In case of rapture, this blog will be unmanned

Rapture SecurityA pastor friend of mine passed along a truly horrible story by Reuters’ Andrea Hopkins. The premise is that “moderate” Christians are fighting “fundamentalist” Christians with regard to the rapture. The article is poorly written in a journalistic sense: it’s one-dimensional, doesn’t grasp scope of the issue and is layered with opinion.

Let’s begin with the use of the word moderate to describe theologically liberal Episcopalians and Lutherans. I can do no better than repeat what New York Times editor Bill Keller told his newsroom in 2005:

We must . . . be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues . . . the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives . . .

The article begins with a goodmoderate Christian’s unverified story about a bad fundamentalist boss who believed in the rapture. It goes on to relay how moderate Christians are fighting back against the theology of the Left Behind novels.

Later on in the piece, coauthor Tim LaHaye paints the theological debate as having two sides: the good, Bible-believing folks like himself who love Jesus and the bad, “socialist” Bible-deniers. That LaHaye would say such a thing is in his best interest. He’s better off not admitting that many other Christians reject his rapture theology, including some who believe the Bible is inerrant and literally God’s word.

But reporter Hopkins paints the rapture debate in precisely the same way. There are two sides — moderates and fundamentalists — and they disagree on whether to take a “fundamentalist” or interpretive view of Revelation.

I suppose it’s too much to ask reporters to read a general book on the beat they cover, but this is where D.G. Hart’s Lost Soul of American Protestantism could be useful. The typical American Protestant vignette painted by reporters and academics is liberal mainline vs. conservative evangelical. Hart proposes that these two groups actually have much more in common with each other than is supposed (both emphasize relevance, both groups politicize the moral meaning of Christianity, etc.).

He focuses on a third group: confessional Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed Protestants. These are Protestants who emphasize creeds, doctrines, sacraments, liturgy, etc. They have an otherworldly or nonpolitical emphasis — they believe that the main purpose of the church is to share the Gospel and administer the sacraments rather than save the world or reform earthly institutions.

This is the group that my church body — one of the largest in America — belongs to. And my church body has for years published papers and Bible studies about what we believe are errors in Left Behind theology. In other words, if the reporter had looked, she would have found that it’s not just the mainline churches that oppose Left Behind.

Second Coming IconAnother problem with the piece is that it never really shows the actual rapture views of either group. The reporter says fundamentalists believe that Christians will be taken immediately to heaven, leaving their fillings behind. Moderates apparently believe that Revelation is a story about Jesus confronting the evils of the Roman Empire. For a story about how mainline Protestants are fighting what they perceive to be as doctrinal errors, that’s not a lot of explanation. She also includes contentious statements without any attempt to support them:

Christian moderates also tend to view their fundamentalist cousins with an indulgent wink, more comfortable joking about the rapture than trying to change their minds.

Um, okay. This part was my favorite, though:

The success of the graphic novels is just one indication of the strength of belief in rapture, Armageddon, and the subsequent second coming of Jesus Christ. A 2006 survey for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 79 percent of American Christians believe in the second coming, with 20 percent believing it will happen in their lifetime.

To conflate Left Behind theology of the rapture with the doctrine that Jesus will come again? I’m kind of speechless. Does Hopkins not know of the Nicene Creed that includes this belief? It’s only the most widespread ecumenical creed of the Christian Church, after all. And it includes a line professing belief that Jesus will “come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”

If Hopkins is unable to understand how this belief is not the same as Left Behind theology, she should not be writing the piece.

The second piece of art is an icon of the Second Coming.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, your last seven words say it all. Your headline is hilarious, too. Thanks for not mincing words on a truly horrible story.

    Favorite excerpt:
    For Leiserson, Revelation is a story about Jesus confronting the evils of the Roman Empire. To help counter the rapture tide, she is developing a Sunday school curriculum to teach kids that Jesus loves everyone and would not leave anyone behind.

    That’s right, boys and girls. Everyone is going to heaven. That’s the belief of everyone in the mainstream, moderate Christian church.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I suspect that the traditional mass media has become the domain of secular humanists and that this article focuses on a spat within religious people (divide and conquer). The focus appears to be more that there is no unity among Christians and less on what the various factions believe–or even looking into other factions that do not fall neatly into these two groups (such as Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod [LC-MS] and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod [WELS], which as you have pointed out do not fall into either camp).

    The theology of rapture and attendant millenial teachings are likewise diverse and convoluted–are you pre-trib or post-trib? Who are amillenialists anyway?

    Mollie, just wait till they find the AntiChrist pieces on the LC-MS, WELS, and ELS web sites. For some reason the millenialist/rapture theology is all entwined with the doctrine of the AntiChrist.

  • Tom Schaefer

    “This is the group that my church body — one of the largest in America — belongs to. ”
    If we’re going to focus on the accuracy of words, let’s also be accurate with statistics. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has about 2.5 million members. That makes it the 10th largest Christian denomination in America. (The ranking could change a bit, depending on who’s counting and who’s included in the count.) It could also move up significantly higher (fifth place?) if its numbers were combined with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But the LC-MS would never acknowledge such a pairing.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    BTW, that idiotic belief that American Airlines always makes sure an unbelieving pilot is on every flight? Not true, according to snope.com. The tale allegedly states that American Airlines places an unbelieving pilot on every flight so that in case of rapture one pilot will still be at the controls of every jet.

  • http://flatlandsfriar.blogspot.com Brett

    Excellent analysis, Mollie, but I think the piece is actually on Reuters. That’s where I found it, anyway.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Tom,

    When I wrote that, I actually thought the LCMS was just outside the top ten. But considering the myriad — dozens? hundreds? thousands? — of denominations, synods and other church groupings here, I felt that “one of the biggest” was a fine description.

  • Michael

    But the LC-MS would never acknowledge such a pairing.

    Nor would the ELCA :)

  • Dennis Colby

    It’s sort of weird to write an article about a contentious theological view based on biblical interpretation without even citing the relevant passage or passages. I mean, the rapture doctrine isn’t even primarily derived from Revelation, for crying out loud.

    Also, the article left the impression that the rapture is purely an intramural squabble among Protestants, neglecting to mention that other Christian bodies also have firm views on eschatology.

  • Dale

    Before the books, Leiserson said, mainstream Christians paid little attention to the Book of Revelation, the part of the Bible that mentions Armageddon.

    “The mainstream churches haven’t avoided (Revelation) as much as we just didn’t think it was that big of a thing, until the fundamentalist churches started making a big production out of it,” she said.

    Huh. Despite their intellectual pretensions, many mainline (not mainstream) Protestants are abominably ignorant of church history. The Book of Revelation was no big deal until Tim LaHaye wrote his trashy novels? Please. Has the woman ever heard of Seventh Day Adventists? Jonathan Edwards’ speculation on the apocalyptic signicance of the French and Indian War? And that’s only a few examples from American church history.

    Premillenial Dispensationalism has been around for more than a hundred years, and only now the mainline (not mainstream) Protestants have noticed. Boy, are they thick. And that’s the correct description of the theology that LaHaye espouses, Mollie. There are plenty of “fundamentalists” who are not Premillenial Dispensationalists, and would object strenuously to any assertion that the “rapture” was a fundamental of Christian faith.

    she is developing a Sunday school curriculum to teach kids that Jesus loves everyone and would not leave anyone behind.

    As opposed to the old curriculum that taught what? I’d love to see the part that explains how the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Charles Manson will be part of the cosmic group hug. That will be really comforting to the tikes.

    Moderate Christians will never come up with a story that can compare, he said.

    Notice how LaHaye consistently uses the word “liberal”, but here she inserts her preferred terminology “moderate” when paraphrasing what he said.

    “Surprisingly enough with all the liberal brainwashing they’ve got in public education, most people that claim to be Christians have a tendency to believe the Bible,” LaHaye said in an interview.

    “What’s more, I know brainwashing when I see it. My friend Reverend Moon told me all about it.”

    “Because one of our goals is to be very tolerant, it is sometimes hard to go to the public. There is limited means to get the message out,” said Shirley Wang.

    Christian moderates also tend to view their fundamentalist cousins with an indulgent wink, more comfortable joking about the rapture than trying to change their minds.

    Right. Everyone know that tolerance is promoted by smug, condescending attitudes rather than open disagreement. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot and see how it fits:

    Christian conservatives also tend to view their feminist cousins with an indulgent wink, more comfortable joking about feminist theology than trying to change their minds.

  • Charlie

    Yes, there are a LOT of things wrong with that story, which should have been written by someone familiar with that particular theology and its origins. (But this IS a Reuters report, probably not even worth the effort) It would be nice, though, to read a criticism of such a story that didn’t make the biases of the critic so apparerent.

    By moderate, they are obviously using different criteria than you, but the implication that rapture believers somehow equate with conservatism is just as poorly thought out. There are plenty of religious conservatives who oppose rapture theology; it’s a fringe idea made popular by Americans without enough religious education to recognise it for what it is.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Gee, Charlie, that was kind of the whole point of my post.

  • Tom Schliessmann

    On top of everything else you commented on, I found the following excerpt from the article interesting:
    “The success of the graphic novels is just one indication of the strength of belief in rapture…”

    From your post it seems that quote was referring to the LEFT BEHIND novels.

    But to my understanding, the term “graphic novel” has for years referred to comic books printed on quality paper stock.

  • Slappy McJack

    Tom, I think she means “novels that are graphic” but I did a double take when I read that as well. But her fumbling of that term is just another example of her lack of general cultural awareness, religious or otherwise.

  • Dennis Colby

    Although, naturally, there are Left Behind graphic novels, as well as novels that are graphic:

    http://www.leftbehind.com/channelbooks.asp?channelID=53

  • Duke

    To bring this back to the journalistic point about getting facts correct. Would the author be correct in identifying the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod as “mainline”? I mean that it seems to me that most reporters when they do mention this sector of the Lutherans, they always figure the Missouri Synods to be “mainline”. True?

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    What’s striking to me is that when I go to the website of the Episcopal cathedral where our “moderate” attends, the place does strike me as being pretty “moderate”, at least as Episcopalians go. And there are hints in the article that those “moderates” hold, on this topic, traditional views. But what we got is terribly sketchy and suggests that the reporter never actually got around to asking the canon what her church taught on the subject. And there’s no sense at all in the article of the great gulf there is between the fine differences among the a/pre/post-millenialists in American “conservative” Protestantism and everyone else’s near total lack of concern for the matter.

  • http://bluegrasslutheran.blogspot.com Chris Jackson

    Excellent post, and good to see The Lost Soul of American Protestantism referenced.

  • Eli

    No question it’s a great post and truly an awful article from Hopkins in so many ways. Still, the most fascinating (and shocking) thing to me was the fact that 43 million copies of the Left Behind novels have been sold. Prior to reading the post I’d thought Dispensational Premillenialism was a fringe radical offshoot of mainline Christianity (a la Koresh and Waco in ’93) but it’s obviously turned into a much larger movement somewhere along the way. Mollie’s right, to conflate Left Behind theology with the belief in Jesus’ Second Coming simply leaves one speechless. But I also think it’s certifiably dangerous not to recognize the profound implications in the real world based on the differences in centering one’s theology on an eschatological framework as opposed to creeds, sacrament, liturgy, etc.

  • Michael

    I would agree “moderate” is a problematic term, but describing these churches as “liberal” is equally as problematic, especially since LaHaye uses it as a slur. Using conservative, moderate, and liberal outside of a political/religious questions is always a problem, it seems.

  • Jerry

    It’s sad when the level of theology exhibited by the news story is roughly equivalent to the Simpson’s episode “Thank God It’s Doomsday”

  • Stephen A.

    Michael, you can’t run away from these labels. Sorry. A liberal/permissive mindset is equally valid to explain a religious view as it is a political one. And oddly, both are nearly identical groups of people.

    The problem is, some in the media like to deliberately misapply these terms. “Moderate” means “non-conservative” or “leaning liberal” to reporters, and that dreaded word “Conservative” means “extremist” and may not even be used, since extremist seems to get their point across.

    This kind of garbage reporting is getting old. Not only for the blatant liberal bias, but for the poorly researched topic.

    Incidentally, my personal bias is that the Rapture is totally overemphasized by some denominations and groups, many of whom make Genesis and Revalations the two major topics of preaching, forgetting much else.

    Despite that bias, a REAL exploration of theological distinctives, contrasting denominations, pastors or even congregations, would be useful and educational. So would a brief overview of how scripture is used in this argument to make points on BOTH sides. Instead, we get glib theological liberals labeled automatically as “good” and the believers in Rapture labeled as “evil” or “misguided.” This is a cartoonish and one-dimensional image of theology.

  • Michael

    Michael, you can’t run away from these labels. Sorry. A liberal/permissive mindset is equally valid to explain a religious view as it is a political one. And oddly, both are nearly identical groups of people.

    I don’t disagree, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic.

    On a sliding scale of “moderate” to “liberal” you have Methodists and Presbyterians and the ELCA as more moderate than the Episcopal church, which is less liberal than the UCC from a denomenational viewpoint. Toss in the Disciples of Christ, the Greek Orthodox, and Unitarians and suddenly you have a whole range of beliefs within a category you would consider “liberal.”

    The fact that LaHaye then uses the term “liberal” in a conspiratorial tone further complicates the labels.

    I admit you have the same problem classifying “conservative” churches since they too are all over the spectrum.

  • http://orthodoxinparsonsks.blogspot.com/ Will Harrington

    These terms must be problematical if the Greek Orthodox get tossed into the liberal range of things. Lets see, refusal to change doctrin and a male only priesthood, diaconate, and episcopate balanced against the The Patriarch of Constantinople’s support for environmontal conservation (how did things got to the point that conservation is not seen as a conservative value? oh yeah, disagreements over property rights).
    I think your right, though. The terms liberal and conservative are no longer adequate politically or religiously speaking. The left as embodied by the Democrats is a coalition of special interest groups whose interests are often divergent while the right wing is becoming increasingly fragmented as well. Personally, I think fragmentation is a good thing since the power brokers who built their coalitions will have diminished power.
    I suppose if we want to apply conservative and liberal to religion (lets confine it to Christianity for convenience sake) and use the classic understanding that such a scale is a measure of resistance to change then the Orthodox churches are the most conservative with the Roman Catholic church to the left of the
    Orthodox (vatican II demonstrates that the RCC has both the mechanism for, and the willingness to, change. The literalist interpretation branch of protestantism is next as they do have an absolute standard in scripture that works to resist change but also historically are likely to interpret scripture in different ways amongst themselves. At the left are the old mainline protestant churches with, I suppose, the ECUSA at the extreme left (at the moment).

  • Gary

    Premill dispensationalists, like Tim LaHaye, believe in a “secret” rapture. Andrea Hopkins should have made this distinction, because it is important in sorting out eschatology.

  • Stephen A.

    Michael, I agree with you, these labels are somewhat problematic. (So, did you faint?)

    All words that are used as descriptors are, however, and we shouldn’t run from the words because they’re difficult. We should use them (sometimes sparingly) in context and with care.

    Clearly, liberal politics seeps into liberal theology, and in some cases, are nearly identical (see: TEC or PCUSA or UU…IMO) The same is of course true of Conservative politics and religion.

    But to call your favorite side “Moderates” and the other side “Extremists” as some do on both sides of the discussion, is a bias that can’t be ignored, and those who do this need to be called out, as it were.

    One other note:

    she is developing a Sunday school curriculum to teach kids that Jesus loves everyone and would not leave anyone behind.

    Ummm… that’s called Universalism, and is far out of the mainstream – as far out of it as some in the article are saying the Rapture theology is. Why didn’t the reporter pick up on that? Because there was an agenda: “get” the Rapturists. (new word)

  • Matt

    As the head of WorldVision said today at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:

    “And then a horrible thing happened to Evangelical Christianity – Dispensationalism.”

  • Str1977

    “All words that are used as descriptors are, however, and we shouldn’t run from the words because they’re difficult.”

    No, we shouldn’ turn from word because they are difficult but because they are useless.

    Since this article simplistically pitted Rapturists (and not all Rapturists have even a clue about the whole Dispensationalist frame) against anti-Rapturists, why can’t it just stick with these two side instead of inserting labels (be it liberal, moderate, conversative or extreme) that have next to nothing to do with the issue discussed.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    It’s a problem to talk about Episcopalians as if they had any sort of doctrinal unity, of course. And reading Rev. Leiserson’s turn of phrase as universalism is straining things a bit; it’s a soundbite, not a creedal statement.

    It’s a bit ironic that probably the “moderates” in question do have relatively moderate views. The problem with the labels isn’t so much whether they’re right or wrong, as it is that they are being used as if they tell us something about the positions in question, when it fact they don’t. I would expect that these moderates share views on the second coming with a huge spread of other “moderates” and “conservatives”. But then, the article doesn’t address RC views either. And the reporter seems completely unaware that the details of the second coming is an important theological differentiator in one subsection of conservative American Protestantism that the rest of Christendom simply doesn’t care about.

  • Dennis Colby

    Terms like liberal, conservative, left and right should be voluntarily excluded from religious conversation. They really serve only to warp religious discussions into political ones. When it comes to politics, Americans have this obsession with classifying everyone as either liberal or conservative, forgetting there are positions that don’t fit neatly into the binary scheme.

    Although you could certainly argue there are religious groups who have largely exchanged theology for politics, I still think it’s a mistake to use political terms to describe religious viewpoints.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Michael:

    As you know, the members of this site are not all that interested in party politics. At least, I’m not — as an old-guard, pro-life Democrat with an FDR portrait hanging over his desk.

    We are trying, as best we can, to engage how words are used in RELIGION COVERAGE. We, thus, have to be interested in MSM efforts to accurately describe the doctrinal views of believers. Liberal, conservative, etc., are unavoidable. But, as you know, we really, really like to see specific beliefs described in accurate language that the believers themselves would embrace.

  • Michael

    I don’t disagree, TMatt. I’m not sure why you are directing your answer to me, since it is other commenters who seem to have the need to identify whether someone is a liberal or a moderate. I agreed the term was problematic.

    I’ll say, however, that the fact you cloak yourself as an “old-guard Democrat”–whatever that is as defined by you–means you are terrifically interested in politics and how that intersects with religion, especially since you mention abortion. It doesn’t get more political than that. As you say over and over again, abortion is the defining issue in American politics. The fact that you hinge your politics on abortion means you are the ultimate political animal, which plays itself out in your commentary and views of religion (and politics).

    Your pro-life stand and dismissal of current Democrats–while rejecting the Republican label–means you mix politics and religion quite a bit. An attempt to be viewed as politically neutral or clean is actually a fairly deliberate political act.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Michael:

    For me, abortion and the Culture of Life are doctrinal issues. How I struggle to mesh them in the realities of American life are of secondary importance.

    I do not fit in the Republican Party for a host of other issues.

    But click on this link. This is my crowd, if I lived in that district.

    http://northcarolina.democratsforlife.org/joinus.php

    That is a political statement — yes. But my essential stance on abortion and the right to life is rooted in my beliefs as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. It is an issue of doctrine.

    My do my doctrinal beliefs make me the “ultimate political animal”? Would you say the same thing for your rejection of key ancient Christian doctrines?

  • Michael

    You say you are “pro-life” for doctrinal issues and then describe your political affiliation as a “pro-life” Democrat. Your doctrinal beliefs evidently also inform your political beliefs. Didn’t you even write a column where you talked about why you voted for Bush because of abortion and how the Democrats had failed you?

    I don’t call myself a “pro-choice” anything. My beliefs on abortion don’t effect how I vote. Abortion has never changed my opinion of a candidate. I’ve voted for pro-life candidates and pro-choice candidates.

    “Would you say the same thing for your rejection of key ancient Christian doctrines?”

    I confess, my opposition to slavery and polygamy inform my politics :)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Actually, I predicted that W would not do much on abortion or other social issues. It was a matter of the Democrats IN THAT RACE doing much more that was worse.

    You continue to ignore my main point. I am interested in doctrine. I am less interested in politics, yet want to be part of public life and citizenship. If you look on this thread and the Andrew Sullivan thread, you will see the same points being made.

    And I do not believe you when you say that your position on abortion — and other social issues? — does not affect your vote. That, dead reader, is anti-intellectual mush. You have a mind and you use it.