I guess it was just a matter of timing. The last time I really enjoyed the Christmas season in a way that didn’t involve tainted memories was in 2007… I had been cast in Guys & Dolls to start rehearsing right after New Years, and spend the time between Christmas and New Years in Florida for my cousin Kyle’s wedding.
Also, at that time, the Cheesy Gordita Crunch — my favorite Taco Bell menu item since they first introduced it when I was 16 — was “in season” at Taco Bell (it was not yet a permanent item). Additionally, I had just gotten a decent raise and was doing well financially for the holiday season. And the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin was making its TBS debut. I’d seen the movie plenty of times before, but I really enjoy it. I finished my Christmas shopping the night before my family Christmas gathering (yeah, I’m a last-minute shopper), and stopped by Taco Bell on the way home. It was, after all, Cheesy Gordita Crunch season.
I switched on the television and saw that The 40-Year-Old Virgin was coming on, so I left it on. I finished the Taco Bell meal and wrapped all my presents. I was a bit disappointed by the television edits, but that’s how it goes with an R-rated comedy.
The next year, 2008, I was not having as good a Christmas season. The night I finished my shopping, I had a callback audition and was passed up (unjustly in my mind, but I think we all are in our own minds). So, on the way home, I stopped by Taco Bell and also picked up a DVD copy of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
With only one exception, due to being out of the country, I’ve repeated this ritual every year since. Tonight, I’m skipping weekly Trivia Night to repeat it again.
What about you? What strange holiday ritual have you created that you always try to keep?
“So we cross that line into the crypt. Total eclipse. Suffer unto my apocalypse.”
December 21, 2012 is the day that the West has mistakenly identified as the end of the ancient Mayan calendar. Due to this, the idea of an impending apocalypse has inundated our pop culture for the past few years.
At first, it was taken seriously in smaller esoteric circles. Lately, though, it’s become more ubiquitous as a joke. Parties and concerts (I’ll be at this one) are scheduled all over the country and the world commemorating an “end of the world” that no one really thinks is coming.
Eventual apocalypses aren’t fake in the minds of many people, though – people you know, in some cases. And some of those people wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t make it to December 21 in the first place.
Songs and Raptures
Growing up in the Evangelical Christian community, I frequently heard comments regarding “Jesus coming back”. I had a vague image in my head the clouds opening up, and Jesus riding a chariot down a beam of light. It wasn’t until middle school that I started learning the details of what I was actually being taught would happen.
I think I was in middle school, a time when I obsessively listened to Christian radio, when I first heard DC Talk’s cover of Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”. The lyrics talked of a “life filled with guns and war”, and then told stories of people disappearing. I didn’t know the details of “rapture theology”, but the chorus of the song made it clear that “There’s no time to change your mind, the son has come and you’ve been left behind”.
I already dealt with “salvation anxiety”, partially due to moving into the church Youth Group. When Evangelical students move from a Children’s Department to a Youth Group, the Sunday school lessons become a lot less about happy Bible stories, and more about hellfire and brimstone. It’s always told under the guise of “here’s why you need to convert your friends”, but it’s also clearly aimed at the students themselves. “Are you REALLY ‘saved’?” The most prominent statement I heard was from the pulpit itself: “99% sure is 100% lost”. Any doubt means you’re not really “in”. And how can you know?
Now, as an atheist, I’m aware that the claim of 100% knowledge isn’t real. But at the time, I thought there was something wrong with me. Hell was real. Hell was coming for me. And as many times as I prayed the prayer, I could never be certain that it really “took”. But a “someday death” was no longer my fear. The happy Jesus descending from the clouds was replaced in my mind by the sudden disappearances of everyone in my life except for me.
It prompted years of nightmares, a second fear-induced “salvation” and baptism at the age of 12… and an interest in the theology that led to these particular beliefs. I dove into Revelation, but letters to churches and visions of giant beasts with women riding them didn’t yield a clear understanding and certainly didn’t bring the conclusion of a rapture, or even a seven-year tribulation. Something was going to happen… “soon”, I was promised… and I didn’t have any idea of what. Apocalyptic songs made their way into more and more of the Christian radio. One particularly chilling song was called “Late Great Planet Earth” by Plumb, and the chorus said “Sky is falling, voices crying out in desparation, hear them calling, everybody save yourself”. Certainly a loving god wouldn’t pour out his wrath in this way, would he? But this was the same god who drowned the entire world except for Noah’s family, and the body count there included countless children and babies.
So for further understanding, I went to the actual source 1990s end-times obsession: the Left Behind series.
The Apocalyptic Novels
Before reading Left Behind, I had read Bill Myers’ “Fire of Heaven” trilogy, which pulled a bait-and-switch. The first book in the series was a sci-fi about a death-row inmate injected with “divine Jesus DNA” found through some convoluted plot point regarding a monastery and wax. The “end times” scenario didn’t unfold until the third book, when the Antichrist (a political leader) teamed up with a little boy who was exposed to the Jesus Genes, which somehow gave him devil powers. It was primarily a misogynistic story about the “two prophets” – imagined here as a husband and wife who hadn’t consummated their marriage yet, so the wife decides to have an affair with the antichrist, therefore doubling as a Revelation Prophet and the Whore of Babylon. This story was used to paint a Hosea/Gomer “Bride of Christ” theology, and the apocalypse was just a setting. In fact, the author even wrote in the margins that “No one really knows” what these verses in Revelation mean, and that they could all be symbolic. But also, importantly missing from the narrative: The Rapture.
But when I finally picked up the well-known LaHaye/Jenkins series everyone said I needed to read, I found no such notes. It was obvious from the reading that Myers, for all the flaws in his writings, had a level of humility that LaHaye and Jenkins simply didn’t. The idea that they might not have all the answers was not one they chose to entertain.
Most of my literary experience up to that point was in religious novels, so I initially managed to overlook the serious problems in characterization and plot structure. But my purpose in reading these books was to find straightforward answers to questions like “How is the world going to end?” and “What is the timeline for the Apocalypse?” The books brilliantly dodged those answers, only bringing up each new Seal or Trumpet judgment as it happened. I read as far as the seventh or eighth book in the series, when the Antichrist had been assassinated and resurrection as a man possessed by the devil. By that point, I understood something that Left Behind fans I spoke with didn’t seem to grasp: That the LB books took place in a universe where they didn’t exist. If Left Behind was accurate, and millions of people in the world suddenly disappeared, all the survivors would need to do is pick up a copy of Left Behind. There would be no skepticism about what the Rapture really was. How could an antichrist possibly rise in a world like that? People would be getting saved left and right, and would be automatically distrusting of any political leader. I imagined scenarios in which the antichrist was not a political leader, but an economic leader. When AOL merged with Time Warner, I decided Ted Turner must be the antichrist. (Yes, I really did).
I was also discovering what I already knew from the Myers series and the movie The Omega Code – both of which were “raptureless” – the jury was not unanimous on end-times theology. I found a website (poorly structured and filled with conspiracy theories) which preached that the Catholic Church was the “Beast”. I didn’t buy these arguments for a second, but they did demonstrate to me that other points of view were out there. But most importantly, I began reading the writings of Gregory Koukl, the Christian apologist whose writings ironically caused me to become an atheist (more on that in another post). Koukl’s site had an article giving the history of the Plymouth Brethren and the actual origins of the “rapture” hypothesis… something that wasn’t believed until the late 1800s.
I Don’t Want to Die
But even before I rejected the LaHaye/Jenkins school of thought concerning the apocalypse, I still didn’t find it comforting. Not just because of salvation anxiety… deep down, I “knew” I was okay, and that I would be raptured along with the rest. But I didn’t want to.
Fred Clark has written at his blog The Slacktivist that being raptured is functionally identical to dying. You’re alive, then suddenly you’re up in Heaven. It’s death, without the pesky “dying” part. And I didn’t want to die. I wasn’t afraid of death, but I didn’t want to die. And I was living in a subculture where the prevalent idea was “you are going to be raptured very soon”. After all, Clinton was the president, the world was becoming more progressive, and therefore more “evil”. Any day, now, we would all be stricken dead in our sleep without so much as a body for our unsaved loved ones to claim.
For a teenager, this is not an appealing notion. I was never going to graduate high school? Never become the lawyer and the judge I was planning on becoming? Never getting married, or having kids?
It’s actually one of the reasons I quit wearing a Purity Ring in high school: because many of the people in my circle of friends saw it as a sign of eternal celibacy. They weren’t going to have sex until they were married, and they were going to be raptured before they got that chance. I refused to embrace that notion, so I shed the ring.
Paper Plates and China Saucers
One effect of preterism, and why it is so popular among domionists, is that it shifts the focus of a believer’s energy from heaven to earth. As a premillenialist, I never saw a purpose in changing the world – it was all going up in flames in seven years plus “soon”. As a preterist, though, I couldn’t pass that responsibility off. The world was no longer a paper plate to be disposed of, but a china saucer to be washed and maintained.
Today, as a nonreligious progressive, I continue seeing the world as a china saucer. I just disagree with my former self on how to maintain it. For example, I desparately want to see equal rights for LGBTQ individuals in this country and around the world. And seeing steps being made toward that goal, I am excited about the future and about future generations.
But for those who see the world as a paper plate, they see “signs of the times”. Earthquakes, famines, wars and rumors of wars. For those people, the end is near, so they hide in their (sybolic or literal) bunkers with their children and wait. They wait for a rapture to take them away from what they don’t understand.
And they’re the ones being left behind.
I’m sure it’s cliche on this day to write about “where I was on 9/11”, but eleven years later, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually written down my memories of that fateful Tuesday. So here goes.
I was 17, and I had to be at work at 11 that morning. I was still asleep (despite what most homeschooling defenders claim, we did sleep in, pretty regularly). My brother Nathan came to my room and said I had to get up because someone had bombed the World Trade Center. My first thought, which I grumbled to him was “they did that already”, remembering the 1993 attack. He responded “It’s different this time, they flew planes into it, just come see.”
I got up and went downstairs, where the television was turned on. The towers were smoking. What I find interesting is that I don’t remember much of anything about that whole morning. I don’t even remember the collapse of the towers. I just remember my best friend Daniel calling and asking if I was watching. And then I went to work.
I was working at Quizno’s at the time, and we had a small television in the back office that we pulled into the dining room. I do remember thinking how strange it was that we kept getting customers. Why is everyone going to work today? Why aren’t these people home with their families? Strangely, we actually had a really busy lunch rush that day just from people coming in to watch the television. But no scheduled events were canceled… I still had band rehearsal and a scout meeting that night.
Over the next few days, I internalized most of my thoughts about the situation. Several nights, I would go for walks by myself because I found it depressing to be at home with the television constantly playing coverage of a terrorist attack. And really… that was it.
But there were several topics that ran through my mind a lot over the next few days:
My Senior Trip
My senior class had a trip to New York scheduled for the end of September. Sure it’s selfish, but my first thoughts were along the lines of “Are we still going?” “Are flights going to continue by then?” “Will anything be open?” “Will I lose the money I paid?”
When it became apparent that most of our planned events would be back open by the end of the month (a Broadway show, a Yankees game, the Empire State Building), they said if we didn’t go, we would lose our money. Some students were adamant that we should cancel the trip… but I noticed that many of these were the students whose parents paid their fees. Me? I had sold my first car so that I could afford this trip. In the end, we still went. We visited Ground Zero while the rubble was still smoking, and the NYPD was stationed around it to prevent people from taking pictures (it was a crime scene). The surrounding buildings were caked with dust, and in every square inch of that dust, people had used their fingers to write the names of their missing loved ones.
My maternal grandfather had died the previous summer. I remember in the aftermath of the attack, feeling grateful that he hadn’t witnessed the attack. You see, he was born and raised in Queens, and even though he had lived in Knoxville and Huntsville since the ’50s, he always struck me as a very “New York” individual. The attacks would have devastated him.
Rumors of War
To be quite honest, I legitimately afraid of the prospect of war. Rationally I knew times had changed since World War 2, but I also knew that the US declared war on the Axis powers the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. I was only a few months from my 18th birthday, and was scared shitless that the draft would be reinstated. I was not physically fit, and didn’t know dick about firearms, so I figured if I was drafted and put in infantry I would be dead in minutes.
After the attacks, car antennae, front lawns, storefronts… they all became Star-Spangled spectacles. This was one place where I did intentionally abstain. My reason was a bit on the bitter side though: I had an American flag on my car the previous summer. I wasn’t particularly patriotic, but I had received the miniature flag at Alabama Boy’s State, and I’d put it on my car in honor of my grandfather who was dying. One day, I was at the mall, and came out to see that the flag had been vandalized. So I removed it. And when it was suddenly “cool” to put an American flag on your car, I refused to follow suit, even though I knew whatever random kid or adult had wrinkled mine up would never think of doing that now.
The Signs of the Times
Though I was still a Christian in my teen years (I didn’t give that up until college, and that’s a whole other series of posts), I had already broken with the premillenial, pre-trib, dispensionalist eschatology that was permeating all of my Evangelical peers’ views. And since I was an outside observer of these conversations, I was immediately struck by how crass some of them were. I had a Sunday School teacher say “this is it. It’s all happening now.” This is the same guy who said he was never going to have to worry about retirement because the End Times were going to happen before he needed to retire. All these years later, I kind of want to call him up and say “How’d that Rapture work out for you? Hope you wised up and got a 401(k)”.
In all seriousness, though, this was one of the first times I started feeling there could be harmful real-world effects of these beliefs. I felt the disconnect between “rebuild” and “hide in a bunker and wait to die”.
Epilogue: The Anthrax Incident
Part of our trip to New York involved a tour of NBC Studios. As coincidence would have it, we were in the building at the time of the anthrax scare, thought we didn’t find out about it until a few weeks later. Because we had been in the building on the same floor as some of the contaminated envelopes, we all voluntarily submitted to being tested for Anthrax at the hospital three weeks later. It wasn’t an uncomfortable test. The doctor took my heart rate and stuck a Q-tip up my nose on a Saturday morning. Then I left and went to work.
Later, they billed us all for that.