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College Quarterly
Winter 2012 - Volume 15 Number 1
The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism
Catherine Wessinger, ed.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Adherence to elevated standards of scholarship and academic rigor has seldom been a hallmark of college education in Ontario. The distinguishing functions of colleges and universities were established from the outset. Colleges were to be teaching institutions dedicated to "applied" knowledge; universities were to stress research and deal with "theoretical" knowledge. Nonetheless, both were to maintain equal academic standards. The distinction was achieved; the equality was never seriously attempted. The two systems developed independently with the universities maintaining academic snobbery and the colleges adopting an anti-intellectual posture. This characterization, I admit, is exaggerated, but it is not wholly inaccurate. It is also part of a pattern that has existed worldwide.

Things change. Both colleges and universities are increasingly market-driven commodity dispensers which cater to the expressed needs of commerce and industry, and which seek to validate themselves by maintaining high levels of "student satisfaction." In the process, traditional scholarly norms have largely been jettisoned or, perhaps worse, corrupted in corporate happy talk. Of special worry in the process is the apparent decline in both formal standards and overall attitudes toward education displayed by the members of the "millennial generation" and by the authorities who determine what counts as postsecondary education today. A common complaint is that students in both sorts of institutions are under-prepared for intense academic activity. They do not read well. They do not write well. They do not develop cogent, evidence-based arguments. They tweet and text incessantly, but their communications skills stumble after 140 characters. They exhibit little knowledge of past and present. They nonetheless bring with them an inflated view of their own capacities and insist upon ensuring that their course assignments will not be onerous or, worse, boring. Genuine intellectual curiosity seems rare. Again, I admit, this is an exaggeration, but it is too close to the truth for comfort.

Whether those of us who negotiated our way to various degrees in the 1960s or even in the 1980s were more literate, better informed or at least more respectful of our professors is debatable, and is widely debated. For those of us with a curmudgeonly disposition, however, it is at least fair to say that many contemporary students seem to think that breezing through Wikipedia and browsing the Internet counts as "research." With the collusion of bureaucrats, educational managers and far too many teachers and librarians, consumer education allows young people to dash off a few banalities, toss in some quick references to dubious sources and call it a day. Books, we are relentlessly informed, are obsolete technologies, and thick books containing big words are apt to annoy or simply flummox students whose alleged skills include creativity, critical thinking, multitasking and Net-surfing, but who lack much in the way of content, comprehension, coherence and chronology. It is not entirely their fault, of course; they know only what they have been taught or, perhaps, some of it. Nonetheless, it is distressing to read the consequences: for example, as one student paper explained, "The Japanese were totally justified in attacking Pearl Harbor. It was payback for atom bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

At a time when comprehensive reference books are regularly reduced to titles such as Algebra for Dummies or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, it may seem futile to call attention to a reputable series of books from two of the most prolific academic publishers extant today: Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. These venerable and monumental institutions regularly produce excellent books for intellectuals and aspirant intellectuals, among whom we may, without excessive conceit, perhaps include ourselves.

Both Cambridge and Oxford offer a "Companion" series and a "Handbooks" series that are substantial works in themselves, as well as very useful guides for novices and reliable resources for acknowledged experts in a variety of fields. On the basis of their retail prices alone, they are unsuitable for all but the wealthiest of our students and probably inaccessible to most teachers as well. For library purchase, however, they are invaluable and, for those who can tolerate the annoyance of reading from a computer screen or whose acquisitions budgets have been slashed to and through the bone to the very marrow, subscriptions to the entire catalogues are available online (though such access is best obtained through institutional arrangements rather than by individual contract).

In what may seem more like advertising copy for these two giants than a critical review, I plan to focus on only one book among the many hundreds that are in print or pixels, and which range from topics in the arts such as music, literature, history and philosophy to disciplines in the sciences from physics and chemistry to clinical psychiatry. What I intend to say may not encourage people to obtain the particular volume under review, but I hope it will stimulate some interest in books of this sort which, in my view, are tremendous additions to the collections of any college or university worthy of the name.

The specific book that caught my attention is entitled The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism. It is an admirable example of the class of book I have been discussing. It should also be of interest to anyone for whom current events seem rather dramatic and either encouraging or threatening as we witness immense changes in everything from computer technology to sexual morality.

As something of a preternatural conservative, I have never had much fondness for utopias of any sort. Imagining what society would look like "after the revolution" has neither intrigued nor inspired me. The lessons of past revolutions have stuck, and I am not inclined toward fomenting instantaneous upheavals in the interest of producing perfect social arrangements promising the production of thoroughly perfect people. Creating the "new socialist man," for example, has always seemed more than a trifle pretentious, and often dangerously so. Moreover, considering transcendental and necessarily extraterrestrial domains such as heaven, paradise or any postmortem state of being other than bodily decay has been, to me, both unfathomable and rather pointless. In fact, musing about either ideal societies or their dystopian alternatives on Earth or elsewhere has generally seemed to be even more than a profound waste of time; taken too seriously, such meditations can become rather hazardous—especially if you were in the vicinity of chiliastic Taborites in fifteenth-century Bohemia or in downtown Moscow in the late 1930s.

So, when I get wind of some call to arms in the service of ways of being that are totally unlike our own, or when I overhear people positing assorted apocalyptic visions, I worry. Totally ground-breaking or world-shattering talk has too often led to prisons, torture and the execution of anyone suspected of less than total enthusiasm for the project at hand; in addition, it has too seldom introduced noticeable improvement in the human condition. What the editor of this book calls the "millennium" is, in my view, more frequently evidence of political pathology than grounded hope for transformative, emancipatory change and for a future that is a vast enhancement of the society we call home.

Of course, not all makeovers are the direct products of social and political manifestos and movements. Nature also plays a part. The extinction of the dinosaurs and the emergence of mammals a little over sixty million years ago is an impressive case in point. So are shifts in plate tectonics, climate variations (now ably assisted by industrial processes and human labour-saving devices) and a host of biological alterations in the supposed "balance of nature" that are the indirect results of human ingenuity, technology and overpopulation. Our obedience to the Mosaic urging to exercise "dominion" over the Earth and to "go forth and multiply" is producing devastating ecological "blowback." So, although tonic adaptations and modifications of our culture and especially our technological and material culture are urgently needed, even an ecological corrective for past "sins" may produce unintended toxic consequences. We must, it seems, run faster and faster if we hope to stay in something close to the same place.

These, as Tom Paine famously put it, truly are "the times that try men's souls," and the wit and courage of women as well. The cumulative effects of technological change from the creation of papyrus to the printing press, the internal combustion engine, atomic power, and all the current innovations in nanotechnology and genomics betoken modifications of the Earth and our place in it that are scarcely within the scope of even the most resolute eschatological political dreamers to imagine. We do ourselves little good, therefore, to retreat into our imaginations or to succumb to denial. Instead, we must learn to think seriously about our fate and what we might do to alter and improve it. The "millennium" may indeed be upon us, and we must consult with the sages of the present and the past if we are going to survive in anything like a state of ecological, economic and ethical sanity.

Further complicating our situation are the flashes in various pans that point to false crises. Intimations of devastation and redemption encompass everything from the silliness of the "Y2K" panic that came and went without a single airplane falling from the sky to some current speculations based on a misreading of antique Mayan messages that allegedly allege that the Earth will come to an end in 2012, possibly on 12 December. I've marked it on my calendar, but I don't expect the conflagration to be very impressive. My guess is that the date will come and go without catastrophic events and disastrous incidents and a final day of reckoning; instead, I hopefully predict that it will simply remind us of human fantasies and follies once again.

In short, whether seduced by revolutionaries or merely attentive to the always spectacular, often hideous, undoubtedly exciting and plainly perilous changes that are redefining human life and global relations, we are fools if we do not become acquainted with the aesthetics, biology, economics, engineering, ethics, physics, politics and system dynamics of change. Whatever happens in the next century or so, it threatens to set off a determining material and consequential metaphysical shake-up of a sort seldom experienced before.

This is where thinking deeply about millennial thinking and the several ideologies that accompany, enable and embody it can help. My own involvement in the exploration of millenarian thought began in earnest in the Fall of 1968, when I was asked to teach a Social Science course at York University in Toronto on the subject of utopias. The main text for the course was Norman Cohn's pioneering study, The Pursuit of the Millennium.1 It has seldom been far out of reach ever since. That volume concerned itself largely with Christian eschatologies in the late Middle Ages and I have expanded my interest in one spatio-temporal direction toward anthropological inquiry into indigenous peoples' (mainly Melanesian and North American) "myth-dreams" as a component of anti-colonial rebellion, and on another path toward the corporate capitalist ideologies that figured prominently in the background of recent global financial calamities.2

Today, I remain attentive to millenarian thinking—not so much in what people are willing to believe, but why they are prepared to believe it. Catherine Wessinger's Handbook is of immense value in putting all of this into a sensible and comprehensive perspective. The work is necessarily multidisciplinary for, since Cohn more-or-less invented the specialty, it has drawn upon the humanities, the social sciences and such practical studies as criminology as well as those taken up (or taken in) by grand historical narratives, to say nothing of the musings of the more adventuresome spirits in the hard sciences and, at the other end (or the full circle of human imagination), writers of fantasy and futuristic pulp fiction.

Millenarian, apocalyptic and evangelical thinking in the West and the rise of radical Islam in North Africa, the Near and Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim diaspora now combine to make the description, analysis and comprehension of religious fundamentalism as significant as the treatment of political totalitarianism in the previous century. The threats to human reason as goal and method, to human rights in practice and to the restoration of the planet and the stability of human civilizations are all at stake. Confronted by the fundamentalist mind, we must determine if we are witnessing the last gasp of a defeated dragon or the beginning of a new irrationalism that is unlimited in its scope and ambition.

I do not wish to overstate the case. John Passmore (1914-2004), the distinguished Australian philosopher, reacted to what he deemed a similar challenge in the wake of the 1960s counter-culture and wrote a scathing attack in the CIA-funded mid-cult magazine Encounter.3 At the time, I took him mildly to task for exaggerating the threat to civilization of sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll as evidenced by the musical stylings of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the behaviour of "hippies" in public places.4 Now, more than a decade older than he was at the time, I do not wish to repeat the errors of an old poop.

At the same time, the ecological degradation in 1970 was nowhere near the environmental collapse of today. The world's population has almost doubled from 3.7 to 7 billion people (manageable then, after a fashion, as long as the most populous regions of Asia and Africa were content to live in penury which, of course, they no longer are). And, for what it's worth, no one knew the name of al-Qaeda or gave a toss about terrorism. In short, the material conditions of our species now present a "clear and present danger," and, while a phony war on drugs keeps the symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and law enforcement agencies ticking along, it is generally conceded that popular music no longer poses a menace to modern culture and all its trappings.

National governments, not least the government of the United States of America, seem vaguely to grasp that something is amiss, but they rarely give a hint that they are aware of the nature and depths of the problems we face. Moreover, even if they grasp the difficulties at hand, they appear powerless to act, for even the more-or-less legitimate liberal democracies display what are prettily known as asymmetrical power arrangements. Simply put, a plutocracy exercises enormous influence over the politicians who are nominally in charge and the ideologies that ensnare to voters who put them in office. This, combined with the "democratic deficit" that occurs when voter suppression and the apparent indifference of elected officials to the public good and the public will, makes for enormous alienation average voters. Moreover, when governments are pressed to act decisively, a common populist reaction is to react with hostility—no matter if the initiative derives from the left or the right.

What Jürgen Habermas famously called the "legitimation crisis" affects most advanced industrial societies and may be even more severe in countries experiencing some degree of authoritarian governance. In this cultural climate, where problems are seen as serious and solutions as ineffective, political extremism finds nurturing soil.

At this point the question of definition intervenes.

A troubling aspect of many interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary fields is not merely that concepts and methods do not fit nicely together, but also that establishing a clear definition of the subject matter is difficult. The parameters of any topic are apt to look different when viewed through the lens of a clinical psychologist, a macroeconomist and a cultural anthropologist—never mind an evolutionary biologist. Moreover, these differences cannot simply be written off as "just semantics," for there are often serious questions of compatibility, some of which may turn out to be irreconcilable.

With this in mind, we can see that one critic, Crawford Gribben, finds Wessinger's collection wanting. He wonders what to make of the concept of millennialism when in includes anything from a Weberian archetype of charismatic leadership (not merely the attractiveness of a film star, but the extra-legal "gift of grace" that allows truly extraordinary figures to dominate a community, usually in the wake of a massive undoing of traditional patterns of life) to psychological theories such as the so-called "revolution of rising expectations" (which can result in violence when future improvements in the quality of life are abruptly and apparently unfairly frustrated). In addition to conceptual issues, historical and contemporary examples called upon in case studies reveal an astonishing variety of instances which may not be illustrations of a similar, much less the same phenomena.

Gribben asks whether the patterns evident in Biblical passages such as the Book of Revelation 20: 1-10 are made of the same stuff as Baha'i evangelism, National Socialism, UFO religious believers, feminism and both right-wing pseudo-military militias "training" in remote parts of the USA and New Age communities populated by superannuated hippies and their grandchildren.5 As well, are examples drawn from radically dissimilar cultural settings from ancient times to the present day, and located in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as the continental Americas manageable as a single theme?

The point is well taken, but it permits a critical approach that need not invalidate the entire project. So, Gribben acknowledges that, if nothing else, Wessinger has served a good purpose by including articles that break the bonds of crude reductionism and allow more imaginative approaches than those that might, for instance, attempt to explain disparate movements on the basis of what has been called "vulgar Marxism," the mechanistic attribution of cause to purely economic events without including the many filters that are put in place by additional layers of cultural belief and social practice.

Similar problems can be identified. Does millennialism have to contain a strong religious or at least a "spiritual" component? If not, are we to include both "apocalyptic" and "secular" social transformations in the same way? Or, in the alternative, are we to treat the subject matter as being sufficiently elastic as to permit any set of ideas and actions that anticipate some fundamental transformative process that results in the "myth-dream" of collective historical or heavenly salvation as fit for inclusion. If so, some of the pronouncements of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates about the revolution in living resulting from electronic communications gadgetry might find themselves dropped into the same bucket as the North American "Ghost Dance" religion, Melanesian "cargo cults" and Jamaican "Rastafarianism"—and not entirely without cause.

In the end, we might be wise to acknowledge that a multiplicity of events and ideas can coexist within a loose but reasonably coherent framework, and that this arrangement may at least be deemed academically acceptable for heuristic purposes while satisfying a demonstrable social need. Rigorous scholarship might have to be compromised in the interest of addressing what could turn out to be significant political formations in the not-too-distant future. The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism does, I think, what any book of this sort has a responsibility to do: it presents a theme, brings together an assortment of credible authorities, allows them to deal with a common interest from a variety of perspectives and, as a result, offers both a good grounding and a substantial foundation for further learning.

I'll give the critic the last word: Wessinger, he says, "has opened up important new conceptual territory, and future work in millennial studies will need to insist on the public necessity of so much of the work this volume represents even as it responds to the occasional limits of this work of extraordinary bravery, creativity, intelligence, and scope." I can think of no better or more well deserved accolade. It applies equally to almost all the inventory in this and a few equally exceptional series. They are, after all, remarkable "companions" and "handbooks" largely intended to guide interested readers through a mass and a maze of scholarship, but not to provide the definitive and final word.

Endnotes:

1. Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages in Medieval and Reformation Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), also published in a modified form as The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).

2. Doughty, Howard A. "Cargo Cults and Corporate Culture." In H. Doughty & M. Tuzi (eds.), Culture and Difference: Essays on Canadian Society (Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2011), pp. 137-208).

3. Passmore, John, "Paradise Now: The Logic of the New Mysticism," Encounter (November, 1970), available online at http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter.

4. Doughty, Howard A., "Rock: A Nascent Protean Form," Popular Music and Society 2(2), pp. 155-165; available online at DOI: 10.1080/03007767308591008.

5. Crawford Gribben. Review of Wessinger, Catherine, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. November, 2011. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34266.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

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