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Christian prophecy fans duck history’s lessons

Rev. Jack Van Ens

“Our listeners turn off their TVs if we dish out too much history,” the Denver noon news anchor said to me off-air. He was ready to interview live Thomas Jefferson who I portray. “Our viewers don’t digest a steady diet of dates and facts from the past,” the anchor warned when prepping me for an on-camera interview. “That myriad of minutia we learned in school about what happened long ago really turns off those who tune in.”We didn’t have much time during the station break to talk. I mentioned how drama makes history come alive, leaping into the living rooms of TV viewers. “Have you ever been at a Broadway play that really grips you?” I asked. “Playgoers react to characters on stage. Wondrous dynamics occur when drama hits home. We don’t feel like we are in the audience anymore. By keenly identifying with an actress on stage, we become her character. Our bodies stay in theater seats, but our minds are transported on stage with the performer.”When drama grips us so that Thomas Jefferson jumps into our skins, the effect is like how a talented puppeteer mesmerizes viewers. Watch an artful puppet show for a long time. Don’t we begin to feel that the puppets are convinced that they are producing all the sights and sounds on stage? We realize, of course, that the master puppeteer pulls the strings and a hidden dramatist supplies a puppet’s voice.So often an audience looks me over as Thomas Jefferson at the start of a portrayal. When deep abiding learning occurs, some in the audience become TJ. His challenges are ours. We link hearts with his.Merely apprehending facts leaves history dull and tedious. But when we comprehend how Jefferson’s battles are ours, a slightly weird transformation hits us. History lives. It bristles with our emotions. It teems with our questions. It walks in our shoes.Jefferson got irked when he bumped into an opinionated Christian convinced that history was spinning to a rapid end. This know-it-all mastered the Bible as far as apprehending it. He linked prophecies uttered in the Bible with current events swirling around 1802, a year after Jefferson took the presidential oath. The Reverend David Austin, a Presbyterian minister, convinced hundreds of New Jerseyites that Christ would descend from the clouds on the fourth Sabbath of May 1796. Austin predicted that God would put the kibosh on history because all signs of the times pointed to Christ’s ready return.Austin did wrestle with one giant problem. For Jesus to return, a high concentration of Jewish settlers needed to live around Jerusalem, not Philadelphia. This silly Presbyterian went broke building a Jersey pier jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. From here Jews would embark on sailing ships bound for the Holy Land. The pier drowned the parson in an ocean of debt.Preacher Austin treated Jefferson like a captive congregation of one. He pestered the president with ardent pleas to give his believers government jobs so that they could pay the Jews’ way to their biblical homeland. Jefferson, who read the New Testament in original Greek and had a handle on biblical Hebrew, told Reverend Austin that he was sincerely loony. “Of the special communications to you of his will by the supreme being,” wrote Jefferson, ” I can have no evidence, and therefore must ascribe them to the false perceptions of your mind.” In this January 21, 1802 presidential missive, Jefferson didn’t want to sound loutish. But his tactic of not answering Austin’s bevy of letters made the preacher fire off an even greater paper barrage. An irked Jefferson lamented, “It is with real pain that I find myself at length obliged to say in terms what I had hoped you would infer from silence.” The Left Behind novels, putting into dramatic narratives how today’s events spell tomorrow’s doom, could have been written by Reverend Austin, rather than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Believers jam portions of Daniel and Revelation into their all-too-neat timetables, forcing the Bible to predict what they want it to. Such folks are adept at apprehending huge portions of the Bible. They memorize tons of verses and jam them into schemes purportedly showing how what’s happening now in Baghdad God had spelled out eons ago. Such predictors never take the time to comprehend what the prophecies meant when first rehearsed around campfires by biblical people. Who cares about that history? What counts is superimposing what is gullibly apprehended from the Bible upon today’s headlines.With a heavy, cloying, I’ve got the inside scoop on where the world is headed, Hal Lindsey in the 1970’s created an hysterical atmosphere that felt like a humid day before a thunderstorm hits. Lindsey wrote the precursor to the Left Behind fantasy, The Late Great Planet Earth. He knew that America would not last beyond the Reagan presidency. The key to his timeline was the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Within a biblical generation, predicted Lindsey, around 40 years, Jesus would return after all hell broke loose on earth. The Bible repeatedly tells believers to remember. Master history. See how the Bible fits into ancient moments of time. Don’t avoid history as the Left Behind enthusiasts do who read a passage, look at today’s newspaper headlines and merge the two. They deny God’s caution to “remember then what you received and heard…” (Revelation 3:3). If we avoid history, we fill our anxious minds with promises that the end of the world is right around the corner. Ask Thomas Jefferson. He judged preacher Austin a fool. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the tax exempt, nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado


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