2001: A Millennial Odyssey Pulpit Talk

By Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

2001: A Millennial Odyssey Pulpit Talk


Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It was a routine interfaith gathering, a time for religious leaders to discuss community problems like crime and teen pregnancy. Amid the holiday chat, a minister of a large evangelical church casually remarked that 2000 might mark a "second coming."

Suddenly, conversation stopped. Priests, pastors, and rabbis shifted uncomfortably as the minister, undaunted, went on about "big changes" a new millennium brings to Christianity.

Many Christians and Jews find it easy to dismiss extravagant claims about the millennium. Most Americans reject Hollywood images of divine intervention or of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse riding toward Times Square as the clock strikes 2000 (or 2001). Yet as the big date nears, popular interest in millennial themes and apocalyptic "signs" is far outstripping the response to it from mainstream clergy. A constant buzz about dramatic changes ahead permeates much of society - from underground magazines on the Virgin Mary, to New Age Web sites about Diana's purported role as a spiritual guide, to fundamentalist Christian radio stations that feature talk of "end times." Indeed, 35 percent of Americans believe it's possible that a battle of Armageddon is coming. Many religious leaders, however, feel ill-equipped to address millennial themes. "Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and other clergy still feel a little uneasy speaking to millennial questions that lie outside their ordinary training," says Michael Barkun, the author of nine books on millennialism. "But this stuff is so permeating popular culture and new religious movements, they will have to. Their congregations are demanding it." In fact, a quiet minority of religious scholars are pointing out that millennial themes fall well within America's religious traditions. "For the Christian, the times are always in God's hands. That means a specific year like 2000 is a nonevent," says religious historian Martin Marty. "{But} if you simply refute or make fun of ... millenniarian thinking, you lose some of the urgency of this basic Christian idea that history has a meaning, a story." Expectation of a coming kingdom of God, or hope of a "new heaven and new earth," has roots throughout history, particularly in America. It also has profound meaning for many contemporary Christians who interpret it not as a one-time event on Earth but as a spiritual destiny to be increasingly realized. For them, the idea of the millennium needs to be rescued from extremists and science-fiction writers. "A utopian hope has been central to the American experience from the beginning," says historian Paul Boyer, author of a book on prophesy and American culture. Such hopes "have had enormous impact on society and the way we've developed." A millennial, or utopian, vision of a more holy society infused early American society. Puritan writings about the new world depict scenes from Isaiah, in which the lion and lamb lay down together. Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" describes the apocalyptic "fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword" - to free Southern slaves. Christian progressives at the turn of the century borrowed millennial ideas from the Bible to devise social policies like child-labor laws. …

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