Plagues, fires from heaven, worldwide computer failure--apocalyptic visions are nothing new. Indeed, they may well be a necessary part of life. As historian Eugen Weber
points out, "apocalyptic prophesies are attempts to interpret the times, console and guide, and suggest the future." In Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages
, Weber presents a history of end-of-the-worldisms, such as the panics during the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, multiple medieval Second Comings, Yeats's prediction of a "Celtic Armageddon" in 1899, and late-20th-century fears. This is no mere laundry list, however; Weber analyzes each of these beliefs and uses their historical contexts to make them more understandable. Weber's witty prose is tempered by an obvious respect for those with "alternative rationalities." Most readers, however, will enjoy watching these millennial beliefs recur throughout history--and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief. As Weber argues, St. Augustine's advice continues to ring true today: rather than trying to reckon the years before the end of the world, "relax your fingers and give them a little rest."
From Publishers Weekly
From the hellfire and brimstone prophecies of John of Patmos to Marilyn Manson's album Antichrist Superstar, apocalyptic currents have nourished the cultural imagination. Surveying the field of millenarian beliefs, Weber (France: Fin de Si?cle, etc.), professor of history at UCLA, contends that the apocalyptic "lunatic fringe" deserves more than the condescension typically doled out by scholars. Indeed, he explains, "endism" has often played an important historical role, motivating Columbus's voyage to the Americas, inflecting debates over anti-Semitism, even figuring in the 1870 birth of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Writing with curiosity and empathy about such varied topics as the eschatological fallout from Halley's comet and Y2K survivalism, Weber turns up a few intriguing facts. By 1992, for instance, more than half of adult Americans expected the imminent cataclysmic return of Jesus Christ. What accounts for the persistence of such beliefs? Sifting through the historical record, Weber examines the utopian intent of much millennial thought. The Second Coming, after all, promises heaven on earth; even Engels noted the revolutionary potential of revivalist Christianity. On the other hand, more combative strains of millennialism have led to the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide and the release of deadly nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. Reluctant to interpret these acts in any depth, Weber fittingly describes his work as a travel book, recording a journey through the ages. Still, gifted is the writer who can nimbly span the distant cultural poles of Nostradamus and Bill Gates.
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