This Is Not Your Father's Millennial Angst--Or Is It?
Emory faculty contribute to the explosion of interest in millennial studies
By Amy Benson Brown


Reading Around the Millennium
Resources for millennial studies


Academic Exchange December 1999/January 2000 Contents Page

Steadily tracking the days, minutes, and seconds remaining to the year 2000, the Y2K countdown clock on Emory's Information Technology web site symbolizes the steadily increasing anxiety in the larger culture as the turn of the century approaches. The flurry of media interest in the dreaded Y2K computer bug seems to suggest that the turning of the second millennium, with its threat of technologically-underwritten disaster, differs drastically from the traditions of apocalyptic gloom and doom so familiar to those of us who grew up in the deep South.

Yet academic analysts of this millennial angst note that much of the vocabulary of the Y2K crisis echoes that of religious ministries that have long preached the end of the world. David Kessler, executive administrator for the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, has described Y2K as a new "gateway" for the older forms of apocalyptic belief.

In consultation with the Library of Congress, BU's center is collecting an archive of all kinds of millennial texts. Among other items in this diverse archive, future historians will be able to analyze photographs of religious pilgrims caught in millennial fervor by Victor Balaban, a nationally recognized photographer and recent Ph.D. from Emory's psychology department. Balaban (who in the spring will return from a research fellowship at Harvard to teach at Emory) has documented a prophecy conference of Pentecostal believers in Florida, a Taiwanese ufo group that traveled to Texas for revelation, and a group of Peruvians awaiting the return of the
Inca empire.

While Balaban travels beyond America to document the millennial impulse in other countries, other Emory professors are looking back in time to understand the significance of millennial and apocalyptic thought in the beginnings of major religions. Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam all present some understanding of "end-time." Gordon Newby, Professor and Chair of Middle East Studies, is investigating how the apocalyptic rhetoric that figures so prominently in the Koran became "routinized" and assimilated into the lulling rhythms of liturgy and bureaucracy as the Islamic empire was established. "Empire requires a tomorrow," Newby notes.

Tomorrow, however, was exactly what many early Christians did not expect. In a recent article, Emory theologian Walt Lowe writes that "Christian theology was not supposed to happen," at least not as we know it, as the long and institutionalized process Lowe dubs "theology with footnotes." Lowe's research looks beyond the traditional understanding of millennial Christian rhetoric as metaphor and regards Jesus as a millennial prophet. It is difficult to think in apocalyptic terms because it requires an understanding of time radically different from the modern, rationalist view which posits a fundamental continuity of space and time.

But if it is difficult to confront apocalyptic thinking, it is impossible to avoid it. Millennial researchers all point to the fact that our culture is shot though with millennial thought. Like Freud's return of the repressed, Lowe notes, apocalyptic language resurfaces, keeping the field of millennial studies growing and busy. At least eight major conferences devoted to millennial themes are taking place this year, ranging from the Paul Tillich Society to the Comparative Literature Asso-ciation of the Republic of China.

"No longer the exclusive domain of a small coterie of specialists," millennial studies has become "a major category of social analysis, a phenomenon whose expression
in often volatile movements lies at the core of many manifestations of violence," writes Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University. Linguistic markers
in the texts of millennial groups, according to Balaban, may suggest which groups are likely to take action to help fulfill their apocalyptic expectations.

Millennialism is not all gloom and doom, as Lee Quinby, author of Millennial Seduction, A Skeptic Confronts Apocalyptic Culture points out: "Apocalyptic fear and millennialist hope fit hand in glove." American culture, in fact, has often witnessed an upswing in social reform movements, such as the temperance movement, after apocalyptic expectations have been disappointed. Many believers, says Balaban, blame themselves when prophecy fails to come to fruition and redouble their efforts to better prepare for the next time.

It seems the meaning of millennial prophecies is constantly being reexamined and revised--not only by believers, but also by the historians, literary critics, theologians, and anthropologists who study them. Currently, some scholars are questioning the long-accepted view of the turning of the first millennium. The dark picture of the year 1000 as a time of great turmoil may reflect the sway of the romantic imagination over nineteenth-century historians more than the events of that period. For much of Europe, January 1, 1000, may have been just another day.

The understanding of the year 2000 is already beginning to be rewritten. In April of next year, the European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research is slated to evaluate the success or failure of the forecasts of Y2K computer disasters.