Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience Review

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
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Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience ReviewDo you remember when the world ended on 21 May? Well, it didn't really end, but do you remember how Jesus returned and delivered his last judgement on those remaining after his followers were raptured away? Well, that didn't happen, either, despite the predications of a California radio evangelist and despite the sincere beliefs of his followers. It surprised some that the "The End of the World Is Near" philosophy should be powerful and thriving in the twenty-first century; it did not surprise Richard Landes, a scholar of apocalyptic movements who directs the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, and is the editor of the _Encyclopedia of Millennialism_. He has written extensively on the topic, and now brings out _Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience_ (Oxford University Press), a review of apocalyptic actions of huge scope, starting with Akhenaten's failed revolution in Ancient Egypt and continuing through the current day. While we may be familiar with Christian predictions of an end of times, one of the surprising things about Landes's book is that Christian versions are not emphasized here. Other religions, sometimes bizarre ones, have their apocalyptic ways, and sometimes an apocalyptic message comes with no religious strings attached. Thus, you might find mention here of Christian-related predictions of disaster like "The Great Disappointment" in 1843 when thousands of Americans ditched their fields and families to greet the returning Jesus, or the series of _Left Behind_ novels that depict an end times in which millions sincerely believe, or Jim Jones's suicide cult in Guyana. They are just mentions, though, and Landes seems to think the Christian version of apocalypse has been covered enough elsewhere. He also thinks that millennial lore is just too broad a strand of history for one religion, and that it reflects a basic human need, our sense of our own importance. It is not just comforting but exciting to think that you are living in the most spectacular of times, when all the mysteries of existence will be solved and paradise is just around the corner. He warns that historians who do not take into account these millennial ideas are going to miss big chunks of explication.
Millennialism, broadly defined here, means a belief in an apocalyptic time when there may be disasters but they presage the installation of a perfect and just society on Earth with collective salvation for all its inhabitants. The attempt of the revolutionarily monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten is not usually regarded as a millennial event, but Akhenaten was seized by a monotheistic fervor that led him to a millennial zeal to construct Akhetaten, the city based on the worship of the Sun, and of the Sun's representatives, him and his wife. His self-absorption and lack of realism brought disaster to Egypt. Landes returns frequently to the "tribal millennialism" exhibited in spectacular fashion by the Xhosa in Africa, among whom in 1856 was a girl who was hearing prophecies. The tribe was strained by the colonial impositions of the British, but, with the assistance of her uncle, the girl promised a salvation. All that the Xhosa tribes had to do was to give up witchcraft, abandon the planting of crops, and kill all their cattle. Of course, disaster, not paradise, followed, and the British took advantage of it. Even more grim was the "agrarian millennialism" of Taiping in China in the mid-19th century. The prophet Hong Xiuquan thought himself the younger brother of Jesus. With the unquestioned authority given to him as Jesus's brother, he set up a radically egalitarian land reform program and he also set up a court with a vast harem for himself. The result was a mad decade of unprecedented slaughter, with at least 20 million people killed. It is interesting to view the Papuan Cargo Cults as millennialist. Natives came to believe that if they cleansed themselves of old religious beliefs and took up western consumables (sometimes they had to carve models of these) then a steamer full of cargo would be coming for them. In a book displaying examples of astonishing irrationality, this looks especially silly, but Landes never trivializes. In fact, he usefully compares the cargo cults to the current UFO cults. After all, the Raelians may not believe that steamships bearing commercial products will lead to paradise, but they do advocate building an embassy in Jerusalem to welcome the extraterrestrials who will thereby come to redeem the humans they created in the first place thousands of years ago.
Landes's book is astonishingly broad, and takes in many movements that we do not usually consider apocalyptic. Hitler's is one of these. Landes says that we all regard Nazism as so evil we are uncomfortable finding it comparable to other apocalyptic projects. Hitler did, of course, literally propose a thousand year reich. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Global Jihad are all covered here, as is the scientific worrying over global warming. _Heaven on Earth_ is an academic work; some of its pages are half full of footnotes. Landes leavens his obvious vast erudition with references to Chicken Little, the Emperor's New Clothes, _The Day the Earth Stood Still_, and plenty of other popular tokens for comparisons. Landes emphasizes throughout that although apocalyptic ideas may be wrong, they are not without consequences. It is an impressive introduction to the idea that millennial movements, sometimes mere silly fantasies, can spark world change and that no culture and no time is uninfluenced by them.
Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience OverviewMillennialists through the ages have looked forward to the apocalyptic moment that will radically transform society into heaven on earth. They have delivered withering critiques of their own civilizations and promised both the impending annihilation of the forces of evil and the advent of a perfect society. And all their promises have invariably failed. We tend, therefore, to dismiss these prophets of doom and salvation as crackpots and madmen, and not surprisingly historians of our secular era have tended to underestimate their impact on our modern world. Now, Richard Landes offers a lucid and ground-breaking analysis of this widely misunderstood phenomenon. This long-awaited study shows that many events typically regarded as secular--including the French Revolution, Marxism, Bolshevism, Nazism-not only contain key millennialist elements, but follow the apocalyptic curve of enthusiastic launch, disappointment and (often catastrophic) re-entry into "normal time." Indeed, as Landes examines the explicit millennialism behind such recent events as the emergence of Global Jihad since 1979, he challenges the common notion that modern history is largely driven by secular interests. By focusing on ten widely different case studies, none of which come from Judaism or Christianity, he shows that millennialism is not only a cultural universal, but also an extremely adaptive social phenomenon that persists across the modern and post-modern divides. At the same time, he also offers valuable insight into the social and psychological factors that drive such beliefs.Ranging from ancient Egypt to modern-day UFO cults and global Jihad, Heaven on Earth both delivers an eye-opening revisionist argument for the significance of millennialism throughout history and alerts the reader to the alarming spread of these ideologies in our world today.

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