Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 21 August 2012 12:57
That’s the question Richard Kyle, Tabor College professor of history and religion, addresses in his latest book, “Apocalyptic Fever: End-time Prophecies in Modern America.”
The book, Kyle’s 10th, was released earlier this month by Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, which combines academic rigor with broad appeal and readability.
That’s the approach Kyle feels he has achieved.
“It’s about the Chicken Littles: ‘The sky is falling,’” Kyle said with a smile.
This is the second book Kyle has written on the end times. “The Last Days Are Here Again: A History of the End Times,” published by Baker Books, focused on “end times” thinking in the Christian church.
‘That was more of a survey,” Kyle said of the book. “This one focuses on modern America.”
“Apocalyptic Fever” includes four chapters on the Christian church, but also addresses America’s preoccupation with the end of the world from other perspectives: science, fringe religions, the occult, Hollywood and fiction, the Y2K scare in 2000, Islam and politics to the current Mayan calendar controversy.
Kyle said Americans are particularly susceptible to the topic.
“Apocalyptic literature itself is highly flexible,” he said. “You can read anything you want into Revelation and parts of Daniel—and people have done that through thousands of years of history. That’s why it’s been persistent.
“It ebbs and peaks with the times,” he added. “During times of crisis, it rises. But it’s always run the course of Western history.”
He said Americans are particularly affected because of its deep roots in evangelical Christianity “rapture fever” embodied best by the dispensational eschatology in the U.S. prior to World War II.
“That subculture buys heavily into it and dispensationalism is a strong end-time perspective within that,” Kyle said. “You can measure it with the 60 million copies of the ‘Left Behind’ series and 30 to 40 million copies of ‘The Late Great Planet Earth.’”
Kyle said the evangelical subculture is deeply populist.
“We tend to believe the guys on TV—or, if it’s political, the Sarah Palins and the Rush Limbaughs—rather than serious thinkers on subjects,” he said.
The need to identify an enemy is another contributing factor in the American mindset.
“You can trace this all the way through—communism, the gays, the Muslims—you have to have an enemy,” Kyle said. “There’s a conspiracy type of thinking, especially among evangelicals.
“There’s all kinds of events that feed that—9/11, Y2K, wars. If you want to read something into it, these events are going to be there.”
In the book, Kyle recounts his own encounters with apocalypse panic. He was planning a tour for Tabor College students in Europe at the time Y2K was about to occur. With the dawn of the year 2000, experts were warning of an impending cataclysm because computer systems around the world would crash and burn because they couldn’t handle four-digit years.
“I had parents calling me on the telephone wanting me to get their kids out of (the tour), insisting this would be the end of the world,” he said.
“Some even questioned my orthodoxy because I didn’t share the view that Saddam Hussein was the antichrist and his missiles would get us in Rome—when in fact they couldn’t even come close to reaching Rome.”
But it’s not just the religious who fixate on doomsday.
“I have a whole chapter on science that I call, ‘The Godless Apocalypse,” Kyle said. “A lot of scientists—maybe not in the same way—think a disaster’s coming.”
Whatever the underlying source, Kyle said one of the dangers of buying into an imminent end-times scenario is that people choose to avoid current problems.
“The end is coming, why worry about the environment or caring for the poor?” he cited as examples.
While Kyle scoffs at some expressions of end-times paranoia, he doesn’t discount the concept of the end of the world.
“Scripture and the historic Christian faith clearly indicate that Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly,” he said. “But this faith is not a license to speculate on the time of the event, or to encourage an escapist mindset. People must live in the present and solve current human problems.”
Kyle said he believes “Apocalyptic Fever: End-time Prophecies in Modern America” will be available soon on Amazon, but it can be ordered already for a reduced price of $34.40 from wipfandstock.com.