Friday, 17 July 2009

“Have A Nice Doomsday”, by Nicholas Guyatt (Ebury Press)

Guyatt-HaveANiceDoomsdayWhy do 50 million Americans believe the world is about to end?

After reading countless liberal and secular attacks and exposes on the Religious Right, Nicholas Guyatt still didn’t understand what it was that the apocalyptic Christians actually believed. Have a Nice Doomsday is the author’s exploration of their world, addressing a number of key questions: Why did the movement become involved in politics, especially when everything is prophesied already? Why do they get involved in debates about abortion, gay marriage, and even foreign policy? Are their lives “totally overshadowed by the End Times”? Why do they believe what they do? How did the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, become such mega-sellers (60 million copies in print), and just how influential are they?

Guyatt’s mission is not entirely successful, as some of these questions aren’t answered as fully as one might like, but for the main, the book is an enlightening look into the more paranoid and fatalistic side of Christianity in America. The book is more descriptive than explanatory.

The portrait of the religious right that Guyatt paints is disturbing and somewhat terrifying. Their message can be simplified as: convert or die. While I doubt they would ever put it in such blunt terms, this is the underlying message. This is perfectly displayed in the Left Behind video game, in which you go around New York City converting passersby or, if they don’t prove amenable to conversion… well, it’s not clear, but you do get to control a tank. In addition to the video game, there is now a military-thriller offshoot.

It ought to be pointed out that this is not an anti-Christian polemic in the vein of Richard Dawkins and his ilk. Rather, Guyatt approaches his subject in an open-minded, fair manner – he’s not attempting to ridicule believers, though it’s sometimes difficult not to (for example, in his description of Tim LaHaye’s “undercover” adventures at gay pride parades). The author is attempting instead to both understand what these apocalyptic beliefs are, and also attempt to find out how widely accepted they are – as it turns out, not particularly, as the author appreciates that of the millions of readers of the Left Behind series, many likely don’t believe entirely in both the books’ content and teachings as doctrine – many, in fact, seem to pursue a more Church of England-esque style of Christianity (i.e., ‘be good to thy neighbours and do good works, but do it quietly’).

What is frightening, for Guyatt and also this reviewer, is that some of those who do buy in to the doomsayer prophecies hold government posts (at least they did when the book was first released) or enjoy a high level of influence over some Republican officials: I’m sure we can all remember the brief closeness of John McCain and John Hagee, who crops up in Have a Nice Doomsday, and not in a complimentary light. By the end of Have a Nice Doomsday, we are left with a disturbing portrait of an incomprehensible, paranoid group with an increasing proximity to the levers of American power (though, following the “thumpin’” the Republican party received in 2006 and 2008, their influence is clearly waning, though perhaps not within that party).

For the main, Guyatt focuses on the domestic impact of these believers, rather than the international impact, or the impact these beliefs might have on America’s foreign policy (for this, I would recommend Lee Marsden’s For God’s Sake: The Christian Right & US Foreign Policy), while still referring to the unwavering support of Israel that appears inseparable from the wider apocalyptic Christianity faith.

Have a Nice Doomsday is a witty, highly readable investigation into apocalyptic Christianity in America and Guyatt is the perfect guide into this world: his academic background, his prose style and his clever wit all make this book a pleasurable and entertaining read. The book’s content is alternately disconcerting and eye-opening, but always interesting. Well worth checking out.

Also try: Jeff Sharlet, The Family (2008); Chris Hedges, American Fascists (2008); Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming (2007); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (2006); Glenn Greenwald, Great American Hypocrites (2008); Ryan Sager, The Elephant in the Room (2006); Alex Heard’s Apocalypse Pretty Soon (2000)

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