A reporter at the Rocktown Weekly, Harrisonburg, Virginia, writes the following.
Biblical prophecy seminar: A field trip
The announcement came by mail, a glossy tri-fold pamphlet entitled “Discover Prophecy,” in a vaguely menacing font with some flames roasting part of the headline. This is emblazoned across the bottom of a nightmarish painting in which a four-winged, four-headed leopard, a Godzilla-type reptile, a winged lion and a grizzly bear roam a desolate beach beside a stormy sea beneath foreboding clouds.
It’s an invitation to “The Discovery Of A Lifetime” in New Market, a series of presentations about how and when the world will end, who the Antichrist is, how Jesus is now preparing to return, and how to ensure you’re not left behind.
Twenty-five thousand of these brochures went out last month, according to Shane Anderson, pastor of New Market Seventh-day Adventist Church and the featured speaker at the event. At a typical response rate of .25 to .5 percent, the $6,000 to $7,000 in postage might attract a few dozen people.
“We feel like the information’s important enough that we’re willing to pay the expense for that advertising,” Anderson said.
He’s pictured — with gnarly smile and a faint computer-geek aura — on one of the folds, and has reportedly used “solid teaching from God’s word” for more than a decade to bring “hope and peace to thousands.” Juxtaposed with the ominous apocalyptic vibe elsewhere on the brochure, this claim sets up a number of compelling questions: who finds peace in knowing the Antichrist’s true identity? Or hope in learning exactly how the world ends? And, more fundamentally, what is this whole affair, the advertisements for which simultaneously tug at fear/loathing and hope/peace poles of the human psyche, really like? ___________________________ Jan. 13 — Night no. 5 — Impressions — 7-9 p.m.
The parking lot outside the Shenandoah Valley Academy auditorium is overflowing and a sizeable corps of welcomers and complementary Bible hander-outers man the doors. Inside the auditorium itself a few hundred people, whose average age appears to be 55-60 (a data set surely skewed by the complimentary child care available elsewhere in the building), have already taken their seats.
A short health lesson on the virtues of the Mediterranean diet precedes the lecture (Seventh-day Adventists place major emphasis on personal health). Then, after a song and a prayer, Anderson takes the stage and gets down to business. He begins by acknowledging that tonight’s topic — the second coming of Jesus Christ — is surrounded by much hype, speculation and misinformation.
An early theme in his talk is that Christ’s return will be accompanied by such a display of glorious light and pizzazz that it will be impossible to overlook. “Tonight we’re going to prove that directly from the Bible,” Anderson says.
There’s an enormous emphasis on “proving” things here tonight. A lot of people — the ones following along in their Bibles: Matthew, Daniel, Revelations, back to Matthew, while muttering “Amen” — seem to have come to exile doubts, to hear The Truth, to build a solid, square frame around their world and understand how it will end in concrete, black-and-white terms. Literal interpretations are also in vogue. E.g., the trumpet blast that will accompany the Second Coming will actually, literally rouse the dead, Anderson says.
He then disparages the “secret rapture” theory glorified by the Left Behind series (End of Days-obsessed fiction that, on the surface, appears ideologically similar to this take on the Apocalypse) as one of the most insidious ideas to enjoy currency in modern Christendom. This has to do with some allegedly bogus theology involving second chances for repentance. Anderson proves that we have one chance only, and if we miss it, things will go very, very badly indeed.
This feels like a combo college lecture and Sunday sermon, and Anderson is without question an effective, polished speaker. He moves along with confidence and slows for emphasis when appropriate. He projects an undeniable air of authority, and makes good use of humor — at one point there’s some LOL hilarity — while roaming the stage decorated with white flowers and a podium beneath a giant projection screen. Throughout the lecture, this displays Scripture, PowerPoint-esque summaries of major points and faith-themed paintings in the style of those gentle, long-haired Jesus pictures that old people have. ___________________________ Thought-provoking interlude:
A few days later, reached by telephone, Anderson says that he enjoys discussing questions that people have about his sermons and viewpoints, and that he encourages people to air their doubts and explore their skepticisms.
Yes, he does preach with conviction, and he absolutely believes what he says. And yes, he’s happy to sit down later and listen to a diametrically-opposed viewpoint, delivered with equal conviction.
“That’s one of the lost arts in American life,” Anderson said, lamenting that fact that most people seem to be either too close-minded to engage in skepticism, or too topsy-turvy to express, or even hold, strong convictions in the first place. ___________________________ What else? There’s significant energy spent hashing out the exact chronological details of how all this is going to go down. Refreshment tables are set up in the back. There are collection buckets but no real pressure to donate. Brochures available in the lobby outside the auditorium identify the Pope as the Antichrist (nights No. 2 and No. 3 were devoted to this topic), and prove that the End Times began in 1844, and will end soon. It is snowing gently. The next night’s topic (this lecture series goes on almost all month) is about the U.S. in biblical prophecy and sounds engaging. People cluster after the lecture with cups of lemonade, chatting, happy, then bid farewell and brace for the cold as they head out to their minivans.
If you’re the type who’s predisposed to uncertainty, or wary of absolutes, the fixation here on cold, hard, monolithic Truth is unsettling and uncomfortable. And if you harbor any doubts about the major tenets of our society’s Judeo-Christian bedrock, or for whatever reason suspect you don’t meet the criteria for salvation prevalent here tonight, if you’re willing to suspend for a moment your disbelief, to be intellectually honest and allow yourself to consider the possibility that what’s been said here might actually be True, and might really happen, the discomfort settles in your gut, and tightens, and feels more like fear, as you step out into the snow, and head for home with all this spinning through your head.
A SPECTRUM reader writes, "At [X-Church] we just completed our evangelism series--about 30 baptisms, many of them children. This was the first Sabbath after the series and the whole group was invited to the front to receive their baptismal certificates. There were maybe a dozen people who showed up the week after the series was over and half of them were the children. We spent $40,000 to baptize our children, and send scary brochures to the community."
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1442