From the Dean’s Desk

Harold W. Attridge

As the year 2000 approached many of us braced for a surge in millenarian fervor. The event proved to be largely anti-climactic and the year passed with little energy spent on the end time. Since then, however, perhaps fueled by the spectacular violence of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, interest in apocalyptic expectation has grown by leaps and bounds in various American Christian circles. “Omnium finis imminet” (do dire messages sound more authentic in Latin?) growled the advertising for a recent, and rather bizarre, TV series. That a producer would have thought to mount such a show in the first place is evidence of a pervasive contemporary concern with eschatology. Bolstering much of that interest is the phenomenon of the Left Behind series, a fictionalized version of a dispensationalist reading of the book of Revelation that has sold more than 80 million copies. Much of this eschatological fascination could be easily dismissed as misguided nonsense, but for the fact that so many people take it seriously, allowing it to form their image of a Rambo-like Christ, whose future violence against the powers of evil we might emulate now. For still others the apocalyptic scenario of the Left Behind series grounds a stance toward the politics of the Middle East that leaves little room for a peaceful solution to the long and bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Imagery of apocalyptic warfare seems to pervade our political culture as well. All in all, our heritage of apocalyptic literature and thought is not currently serving Christianity well.

This issue of Reflections offers a contribution to the critical analysis of the current apocalyptic fascination. My own essay suggests a basic hermeneutical framework with which to encounter scripture more generally. Historian Paul Boyer notes the connection between apocalyptic prophecy and contemporary American politics. Jennifer Butler and Glenn Zuber reflect on the role of conservative religious groups in international politics. My colleague Adela Collins, an expert on ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts, provides general principles for dealing with them. Alums Barbara Rossing and Tyler Stevenson offer theological reflections on the dispensationalist traditions that undergird the Left Behind series, arguing that there is something profoundly mistaken both about their reading of the book of Revelation and their fundamental construal of the Christian gospel.

What emerges from these various reflections will, I hope, be a more  adequate  view of what the book of Revelation is about and what the eschatological hopes of early Christianity might still teach us.