Syrian Apocalypse, Measles Outbreaks, and the Inevitability of Mythmaking

By Kenny Smith

With the possibility of an American military assault upon Syria, a number of conservative Syrian apocalypse mushroomcloudChristian voices have begun to read such events not simply through a biblical lens (which was likely the case already), but through passages that seem especially relevant. Isaiah 17, for example, speaks of a Syria laid in ruins, the wrath of an angry deity, and human beings looking with awe and respect upon the divine. Some, then, see the looming military strike as presaging not only the ruin of Syria, but the Second Coming of Jesus and the biblically ordained end-times. Religious historians, of course, point out that the city of Damascus, and Syria generally, have been laid to ruins repeatedly by various invading armies, any of which might also be read as fulfillment of the biblical passage.

A bit earlier this summer, at Eagle Mountain Church just outside of Dallas, Texas, twenty-one people contracted measles, a disease previously considered eradicated in the US. Most of these cases, it turns out, involve individuals who had not received measles vaccines, which dovetails rather sadly with teachings of Eagle Mountain’s pastors, televangelist Kenneth Copeland and his daughter Teri Copeland Pearsons.

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Until the recent outbreak, Copeland and Pearsons have urged congregants to rely upon God to provide “spiritual immunity” to any such health risks, and Copeland has reputedly characterized the use of vaccines on new born infants and children as “criminal,” suggesting sympathies with a far broader anti-vaccination websites and social movements.

Such instances bring to mind the closing minutes of Bill Maher’s Religulous, in which Maher makes an impassioned plea for the collective end of religion. “Religion must die,” he insists, “if human beings are going to live.” Maher is referring to the imaginative overlays that religious thinking casts upon the world: an airstrike upon Syria to discourage the use of chemical weapons becomes something else entirely;the widespread use of vaccines to eradicate specific diseases becomes something else entirely, and it is always in the hands of the myth-makers what this something else entirely is.

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Maher’s point is well taken: mythmaking is inherently dangerous, since mythmakers might freight virtually anything into their next set of mythological constructions, and with terrible consequences. But, for good or for ill, I am not so certain that we can separate the mythmaking from the human being, any more than we can separate the idea of a valley from that of a mountain. As Heather Abraham’s recent post suggests, we may well have a tendency to read stressful events through lenses of metaphor, analogy, and myth, as she came to imagine the illusive identity of Religion Nerd hijackers in terms of Norse mythology. Indeed, even the term hijacker represents a mythologizing of the event, as it also transforms the unauthorized re-writing of lines of code into something else entirely, in this case an act of violent abduction.

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