Academic journal article Western Folklore

Apocalypse in Your In-Box: End-Times Communication on the Internet

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Apocalypse in Your In-Box: End-Times Communication on the Internet

Article excerpt

Apocalypse in your In-Box: End-Times

Communication on the Internet 1

In the 1990s, there has been quite a bit of media attention paid to radical Christian fundamentalists-the image of gun-toting, communal-living, child-molesting terrorists might come to mind. This image is really only an update. Historically, apocalyptic Christians have been portrayed with wild eyes. Even in the 1970 revision of his 1957 classic The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn kept them fearfully hanging on the periphery. In recent press coverage, it seems that the average Christian millennialist is dangerously devoted to a single malevolent leader. This article argues that, on the Internet at least, this image does not hold true. Most Christian millennialists who are highly involved in electronic discourse seem, by the very nature of the electronic media less, likely to be devoted to a single religious authority.

The media attention paid to Heaven's Gate in 1997 has only helped build and expand the devoted-follower stereotype of millennialists.2 It is no doubt important to study the complex world views that can support New Age ritual suicide. However, my observations imply that the vast majority of millennialists on the Internet are not part of idiosyncratic religious groups. By and large, they are not attached to any single individual as in the case of Heaven's Gate. Phenomena like Heaven's Gate are distinct from the phenomena discussed by Sacvan Bercovitch in his now classic 1978 analysis of popular American rhetoric, The American Jeremiad, or more recently in 1997, by Daniel Wojcik in his folkloristic exploration of popular apocalyptic belief The End of the World as We Know It.3

From these two scholars, it seems clear that popular millennialism in the United States is rooted in colonial history, is primarily Christian or Christian-influenced, and is still prevalent today. Both scholars imply, historically in the case of Bercovitch and currently in the case of Wojcik, that phenomena like Heaven's Gate or other recent high profile millennialists present idiosyncratic behavior in relation to the popular American discourse of apocalypse. Although I believe such idiosyncratic behavior can be usefully addressed by folklorists, it is not the topic of this article. Instead, I am addressing the normative communicative behaviors of Christian millennialists on the Internet in the mid-1990s from a folkloristic perspective.

I recognize the difficulty in calling my subject "popular" Christian millennialism while claiming a "folkloristic" perspective. In choosing the term "popular," I am attempting to acknowledge the complex relationship between the mass media forms that influence the folk and the actual expressive behaviors of those individuals. The popular-media side of this exchange presents the synthesis of multiple Christian and non-Christian traditions into commercial forms that are accessible to a wide audience. As this media is consumed by the folk, the result is a highly syncretistic folk religious matrix in the sense Don Yoder discussed in 1974. From one perspective, folk religion is a syncretistic ideational matrix based on multiple interpretations of two or more conventional religious forms. More broadly defining his terms, Yoder asserts that the folk religious expressions are those which "exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion"(Yoder 1974: 1S14). The behaviors I describe in this article both exist apart from official Protestant and Catholic doctrines and are highly syncretistic.

However, based on Leonard Norman Primiano's (1995) refinement of Yoder, I maintain that actual religion really exists only in individual thought and behavior. The distinction Yoder made between "institutional" and "folk" religion relies on his belief that the abstract doctrines of a religious institution exist in some ideal form distinct from actual daily life. …

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