This is the end

A CSUS professor says the end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing

Illustration by Robert Armstrong

You could crawl through a million miles of sewer pipe and still not find a turd nuttier than Pastor John Hagee. Republican presidential nominee John McCain eagerly sought out then spurned Hagee’s endorsement, after various anti-Catholic remarks the fire-and-brimstone fruitcake has made over the years finally surfaced in the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, while rejecting the Catholic-hating homophobe’s official endorsement, McCain welcomed the unofficial support of Hagee and his hapless flock come November, and for good reason. Most of the voters out there bitterly clinging to their religion and their guns are right-wing evangelicals, white-knuckling it ’til the rapture. Which is how a religious zealot who believes a biblically preordained apocalypse is upon us can cozy up to powerful men and women who have the ability to make it happen.

In short, John McCain has the Armageddon vote locked up.

I’m all for freedom of religion. But I’m even more for things that aren’t bat-shit crazy, like Hagee’s end times theology. For those who subscribe to it, I have only this to say: Get an afterlife.

However, according to CSUS history professor Arthur H. Williamson, the apocalypse wasn’t always a “creed for cranks.” In his latest book, Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World (Praeger Publishers), he makes a convincing argument that the end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

Full disclosure: Professor Williamson is one of my all-time favorite teachers. I took his course on modern European history 16 years ago at Sac State. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and I jumped at the opportunity to discuss his latest book at Chinois City Cafe several weeks ago. While his six previous books have been aimed mainly at an academic audience, he thinks Apocalypse Then, which focuses on the period between 1500 and 1800, will have mainstream appeal.

“There is a concern for an end time, but what I try to argue in the book is that in fact the whole notion of the apocalypse turns out to have a very positive role in creating modernity,” he explained over lunch. “It’s an irony that secular modernity was initially not so much a rejection of religion, but the dynamics within it.”

While the notion of an end time can be traced as far back as the pre-biblical era, it remained mostly in the background until medieval times. Then, gradually, the idea that the world had an end began to subvert the “Great Chain of Being,” which placed God, the pope, the priestly classes, the aristocracy and the peasantry in an eternal, top-down hierarchy. Eventually, the apocalyptic thinking would lead to the very notion of progress.”

“It’s the idea that history is going somewhere, and the idea that we can organize all of the experiences of the past in a linear process that actually is intelligible,” said the professor. “It’s common sense to you and me as modern people, but it’s not common sense for most people in the history of the planet and the history of the West.”

Many of the social and scientific gains civilization has made since the Renaissance—what we call “progress”—actually have roots in the idea that one era can end, replaced by a new, improved era. The reality-based community took precedence over the ephemeral. Life on Earth eclipsed the infinite hereafter.

Yet by the late 19th century, apocalyptic thinking would change course once again. Today, the trail ends at Pastor Hagee’s doorstep. What the hell happened between 1890 and now? Here’s how the professor puts it:

“The apocalypse gets reformulated in that it’s not a great time development—the rise of medieval civilization and the challenge that modernity has placed upon it, and how politics will redeem us. Instead, we want to escape. The whole history of the past is all about bad stuff. It’s not going anywhere. There will be a great sucking sound, they say, and what’s that going to be? Not jobs going to Mexico. It’s going to be the redeemed going up into the stratosphere to meet J.C.”

Is the Antichrist coming? Or is he already here in the form of Pastor John Hagee? Frankly, this kind of stuff can tie you up in knots. So do yourself a favor, Sac State students and life-long learners. Sign up for one of professor Williamson’s classes next semester. He’s on the early-retirement program and won’t be around forever.

But then again, none of us will. Just ask Hagee.