There always seems to be a rash of ‘end times speculation’ material coming to us from across the pond. The latest one is all about the mystery planet Nabiru, the alignment of planets and constellations, and a bad misreading of Revelation 12—but we don’t actually need to worry about that one. Three years ago we had something similar from someone called David Jeremiah—which I guess is a good name for someone claiming to have power and to be a prophet! (Think about it…). I didn’t looked in detail at that one, since there are many others like him, and when I have looked in the past, these kinds of teaching ministries consistently have a number of common features.
1. They are led by men—and not just any men. They are smart, intelligent and powerful, at least according to the publicity material.
2. These are people with unique knowledge that I cannot access by any other means than listening to them. In other words, their teaching is revelatory in nature, in that I could not access it in any other way or work it out by myself.
In Agents of the Apocalypse, noted prophecy expert Dr. David Jeremiah does what no Bible teacher has done before.
3. The current situation we are living in—in terms of both the time in history and the political context we are in—are of unique significance. All of history appears to have been leading to this present moment, and we are in a cultural context which is (of all the contexts in the world just now) uniquely able to understand God’s purposes.
4. The only way the reader can respond is to trust this teacher completely and ‘buy into’ the perspective that is being offered. Questioning or debate is not usually offered as an acceptable response.
5. There is no particular ethical imperative here—no demand to rethink issues of lifestyle or moral reasoning. All decision-making is flattened down to whether or not you will buy into this point of view—this interpretation of Scripture and this interpretation of how the world is.
These features are worth reflecting on a little.
1. It is a feature of US culture to present church leaders in this polished way, much more so than on this side of the pond. In many ways this must seem like a cultural imperative; no-one wants to put enquirers off by presenting a movement’s leaders as sloppy or unprofessional. Critique of this approach to leadership sits within a broader critique of megachurch culture; David Jeremiah leads a megachurch outside San Diego in succession to well-known author Tim LaHaye, whose ‘Left Behind‘ theology he also follows. It is a worth noting that he is consistently presented as ‘Dr David Jeremiah’, when in fact is doctorate is honorary.
2. It must be possible that readers of Scripture today might see or understand things in it that others have not previously seen or noted. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to do doctoral research in Biblical Studies! (I have had this experience; to my knowledge no-one has previously noticed that the expression ‘no longer was room found for him’ in Rev 12.8 is a clear allusion to Dan 2.35 and Ps 37.36 LXX. You read it here first). But David Jeremiah appears to go further. We cannot make sense of key NT passages, including the Book of Revelation, without his interpretive scheme. This, ironically, moves him away from the Protestant notion of the perspicuity of Scripture, and puts him much closer to the Augustinian and ‘Catholic’ idea of the interpretive authority of the church.
3. There is a danger that we all read Scripture from our own, narrow, cultural viewpoint. But this approach makes the programmatic assumption that the reader is living in a unique time and culture; this assumption is brought to the text and not easily derived from it. As such it is the theological equivalent to those funny posters which portray ‘The World According to San Francisco‘ which parody the way all other cultures are viewed in relation to how they serve the reader. I have argued elsewhere that a discerning self-awareness of part of the demand of careful reading of Scripture.
4. There are numerous theological traditions where questioning of the sources of authority is discouraged, so there is nothing unique here. But I think evangelical perspectives are much better served by being open to critique from within and without.
5. I often am struck by how much teaching the evangelical and charismatic tradition is reduced to an existential appeal to respond, in contrast to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom which never appears to include challenge without explication of content. The NT consistently tells us the ethical implications of responding to the kingdom of God in our midst; we are clear about what it will involve, and this is what makes some people walk away (Mark 10.22, John 6.66).
Underlying these, it strikes me that this kind of teaching has features in common with three other cultural phenomena. First, it shares with gnosticism an emphasis on having the right knowledge as interpretive key to reality, a negative assessment of the world which leads to scepticism about social action and environmental concern, and little interest in ethical questions.
Secondly, it shares with radical feminist hermeneutics a systematic prioritisation of the experience and situation of the reader. ‘Moderate’ feminism helpfully alerts readers to different perspectives on texts, in particular the perspectives of female characters and questions women bring to the text. Radical feminism takes women’s experience as axiomatic, and critiques not just readings but the text itself in the light of women’s experience.
Thirdly, it shares an approach to authority with the popular phenomenon of astrology in the form of horoscopes. In a fascinating essay ‘The stars down to earth’, the German-American sociologist and literary critic Theodor Adorno analysed American newspaper horoscopes over a period of years from a sociological point of view. What he heard in the columns was a distant voice of authority, which commanded obedience to the unique revelations that had no rational basis and were beyond question, and sidestepped any accountability to common ethical systems. Not surprisingly, in this he heard strong echoes of the irrational Nazi ideology of his native Germany, from which he had fled in exile. All too often, teaching about the ‘end times’ and the ‘rapture’ share this authoritarian, irrational and monolithic approach to ‘truth’ which some find very hard to escape from or question.
If you do go and watch the latest Left Behind film with Nicholas Cage, these might be things to reflect on as a diversion from the bad acting.
(A version of this post was first published in 2014. Thanks to John Martin for drawing the David Jeremiah website to my attention.)