July 5, 2005
-- Martin E. Marty
When I use the word "literally," I mean "literally" -- not metaphorically, as in "it was literally raining cats and dogs." Literally, one or two-score pages of the newspapers that came my way last week bannered the place of religion in American life -- particularly in US Supreme Court decisions about the Ten Commandments displays, and instant skirmishing among religiously motivated groups fighting over the Court appointee who will succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Originally assigned to "sight" the meager evidences of religion in American public life, Sightings now has to duck as religiously inspired missiles and releases come our way, every citizen's way. Rather than pour it on with comment on this week's headlines, I am going to spend the Fourth of July stepping back to a quieter scene and treat what this column has generally left behind, namely the best-selling Left Behind books and films, and what they represent.
The source for this round is our town's freebie paper, the Chicago Reader, on whose July 1 cover is the headline "Let's Hear It for the Loving, Wimpy Jesus: It's Not Easy Being the Country's Most Outspoken Critic of Rapture Theology." The story by Todd Dills features Professor Barbara Rossing of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (my alma mater twice over). Rossing is not exactly the naive sparrow who flew into a raging badminton game, but she also is not a self-promoting pop scholar who goes out of her way to find attention-grabbing subjects.
Instead, Rossing is a professor of New Testament who trains pastors and other women and men who graduate and are soon on the front lines of religious conflict. There, many of their members expect them to declare themselves on the interpretation of the biblical book of Revelation, which inspires the (in my view, simply) exploitative construals of that last book in the canon. Rossing was curious about the acclaim given to these interpretations, and was puzzled about why no one she knew in the scholarly world paid any attention to what was beguiling the faithful.
Rossing can easily demonstrate that the "left-behind" "Rapture" theology is not "the old-time religion," not what the writer of the biblical book had in mind; that this theology was invented in Scotland and England and transported to the United States in the nineteenth century; that the greats of Christian history came up with scores of often mutually contradictory interpretations of the End Time before modern-minded commentators, novelists, film-makers, and politicians -- yes, indeed, politicians, including many of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill -- settled on this version.
When Rossing's popular scholarly book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press), appeared sixteen months ago, she was genuinely surprised to be invited by the media to comment on the Rapture rapture. She is getting used to it, and will have more to say, though she is turning now, notes Dills, back to a first love: biblical understandings of environment and ecology. She had better hurry -- if the Rapture people get their explosive, Jesus-the-Terminator way, there may not be much environment left to be cared for. And Rossing cares much about that, and hopes others will, too.
For Further Reading:
Todd Dills's article on Barbara Rossing can be found at www.chicagoreader.com. For an interview with Rossing by John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, see his article "God So Loved the World that He Gave Us World War III." Bill Berkowitz also writes about Rossing, the Rapture, and the Left Behind series in "The Rapture Racket."
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.