9/11 at the Bible Prophecy Corner
9/11 at the Bible Prophecy Corner
Enacting the Virtual Ekklesia
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on individuals involved in vernacular Christian fundamentalism as they coped with the shock of the 9/11 attacks. By September 2001, the online discourse emerging from this new religious movement had become a huge web of linked Internet sites. At all its nodes, individuals shared the definitive beliefs of their movement. Based on these beliefs, they engaged in the communication that enacted their virtual ekklesia. This ekklesia is based on a shared hope that, despite the violence that will accompany it, Christ will return soon. This hope emerged from the radical certainty born of their spiritual rebirth experiences. This certainty underwrote the particular constellation of beliefs that define the movement, and it can be traced back to the historical movement of Christian fundamentalism.
New Events; Same Story
For those in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., or who had loved ones on one of four commercial air flights on September 11, 2001, the events of that day comprised more than a news story or historical event—they were an intense personal experience. For far more, however, that intense violence was experienced through live television and other news reporting media. At the dawn of a new millennium of global information sharing, this mediated experience was traumatic and transforming. The shocking events of that morning—watching the austere towers collapse into goliath columns of smoke—forced North Americans to adjust their previously held narratives and beliefs about the world. Like having missed an important episode of a geopolitical drama, an unnoticed subplot erupted onto television screens with stark brutality.
This was no less true for the individuals involved in vernacular Christian fundamentalism. By September 2001, the online discourse emerging from this new religious movement had become a huge web of linked Internet sites. At all its nodes, individuals shared the definitive beliefs of their movement. Based on these beliefs, they engaged in the communication that enacted their virtual ekklesia.
For the people involved in the movement at that time, it seemed at first that the prophetic narrative they saw in their literal reading of the Bible made no mention of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, in the immediate aftermath, it was unthinkable that their magnitude would not be marked in the Bible. Instead of perceiving that absence as some kind of possible larger error in their interpretative approach, individuals in this movement redoubled their efforts to locate the attacks in the texts. Engaging in the ritual deliberation that is definitive of (p.24) the movement, the events were assimilated into the shared understanding of the world that linked these individuals—at least for a few days.
The communication documented on one Web site demonstrates how ritualized deliberation had grown so powerful by 2001 that even unexpected new facts could be quickly rendered sensible by the communal interpretation of biblical prophecy. The specific End Times narrative these individuals shared made this communal agility possible. Theorist of communication and media Walter Fisher has argued that humans think natively not only in logos, or logic, but also, and maybe first, in mythos or “story” (1985). That is to say, people organize their understandings of the world through interlocking narratives.
With the advent of mass media, people began to have access to the events from which they construct their variant narratives by way of newspaper, magazine, and television news agencies. Since the rise of the public Worldwide Web in 1992, multilateral discussions about these events had become commonplace on a multitude of Web sites, newsgroups, and online forums, as well as in both private and public email lists. As the overall volume of online communication exploded, so too had the online web of vernacular fundamentalism. In the movement, world news events had long provided grist for ritual deliberation. Because of the connections between biblical prophecy and war in the Middle East, the 9/11 attacks both fueled the interest in the End Times and needed to be placed into the prophetic narrative already believed to be the correct literal interpretation of the Bible.
Individuals within Christian vernacular fundamentalism used Marilyn Agee’s Web site as a location to perform a communal integration of the September 11 attacks into their End Times narrative. Though none of their short-term predictions based on these events came to pass, their communication ritually enacted their shared ideology. This integration demonstrates how meaning making occurs through vernacular authority. As we have seen, the social aggregate recognizes itself in the myriad everyday expressive acts of ritual deliberation. In the communication hosted on Marilyn Agee’s Web site on and shortly after September 11, 2001, the power of this vernacular authority is clear.
September 11, 2001
On September 11, 2001 there was an outpouring of grief, confusion, anger, and shock in the web of online discourse emerging from vernacular Christian fundamentalism. In hundreds of newsgroup postings, email messages, blogs, and forums community members struggled to adjust their understanding (p.25) of the world to these unexpected events. Because the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is generally thought to shortly precede the second coming of Christ, conservative Christians have often paid close attention to events in the Middle East. As it quickly became clear that the planes had been hijacked by individuals involved in Middle Eastern politics, individuals in the movement felt compelled to integrate the attacks into their prophetic view of geopolitical conflict, and the events of 9/11 were pulled into the dynamic flow of ritualized deliberation. While no final decision about their significance was made, the challenge to their interpretations that these new facts might have presented was quickly neutralized just the same.
Marilyn’s Web site, Bible Prophecy Corner, presents a rich and complex example of how the individuals in this movement used ritualized deliberation to enact their ekklesia. As a popular and authoritative figure, Marilyn claimed that God had “led” her in her biblical studies. She placed her own writings in a clear authoritative relationship to the biblical texts she interpreted. Because the movement held the value that the biblical texts are divinely inspired and literally true, Marilyn placed her secondary interpretations of those texts into the realm of divine authority by relating her story of how she came to realize that God wanted her to write books. The desire to communicate her messages based on this authority prompted Marilyn to shift away from publishing books to creating a large Web site dominated by her posts of email exchanges she had with other members in the movement. The ritual deliberation she presents offers excellent examples of how this behavior can be both flexible and support a rigid adherence to the specific set of beliefs that defines the movement.
In 2001, the main section of the Bible Prophecy Corner was devoted to what Marilyn terms the “Pro and Con Index” (Agee 1999a). A blog of sorts, Marilyn had been using it to catalog and respond to questions and concerns individuals involved in vernacular fundamentalism had sent to her by email since 1996. In September 2001, the “Index” contained over eight hundred individual entries, many of which were well over five thousand words. Each entry was placed on its own individual Web page. Each contained four to ten “incoming” emails on a particular topic, often from a number of different individuals. In response to the incoming emails, Marilyn wrote “my reply” sections addressing the concerns expressed by her emailers. Often she included whole threads of rebuttals and counterarguments that she had exchanged with her interlocutors.
Marilyn’s “Pro and Con” numbered 803 was dated September 12, 2001, and it provides a good opportunity to observe the way in which members (p.26) of this movement reacted in the hours after the 9/11 events. Because these events were both historic and unexpected, they could have threatened the worldview of vernacular Christian fundamentalism by providing information that should have been but was not accounted for in the Bible. Acting with her community, Marilyn led her fellow believers in ritual deliberation that neutralized this threat.
Nearly five thousand words long, “Pro and Con 803” included thirteen “incoming emails” and four “my replies” which were posted throughout the day on September 11. Marilyn’s replies addressed two different broad topics through which she categorized the thirteen communications she received. She posted eleven incoming emails in one group—these were mostly only a line or two and made no specific claims. In an example of this series, one of Marilyn’s interlocutors wrote: “WTC-towers collapsing, well that’s what i call a sign :)”1 (Agee 2001b). While the post shows a certain insensitivity to the tragedy, it also correctly anticipated what would dominate the group’s response to the events of 9/11. For them, these events were so momentous that they must surely be a sign of the End Times, but where were they in the Bible? Figuring this out was important because locating them in the Bible could function as a marker of the current moment in the prophetic narrative and thus shed light on how soon they might expect the End.
Most of the other emails in this group specifically sought Marilyn’s response. One began: “Can you please explain to me how todays bombing is related to the Bible, and the end of time. Could you please give me some Bible verses that I could refer back to. Thank you and God Bless you” (Agee 2001b). By emailing her in this way, the community looked to Marilyn for advice. She responded to them by showing compassion and emphasizing that vengeance was not an appropriate Christian reaction.
In response to more complicated queries, Marilyn began to place the 9/11 events into the specific context of the prophetic narrative. The possibility that the Book of Revelation foretold that asteroids would strike the earth had been an ongoing issue discussed on her Web site in the days before 9/11. She described her views on the issue in the “Pro and Con” from the week before, number 802:
I think God wants as many people as possible to know that there is an asteroid threat. That Rev. 8:8,10 is talking about asteroid impacts could not be known perfectly before the first asteroid was discovered in modern times. Now we can understand it perfectly. Every heavenly body that we have been able to photograph the surface of is pockmarked with craters. (p.27) The Earth is not immune, although the Moon may have swept many from our orbital path. Lights that have been sighted on the Moon from time to time may have been asteroid impacts.
On the September 12 “Pro and Con,” right after she addressed the unchristian aspect of desiring vengeance, she immediately returned to the topic of asteroids and placed them in relation to 9/11:
The Lord said that vengeance belongs to him. He knows who did what and how to punish them. They don’t know what is in store for them for plotting this wickedness. They will get what for without our doing a thing. I’ll list below some verses that mention the Lord’s vengeance. The asteroid of Rev. 8:8 will fall into the Mediterranean Sea. The star of Rev. 8:10 will destroy Babylon. Rev. 18:21 says, “a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.”
Marilyn’s ability to immediately shift from the current tragedy to an ongoing interpretative point shows both her agility of mind and the ability of the End Times narrative to order individuals’ understandings of the world. Making this shift, Marilyn relied primarily on two biblical passages. The first was Revelation 8:7. This passage is interpreted by many in the movement to refer to a catastrophic event caused by something coming from the sky. This event comes at a set place in the narrative. However, what exactly comes from the sky offers significant flexibility in interpretation.
Typical of the Book of Revelation, the passage describes a series of catastrophes in highly metaphoric language. Each catastrophe is initiated by the blowing of a trumpet. The First Trumpet is described this way: “The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up” (8:7). A literal reading of this passage suggests that something “hailed” from the sky that burned a large portion of the earth. During the Cold War, this was typically thought to refer to a nuclear attack (Wojcik 1997, 42). For Marilyn and others in 2001, it was thought to refer to asteroids. Among adherents, the exact nature of the event was flexible. However, its place in the overall narrative was not.
The Book of Revelation describes several more events unfolding after the First Trumpet/asteroid catastrophe. One that has garnered a huge amount (p.28) of attention in ritual deliberation is called “the Rapture.” The Rapture refers to an event or events where the bodies of believing Christians will be literally taken up into Heaven. Though there is disagreement regarding whether there will be one or two such events, Revelation seems to refer to at least one, saying:
And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves. [ …] And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them. And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.
Because this Rapture event is described in the prophecy as coming after the “First Trumpet,” the narrative order places limits on the interpretation of the text. For a literal narrative to be foretold by the Bible (whatever the First Trumpet turns out to be), it must come before whatever the Rapture event of Revelation 11 actually is. Dealing with these issues in the longest interpretive section of “803 Pro and Con,” Marilyn demonstrates how ritual deliberation’s ability to generate meaning derives from the flexibility of the End Times narrative. The interpretative exchange took up nearly half the entire Web page. It consisted of an initial email that was sent to Marilyn by a fellow believer identified as “SA,” Marilyn’s thirteen hundred word reply, a response from the initial emailer consisting of a few sentences, and finally a second reply from Marilyn of over five hundred words. SA initiated the deliberation, writing:
From: SA, Re: The Ark of the Covenant
…I was delving into the KJV electronic bible which I have just downloaded and unzipped and the first OT book I went into was the calling of Samuel to serve the Lord. I grabbed my NIV for a second read through since the KJV can be rather oblique at times and reached 1 Sam 4 where the Philistines capture the Ark. I read on till 6:17 and then BAM—realized that here is a connection with Zephaniah 2:4. The Philistines had to send a guilt offering of five gold tumours and five gold rats. … and the gold tumours represent Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron . . …and guess where the asteroid strikes!! “Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins. At MIDDAY Ashdod will be emptied and Ekron uprooted. Woe to you who live by the sea, O Kerethite people. … ”(NIV)
(p.29) Isn’t that a classic—just goes to show—don’t mess with the Lord Almighty!! What would be the significance of 1 Sam 6:1 “ When the Ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months …”?
It’s just so nice to see how the Lord deals out justice and all the more why we should understand that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31)!
I shall continue on and see where the Ark lands up. In Christ and looking up (eighteenth hopefully!!!) Agape (Agee 2001b)
Engaging in a common activity associated with ritual deliberation, Marilyn’s interlocutor searched the Bible for references to elements she felt might be connected. She found three: the Ark of the Covenant, destructive natural events, and the number seven. Hoping this pattern might map onto current world events, she described “looking up” in three senses: “looking up” something in the Bible, “looking up” to God in Heaven, and “looking” into the future for patterns that might point to the “(eighteenth hopefully!!!).” Here, the number eighteen referred specifically to September 18, 2001—seven days after 9/11.
For SA, September 18 had taken on special significance because she suspected that the events of 9/11 might be what some adherents called “the Seven Day Warning.” This warning was thought to have been given to Noah before the Great Flood depicted in the Old Testament, and some argued that this pattern would be mirrored in the End Times scenario by some “sign” seven days before the First Trumpet. If the September 11 events were a “Seven Day Warning,” then the asteroids which Marilyn had been predicting as the First Trumpet should strike the earth seven days after the eleventh: on September 18.
Marilyn followed her emailer’s line of thought, and responded with supporting data: “(9–18–01 is Tishri 1, 5761, the Feast of Trumpets, hopefully the Rapture.)” Here, Marilyn translated September 18 to an equivalent date on the Hebrew calendar system that the Old Testament prophets would have used. Based on this dating and in an exchange with a fellow believer, she placed the newly significant date into the context of her ongoing efforts to interpret biblical texts in terms of the Hebrew calendar and modern astronomy.
Earlier that year, Marilyn had publicly declared that the Christian holiday called the Feast of Trumpets (celebrated the same day as the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah) in either 2001 or 2002 would mark a significant event in the End Times. In 2001, Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on September 17. This (p.30) gave Marilyn enough cause to predict that it was “likely” that the First Trumpet would sound on September 18. Referencing her fellow adherents’ speculation on the topic, Marilyn responded: “Most suggested that the plane impacts that were instrumental in bringing down the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York may be a 7-day sign. I think it is very likely. [Because] Sept. 11 is 7 days before the Feast of Trumpets.” Her narrative ordering of the Seven Day Warning, the Feast of Trumpets, and September 11, 2001 placed the newly important date into the context of her overall interpretation of biblical narrative. Next, she located evidence in the Bible that supported her new assertion that September 18, 2001 could be the First Trumpet.
Prophecy casts its shadows before it. Isa. 30:25 says, “there shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every high hill, rivers and streams of waters in the day of the great slaughter, WHEN THE TOWERS FALL.” Those words,” WHEN THE TOWERS FALL,” that have echoed through my head today, tie today’s tragedy to the final catastrophe on the Day of God’s Wrath. In that day, the UN and UR will be housed in towers in Babylon, Iraq. Those towers will fall.
Here Marilyn made two important moves. First, she claimed that “the words echoed” in her head all day. Because the divine had led her in the study of scripture, it was not an accident that this passage stuck with her. She related her sense of this divine influence to her audience because, from their perspective, this was evidence that she was being led by God in her biblical study. Her second important move was to link a previously unrelated passage from the Bible, Isaiah 30:25, with the newly important events of 9/11 and thus incorporate those events into the prophetic narrative. Her claim that “prophecy casts its shadows before it” was a direct reference to the associative way in which much ritual deliberation about the End Times proceeds.
While she was able to completely ignore the fact that there were four planes and other targets, she was compelled by the biblical passage to which she was led. That passage prompted her to imagine that the September 11 attacks were a warning of two approaching asteroids based on her previous interpretation of Revelation prophesying that God’s wrath would rain down on earth in the form of two massive asteroids colliding with Earth. This perception allowed her to stick with her interpretation of approaching asteroids as the First Trumpet and place it within the new September 18 time frame without contradicting the overall shared prophetic narrative or the beliefs that supported it.
(p.31) In her next lines, she made this interpretation clear by linking the newly incorporated information to a biblical passage she commonly uses as evidence that the First Trumpet will herald asteroids, Zechariah 5:4:
Two planes hitting the World Trade towers picture the two asteroids that will hit Earth on the day the towers fall. Zech. 5:4 tells us what will happen when the curse that orbits over the face of the Earth falls. It says, “I will bring it forth, saith the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter into the house of the thief (False Prophet that steals the church), and into the house of him that sweareth falsely by my name (the Tribulation Pope): and it shall remain in the midst of his house, and shall consume it with the timber thereof and the stones thereof.”
As it turned out, no great astronomical events were to occur on September 18, 2001. However, that did not concern Marilyn or her fellow participants in the deliberation. Of her many predictions that the End was near at hand, Marilyn admits that none have yet proved correct. When September 18, 2001 passed without event, the participants in the discussion exhibited little inclination to reconsider their biblical narrative or the beliefs that supported it because the value of this deliberation was not in actually locating any correct interpretation of the Bible.
In “Pro and Con 807,” an emailer did chide Marilyn for not dealing with the failed date, saying: “Hey you shouldn’t wait so long between post[s] since the 18th has passed, I might think I missed the Rapture. I hoped you had it right. I’m really looking forward to it” (Agee 2001c). Marilyn responded by explaining that she had had some trouble with her husband’s medications, had been working on several entries at once, and would get to it soon.
Finally posted ten days later, “Pro and Con 810” was the first containing an engaged discussion of the failed prophetic date. A more typical “Pro and Con” entry than that of September 11, it contained a number of links to news articles about the Middle East, the discussion of a group in Israel working to build the temple in Jerusalem, a question about the length of the Tribulation period, some disagreements about specific calendar dates Marilyn had used, and even a warning about a particular computer virus that had been making the rounds.
Two sections of the page directly engage the failed predictions of seven days before. One was a long section with an email from “Mark,” who attempted to adjust the calendar interpretation to push the date for the First Trumpet and the Rapture back a few days. He came up with a concrete new time, September 27, saying:
(p.32) This is not date setting, but to give your readers hope, and keep them from being discouraged that the rapture has not occurred yet … as the last trumpet did NOT sound at the end of Rosh Hashana. We still have 9 days to go…. God Bless.
Although Marilyn posted his message, she seemed not to respond to his argument. However, the second emailer who engaged the failed interpretation took a different approach:
10–02 of 2001 will be the 651st day since the winter solstice of 5760. The 651st composite (not prime) number is 790 (10 x 79 Gold). 651 + 790 = 1441 the Jewish day number for 9–11 of 2001. This is a very strong marker for a repeat of the 9–11 attack.
YBIC (Agee 2001d)
Here, the emailer offered October 2 as a new significant date. However, this prediction came with the weakened expectation of only a second terrorist attack instead of the catastrophic asteroids. Such an attack, even if it had occurred, would have had no impact of the overall End Times narrative or its indexing in the current events of that time. Because anything less than asteroids rendered the date unrelated to her literal interpretation of the biblical texts, Marilyn replied expressing disappointment:
Ouch. I hope for something better than that, and I don’t mean more explosive. I’d say, “What is this world coming to?” but I know all too well what the end of this age will bring. The only funny thing about it is that it is all written down. They could know how it will end, but they don’t read it, don’t believe it, or don’t understand it. I think of Dan. 12:10, “the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.” Maranatha! Agape
Evident in this final quote from Marilyn, the failure of September 18 to render any significant events was largely brushed off by the participants in the deliberation. While one individual did it by extending the date and changing the exact contents of the prediction (from asteroids to a terrorist attack), Marilyn shifted focus to the unifying shared faith of her fellow adherents set against the “wickedness” of the mainstream society. Together, the insiders to the group anticipate the End Times with “hope.” They look forward to them despite the violence with which they will be attended because these End (p.33) Times would mark the final days before the ultimate reunion of human and divine. They hold out this hope for themselves, and they also hold out this hope for each other.
Because the certainty about End Times events was totally unchanged by the failure to predict any significant event, their continued hope points to the function for this communal interpretative deliberation beyond any predictive one. Exhibiting a profound certainty, Marilyn reflected on her literalism: “They could know how it will end, but they don’t read it [the Bible].” The audience for Marilyn’s statement was, of course, not those who “don’t read it.” Instead, it was clearly those who do read it. For these individuals, the failure of the predictions was a relatively minor concern compared to this communal expression of shared certainty and hope.
In this movement on September 11, 2001, online deliberation functioned to create the opportunity for individuals to express their shared beliefs to each other. By facilitating this communication, it gave them the discursive space to generate their virtual ekklesia. In that communicative action, these adherents could enact the “hope” that their shared faith afforded and which is one of its definitive qualities. This hope was the result of an intense sense of certainty not in their specific predictive interpretations of the prophetic narrative but in the overall truth that Christ will return soon. A driving force in vernacular Christian fundamentalism, the true intensity of this certainty was most clear when I met the members of the movement in person.
A Conversion Attempt
During the 1999 interview I conducted with Marilyn, I experienced her intense certainty face-to-face. After the interview, I sat alone in my car to capture my immediate impressions on the audio recorder. Marilyn and her husband drove away in a new Ford Taurus. Marilyn had attempted to “corner me” outside and “convert me” (Agee and Edgar 1999). At the edge of the parking lot of the restaurant, she moved close to me, and put her hand on my shoulder, smiling. She asked me to “ask Christ into my heart.” For Marilyn, any nonbeliever must be exhorted to become a believer.
During our interview, I asked her: “How do people know when they are converted?” She responded:
[The Bible is] the only thing that we have that we know it’s all truth … Jesus told Nicodemus that you have to be “born again.” And so they call it (p.34) being “born again”; “born again Christian.” We’re born in the flesh the first time. And then we’re born into God’s family the second time. And we can’t get unborn from that any more than we could the first time.
Then I asked her when she had been born again. She replied:
I can’t be sure in my life because I believed what I was told. I was raised in the church, and I believed it from day one—what I was told. But sometime just prior to 1960, I decided I would just turn my life completely over to Christ. Ask him what he wanted me to do. And just … be totally sure I was saved … and no question about it. And so I prayed then. And I knew then. Then I got the feeling … the warmth, the joy, and the happiness that washed over me.
I asked Marilyn if she had felt this sort of feeling at other times. She smiled and said that sometimes she felt a “rush” when studying the Bible. She said it “feels like my hair is standing up and the hair is standing up on my arms. And I’m warm. It’s a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, I suppose.” She expanded on the ways that the divine communicated to her. While writing, sometimes the words she typed on the computer would inexplicably appear in all capital letters. I asked her how she knew these communications were from the divine and not some other spirit. She said gravely: “There is no other name given under Heaven by which man can be saved but Jesus Christ” (Agee and Edgar 1999).
While her description of a “warm rush” was typical of the spiritual rebirth experience and belief associated with the movement, Marilyn said that she did not consider any particular experience of the divine necessary to spiritual rebirth. I asked her about visions of the Virgin Mary among Catholics to see if that experience could lead to spiritual rebirth. In response, she stated clearly that “apparitions of the Virgin Mary” have all been “demons.” She emphasized that the Bible is the only authority for understanding the divine.
Then I asked her if it was possible that some American Indian traditions could come into contact with Christ—even if it was under another name. She said, no: “The Indians don’t worship Him. So theirs is totally false … we are surrounded by these wicked angels and they can interfere in all kinds of things like that. They [the American Indians] can have some real things happen, but they are not of God.” Then I asked her about the so-called “New Age Movement.” She shook her head: “They’re so mixed up. I feel sorry for them. Really.” She continued:
(p.35) You gotta take the Bible for what it is says. God knows how to put down what He means. And He don’t put it down in … He puts down how to be saved plainly. But prophecy, He puts a little here and a little there. And in Isaiah He explains that. It’s so that they’ll fall back and be taken: the nonbelievers.
In a self-sealing line of reasoning, Marilyn contends that God intended for a literal interpretation of the Bible to seem improbable because that is one way that the divine separates the faithful from the nonfaithful. As we shall see, this self-sealing reasoning, militant rejection of other ideas, and the dualistic division of believers from nonbelievers all link Marilyn to the historical movement typically called “fundamentalism.” However, the intensity of her belief is itself associated with evangelical Christianity more generally. While they may not be as dramatic as the experiences of more charismatic or institutionally backed religious visionaries, the reality of spiritual rebirth experiences and other personal interactions with the divine is evidenced by the power they exert among the everyday believers in this movement.
Among the respondents I interviewed in this movement, the experiences that supported their certainty were generally described as individually sensed contact with the Holy Spirit. When an individual uses personal experience to establish authority, there is little need to engage in deliberation about what he or she knows directly. When that experience is of the divine, the certainty it engenders carries the power of the sacred.
Individuals making assertions based on revelatory experiences claim, by association, some of the authority of the divine itself. Amplifying the authorizing power of claims to direct experience, revelatory claims indicate a more radical certainty than any mundane information, deliberations, or abstract set of reasons could ever instill (see James 1958; and Howard 2005c and 2006c). When this authority is associated with a literal interpretation of the Bible, it indicates the special knowledge that marks these individuals as part of the ekklesia along with the other specific beliefs of vernacular Christian fundamentalism. The idea of a special knowledge gained from a revelatory experience as marking the real members of Christianity is nothing new.
In the Christian tradition, the archetype for such revelatory experience is the New Testament account of the Apostle Paul’s confrontation with the Holy Spirit while on the road to Damascus:
(p.36) And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” And I answered, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he said unto me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.” And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, “What shall I do, Lord?” And the Lord said unto me, “Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.”
(Acts 22: 6–10)
Causing Paul to collapse to the ground dumbstruck, this sort of revelation appears as an intense psychic experience that the experiencing individual cannot deny or resist.
Today, revelatory experiences cannot be discounted as delusions or associated exclusively with unstable individuals. Neuroscience recognizes that these experiences manifest in individuals that exhibit no other significant symptoms (Slater and Beard 1963; Bear and Fedio 1977; Persinger 1993). Neurologists have long sought to understand revelatory experiences ranging from an inexplicable “sense of presence” to the full-blown “God-experience.” Associated with activity in the temporal lobe of the brain, there seem to be correlations between brain wave patterns and revelatory sensations (Persinger 2001). Further, these brain wave patterns can come to be associated with specific external stimuli, including places and communications (Persinger and Makarec 1992).
The intense physicality of these experiences cannot be denied. For an individual who has experienced such psychic events, questioning the reality of the events is not reasonable. The revelatory experience seems to be a unilateral transference of knowledge from a divine source. It is known to be true because it is felt directly. Elaine Lawless, an ethnographer of religion and folklorist who has worked extensively with North American Pentecostals, describes a revelatory experience sometimes called “tarrying”:
Sinners seeking to change their status from sinner to saint and gain membership in the group must do so by first professing their sins in the public context of the church and tarrying at the alt[a]r … the kinesic language that accompanies tarrying includes raised arms, waving hands, closed eyes, tears, and the eventual disconnection from one’s surroundings that implies a trance state.
(Lawless 1988, 50)
(p.37) Although it is less spectacular than Pentecostal “speaking in tongues,” this sort of emotive psychic experience is common among contemporary Protestant groups (Goodman 1972; Kane 1974; and Welch 1998).
Ethnographer Tom Mould has documented somewhat less dramatic forms of revelatory everyday experience among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mould 2009). Wendy Opal Welch, in her research among a wide diversity of suburban Christians in the American Southeast during the late 1990s, has documented numerous examples of individuals telling stories about “getting saved.” These rebirth experiences are similar to those of the respondents I have interviewed in vernacular Christian fundamentalism. Generally, Welch found that this experience is characterized by “a sense of relief ” (1998, 267). In a Christian context, “accepting God in your heart” or being “born again in Christ” are typical ways of referring to this sort of individual revelation. Among those interviewed, these sorts of revelatory or conversion experiences seem to lead to a simple and unafraid belief. It is a source of radical certainty, and this certainty is evidenced by a profound sense of calm.
While more mainstream forms of evangelical Christianity include an emphasis on conversion and spiritual rebirth, they typically harbor more accepting attitudes toward new ideas and variant interpretations of the Bible. Historically, fundamentalism and a militant attitude became linked with the End Times narrative at a vernacular level. When connected to the other beliefs that define the movement, they were galvanized by evangelical Christianity’s general acceptance of the spiritual rebirth experience. While the institution-based fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century was short-lived, the connections it made to this powerful certainty were readily communicated by the mass media that had emerged at that time. As a result, it was no surprise that Marilyn’s strong rejection of alternate beliefs was typical of the respondents I interviewed in this religious movement.
Historical Christian Fundamentalism
Most historians consider Christian “fundamentalism” in the United States distinct from the more conciliatory Protestant “new evangelicalism.” While evangelicalism was characterized by openness to contemporary culture, evangelicals who were more conservative saw any concession to secular culture as a sellout to modernism (Balmer and Winner 2002, 81–82). The well-known historian of fundamentalism, George M. Marsden, has suggested that a confrontational intolerance for alternate views was the distinguishing trait (p.38) of fundamentalism; he calls it “a loose, diverse, and changing federation of co-belligerents united by their fierce opposition to modernist attempts to bring Christianity into line with modern thought” (1980, 4). Most conservative Christian evangelicals today reject the label of fundamentalism because of the negative associations it took on in the 1920s. However, as many historians have noted, the set of ideas that came together as the historical movement of Christian fundamentalism still persists at a vernacular level today.
In the first decades of the 1900s, many middle-class Americans were becoming disillusioned with the modern conception of progress and its technological products. Conservative Christians began to imagine the shocking carnage of World War I in terms of an approaching End Times. During this period, American Protestants were becoming increasingly divided. Conservatives called for a return to the “fundamentals” of Protestant belief. This budding movement was a reaction against a perceived growth of secular influence both inside and outside Protestant institutions. As the movement grew, Protestant leaders became split on the proper Christian understanding of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. For liberals, the Bible’s description of creation in the Book of Genesis was figurative and hence compatible with Darwin’s theory. For conservatives who emphasized a literal interpretation of the Bible, Darwin’s ideas were replacing a belief in God’s divine plan with a belief in random chance and human will.
While liberal Protestant theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch emphasized pluralism and social justice, conservatives like Reuben A. Torrey focused on fending off any turn away from the “fundamentals” of Protestant belief. Starting in 1910, a series of twelve pamphlets edited by Torrey and published by the oil magnate Lyman Stewart called The Fundamentals helped popularize the idea of a return to a basic set of Christian principles. That same year, the Presbyterian General Assembly proclaimed the inerrancy of the biblical texts. In that declaration, they agreed on five theological points that represented a basic set of Protestant principles.
For the most conservative Protestants, however, these “Famous Five Points” did not emphasize a literal enough interpretation of the Bible because they did not endorse any prophetic narrative. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the most conservative leaders altered these five points into what they typically called the “five points of fundamentalism” to suit their theological leanings (Marsden 1980, 262). These conservatives exchanged the Presbyterians’ fifth point (on the reality of miracles) for a literal reading of the biblical prophecy that anticipated the End Times. As a result, biblical literalism and a belief in prophecy became part of a radicalized platform (p.39) of a nondenominational fundamentalist movement emerging in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century (Marsden 1980, 117ff).
As liberal and conservative Protestant leaders began to take sides, Stewart and Torrey continued to publish and freely distribute new issues of The Fundamentals. Between 1910 and 1915, they distributed some three million copies. Their conservative message included many aspects of what would come to be called Christian fundamentalism. In fact, Torrey had been the close friend and protégé of an evangelical leader thought by many to be the progenitor of fundamentalism, Dwight L. Moody. Well-known historians of American Protestantism Randall Balmer and Lauren Winner have dubbed Moody “one of the most influential preachers in American history” (Balmer and Winner 2002, 235).
During his long career, Moody garnered huge influence because he pioneered a simple, emotional, and nondenominational theology that appealed to a diverse audience. Deploying a toned-down version of the tent revival style of preaching associated most famously with Charles Finney, he perfected what scholar of religious media Quentin Schultze has termed a “rhetoric of conversion” (see Finney 1868; Schultze 2003, 139ff). With this rhetorical strategy, Moody established the first truly modern evangelical empire. Although he was never officially ordained as a minister of any denomination, he transformed his independent downtown Chicago church into a full-blown Bible training institute. This institute, now the Moody Bible Institute, emphasized a literal interpretation of the Bible, including a prophetic narrative.
In 1857, when Moody moved to Chicago, the city was emerging as a hotbed of urban religious revivals. With powerful eloquence, Moody was soon traveling the country and Great Britain as the most popular public speaker in the evangelical movement. While in Britain, Moody was exposed to the so-called “Keswick teachings” that were gaining a large following there. The Keswick teachings were an adaptation of the Holiness Movement that originated in Methodism. They were strongly evangelical and relied on an emotive conversion experience generally referred to as a “filling with the Spirit of Jesus.” Moody himself had had one of these experiences in 1871.
Though Moody was not officially aligned with the Keswick teachings, he incorporated them into his preaching. In so doing, he helped popularize what would come to be called “spiritual rebirth.” In 1890, the first of two large conferences of evangelicals was held to explore the direct experience of the “Holy Spirit.” The participants in these two conferences included many of Moody’s followers, who had already been meeting yearly at the Niagara Bible conferences (see Harris 1998, 24 and 25ff; Moore 1994, 184ff; Marsden 1980, 77ff).
(p.40) Starting in 1878, a group of Presbyterian preachers had organized the Niagara conferences to form a network of conservative evangelicals who advocated a literal interpretation of biblical prophecy. These preachers were themselves heavily influenced by both Moody and Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism was the prophetic theology of a British preacher named John Nelson Darby. Darby had gained a large following in the United States before his death in 1882. He taught that human history was going through a series of “dispensations” or periods marked by different relationships between humans and God. For Darby, the dispensation during which Christ would return was fast approaching (Boyer 1992, 88–90). When the 1890 conferences on the “Holy Spirit” were organized by and for the same participants as the Niagara conferences, the emphasis on personal experience with the divine could be seen to merge with the Dispensationalist interest in prophecy. As a result, a new nondenominational alliance of conservative evangelicals formed around these central ideas. In 1899, the year of Moody’s death, the American theologian C. I. Scofield’s immensely popular Scofield Reference Bible canonized the powerful combination of a personal experience of the divine and biblical prophecy. That same year, Rueben A. Torrey took Moody’s mantle as the evangelical leader of the conservative movement (Boyer 1992, 97–99).
Though Pentecostals largely rejected it, the interest in prophecy continued to grow among other conservative evangelicals influenced by Moody and Torrey (Marsden 1980, 94ff). In 1917, the British government released a document that pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Because the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland is overtly mentioned in prophetic texts of the Bible, this document seemed to confirm a literal interpretation. Emboldened by these sentiments, in 1918 the conservative preacher William B. Riley formed the “World’s Christian Fundamentals Association” as a coalition of nondenominational conservative leaders committed to political change.
The WCFA aggressively pursued a political campaign to rid the U.S. Protestant institutions of officials who were felt to be too liberal. Attempting to harness the ideas Moody and his followers had popularized, the WCFA advocated for an apocalyptically tinged struggle against modern secular values. Making a doctrinal point, the editor of a Baptist newspaper first coined the term “fundamentalist” to refer to those “ready to do battle royal for the Fundamentals” (quoted in Marsden 1980, 159).
While this battle was raging at a largely institutional level, the well-known Presbyterian politician William Jennings Bryan launched a campaign (p.41) against the teaching of evolution in schools. Although Bryan may have been more concerned about a link between evolution theory and German nationalism than he was about a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, he brought the disputed issues of biblical interpretation into general public discourse.
When John Scopes, a small-town schoolteacher, was charged with breaking a new Tennessee state law against teaching evolution, Bryan was brought in to prosecute him. The popular secular writer and journalist H. L. Mencken sensationalized the 1925 trial and it became a national spectacle. As a referendum on the values of its time, Scopes’s defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, put Bryan on the stand and cornered him into denying a “literal” reading of Genesis. Bryan emerged looking inept, and Darrow emerged looking rational and heroic. Though Bryan won the trial in the end, he was publicly ridiculed. The Sunday following his catastrophic testimony, he died from a heart attack in his sleep.
During the Scopes trial, journalists took hold of the term “fundamentalist.” Then, with Bryan’s bad press and sudden death, the term became associated with the caricature of a hopelessly backward and rural brand of Christianity. Inside Protestant institutions, radical conservatives receded and disappeared. The term “fundamentalism” was largely rejected. However, its ideological components persisted at a vernacular level. Although some conservative evangelicals would take on the name “fundamentalist,” these self-identifying fundamentalists remained in the vast minority.
As a result, no particular institution arose to normalize or rename the movement. With the continuation of the ideas but not the name, the historical and ideological definitions of fundamentalism have become too blurred for any simple bright line demarcating just what exactly is or is not fundamentalist. Nonetheless, the conservative evangelical media that had been slowly building their institutions since the early 1800s spread the basic ideas that had emerged around Moody.
As early as the 1830s, large publication houses had produced cheaply printed Bible tracts. In these publications, the Christian message was presented in simple, personal, and sometimes sentimental terms (Nord 1984; Moore 1994; Olasky 1990; Schultze 1988). As the century moved on, Protestant Christian leaders turned to the emerging medium of broadcast radio (Martin 1988). Seeking access to a broader audience, the Moody Bible Institute received its license to radio broadcast in Chicago in 1927. That same year, the Federal Radio Commission (the precursor to the FCC) was founded to monitor the use of public radio bandwidth.
(p.42) Soon, the FRC began to shut down conservative religious broadcasters because their content was deemed too specific to serve the public good. As a result, conservative preachers and their organizations were forced to purchase their own airtime from broadcasting companies who had already secured control of particular radio frequencies (Schultze 1988; Erickson 1992). As a result of the need to raise money to buy airtime, conservative religious broadcasters became beholden to marketplace economics. They had to locate and please a reliable audience that was willing to fund the broadcasts through donations.
In this commercial environment, the conservative evangelical broadcasters quickly learned how to generate revenues by appealing to wide audiences with exciting emotional and sometimes even inflammatory claims. In the 1930s, controversial radio evangelists like Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson garnered huge audiences. By the 1940s, radio shows like Religion in the News, The Lutheran Hour, and Charles E. Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour had become fixtures. In 1940, Fuller’s show aired on 456 stations—60 percent of all the stations in the United States (Schultze 2003, 161).
Coming from the tent revival tradition and heavily influenced by Moody, conservative evangelical broadcasts exhibited a fully developed “rhetoric of conversion” (Schultze 2003, 139ff). This rhetoric was characterized by simple moral messages of personal devotion presented in emotional tones by charismatic preachers. Because evangelistic radio was wedded to a market of consumers, it simply could not overtly challenge that market base with too specific or difficult claims to belief or calls to action (Moore 1994; Schultze 2003). So instead, it depicted powerful scenes of emotional conversion and even faith healing. At the same time, it brought a simple conservative evangelical Christian message to a wide variety of Christians from diverse denominational backgrounds.
After World War II, the rhetoric of conversion was redeployed in the newly popular medium of television. Billy Graham and his close friend and colleague Bill Bright surged into the spotlight. Both were involved with the Fuller Theological Seminary. Bright founded the Campus Crusade for Christ International in 1951 as an organization that specifically sought to evangelize by using personal contact to cause emotional conversions.
Graham was a Baptist minister who began his broadcasting career on the Moody Bible Institute’s radio shows in the early 1940s. Growing rapidly in popularity, Graham was able to start his own network radio show in 1950 called Hour of Decision. Much like Moody, Graham developed a nondenominational (p.43) and emotional approach that emphasized personal conversion through a direct experience of the divine. On his broadcasts, Graham specifically “invited” his audiences to “decide” to follow Christ. In the 1980s, his nationally syndicated radio would secure immense popularity, running on some nine hundred stations worldwide.
With Bill Bright in the 1950s, Graham developed the “Four Step” strategy for personal conversions. Later, it came to be well known as the “Four Spiritual Laws” of the Campus Crusade for Christ (Have You Heard …? 2001). By the late 1950s, Graham had become famous for exhorting his audiences to “accept Christ as Savior.” Typically, this exhortation was the climactic moment just before an “altar call.” An altar call is a specific invitation for “sinners” in the audience to come forward and make a personal prayer to ask Jesus for forgiveness of their sins. In 1977, Graham famously codified his technique in the best-selling devotional book How to Be Born Again.
Graham added a more intimate and personal touch to the rhetoric of conversion. As mass media brought his voice and face into millions of living rooms worldwide, this style resonated across a variety of denominational boundaries. As a result, the growing mass media audience of Protestant Christian believers became large enough to support an expanding industry of televangelism. As a by-product, this conservative evangelical media spread a coherent set of basic values through its publications and broadcasts. Without relying on any specific Protestant denominational institutions, leaders, or doctrines, this set of ideas became a powerful cluster of vernacular beliefs. It would be a specific subset of these beliefs that allowed the everyday believers of vernacular Christian fundamentalism to locate each other amongst more liberal evangelicals online—and then to forge a conservative virtual ekklesia of their own. For these individuals, the specific prophetic narrative adapted from John Nelson Darby’s Dispensationalism and popularized in evangelical mass media came to be identified by the term the “End Times.” Central among this media were the books of Hal Lindsey.
In 1970, Lindsey’s interpretation of biblical prophecy as foretelling Cold War politics, The Late Great Planet Earth, sold 7.5 million copies, becoming the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade (excluding the Bible itself). He articulated a core prophetic narrative and then described various possible scenarios for how geopolitical events might emerge to fulfill it. Following up with a series of similar books, Lindsey’s popularity has continued and he has gone on to host his own radio and television shows on the now lucrative evangelical media networks (Erickson 1992).
(p.44) In the 1990s, the approaching end of the second millennium fueled a renewed interest in the End Times. In 1995, Baptist minister Tim LaHaye published the first in a sixteen-book series called Left Behind. This wildly successful series of novels fictionally depicted the End Times narrative, updating it for the post–Cold War era. In 2000, the first book in the series was made into a movie. Later, two more books were made into movies and released on video. In 2001, Tim LaHaye was named the most influential leader in the evangelical movement by Wheaton College. By May 2004 (when the Left Behind series was largely complete) LaHaye and his coauthor Jerry Jenkins appeared on the cover of Newsweek. The article inside proclaimed that the combined sales of the first twelve books had topped 62 million—excluding “prequels,” spin-offs, study editions, companion guides, and children’s editions (Frykholm 2004; Hendershot 2004). In 2006, the software company LB Games released Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a computer video game based on the series. This immense popularity has made Left Behind the single most widespread source for vernacular knowledge of what has come to be called “the End Times.”
A Certain Hope
As I have shown, after the collapse of the overtly named “fundamentalist” movement in 1925, mainstream Christian institutions largely rejected the term because it had taken on negative meanings in the wake of the Scopes trial. However, as the well-known historian of American religion Karen Armstrong has noted: “[F]undamentalists had not gone away. Indeed, after the trial their views became more extreme. They felt embittered and nursed a deep grievance against mainstream culture” (2000, 177–78). For these individuals, the group of ideas that Moody and his heirs spread through their evangelical media still persisted. Alongside but apart from any single Protestant institution, the End Times narrative emerged at the vernacular level in combination with the three other distinctive ideological components derived from historical Christian fundamentalism: a literal interpretation of the Bible, a belief in “spiritual rebirth,” and an emphasis on evangelism.
By September 11, 2001 this vernacular constellation of beliefs authorized by radical certainty had emerged on the Internet to create the basis for powerful ritualized communication about the shocking terrorist attacks on that day. On Marilyn’s Bible Prophecy Corner, this communication did not seek any authoritative or final correct location of these events in the text of the Bible. Instead, it was the means by which individuals enacted their virtual ekklesia.
(p.45) This ekklesia is based on a shared hope that, despite the violence that will accompany it, Christ will return soon. This hope emerged from the radical certainty born of their spiritual rebirth experiences. This certainty underwrote the particular constellation of beliefs that define the movement, and it can be traced back to the historical movement of Christian fundamentalism. Though historical fundamentalism was short-lived at the institutional level, it persisted at a vernacular level because its simple and emotional message was readily adaptable to the mass media of the early twentieth century. In the next chapter, I go back before September 11, 2001 to document how ritual deliberation, the definitive behavior of the movement, proved well suited to some of the earliest forms of Internet media: newsgroup posts and email lists.
(1.) All citations of online content are represented as closely as possible to their originals. In many cases, this results in nontypical grammar, spelling, and other idiosyncratic language usage.