul-searching, but it was fascinating to me as an outsider. He cited several polls and surveys that seemed to conclude that true believers were exceedingly small in number—as allegedly prophesied by the apostle Paul—something like 5% of self-identified Christians in America held to an 8-point “Biblical World View.” Focus On the Family cites very similar findings, so it seems that fundamentalists are all playing from the same deck on this one. Incidentally, I think this is great, since a Biblical World View includes belief in the actual real existence of Satan (because, and I quote, “without Satan there is no sin,” lolwut), in addition to the Biblical literalism and moral absolutism you might expect.

But now I can see why some groups believe, well and truly believe, that (“true”) Christianity is under attack. Rebuttals like “Hey, the vast majority of Americans are Christian!” fall on self-righteously deaf ears. 95% of Christians, in this model, only adopt the “form of godliness, but [deny] its power” (2 Timothy 3:5), so they can’t be counted as allies. Too much relativism, you see. It’s an unsung irony of the culture wars; we’re quick to decry casting other cultures in broad strokes (they’re not “all just Muslims, what’s the difference”—differences matter), but sometimes we forget that Christianity, for all the bizarre denominational schisms and strange alliances (Evangelicals and Catholics! Oh my!) does not agree on everything. And for an evangelizing religion, that’s a big deal. They’re not, for all the multicultural Kum Ba Ya that moderate and liberal churches put on, one big happy family.

This was definitely a consciousness-raiser for me. I’m glad they’re having this: it’s a non-threatening window into the evangelical/fundamentalist mindset. That funhouse mirror. Plus, I think I’m signed up to get reading materials now, and I’ll get a coupon for a free DVD copy of one of the lectures. You can bet I’m excited.

Continuing in the next part, I’ll critique the real-world examples used in the presentation!