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Review: 'Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience'

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Millennial madness is with us again as December 2012 looms and, with it, the end of the world as we know it, as "predicted" by the Mayan calendar.

It's a good moment, then, to take note of Richard Landes' Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience. It would take a mind more scholarly than my own to do justice to this book with a properly critical review. It's a hefty tome and its language is that of meticulously argued academic analysis. The footnotes alone often take up half a page or more -- and that's on every page of this 500-page book. But -- please note -- this should not deter anyone who is seriously interested in attempting to come to at least a partial understanding of the bewildering, dangerous insanity that threatens to engulf our world in this 21st century. That should include all of us.

Okay, I'll admit I glossed over some of the more esoteric passages. I did not pay that much attention to the footnotes. And I struggled, at times, with the language. But I was so engaged by the stories of human gullibility, folly and delusion that my fascination never lapsed.

As have many people like myself who think of themselves, as I do, as rational, thinking human beings, I have been confounded by the absurd, sometimes outrageous, and ostensibly religious beliefs that govern the thoughts and actions of so many of our fellow travelers on this planet, who in their fanatic dedication to deluded notions gladly endanger our very existence on the planet Earth. I think not only of those "Muslim terrorists" who brought down the World Trade Center towers and plot the demise of Western civilization, but also of their Christian brethren in madness who preach their fundamentalist, end-of-times versions of reality in our own churches here in America. Such extremist views are not merely tolerated, they are embraced by alarming numbers of our fellow-citizens -- and they coalesce into a powerful political force. It behooves us to pay attention, and to attempt to understand the incomprehensible.

Enter Richard Landes, who helpfully frames all this insanity in the context of the "millennial experience." In our attempt to explain and envision a reality beyond the human condition that is all too frequently one of suffering, bondage, injustice and violent conflict, we humans have often in our history rushed to embrace the prophecies of messiahs who promise us peace, freedom and justice for all -- "heaven on earth," just over the hill, past the (imminent!) end of the world, if only we will repent, believe in them, and follow them if necessary to the ends of the earth. Whether by rapture or vengeful apocalypse, "we shall overcome" the forces of evil and find salvation through their intermediary.

Trouble is, of course, that the end of the world never comes, and the inevitable disillusionment needs some explanation: in the most benign of cases, the date of the cataclysm merely gets postponed; in the worst, we descend into mass suicide or mass murder, even genocide when the megalomania of false prophets explodes into homicidal frenzy.

I found this book to be both amazing and enlightening. As I suggested at the start, I am unqualified to review it in the critical perspective of other work in the same field of study, but I found its arguments compelling and its stories fascinating. We know these characters, from Jim Jones to Adolf Hitler, and Landes offers a plausible framework in which to understand their seemingly inexplicable power over their followers. The stories he tells help us to tease out the underlying patterns of human behavior that permit atrocities like the Holocaust, and leave us open, in the current century, to real and actual self-destruction as a species. In reading the deplorable history of apocalyptic prophesies and events and in understanding how they come about, Landes suggests in his conclusion, we might just possibly avert the biggest one of all.

Unless, of course, the Mayan calendar proves us skeptics wrong... (It may account for all those typos! Oxford University Press? Really? For shame!) See you in January.