If The Rapture Occurs, This Magazine Will Be Blank

When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture,by Paul Boyer (Harvard University Press, 468 pp.; $29.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Timothy P. Weber, David T. Porter Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Asizable premillennial subculture exists in America. It is built on the conviction that the second coming of Christ is imminent and that biblical prophecy is history before it happens. Bumper stickers warn: “If the rapture occurs, this car will be driverless.” Christian bookstores stock dozens of prophecy titles that offer elaborate scenarios of end-times events and clear explanations for reading “the signs of the times.” For those who accept this prophecy belief, current events fit easily into the prophetic puzzle.

After four years of reading hundreds of books on biblical prophecy, Paul Boyer, a respected historian from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, concludes that prophetic belief is more pervasive and influential than many people think. He discovered that premillennialists have played a significant role in shaping popular attitudes on a wide range of topics.

Boyer thinks that historians and observers of popular culture have either ignored or underestimated the extent of prophetic belief in post-World War II America. He cites a 1983 Gallup poll in which 62 percent of those responding said they had “no doubts” that Jesus will come to earth again, though he admits that everyone does not believe with the same intensity.

He draws three concentric circles. In the center is a committed core of devotees, numbering maybe 8 million; they study the Bible, attend prophecy conferences, and consume prophecy paperbacks and cassette tapes. Next are millions more who agree that the Bible contains a clear plan for the future but are hazy about the details themselves. In the outer circle are more secular people who show no real interest in the prophetic puzzle, but during times of crisis may listen to the Bible teachers. Thus prophetic belief is able to influence what millions of Americans think about the state of the society, the importance of Israel, the role that Russia and other nations are playing in the world, and the threat of nuclear war.

The mark of the beast

Boyer organizes his study in three parts. In the first, he begins with a helpful examination of apocalyptic and prophetic Scripture and demonstrates that there has never been only one way to understand these texts, even among those who take the Bible seriously. Next he provides an overview of what he calls the “rhythms of prophecy belief,” showing that interest in Bible prophecy comes and goes, and that Christians in virtually all ages have fit their own times into prophetic scenarios. Then he describes the emergence of dispensationalism, a prophetic view that arose in the 1820s and ’30s and eventually became the most popular version of premillennialism in twentieth-century America.

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In the second part, Boyer covers the post-World War II period, which seemed to fit dispensational expectations so well. He devotes separate chapters to the mainstays of popular prophetic teaching: the atomic bomb and nuclear war, the central place of the Soviet Union in end-time events, the special role of Israel and the Jews in the coming great tribulation, the standing of the United States in biblical prophecy, and the unrelenting speculations about Antichrist, the number 666, and the mark of the beast.

In the third part, he tells why he thinks prophecy belief has endured. He explains, for instance, how believers were able to fit the Persian Gulf War into their system and also how they were forced to make adjustments in light of the demise of the Soviet empire, which had played a central role in earlier predictions.

This book is extensively researched and carefully written. There are over 100 pages of closely packed notes, which leads one to believe that nobody has read more postwar prophecy than Paul Boyer. His portrayal of other people’s views is straightforward and accurate. Though some readers may find much in this book to laugh at, Boyer himself never sneers at his subject and treats prophecy believers with respect. In short, his analysis is judicious and well-nuanced. If premillennialists do not like the book, it will not be because he has treated them unfairly.

The politics of prophecy

Boyer leaves his readers much to ponder. For example, belief in prophecy is both durable and adaptable. Though advocates claim they stick to the obvious, literal meaning of the Bible, their own history proves that the same passage can be made to apply to a variety of historical events. Many loyalists will be bothered to see how many times their teachers’ minds have changed and how easily they have substituted one sure fulfillment for another.

As Boyer shows, many of the popular Bible teachers have missed the mark on numerous predictions, especially on the date for Christ’s return. Yet they rarely explain or apologize; they just move along with newer, updated editions or different projections.

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Even more surprising, their followers do not seem to mind. Boyer thinks such adaptability is ironic among people who equate truth with precision, consistency, and continuity. In the end, much of prophetic belief looks like a huge and complicated engine with many interchangeable parts. But Boyer has no doubts that this kind of flexibility will help prophecy belief survive.

Readers also will want to reflect on how easily prophecy belief can be politicized. In earlier times, premillennialists often used their beliefs for radical and subversive political purposes; more recently, prophetic views have supported more conservative causes. Not until the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Religious Right have prophecy believers been so close to political power. But how could Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who believe that the world is in hopeless and inevitable decline, work so hard to save America? Boyer argues that even true believers can hold incompatible views at the same time.

Finally, many readers will be struck by Boyer’s observation that “prophecy remains of absorbing interest to millions of Americans, but those who expound the prophetic scriptures are no longer the era’s intellectual or even theological leaders.” Many popular expositors of prophecy are like the people who buy their books and tune in to their television programs. They are former accountants, real-estate developers, and engineers who criticize the “experts” for missing the obvious meaning of biblical texts. These popularizers know how to bypass scholarly elites to take their case directly to the people, which is a major reason why prophecy belief endures.

To followers, the prophetic scenarios are logically convincing and spiritually satisfying; the ability to show prophetic fulfillments is seen as proof of the Bible’s inspiration and of the truth of evangelical faith. Also, in a dangerous world in decline, there is something profoundly appealing about the Rapture’s promise of escape and the coming reign of Jesus.

Paul Boyer’s book is the best study available on the persistence in American culture of prophetic belief. It will help outsiders understand what often seems like a bewildering belief; and it will challenge insiders to consider the complexities (and at times incongruities) of their own belief system.

How To Be A Diplomatic Prophet

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World,by Richard J. Mouw (InterVarsity, 172 pp.; $8.99, paper). Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, author of Revealing the New Age Jesus.

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Christians are called to a strange and seemingly impossible task: to be prophetic yet diplomatic. We must be prophetic because we believe and bear witness to the incomparable revelation of God in Christ. We have an uncompromising message of judgment and salvation for a compromised world under judgment. Yet we must be diplomatic because the message needs to be conveyed winsomely and with integrity to a society that largely disagrees with it. To thunder from the mountaintop is God’s unique prerogative—and one of which he seldom avails himself.

To put it in Richard Mouw’s terms, we are called to a “convicted civility.” Civility is a rare virtue in our fractious and disunited society. In the face of profound disagreement, it is easier to shout a theological opinion than humbly but firmly to enunciate a Christian conviction. It is more comfortable to retreat to the sanctuary of nodding compatriots than to risk misunderstanding and ridicule by speaking the truth in love in the public square.

Despite the difficulties, Mouw convincingly argues that the need for civility is pressing. The virtue is nearly extinct. Civility is a Christian virtue whereby we enter public discussions with a strong conviction of Christian truth, a willingness to learn from those with whom we disagree, and a desire to honor the humanity of even our fiercest foe. Civility is not a passive politeness that defers to everyone and stands for nothing. Neither is it relativistic. It is a mannerly demeanor in which an inner intensity never overpowers self-restraint or rational discourse.

Mouw is an apt spokesman for civility. As the book’s back cover says, “Few if any people in the evangelical world have dialogued as widely and sensitively as Mouw.” That is no hollow hype. Reading Uncommon Decency gives the impression that the author has learned from experience, and that gives it a refreshing authenticity.

After explaining and defending the virtue of civility, Mouw outlines a civil response in several controversial areas, such as sexual ethics, comparative religion, and even the doctrine of hell. These chapters demonstrate what is at stake for each issue and how the issue can be addressed in a civil fashion.

Questions may be raised concerning some of the applications of Mouw’s ideal of civility. For instance, although he says that “abortions are always regrettable,” he suggests that it may be more civil to permit, rather than oppose, abortion in cases of violent rape. But a person who believes that a woman impregnated through rape ought not seek an abortion need not lack sensitivity or civility. Such a person may still empathize and agonize with the victim, all the while encouraging her to keep the child—and, of course, offering her compassion and assistance.

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However one might disagree with Mouw over a particular application of civility, the book articulates an urgent message Christians should take to heart. I believe Mouw would endorse these words of Pascal: “It is false piety to preserve peace at the expense of truth. It is also false zeal to preserve truth at the expense of charity.” Uncommon Decency is recommended to all of us who need instruction on how to keep this balance.

Help For Sexually Addicted Clergy

The Secret Sin: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction,by Mark R. Laaser (Zondervan, 208 pp.; $8.95, paper). Reviewed by Jim Alsdurf, coauthor of Battered into Submission (InterVarsity).

The stories have become common: A well-regarded Christian leader is found to have committed some sexual sin. The inevitable question is “Why?” Attempting to present “the best of what we know about the disease of sexual addiction,” Mark Laaser in The Secret Sin challenges the Christian community to face sexual realities—in particular, the fact that there are “thousands of sexually addicted clergy.”

Laaser describes sexual addiction as a “sickness involving any type of uncontrollable sexual activity.” It is a sickness in which something “normally healthy becomes unhealthy” through constant obsession. He identifies “building-block behaviors”—sexual fantasy, use of pornography, masturbation—that create a vicious cycle and entrap the addict.

Laaser, who holds a doctorate in religion, has worked extensively with sexually compulsive people and approaches this problem with a Christian commitment and a personal knowledge of the struggle of sexual compulsivity. Laaser asserts that although sexual addiction has existed since the beginning of history, “it has been misnamed, mistreated, ignored, or completely undiagnosed.”

Laaser believes that most sexual addicts have been abused and respond to their abuse with destructive core beliefs, one of which is that sex “is my most important need.” To escape the shame that accompanies their sexual acting out, addicts attempt to escape the awareness that their behavior is bad or harmful. Laaser proposes a 12-step process for recovery, urging Christians to confront the addict and describing ways to do this. He also outlines a process of recovery for couples and congregations.

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The author is discreet yet direct in his writing style and never attempts to titillate the reader. But his sweeping acceptance of the addiction model and its application to sexuality (“sexual addiction”), religion (“religious addiction”), and interpersonal relationships (“codependency”) is a serious flaw. It leads to the kind of fuzzy thinking that contends, “Sexually addictive behavior is indeed sinful. But sin, in itself, is also an addiction.” If sin is an addiction, we are all addicts. Laaser offers no systematic data to support his claim that sexual addiction is widespread among clergy, and he confuses sexual misconduct with what he calls sexual addiction. Despite these weaknesses, the book is an important first step in challenging the church to examine issues of sexuality. We can no longer ignore them or let scandals be the driving force for our actions.

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