THE WAGES OF BOREDOM (It’s Death!)
Originally written April 10, 2014 for vice.com.
There is a mantra Christian doomsday enthusiasts all seem to share: “We are living in exciting times.” Well, I doubt they’d call it a mantra on account of the Eastern connotations, but nevertheless, they say it a lot.
This sentence, stage-whispered with a wondrous sense of promise, like a campaign slogan for the coming apocalypse, inaugurates lengthy and lurid descriptions of the the cruelties and abuses of the Antichrist’s reign and concludes impenetrably complex exegeses of biblical prophecies as they pertain to Israeli foreign and domestic policy. It also serves as a sort of psychic balm for the fact that most of their personal lives are about the least exciting time you can imagine.
If the average American life is a daily 9-to-5 slog through petty humiliation and crushing boredom, at least there’s beer and (hopefully) sex as an alluring carrot at the end of the day (or during lunch). Most evangelical Christians have the same workday cross to bear, but when your outlets for fun are limited to clapping at church, raising a family, and watching sports sober, what have you really got to look forward to but the fiery end of it all? And so these Christian millenarians (that’s a fancy term for doomsday guy) read the papers in the morning, cross-reference the UN’s sanctions against Syria with the book of Ezekiel, and tell themselves “We are living in exciting times.” They’re like the poor corporate drone who rocks back and forth at the desk he’s been chained to and mutters, “Just working for the weekend. Just working for the weekend.” Only their weekend is seven years of bloody moons and tribulation before the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. Amen.
Last fall I went on a tour of the Holy Land led by Rev. Irvin Baxter, who runs Endtime Ministries, an evangelical “prophecy teaching” operation focused on the eponymous moment when the shit goes down. Dr. Baxter has a physical church in Texas, but also preaches on TV, radio, and online, where he has a shockingly well-updated web presence for a man his age. Most of the people on the tour were members of his cyber flock, drawn from across the US to see the place where the battle of Armageddon will take place, which is a hill an hour north of Tel Aviv overlooking a McDonald’s. Though they represented diverse walks of life — from investment bankers to little old ladies to sound technicians to Dominick, who played an Indian in a Wendy’s commercial I have been searching for on youtube for MONTHS — they all drank in Dr. Baxter’s descriptions of the Bible’s grand finale with eager ears and faces right on the dividing line between “This sounds horrifying” and “I can’t hardly wait.”
The back of the Good Book has always been the most exciting part (except for that paragraph in Genesis about the Nephilim). All the humdrum, love-thy-brother, straight-edge crap finally gives way to a good old-fashioned battle royale between the forces of darkness (led by a DRAGON), the army of Israel, and God’s host of angels. Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It’s a fucking blast. It makes you want to find that guy with the “END IS NIGH” sandwich board and be all like, “HOW SOON IS NIGH?!”
The trouble is, for this Game of Thrones ragnarok business to pass as church, it has to be real. Especially if your parishioners are going to stake a lifetime of not drinking and not fucking on it. That means, until a seven-headed leopricorn carrying a woman in fishnets and a dingy fur coat comes walking out of the Mediterranean, you better have a pretty clear explanation of what this acid-trip nonsense means in regular earth terms.
Dr. Baxter is a master of this, of cherry-picking the prophetic symbols scattered throughout the Bible and lining them up with today’s geopolitics. He can take the most arcane crypto-beast from the least-read verse in the Old Testament and tell you exactly which country, politician, or social trend it embodies. Even if you’re the president. Not being facetious here, either — he’s good. When he says that the four-winged leopard in the Book of Daniel represents the German-led European Union, and that the fatal wound he’s been cured of in the Book of Revelation is the fall of the Third Reich as healed by the Marshall Plan, and that THAT makes Angela Merkel the most likely candidate for Whore of Babylon, I believe him. I don’t necessarily believe any of this is going to happen, but if it were to happen, I think it’d happen his way. He’s done his homework.
One major player in the apocalypse that doesn’t take much scrying is Israel. Israel is Israel. Which is sort of good and bad for interpreting prophecy. Not only does everything that happens to Israel in the Bible foretell what happens to the actual Israel, but everything that happens to actual Israel should be foretold in the Bible. That make sense? It goes both ways. So for instance, while we were on our tour, John Kerry was in town to stump for his new peace plan between Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority. Even an interpretive whiz like Baxter couldn’t have predicted this specific event would be happening at this moment in Israel, say a year ago, but since it was happening, it had to be somewhere in the book. Then someone tipped him off that in lieu of giving Jerusalem to one side or the other, the plan would create a shared Israeli-Palestinian government for the city, and it clicked. If signed, Kerry’s plan would be the beginning of the Great Tribulation. Which definitely ramped up the excitement on our trip! (Fortunately for us heathens, the issue is once again moot.)
As a professional interpreter of polysemic language, Baxter also understands the other meaning of “it has to be real,” which is it has to feel real. While fire and brimstone may have put asses in pews a century ago, today’s preachers are competing with both the Alien AND Predator franchises for the attention of a populace who couldn’t tell you what brimstone is if they even bothered looking up from their iPhone when you asked them. In deference to this attention-span gap, Baxter illustrates his teachings with some of the best Christian doomsday graphics since Doré did Dante. Check out how nice the box art is on his DVDs. It looks like he got the guy who did the Yes covers to design them.
Baxter isn’t the only millenarianist to fancy up God’s word for the post-Quake world. In Victoria Clark’s book Allies for Armageddon, she uses the term apoca-lit to describe books like the Left Behind series and its film equivalents like The Omega Code that repackage the the Book of Revelation as sci-fi action thrillers. Give or take the “sci.” This may seem like yet another Stryperesque scheme to make Christianity cool, but these movies are as much for the devout believers as they are a conversion tool for vacant teens.
In the same way books like A Child Called It came along to give churchgoing ladies a morally sound way to read Peter Sotos-level torture porn, apoca-lit fills the gap left in Christian pop culture by the biblical prohibition on violence. Or more accurately creates a convenient loophole. When Michael Ironside makes an inferior scanner’s head explode with the powers of his mind, that’s a sin. When our lord and savior does it at the Mount of Olives? God’s glory. Amen. (Amen.)
Apoca-lit serves as more than just guilt-free escapism for the bored and pious. As doomsday aficionados consume increasingly vivid and realistic depictions of judgment day, it cements their personal vision of the apocalypse and whets their appetite for the real thing. We worry about movies and video games blurring the line between fantasy and reality for secular folks; here’s an entire audience whose fantasy and reality have no lines to blur. Of course, jonesing for armageddon and trying to make it happen are two different things.
Naturally, you can’t pipe-bomb your way into hell to shoot the devil in the face. One thing you CAN do, however, is egg Israel into kicking off armageddon on her own. You see, one of the main preconditions of the apocalypse — not one of the crazy leopard ones, the one basically every Christian millenarian agrees on — is the end times aren’t going to start until the Jews control Israel and build the Third Temple in Jerusalem. And for the Jews to start work on the Third Temple, they have to clear off what got built on top of the Second Temple. Which is the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Ruh-roh is right.
The Baxterites are nice enough sorts — their interest in the end of days is primarily geared around getting the word out early and keeping the faithful safe during the Antichrist’s reign. As one of my tourmates explained to me, there’s a split in the doomsday prediction community as to when the Rapture occurs. Baxter’s flock are post-tribulationists, meaning they believe they’ll have to live through the entirety of the Tribulation. This tends to soften their hard-on for the heathocide.
PRE-tribulationists, on the other hand, believe the Rapture will occur at the start of the apocalypse, sparing them the rivers of blood and barcodes et al. These are the guys you gotta watch out for. Since God’s zapping them to heaven before all the harsh stuff, the pre-tribbers don’t just have nothing to lose, they have an active stake in the world’s end. And lately they’ve been doubling down on their investment.
There’s another big eschatologically-minded preacher from Texas who’s calling this year for the End of Days like Baxter, that’s televangelist John Hagee. Go ahead and apple-F the word “Hitler” while you’re on his wiki right now. I agree, yikes. Hagee’s current gloss on the prophecy is a little less in-the-weeds than Baxter’s and a lot more grandiose — he says that this week’s lunar eclipse is the first of four predicted by the Book of Joel, a tetrad of eclipses that will culminate in the “Blood Moon” that Winston warned us about in Ghostbusters — but, just like John Kerry’s biblically-ordained trip to the Holy Land, it’s happening as we speak.
Having lived through some 11 or so expected doomsdays in my lifetime, it’s always struck me as foolhardy to peg a date on the apocalypse that you yourself will be around to witness. I mean, just look at poor Daniel Pinchbeck — my roommate went to his office a week into 2013 and said the vibe there was like their world had just come to an end, instead of ours. Nostradamus got two things right when he made his prognostications; keep them cryptic enough that you can cover your bases when nothing actually happens and keep them far enough in the future that you won’t even have to.
This is secular thinking, however. Baxter and his ministry aren’t out to pull one over on their congregation, they just don’t want to be caught off-guard when the Tribulation comes like a thief in the night. This may lead, and has lead, to a few false alarms, but if you think of them as lucky breaks from God or dress rehearsals for the real thing — Great Lake of Fire Drills, if you will — you can see that their hearts are in the right place.
Hagee, on the other hand, has a drastically different incentive for calling it early. For the last 30 years he’s been running a little organization called Christians United For Israel that, oh, just so happens to have over 8 million members. To put that in perspective, the second-biggest American fundraiser for Israel, AIPAC, claims around 100,000 members — and still gets blamed for having an outsize influence on our government’s foreign policy. CUFI is like if the entire city of New York all got together and decided to give money to whoever will kick the Palestinians out of the West Bank so that God’s angels can start opening scrolls full of plague and blowing their trumpets like Dizzy Gillespie got into Miles Davis’s coke stash.
This ‘pocalyptic pocketbook political powerplay has put Hagee’s followers in bed with about the most ironic -fellows you could ask for. Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Settlers. They’re the ones right now making good on stretching Jewish Israel’s borders into conformance with their ancient shape according to the Torah. And if that means leaning on their government to move 3 million Palestinians out of the way and bulldoze their homes for good measure, well, you can’t effect a tikkun without tikkun’ off a few people, y’know what I’m saying?
Reverend Baxter’s congregants may not pack the financial oomph of the Hageeites, but they give what little they can to a lot of the same people. One of the stops on our Endtimes tour was a settlement south of Bethlehem, deep within the territory administered by the Palestinian Authority. To get there from Israel-proper, you have to drive on a road with walls and barbed wire on either shoulder that snakes its way through Palestinian farmland, cutting some fields in half miles away from the nearest border crossing (sorry farmers!). Once you’re in and through the security checkpoint, it’s like you never left Israel. Which, in fact, disregarding international law, you didn’t. I think some people hear the word “settlements” and picture, like, a bunch of tents or old-timey wagons circled up somewhere out in the desert. But the reality is a lot more concrete — like several thousand tons of concrete.
All the settlements I’ve seen, including the one I visited with Baxter’s crowd, look like freshly-built resorts on the Riviera. Gleaming white blocks all packed together on a hilltop. Everything inside is spic and span, the shops are well-stocked, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a bunch of young kids playing around together in the sun. It’s a good look for investors — especially family-values types from the American heartland.
After dismounting our tour bus, a very sweet little woman my mom’s age came out to meet us and show us around the settlement’s facilities. From a window inside the newly-constructed schoolhouse, she pointed out a hill in the distance then quoted a verse from somewhere in the Old Testament to prove that we were standing within the bounds of the ancient kingdom of Judea. My tourmates and I were roundly impressed.
Something about the scene bothered me, though. Well, not something, a very particular thing. This extremely nice Jewish mother was giving a bus full of American Christians a glimpse of Israeli life in the West Bank in order to raise money and support for her settlement. The Christians in question were opening their wallets so the biblical apocalypse would start sooner than later. Said apocalypse results in not only the end of the terrestrial earth as we know it, but also the mass conversion of the world’s living Jews to Christianity and the condemnation of those who refuse to eternal torment.
Wait, the irony’s not done yet! Remember how I said this settlement was near Bethlehem in the West Bank? Well, aside from a few portions of town that are jointly governed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the crazy 20-feet-wide microborders that run to the settlements, Bethlehem is pretty firmly in Palestinian territory. Maybe it strikes you as a little odd that the birthplace of Jesus is on the Arab side of the Israeli border? It shouldn’t, because over half a million Palestinians are Christian. Even Yasser Arafat, the man who put present-day Palestine on the map and popularized the keffiyeh for college kids around the globe, is presumably right now in the Christian heaven, mixing it up with Martin Luther and ol’ Metatron.
So, to circle back and put this mise en scène in its proper relief, I was on a tour in Israel watching Christian Americans donate money to a Jewish woman in an Israeli settlement in otherwise-Arab territory in the hopes that Jewish settlers like her would kick the remaining Arabs, including Christians, out of Israel so that the Christian god would convert the nation of Israel from Judaism to Christianity in the course of destroying the world. Rube Goldberg would be proud, if he wasn’t a Jew.
This seemed like a pretty lose-lose scenario from the Jewish perspective, unless I was missing something. As politely as I could, I asked the devout Jewish lady leading us around the settlement how she felt about taking money from people who believed that giving her that money would lead to her either abandoning her faith for theirs or being thrown into the bottomless Pit with the devil forever. She said, “Well it’s a good thing I don’t believe that, now isn’t it?”
Why do I suddenly feel like the computer in War Games? There’s a reason why we think telling people “May you live in exciting times” is an old Chinese curse.
Man, weird time for me to try and hustle some money out of you — right after this whole spiel about people hustling money out of other people for dubious reasons. But I’m not a dubious reason. I’m just trying to get by and write a few more pieces about all my travels and such. If you wanna help out that would be incredibly generous of you and I’ll do my best to make good on my end of the deal. Here’s my venmo — @Thomas-Morton-5 —and if you want to keep abreast of my work, well I can’t think of a better way than by following me on twitter (@babyballs69) or instagram (@babyballs). Thanks again!