Around the Millennium
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
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
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.