Cover image for Homeland Mythology: Biblical Narratives in American Culture By Christopher Collins

Homeland Mythology

Biblical Narratives in American Culture

Christopher Collins

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288 pages
6" × 9"
2 b&w illustrations
2007

Homeland Mythology

Biblical Narratives in American Culture

Christopher Collins

“For too long, scholars assumed that national policy could be understood in terms of rational choice economics and game theory. Fortunately, we are coming again to realize the power of stories in our national rhetoric. Homeland Mythology is a timely and engaging analysis of what it means for America to be our home. Christopher Collins has done us a great service in examining the roots of many of our unexamined national myths.”

 

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Since 9/11, America has presented itself to the world as a Christianist culture, no less antimodern and nostalgic for an idealized past than its Islamist foes. The master-narrative both sides share might sound like this: Once upon a time, the values of the righteous community coincided with those of the state. Home and land were harmoniously united under God. But through intellectual pride (read: science) and disobedience (read: human rights), this God-blessed homeland was lost and is now worth every drop of blood it takes, ours and others’, to recover.

For Americans, the prime source for this once-and-future-kingdom myth is the Bible, with its many narratives of blessings gained, lost, and regained: the garden of Eden, the covenant with Abraham, the bondage in Egypt, the exodus under Moses, the glory of David and Solomon’s realm, the coming of the promised Messiah, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, his apocalyptic return at the end of history, and his establishment of the earthly kingdom of God. As Homeland Mythology shows, these biblical narratives have, over time, inspired a multitude of nationalist narratives, myths ingeniously spun out to justify a number of decidedly unchristian policies and institutions—from Indian genocide, the slave trade, and the exploitation of immigrant workers to Manifest Destiny, imperial expansionism, and, most recently, preemptive war.

On March 25, 2001, George W. Bush shared a bit of political wisdom: “You can fool some of the people all of the time—and those are the ones you have to concentrate on.” The cynical use of religion to cloak criminal behavior is always worth exposing, but why our leaders lie to us is no longer a mystery. What does remain mysterious is why so many of us are disposed to believe their lies. The unexamined issue that this book addresses is, therefore, not the mendacity of the few, but the credulity of the many.

“For too long, scholars assumed that national policy could be understood in terms of rational choice economics and game theory. Fortunately, we are coming again to realize the power of stories in our national rhetoric. Homeland Mythology is a timely and engaging analysis of what it means for America to be our home. Christopher Collins has done us a great service in examining the roots of many of our unexamined national myths.”
“Collins addresses issues of considerable cultural resonance. By formulating these issues through the elements of myth, he promises to deepen greatly our understanding of the interplay between symbol and society. Because the subject crosses conventional divides, this work will be of interest to historians, literary and rhetorical critics, religious scholars, and students of culture generally.”
“Much of what is covered [in this book] represents an important contribution to the fields of American studies and religious studies. It also represents a unique contribution in that it brings together important issues in ways that haven’t been synthesized before and traces back in history ideas that are very much the subject of discussion and debate among contemporary Americans.”

Christopher Collins is Professor of English at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. He is the author of several books including Reading the Written Image: Verbal Play, Interpretation, and the Roots of Iconophobia (Penn State, 1991).

Contents

Preface: Tracking Down an Old Story

1. Homeland and Its Discontents

2. Biblical Time and the Full Narrative Cycle

3. Myths of Curses, Myths of Blessings

4. Narratives of the Night

5. Abduction Narratives

6. Homeland Nostalgia and Holy War

7. Secular Modernism, Biblical Style

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Preface: Tracking Down an Old Story

In recent years, the world’s attention has focused on one particular people and the extreme pronouncements of its spokesmen. What motivates them? How do they justify their policies? How would they change the world? Though religion is not universally practiced among them and a number of sects continue to vie for influence, one religious narrative does seem to offer insights into their global agenda.

According to this narrative, the spiritual ancestors of this people were ancient Middle Eastern tribesmen who long ago swept in from the desert, conquered city after city, and built themselves a glorious kingdom. Their descendants live today in expectation that a martyred leader in the royal lineage of these tribesmen will soon return from Paradise to help them wage their final holy war and lead them to world domination. When that day comes, fire and pestilence will be dropped upon the infidels, whose bodies will be reaped by a great sickle and crushed like grapes, the blood rising five feet high and two hundred miles across—or, as their holy book phrases it, “even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.”

To outsiders, these people have always been inscrutable. Despite their ferocity in battle, their faith is one of peace. Despite their reputation as wily traders, over the centuries they have also produced notable works of art, science, and philosophy. Despite the sacred texts that require every woman to cover her head while praying, “learn in silence with all subjection,” and never “usurp authority over the man,” in this culture women have been known to rise to positions of high esteem and prominence.

I refer, of course, to the American people. As for their narrative, I mean the biblical stories that for some four centuries they have adapted to explain and justify their conquest of North America and their hegemony abroad. Homeland Mythology is meant to serve as a guide to the foundational narratives of this people.

What do these people believe? Is there a national creed? A majority of Americans tacitly assume that God has blessed America above all other nations; that he has given her a mission to liberate the world from tyranny and crime; that, without seeking territorial gain, she strives to feed, clothe, and enlighten the less fortunate; and that, though evildoers will attack her, she will eventually defeat them and inaugurate an era of universal peace. Biblically schooled Americans have tended to believe that they are now the “peculiar people,” a designation that Moses (in Deut. 14:2) conferred on the Israelites. When the American military goes forth into the world, men like Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin, deputy undersecretary for defense, refer to it as the “army of God.” Especially in times of crisis, Americans rally around these articles of national faith, which non-Americans view as . . . well, peculiar.

Until recent years, few Americans and even fewer foreigners have realized that beneath the cultural heritage of the Enlightenment—with its ideals of free thought, personal liberty, and tolerance toward others—a more ancient worldview has persisted. According to this view, God had reserved this country to be the Promised Land for his True Church, his New Israel. The Puritans brought this exceptionalist mythology with them, and the early republic elaborated it. Manifest Destiny was understood as God’s own compassionate plan, for it would have to be here, in this ample American homeland, that his Chosen People would someday establish for the benefit of all nations the millennial kingdom prophesied in the book of Revelation. The latter text, however, added quite different elements to the American mythology. Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible, speaks of the People of God as victims of unprovoked aggression, martyrs to the human agents of demonic malevolence—of pure evil. This apocalyptic prophecy has always braced Americans to accept the bitter and otherwise incomprehensible truth that, despite their righteousness and generosity, there would be those abroad who would regard them not merely as peculiar but as arrogant and selfish as well.

The word “homeland” has two main connotations: a homeland of and a homeland for. That is, we speak of the homeland of a particular human or animal population (“the homeland of the polar bear,” “the homeland of the Maori”). We also speak of the homeland as a refuge set apart for a displaced people (Liberia as a “homeland for freed American slaves,” Utah as a “homeland for the Mormons”). After the dispersal of a people from their ancestral region, the call for the return of this people combines both connotations: consider the homeland of/for the Palestinians, the homeland of/for the Jews, the homeland of/for the Kurds. As far as Europeans are concerned, America began as a homeland for, and only over time became a homeland of. American nativism—the Euro-American hostility to recent immigrants and the perceived threat of multilingualism—has always asserted the latter identity, an assertion that the events of 9/11 served to accentuate.

In contemporary usage, however, this word stands for a more complicated set of concepts. A “homeland” is a place of residence, but it also implies a destination marked by that potent word “home,” a word that seems to alter subtly in accordance with the verbs attached to it. The phrase “come home (to)” suggests a return to an earlier set of values from which we may have strayed. In a decade of orange alerts and not-quite-cozy-enough basement safe rooms, “coming home” still brings to mind a simpler, more secure setting, a little house on the prairie, a time of quilts and comfort foods. “Going home,” on the other hand, can connote an involuntary return—at least when, in the imperative, it is addressed to Americans abroad. That “go home” has appeared on placards and in angry chants on nearly every continent, and it does not evoke the “home” intended by the phrase “American homeland.” Americans may like to come home, but not to go home—much less “cut and run” (home). At any rate, they are certainly not likely to “go home” in an era of global markets and outsourcing, of cheap labor and materials.

As for that key phrase, “homeland security,” there is something paradoxical (not to say Orwellian) about it when the word “security” has come to evoke its very opposite. No doubt “The Department of Homeland Anxiety” would have been more accurate but not have struck quite the right tone. Whenever we sense a gap—in this case, a very wide gap—between language and reality, belief and experience, we are entitled to analyze crucial words and question the motives of those who disseminate them. Here, an inquiry into mythic discourse begins to be useful.

In an oral society, a myth is a narrative believed important enough to be passed down from generation to generation. As a collection of such orally transmitted stories, a mythology constitutes the preserved wisdom of a people. When writing is introduced, however, “myth” comes to mean a story that may convey a valuable lesson but is factually untrue.

A body of written texts—a shelf of books, for example—we can peruse whenever we like. We can pick up a book and open it to any page. We can come together and debate the merits of this or that writer. But an orally stored text is quite a different form of knowledge. Someone retells a story that is already composed, completed, and not normally open to dispute, let alone refutation. The hearers’ role is to suspend disbelief. In grammatical terms, the speaker (the I) is invested with absolute powers of speech and must not be interrupted; the hearers (the You) are obliged to believe, or pretend to believe, with perfect faith; and the persons spoken about (the They) are absent, which is a very good thing indeed because these narratives usually include superhuman beings with cruelly whimsical dispositions.

In my last book, Authority Figures, I proposed that authority, as the socially accepted right of some individuals to tell other people what to think and do, derives from the speech-situation, which in grammar is governed by the pronoun paradigm with its three classes of “persons.” In its simplest, most primitive form, speech creates three concentric zones: that of the centralized speaker, the sound of whose voice extends to a secondary zone of hearers, beyond which lies the zone of those third persons who cannot, must not, or will not hear this voice. “Homeland” is a word devised to designate a social entity, the relationship of an I to a You, i.e., of a dominant speaker or class of speakers and a heedful populace, bound together in a relationship that explicitly excludes the unheeding They. Insofar as myth is the continually renewed bond between an I and a You, myth is the living medium of “homeland.”

When we set about examining any myth, we usually isolate it as a significant narrative, a web of places, characters, animals, and plants that displays traditional motifs and plot characteristics. Just as an archaeological site is examined as an array of physical objects, a mythic narrative is often analyzed as an array of nouns. This is not, however, a fully adequate approach to this phenomenon. We need first to recognize that every mythic narrative that we examine was once a narration—a real person (re)telling a story to other real persons. This means that this structure of nouns was once also a function of pronouns, a speech-event in which a speaker (an I) told it to a hearer or group of hearers (a You). The structure of nouns, which is all we are left with now as the narrative artifact, was then, as it is now, an account of the behavior of third persons (the They), who were never around to hear themselves talked about in this social performance. Secondly, we need to recognize that this narration was not a one-time event. Not only was it a retelling of a familiar narrative, but it was also a reenactment of countless earlier gatherings in which narrators performed this narrative to the same or other hearers. We can be quite sure of this because, had it not been retold countless times, it would not have survived.

Once we define it as a public narration and the social context of its retelling as essential to its function, we realize that myth is a phenomenon not confined to purely oral cultures. Myth is a function of human sociality regardless of whether the narration occurs in a preliterate or a highly literate culture; whether it takes the form of an epic chanted in a mead hall, a ghost story told around a fire, or an anthem sung at a sports event; whether it is referred to in a sermon preached on Christmas morning or in a State of the Union address delivered before the assembled Congress and Supreme Court. Any public gathering at which a traditional tale is narrated, acted out, or in any way alluded to in songs is a speech-event that affirms a commonality.

The fact that oral culture has always been alive and well within literate cultures means that narrative, and the style of thinking associated with storytelling, also survives in written forms. Even the highly analytical work of mathematics and philosophy—the reasoning of Newton and Locke, for example—could be narrativized. In his Postmodern Condition (1979), Jean-Francois Lyotard proposed that certain narrative models, or master-narratives, had been used to explain the two founding concepts of Western modernism: science and liberty. One he called the speculative narrative, which popularized the notion of science as the noble pursuit of universally valid knowledge, an epic adventure of cosmic exploration. The other he called the emancipative narrative. As scientific speculation spoke a denotative language (“this is that”), emancipation spoke a prescriptive one (“you must do this”) and popularized the cause of material and social progress. Both served to mobilize public opinion in favor of expansionist governmental policies and imperial ambitions. The time had come, Lyotard said, to expose and abandon these two dying paradigms, these two metanarratives that the Enlightenment had devised and upon which modernism had been founded.

In the early 1990s, the media theorist Jay Rosen applied this postmodernist theory to the way American journalists had come to package the news. Thanks to his insight, by 2004 “narrative” had become a media buzzword. Commentators spoke of the presidential campaign as a war of competing narratives—among them the narratives of Vietnam service, blood for oil, revenge for the threat to a father’s life, and the ongoing war against terror. After the election, the political strategist James Carville lamented that the Democrats had lost because they had a litany but no narrative, i.e., a list of facts and issues but no compelling story line to connect them. Litanies have little entertainment value. To the degree that our information is now mediated by radio and television, we have come to live in what Walter Ong called the “era of secondary orality,” a postliterate world in which narrative logic once again determines public decision making.

How should we characterize the world we now inhabit? If, as Lyotard defined it, postmodernism is defined by an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” the American electorate has not yet entered postmodernity. And if we consider modernism as founded in a pre-electronic age, when books and newspapers were read, quoted, and discussed, over the past half-century we may have become increasingly demodernized. Indeed, how significant are the differences between secondary and primary orality—the oral culture of preliterates? Insofar as we inhabit a global village of electronic storytelling, we inhabit a world that is neither modern nor postmodern. Despite our technological advancement, we now live and think in a premodern age.

For Americans, the premodern roots of our culture are Puritan. The master narratives our cultural forebears brought with them and disseminated throughout the continent were, and continue to be, biblical. Though the Bible comes to us now in written form, it is infused with oral authority. In it we learn that a single divine speaker, Yahweh, first spoke the world into being, and later imparted his commands directly to Moses and the prophets, who then relayed them to the people, announcing “thus saith the Lord.” Yahweh, in the fashion of an ancient King of Kings, is the first of all first persons, the I who, as the King James Version construes the Hebrew, refers to himself as the “I-am-who-am.” In the world envisioned by biblical faith, the human hearers of God’s word, the heedful You, remain in relationship with the Divine Speaker and are protected by him, but only so long as they remain within the speaking-hearing space with God at the center. When they turn away and no longer hear him, they enter the space of the They, those who are to be spoken not to, but about—behind their backs, as it were. To be third persons was, from God’s point of view, to be cast off and abandoned: “if ye shall at all turn from following me . . . then I will cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them . . . and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people” (1 Kings 9:6–7, italics added). In the biblical world, the addressees (the You) are subject to a pronominal anxiety. They must be classified as standing either with God or distanced from him, either second or third persons in this cosmic paradigm.

Each of the seven chapters that follow is an essay intended to shed light on “homeland mythology” at different stages in its cultural evolution and from different disciplinary angles—from anthropology and biblical studies to sociology, rhetorical theory, and literary analysis. Though I will often view my topic from a rather long perspective, my underlying focus throughout will be on contemporary issues, for it has been the present, not the past, that has prompted my venture into “Big History.” When the anti-Clinton campaigns of the mid-1990s rose to a level of invective I could not then adequately explain, I began to jot down notes that linked this disproportionate vehemence to apocalyptic frenzy, that cyclical American phenomenon that by then, thanks to round-the-clock media coverage, had perhaps frothed over into politics. When Hillary Clinton complained in January 1998 that she and her husband had been victims of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” I was at first skeptical, but gradually came to understand that there was something other than Y2K hysteria afoot in the nation.

The conspiracy, it turns out, involved the efforts of several conservative billionaires to find and fund several aggrieved women and of talk-radio hosts to accuse the Clintons of crimes ranging from small-time embezzlement to drug trafficking and murder. But it involved much more. It involved what political analysts now recognize as a strategic convergence of two heretofore divided factions of American conservatism: secular neoconservatives, intent on directing the American economic empire in a post-Soviet, unipolar world, and religious conservatives, intent on controlling American social institutions by rewriting the laws and realigning the Supreme Court. Here was a grand strategy that would call upon corporate American media to convert a cold-war rhetoric into a set of talking points calculated to recruit a fundamentalist Christian voting bloc. Once I realized this, I began to examine the political rhetoric of Christian conservatives in a biblical and historical context and found that there was little new in the cultural narratives their leaders trumpeted to the faithful. Moreover, there was little new in the cynical nimbleness with which a Machiavellian elite could exploit this sector of society.

In May 1999, during the run-up to the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush portrayed himself as a “uniter, not a divider.” His administration has, by most estimates, polarized the nation, but perhaps his phrase was misinterpreted. In retrospect, his candidacy seems to have been designed to unite the Right by bridging the gap, such as it was, between economic and social conservatives—that is, between Americans who resent being taxed to support the general welfare of the less fortunate and those other Americans, many of them the “less fortunate,” who resent having to tolerate the behavior of those they regard as immoral. After the Supreme Court decided to deny Florida voters a systematic recount and named Bush president, I shelved this project on religio-political rhetoric and turned to other research. But after the events of 9/11, as the patriotic emotions of Americans began to be channeled into that old, exceptionalist rhetoric and into those old, expansionist policies, I reconsidered the project. With that word, “homeland,” something powerfully conflictive seemed to emerge into public discourse. Here was a word that seemed designed to transcend a division that had deep roots in human history, a word that, to me, manifested a utopian ideal that four centuries of Anglo-European settlement of North America had struggled to articulate—an ideal that, now uttered by an imperial president, might prove to have profound consequences for the entire earth.

The “homeland,” that harmonious union of virtue and power, has long existed as a utopian concept to which myths alone can lend a semblance of reality. Yet the myths that have always concealed its falsehood are less able to conceal the falsehoods of its proponents, who must lie again and again (and ever more loudly) to retain their dwindling base of true believers. In recent years, investigative reporters have amply revealed the disinformation disseminated by members of the current administration. Important as it was and still is to expose the lies that led us to the Iraq War and its ongoing consequences, it is also important, I submit, to expose the reasons why American voters were, and remain, predisposed to believe such lies. In short, the unexamined issue we now need most to explore is not the mendacity of the few but the credulity of the many.

This quest for the myths that underlie the American homeland I can summarize as follows. Chapter 1, “Homeland and Its Discontents,” begins with an inquiry into the way in which some patriotic songs link the words “home” and “land.” Then I step back, rather far back, from American cultural history to trace the inherent tensions that have always separated “home,” as a local entity, from “land,” as a centrally governed entity. The communal, or local, level relies on a code of behavior, an ethos with which the governmental level does not, and perhaps cannot, comply. The radical disparity between the two social levels lies in the fact that the communal level adheres to the principle that the end never justifies the means, whereas the governmental level pursues the policy that the end always justifies the means. Insofar as we claim membership in both social levels and are required to believe equally in two contradictory principles, we suffer an inner distress, a cognitive dissonance. It is this psychosocial disorder that civil religion (formalized expressions of governmental piety) attempts to treat through that oldest of all “talking cures,” mythology. Chapter 1 concludes with a discussion of two kinds of myths, the heroic and the ethnic, and their relevance to recent presidential rhetoric.

Because the specific mythological resources available to this rhetoric are biblical, we must pause to consider how biblical writers themselves dealt with these dissonances when they encountered them. When we do so, we quickly realize that the writers of both the Jewish and Christian canons were as acutely concerned as we are with the conflict between the praxis of the state and the ethos of the community. Out of their experience with this problem, they devised a theory of history based on an ingenious theory of time. Chapter 2, “Biblical Time and the Full Narrative Cycle,” begins with a discussion of several models of time and the methods of interpreting history that follow from them. The model that seems to have had the most effect on the biblical worldview, a model that most of us find challenging to conceptualize, likens time to a stream that emerges out of an unseen future and moves continuously toward us.

From our modern point of view, time carries us with it “forward” into the future, and so it seems strange that biblical time moves “backwards.” Yet, given certain cultural premises, this directionality makes about as much sense as our own future-oriented “arrow of time.” After all, does not every generation follow its predecessors? Does it not pass and take its place in the past? As for the future, which will someday become the present, might it not already be “there,” and might not a mind superior to time know the future before it reaches us, confined as we are in our narrow present? Biblical metaphysicians believed not only that their god could know the future but also that he could easily share his advance knowledge with certain humans. This revelation (in Greek, apokalupsis) made it possible for Christians to visualize a pre-scripted future in which the dissonant connotations of “land” (as governmental territory or nation) and “home” (as shelter, family, and protective community) could be finally reconciled.

When the first English settlers arrived in America, they brought with them this profoundly biblical time line. As I show in Chapter 3, “Myths of Curses, Myths of Blessings,” their leaders had convinced them that they were participating in the climactic events of world history. The prophesied final future was about to appear for all the world to see. Reading the book of Revelation, many of them grew to believe that they were themselves the army of God hemmed about by the forces of the Antichrist, which for them meant the Pope of Rome and his agents, the Spanish, the French, and the Indians—the first Anglo-American “axis of evil.” The successes of these settlers both before and after their War of Independence reinforced their belief that their venture in the New World had been uniquely blessed and their nation destined to play a decisive role in world affairs. Some went even further: God had chosen them to combat an evil empire, destroy it in a worldwide conflagration, and then inaugurate the Millennium. Bible-based secondary narratives like this were devised to explain why and how God had illuminated American leaders and led their followers to claim the country “from sea to shining sea” as their Promised Land. As we shall observe, ethnic myths that use biblical parallels to account for inequalities among races, classes, and religions have always held a prominent place in American homeland mythology.

American clergymen and politicians, eager to justify governmental policies, have often appealed to these parallels. Some took the Church doctrine that, when the Jews rejected Jesus, Christians became God’s Chosen People, and they stretched it to interpret all references to the Chosen Ones of the Old Testament as being prophetic references to themselves as a covenanted people in the wilderness. For example, the Israelites’ divinely ordained conquest of the Canaanites prefigured, and therefore justified, the Americans’ expropriation of Indian and Mexican territories. Even chattel slavery could be defended as God’s will. As for the future, Americans would have little to fear. As long as the nation continued to advance in virtue and to preach the gospel to the heathen, it would infuse the world with Christ’s spiritual presence and thus create the thousand-year kingdom of heaven, with America at its center. Christ would physically return, of course, but only after the Millennium concluded. (This belief is known as postmillennialism.) When he returned then in power and glory, it would be to summon the living and the dead to the Last Judgment. Having been evangelized by American missionaries, most then living on earth would promptly enter into their eternal reward.

There was another tradition, however, that ran counter to this expansive view. This other tradition, which I begin to explore in Chapter 4, “Narratives of the Night,” rejects the notion that this earth could be anything other than a place of testing, a dark vale of tears, and denies that any human effort can ever reform humanity and create the Millennium. Not until the “midnight cry” is heard and Christ physically returns to purge this earth with blood and fire could it be a Christian’s genuine homeland. (Because Christ’s return must occur before the Millennium, this belief is called premillennialism and is shared by Christians who identify themselves as evangelicals, dispensationalists, and fundamentalists.) Until then, “while the Lord tarries,” one’s only true homeland is the spiritual realm of heaven, where the weary are refreshed and the bereaved reunited with their lost loved ones. This familiar theme of funeral homilies was the message of countless tracts, including John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. While they describe this otherworldly homeland in terms of light and peace, blossoms and music, premillennialists look upon the earthly realm as a nightscape of unnatural vices that richly merits the carnage, plagues, and conflagrations that God will visit upon it for seven years before the battle of Armageddon. The prospect of the Second Coming does not worry these believers, because most of them maintain that God will rescue them in the Rapture before the tribulation sets in. The thought of the fiery purging of the earth and the dispatching of the worldly-wise to eternal torment is, for them, a source of positive consolation.

Not too surprisingly, many of their Christian brethren—nominally Christian, premillennialists might say—take scant solace from this prospect, preferring instead to visualize the arrival of their Messiah not as the implacable judge of the Second Coming, but as the little prince of peace. To conclude this chapter, devoted to America’s fascination with apocalyptic images, I note several annual festivals that serve to mask those end-time images and thereby mitigate their terror. The “traditional” Christmas, a narrative of the night that apocalypse-expectant Christians have always inveighed against, substitutes end-of-the-year merriment for end-of-the-world mindfulness. The Americanized myth of Santa Claus has gone even further: by concealing the figure of the grim avenger behind that of the jolly giver of goodies, it has converted an article of faith into a mere children’s fable. Other carnivalesque seasonal festivals and ceremonies, too, elide the horrors of the tribulation and betoken the classless leisure of the Millennium.

In Chapter 5, “Abduction Narratives,” I shift my focus from the terrors of end-time rhetoric to the more structured scenario that Christians understand as the Redemption, literally a “buying back” of an abducted person. The myth of a celestial hero who struggles against a monstrous villain in order to save his favored ones is an ancient story that, in America, has been updated in many ingenious ways. Science fiction projected this scenario into the distant future, but Christian futurists (both minor cultists and major televangelists) projected it into the very near future, retrofitting its supernatural weaponry with nuclear and space-age technology. Since 1945 the well-warranted fear of nuclear war has inspired innumerable escape scenarios, not only within established religions but also on and beyond their fringes, where visionaries rose up announcing the imminent arrival of extraterrestrials. Like Bible-wielding preachers who assure their congregations that both devils and angels will soon descend to earth, these New Age prophets warn that space aliens might either be evil abductors or compassionate saviors. Both Christian and New Age rapturists, yearning to take permanent flight from this doomed planet, thus weave their end-time narratives out of the same biblical skein and have more in common with one another than they readily admit.

I end this chapter by exploring some culturally significant American abduction/redemption narratives and point out that, like the myths of curses and blessings derived from Genesis, these narratives also dull the guilt that the beneficiaries of the fruits of raw aggression sometimes feel, thereby legitimating the Euro-American conquest of North America. By celebrating the virtuous victimhood of white Americans, these narratives, beginning with that of Mary Rowlandson, have diverted attention from the institutionalized mass abduction and enslavement of Native Americans and Africans from 1637 to 1865. They have also been used to characterize the status of American prisoners in foreign war zones.

The verb “to redeem” not only means to pay for the freedom of an abductee—it can also mean to pay back the abductor with retributive justice. As I go on to suggest in Chapter 6, “Homeland Nostalgia and Holy War,” Americans who long for an avenger to appear envision a future that reinstates a past associated in their mind with righteous, wise, and heroic men. The process of human degeneration can stop, they believe, but only when a strict, godly government is put in place. This view of historical process they derive, directly or indirectly, from the Old Testament prophets and the prophetic writings in the New Testament, especially Revelation. The prophets, most of whom wrote after the fall of Judah to Babylon in 587 BC, never relinquished their vision of a restored kingship and a regathered Twelve Tribes that would someday reestablish the Law of Moses over the entire land that God had promised to Abraham. This orientation has inspired a number of American nostalgic attitudes, many of which indicate a communal resentment against what they perceive as a governing elite that does not share their own cultural values. Among these attitudes, I cite an idealization of rural life, a disdain for the city, a tendency to fortify the home from outsiders as though it could be a self-sufficient castle, and a longing for a homogeneous society, a racially pure, theocratic kingdom instead of a modern nation. At this point I discuss the emergence of a form of postmillennialism called Dominion Theology and assess its use in neoconservative imperialism.

Such American nostalgias have generated a number of diverse ethnic myths. One of them has it that the Nordic peoples are the Lost Tribes of Israel and that the present-day Jews are impostors. A related myth maintains that the white race is the true seed of Adam, that Jews are descendants of Eve and Satan, and that all other races are subhuman. According to this narrative, no sooner had the children of Adam found their final homeland in America than “Satan’s Seed,” the Jews, saw their opportunity to frustrate God’s will. They first brought African slaves to America and then, in the nineteenth century, agitated to free them in order someday to destroy the Adamites’ racial purity through miscegenation. As though to prove that myths of racial supremacy come in all colors, several separatist groups have arisen that preach that the only true Israelites today are African Americans. As such movements indicate, a little biblical knowledge is a dangerous thing: not only is membership in God’s true, racially pure Chosen People a seductive recruiting gimmick, but so also are the uniforms and firearms that usually come with this membership.

Chapter 6 concludes with a brief look at a politically influential movement with a nostalgia of truly biblical proportions. It calls itself Christian Zionism and is led by a number of premillennialist evangelists who follow an interpretation of biblical prophecy known as dispensationalism. This movement supports the Israeli Far Right in its quest to ethnically cleanse the state of Israel and, by force of arms, to expand its borders to that of David’s kingdom three thousand years ago. According to what they call God’s “prophetic time table,” only when the Twelve Tribes are regathered in their historical homeland and 144,000 of them accept Jesus as the Messiah will the tribulation commence. What happens to the rest of the Jews and indeed to all humanity when the final war of good against evil explodes in the Middle East? That will be for God to decide. As for the true believers, each will rise upward into bliss, their mission on earth completed.

New Agers are not the only non-Christians to construct their worldview out of biblical materials. Atheists, agnostics, deists—American secularists of every persuasion have regarded the Bible as a useful source of imagery and rhetoric. In Chapter 7, “Secular Modernism, Biblical Style,” I examine four secular narratives that emerged during the Enlightenment: the two that Lyotard discussed, which I term here the narratives of nature and of freedom, plus two others, the narratives of progress and of judgment (the judicial system). For each narrative, I indicate the specific biblical master-narrative that authorizes it within American culture. In a literate era, when observable facts are foregrounded and issues are publicly debated, all such narratives have best operated in the background as ways to popularize ideas. Inserted in novels, poems, and essays, these narratives require a willing suspension of disbelief, but in a postliterate, no-longer-modern era, in which disbelief in official “talking points” is deemed unpatriotic, narrative can be overtly presented as the simple truth. When this happens, narrative becomes lie.

The book concludes with several observations on Plato’s myth of metals, a passage of ideological significance to neoconservatives. As told in the Republic, this scheme aimed to persuade the citizens of a state that the land in which they made their home was actually their mother, who, having assigned them one of four immutable classes and birthed them from her earthy bowels, henceforth forever claimed their absolute loyalty. Of course, this homeland myth was a lie. Yet as Socrates argued, it was a “noble lie,” because it was a means to two good ends: it made citizens content with their social class, and it inspired a willingness to fight and die for the state. As the political philosopher Leo Strauss taught two generations of neoconservative thinkers, a government must propagate lies like this if it is to maintain public order. Only an intellectual elite is able to accept the reality that life has no transcendent meaning. Only they, like Plato’s philosopher kings, can gaze directly into the wordless void. For the rest, there must be government-sponsored mythology.

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As these chapter summaries suggest, this book has drawn information and inspiration from a wide range of sources. Apart from my references to them in text, notes, and bibliography, I ought to single out for acknowledgement several of those persons whose work I found especially helpful: Ernest Lee Tuveson, whose Redeemer Nation first revealed to me the religious pretensions of American exceptionalism; Paul Boyer, whose When Time Shall Be No More broadly updated Tuveson’s book; Rev. Stephen Sizer for his Internet-posted analyses of Hal Lindsey’s oeuvre; Rev. Barry Lynn, founder of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for his efforts to preserve religious and political freedoms by documenting the attempts of those who would blur the distinctions between sectarian and secular institutions; Shadia Drury, for venturing into the cave of Straussian political philosophy and training light into some of its darker recesses; Fr. Walter Ong, whose concept of secondary orality helped explain for me the function of myth in postliterate politics; and George Lakoff, for demonstrating how conceptual metaphors, operating at the level that Fredric Jameson called the “political unconscious,” can be manipulated to frame and constrain political discourse.

I also want to thank the scholars whom Penn State Press chose to review my manuscript. I am especially grateful to Jacqueline Bacon for her careful attention to the text and for reminding me that not all American Christians are social conservatives. In addition, I wish to thank Laura Reed-Morrisson for the insightful diligence with which she prepared my manuscript for publication.

Finally, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to my neighbors in Pine Bush, New York, from whom and with whom I have learned the meaning of community; to Scott Marshall for his help in designing my diagrams and in overcoming my natural tendency to misunderestimate the monstrousness of the “New American Century”; to Susan Drucker-Brown of the Department of Anthropology, Cambridge University, who has encouraged me over the years in ventures like this; and to her sister, Emily, my wife, to whom this book is dedicated.

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