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Channel 4 Documentary Explores US Apocalypticism

I’ve just watched The Doomsday Code, a documentary broadcast on Channel 4 on Saturday night. The programme, presented by Tony Robinson, explored the role of “End Times” beliefs in the USA and Africa, and included interviews with a range of proponents and critics.

Robinson began by suggesting that “End Times” beliefs are politically very significant in the US, and scholar Paul Boyer was brought in to confirm this assessment. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention was also keen to assert his political influence:

Reagan’s administration would take our calls, in Bush I they would sometimes take our calls, in this Bush administration his advisors call us. And they say, you know, what’s your take on this issue? What is your perspective on this issue? And that’s as they should do. I mean, you know, you need to pay attention to your base.

Robinson reminds us that Bush had called for Israeli withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank prior to the Iraq War, but that this had changed by 2004; the voiceover is complemented by a smug grin from Land, who goes on to explain that the US should not pressure Israel to do something which the Israeli government thinks is detrimental.

However, God is allowed to pressure the Israeli government, as David Reagan (“David Regen” in the show) of Lion and Lamb Ministries explains:

When Ariel Sharon decided that he was going to give away part of the land of Israel, and was determined to do it, [snaps fingers] he was removed from the scene just like that.

As part of his exploration, Robinson visits a hardware store, where the unidentified shopkeeper is totally unfazed when asked for advice about what to buy in preparation for the Great Tribulation. He suggests self-powered flashlights and the like, as well as various weapons. A person can be Tribulation-ready for about $3000, apparently.

Robinson also visits Israel, where he meets various Christian Zionists, such as Sandra Oster Baras of the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities. CFOIC brings coach-loads of Americans to illegal settlements in the West Bank, where the Israeli inhabitants are given gifts of cash. Other American Christian Zionists tag along with Gershon Salomon of the Temple Mount Faithful as he attempts to deliver a stone slab to the Temple Mount to serve as the foundation stone for the Third Temple. The Americans mutter “Amen” and nod as he and a Christian associate spew out vitriol against the Muslim enemy. We also get to see Sha Stephens of Ness Energy (spelt “Sha Stevens” in the programme and in some other sources), who is drilling for oil:

We’re going to poke a straw into the reservoir which we believe supplies the Arab states. When that happens their production would, should, decline, because we are structurally high to their wells over there. Oil and gas migrate uphill, and so there’s no other place for it to go except Israel.

(I blogged on Sha’s father Hayseed Stephens here; he was also the subject of a Skeptical Inquirer article back in 1999.)

Robinson then heads off to Uganda, where he studies the global impact of “End Times” beliefs. Pastor Dennis Odoi explains the situation:

We are greatly supported by America There’s something about Americans that I really don’t understand. At giving, they’re very good. They support us in training. Many servants of the Lord have been trained by Americans…In Uganda if you don’t go to America, it’s like you’re not a preacher. But you see most of the literature we use is from there. The Bibles we have is [sic] from there. The tapes we have is from there. The preachers who come to minister here are from there. America having the kind of money and the technology, God is using it to support, say, a Third World country like Uganda to spread the Gospel. We thank God for what America is doing in spreading the gospel all over, all over the world.

I wonder if this is the same person as the Dennis Odoi who works for World Vision Uganda, and who was part of a Satanic panic back in 2003?

At the Kampala Pentecostal Church, Robinson sees a white American preacher in action:

The answer is not politics. The answer is not economics. The answer is not better education (we need all those things). The answer is for us to get back to the Bible, God’s constitution to the planet.

Robinson also sees an African pastor preaching on the Last Days in a refugee camp in the north.

Unsurprisingly, Robinson is somewhat alarmed by the “End Times” perspective, and he argues that the spread of such beliefs were responsible for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God tragedy, and may be used to provoke World War 3. Critics included on the show include Gershom Gorenberg, who has often noted that apocalyptic Christian Zionists are not particularly interested in the real people who live in Israel. Revs Barbara Rossing and John Tidy (the latter based at Jerusalem’s Anglican cathedral) offer theological critiques, and Ramsey Sprague (spelt “Ramsay Sprague” on the show), an environmentalist from Texas, complains about the impact of the belief on his work:

The destruction of the environment is not only necessary but it’s a positive goal in an of itself…As I told [one person] about the problems facing Texas she saw me almost as a messenger of the returning of Christ.

(I think that first sentence is over the top, by the way)

Andrew Mwenda, the editor of Uganda’s Daily Monitor, complains that his country is “going to hell” thanks to “End Times” teaching:

We have problems of corruption. We have problems of incompetent government. The solution that is offered is that people should pray for the world to end, rather than people actively participating in the process of ending their problem.

A Ugandan school-teacher, Julius Othiero, adds that children have been taken out of school because of “End Times” beliefs, and some come to school unable to concentrate after all-night prayer meetings on the subject. The influence of apocalypticism is also blamed for a recent surge in AIDS cases.

Robinson ends his investigation on Patmos, where he quickly tries to put the Book of Revelation into historical context. He also suggests that the author had been under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms – a doubtful thesis, in my opinion.

Of course, a programme of this kind can be faulted – an obscure Gary Frazier is presented as one of the best-known End Times teachers, while Hal Lindsey and John Hagee both appear for just a couple of seconds in bits of footage. There is also no discussion about the variations: pre-Trib rapture vs post-Trib rapture, and less apocalyptical support for Israel from some conservative Christians (such as Ted Haggard). Boyer’s input suggested that Bush himself  is motivated by apocalypticism, but the programme did not make a convincing case (That Bush is “born again” and talks about good and evil was about as far as it got). There was also at least one minor goof in addition to the dodgy name-spellings, as Robinson’s description of the establishment of Israel in 1948 is accompanied by footage of Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall from 1967. However, overall it was a quality introduction to the topic, and hopefully it will be shown in the USA before too long.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for this report, Richard. I stupidly forgot about the TV on Saturday, but your write-up is so thorough that I don’t feel like I missed it at all.

    BTW, what do you think was up with the author of Revelation?

  2. The show’s repeated in the middle of the night later this week. I think the author of Revelation was writing a highly symbolic text; Robinson acknowledged this, but it seems to me that that this makes the “hallucination” explanation superfluous.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up on this documentary and your measured commentary–look forward to seeing it (though, frankly, I am tits deep in the primary source of all this here in the US South)– btw–just signed the contract for my book on the US religious right poltical machinery, Bad Faith–is scheduled to publish just ahead of the 2008 elections over here. Perhaps I might send you an excerpt along the way,if you’re intersted. Be well. MR

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