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Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages.

Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages. By Eugen Weber (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. 294 pp.).

Weber's Apocalypses is, in his own words, "more about narrative than interpretation, description than explanation." Weber consistently, even aggressively, shuns articulating a typology of the apocalyptic, chiliastic, and millenarian beliefs that span Western history.

Unable to forgo all characterizations about apocalypses and their prophets, Weber restates implicitly a distinction Ernst Troeltsch made more than a half-century ago. Church is an institution structured to survive and thrive in time whereas cults are secretive and sects announce the end of time. Invariably mingling radical ends and entirely fresh beginnings and orders, prophets are not welcomed by established churches and institutions. "Unfortunately," apocalypse is more about "horror and destruction than soup and salad," Weber reminds. Proponents of the apocalypse in the early church and now are not dissuaded by Augustine's best arguments that finally only the Father in heaven knows the day and hour of final judgment. Yet how could Augustine and the church win out, when as Schweitzer, Bultmann, and other New Testament scholars have pointed out, Christ, Paul, and the early church expected a speedy and imminent end to history? This sense of approaching last times possibly accounts for the martyrs whose blood watered the flowering Church.

Apocalyptic claims, Weber contends, are not to be confused with superficial late nineteenth century fidgeting about the fin de siecle, which could have only occurred when thinkers were in a condition to take accurate calendars seriously. Only then could thinkers reflecting on the vicissitudes of time and human fortune disregard the hitherto indecipherable but unimpeachable movement of the heavens, the cycle of nature, the actual march of events, or yet the time commanding millennium that measured the history of Rome and the reign of the Son of God. Only in recent history were people secure enough to worry about the chronological passage of centuries rather immediate signs of the changing relationship between heaven and earth, God and his creation.

Weber affirms the centrality of Judaic and Christian sources of apocalypse in Western history. Nevertheless, he spreads the table of his apocalyptic and chiliastic wares as widely as he can. Millenarians, millenarists, latter day utopians, nationalists, socialists, Marxists, ecologists preaching ecocide--Weber's prophets of last days are myriad. They preach last days by counting numbers, correlating gospels, announcing wars, revolutions, and anti-Christs, preaching nuclear melt downs and biological monstrosities, and depicting towering infernos. They look for the conversion of the Jews and the ultimate showdown in the Near East. They conjure a stunning spectrum of damnation, salvation, and resurrection. Their final reckonings, their multiple Armageddons and holocausts, mix solitary location to the whole globe, small groups with hosts of angels, the most recent technologies with the most ancient texts. They jumble earth and heaven, today and eternity, the revealed promises of God and the newly conjured plans of man, in seven times seven, times seven, ways.

Arguing by enumeration, Weber will not let his prophets and their prophecies be reduced to a single category or dimension. They are both religious and political, although he does acknowledge how in the course of his chronological survey that the apocalyptic tradition increasingly shifted in inspiration from the religious to the religious and political, to increasingly the political and religious. In counter distinction to Norman Cohn and Marxist critics, Weber will not make his prophets solely a voice of the marginalized and dispossessed. Nor will he stamp them as lunatics and fanatics, although they can be fraught with evil and brim with vengeance. He lists scholars, philosophers, scientists, and countless social thinkers who preoccupied themselves with the signs and logics of their times. He will not make his prophets and cults the product of a single cause or condition. Simultaneous with the Dakota's Christianity-inspired ghost dance that predicted the return of the buffalo and their people, French thinke r Leon Bloi (Thomist Jacques Maritain's literary godfather) declared that humanity stood au seuil de l'apocalypse--on the threshold of last times.

With the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Weber can best surface his argument that prophets, however much ignored by scholars, pervade Western history. Even in his epoch, defined by its aggressive promotion of rationality and its disdain for miracle and providence, revelations and apocalypses flourished. Aside from the steady streams of prophecy that continued to wash over England, events like the Libson earthquake of 1755 and the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763 excited predictions of last times on the continent. Even as singularly a representative Enlightenment thinker as Voltaire lost confidence in the solidity of the ground on which he walked when considering what tragedies humanity undergoes and what failed overseas investments had done to his personal fortunes.

With the French Revolution and Napoleon, the predictions of absolute ends and fresh beginnings resounded and reverberated everywhere. Anti-Christ and saviors abounded. Joseph de Maistre, who preached that the whole era was Providence's bloody reckoning, declared to the statesmen of the Restoration, "You wish to build and the ground is still trembling." For different reasons a surprising number of thinkers concurred, making the nineteenth century, the indisputable age of evolution, development, and progress, also a time of revolution and prophecy. The events of 1848, 1866 (which witnessed not just the defeat of Austria but also the invention of dynamite), and 1870 grew out of and spawned thoughts of cosmic ends and beginnings. While monsters, anti-Christs, and the Virgin herself appeared in the countryside, apocalypses were prophesied in capitals. The entire political spectrum except the pale center voiced drastic changes at hand, was drawn towards imminent transformations and metamorphoses. Catholic romantic s and the odd reactionary prophesied approaching end times and new Middle Ages. Formulators of new secular movements preached a new epoch of man and society. From the endless list of utopians, anarchists, political thinkers, and speculators on the future of science, technology, and society, illustratively there are prophet nationalist Mickiewicz, Christian democratic Lammenais, social engineer Comte, and social scientist and utopian, Marx. The promise of the end of an unjust order and and the dawn of new eon accounted for their appeal.

The rivers of apocalypse become so many and flow so strongly in the twentieth century that Weber only waves at them. Events, wars, and revolutions, economic collapses and social crumbling, recent mergers and imagined cabals have further unsteadied human nerves. The Bible is still conjured, albeit with a syncretism, which for sheer nuttiness would provoke unending laughter were it not for Jonestown and Waco.

Science, with its big bangs and stray asteroids, killer germs, genetic mutations, and odd protons, has as much fed as deterred the contemporary mind frenetic in fear and voracious in hunger for a new time. Monsters still surface. Space ships bring the lamb or deliver the sword. Superman or James Bond must save us repeatedly from mad geniuses in control of lasers and nuclear warheads aimed against all civilization.

Weber, who in all his writings has a taste for the bizarre and the extremes, indeed found a rich and tasty banquet (once beyond the fin de siecle appetizers) with the study of Apocalypses. There was not only a mountain of foods to be consumed but there were a lot of tails to be twisted, none so abundantly as those who believe they somehow stand superior to all the pressures and the cruel impulses that lead to the preaching of final judgment and select salvation. Weber assures us that those who predict apocalypse hardly miss more than contemporary social scientists who, an expert estimates, err two-thirds of the time in their future prediction. Indeed, the preachers of the apocalypse "were correct, if not in predicting the end of the world, an end of a world."

But Weber's wit does not prove consistently hard and flinty. Rather this book has a strong scent of pathos about it. People's proclivity to seek apocalypse reveals humanity dissatisfied, restless, cruel, and evil, arguably in need of salvation from this earth. This pathos obviously derives from a lifetime of observing and a career of writing about those, who filled with emotion, and confusion, sought meaning in their times. It specifically arises out of having taken a long and deep look at the swirl of anxiety, fear, terror, and hate that fills human heart and mind. It abides in a world that proves both too serious and too superficial for human desire.

Weber has read one great slate of unhappiness, history as written by sects and prophets, millenarians, chiliasts, and televangelists. He detailed their painful multiplicity. He has acknowledged the human urge to give meaning to events. At one point in the book he quoted a philosopher: "God created the world to drive us crazy." In its conclusion he cited Christ about the final hour and day which "knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Amato, Joseph
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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