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A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization Hardcover – August 22, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
The question of how and when the world will end has captivated thinkers for centuries. Wars, natural disasters, social upheaval and personal suffering often send believers back to the writings of their prophets and seers, whose gift is to bring satisfying answers to such questions. The book most studied in the Western tradition is Revelation, the last entry in the Christian canon. Kirsch, an attorney and book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, takes the reader on a delightful 2,000-year journey as he explores a text he describes as "a romantic tale, full of intrigue and suspense" and shows how churches, philosophers, clergy and armchair interpreters have promoted their political, social and religious agendas based on their belief that the end was imminent. Some of this history can be quite sobering, as the powerful have waged wars and built societies based on their varying perceptions of Revelation's message. However, consistent with Kirsch's earlier literary efforts, in particular The Harlot by the Side of the Road, the author exercises great care while treating his material with both sobriety and a healthy sense of the ironic. Written clearly and for a general audience, this is a fine book that merits wide readership. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirsch has written an important study of the "little book" that almost didn't make it into the New Testament: the book of Revelations. For many, Revelations is a pastiche of symbolism impossible to wade through, so difficult that even scholarly St. Jerome threw up his hands. Christians have often been advised to read it symbolically, but throughout history, it has been read very literally indeed, with adherents calculating dates for the last days and condemning others to a lake of fire. Today it has a massive effect on politics, popular culture, and even foreign policy, evident especially in Lehaye and Jenkins' popular Left Behind series. Kirsch, author of the best-selling The Harlot by the Side of the Road (1997), does a masterful job of leading readers through the labyrinth of Revelations, exploring why it was written (and with sound speculation on who wrote it), what it means, and how it has affected history. Kirsch is like a tour guide, making stops in Florence, to show how Savonarola used Revelations as he stoked the bonfire of the vanities; in America, to explore how Protestants used the book's imagery; and in Israel, to elucidate how the predictions in Revelations have formed the basis of an unlikely alliance between Jews and the Christian Religious Right. Throughout, in highly readable style, Kirsch highlights how Revelations has been used as a justification for culture wars from the earliest times to the present. Fascinating--and sure to provoke heated discussion. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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To serious scholars, much of what Kirsch discusses here is old news. He covers in great detail the theories behind the origins of Revelations and the identity of its author, and points out how Revelations borrowed and adapted the apocryphal works of the time period. But the bulk of Kirsch book is less about the Book of Revelations itself than how it has been used, and misused, by the Catholic Church, politicians, and most recently the Religious Right to both soothe the minds of the faithful and as a weapon against the "enemy," whomever that enemy might be.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the fact that, despite several millennia of biblical scholars and street corner preachers' claims; the world has "failed to end on time." Kirsch exhibits a slightly sarcastic tone on occasion as he goes through the litany of previous attempts to determine the end of the world, and how the world refused to cooperate. For casual readers, the history lesson is enjoyable and provides some perspective with which to view the current cries of the impending Apocalypse. "True Believers" will take offense to the tone, however as Kirsch points out they want to be offended. And in truth, need to be for Revelations to be legitimate.
One of the key elements of Kirsch's arguments focuses on how the Book of Revelations, and the belief in the end of the world, feeds the psychological needs of the believer. He notes that the book is written for an oppressed audience. The original audience of the Book of Revelations were early Christians who still felt the sting of persecution. However Revelations has become the favorite book of those who simply believe they are oppressed, but aren't necessarily being persecuted. Revelations is a book that does not seek to uplift the spirit of the reader, but instead seeks to sate the hunger for revenge against all the non-believers and allies of Satan that have wronged them. While violence is a normal topic in the Old Testament, nowhere do we see a Biblical author revel in depicting violence against the enemies of God like we do in Revelations. If Revelations was a "fiction" book, it would be banned from most schools.
Revelations, as Kirsch points out, is meant to provide a feeling of empowerment to those who feel they have no power; whether that feeling is based on fact or delusion (and as Kirsch explains, more often than not it is delusion). It allows the reader to shift blame for all of societies' real and imagined ills onto otherworldly forces, and provides a succor that these forces will be overcome by God for them.
One interesting point addressed by Kirsch is how Revelations factored into the push by Christian Zionist after WWII to establish the Israeli state. Kirsch notes that at the time, many Jewish leaders would have been happy with a land anywhere and were not themselves pushing for the lands of Israel, because they believed only God could restore their homeland. But for the Christian Zionists, it was vital that the Jews return to Israel in masse not out of compassion for the Jewish people, but because they considered it a prerequisite for the Apocalypse. Kirsch discusses the beliefs of these Christian Zionists when he notes "...that the Jews who returned to the land of Israel were destined to suffer and die during the reign of the Antichrist and to burn in hell for the rest of eternity." Further, he notes that "Christian Zionists, in fact, tend to regard the prospect of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors as an obstacle to the second coming of Jesus Christ and, therefore, the work of the devil."
The book does, however, suffer a stylistic flaw. Kirsch has a tendency to pound away at a thought, rehashing it dozens of times after the point has already been made and explained. There is also an annoying tendency to overuse the phrase "as we have seen" and its evil cousin "as we shall see." Having read his previous work "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism," which was much more succinct in its arguments, I can only chalk this up to a bad editor. Someone should have slapped his typing fingers with a red pen over this.
But that issue aside, readers with an interest in understanding the psychology and history behind the Book of Revelations will find a book written with the casual reader in mind. It is very accessible to the reader and presents complex issues in a manner that is clear without oversimplifying.
It is interesting to note that not a single century has passed in which some new prediction was formed to date when the prophecies would come to pass. Time and again people have interpreted Revelation to fit their era. Revelation and the whole apocalyptic tradition became a way of coping with oppression and persecution by imagining a better world to come. The book points out these examples (a partial list) and more:
* 1st century - John, the author, may have been applying the writing to the then oppressive Roman Empire near the end of the first century.
* 156 C.E. - The Montanist sect believed the end was near in their day.
* 5th century - Barbarians at the gates of Rome were seen as the armies of Satan whose arrival signaled the 2nd coming.
* ca. 1248-1298 - Hildegard of Bingen (Benedictine nun) stated the final battle in the not to distant future would involve the fall the clergy.
* 1844 - William Miller predicted the end of the world and the coming of Christ.
Down to the present, people have taken the book of Revelation to task to provide the sorely needed answers to explain the significance of the difficult times in which they lived. I find that Kirsch did a fine job and did extensive research to provide the information in this book and the effects it has had on western civilization.