A report by John Coffey
The latest CHF Day Conference took place in the impressive Rainholds Room of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Although attendance was somewhat disappointing, the dozen of us involved had a very enjoyable and informative day. Our theme was Heaven and Earth: Visions of the End, and our four papers took us from the 17th century to the 21st, and explored both Protestant and Catholic traditions. I got the day started with a paper on Protestants, eschatology and revolution: 1649, 1689 and 1776. In all three cases, many English-speaking Protestants invested great hopes in political events, as opening the way to the overthrow of Antichristian power and the onset of the millennial age. By 1776, such beliefs may have become more marginal and had been blended with secular ideologies, but they had not disappeared. Political eschatology reminds us that Christian beliefs about the end have often been anything but otherworldly.
The next paper, by Martin Spence of Corpus Christi College, took us forward into the nineteenth-century, and gave us a preview of his groundbreaking PhD research on Evangelical eschatology. His paper, entitled Apprehensions of time among British premillennialists, c. 1820-1860, challenged the prevalent notion that premillennialists were pessimistic. Using evidence from the Churchman’s Monthly Review and the Christian Observer, he demonstrated that Evangelical premillennialists could see the imminent Second Coming of Christ, not as a radical disjuncture with the present, but as the climax to God’s ongoing work of redeeming the world and its culture. This eschatology naturally supported an ethos of social involvement and amelioration.
After lunch, we heard another fascinating paper from Alana Harris of Wadham College, Oxford, on Visions of Heaven in 20th-Century British Catholicism. Alana’s fascinating paper offered some striking points of contrast and comparison with the talks on Protestant eschatology, and was particularly good on the spirituality of Catholic women. She showed how Catholic ideas about the Mary reflected and shaped ideals of family, home and femininity. Focussing particularly on the post-war period, she argued that Catholics had a familial, domestic eschatology, a vision of heaven characterised by interactions between believers and the spiritual persons of God the Father, Jesus, Mary and the Saints.
The day was crowned by a paper from Crawford Gribben on The Clash of Civilisations? Jews and Muslims in Evangelical rapture fiction. Crawford reminded us that the dispensationalist rapture novel has been around since the early twentieth century, though it has become very business in recent years through the Left Behind series, which has sold around 60 million copies. Crawford, who teaches Renaissance literature at the University of Manchester, offered a rich and nuanced reading of these novels, focussing particularly on their mixture of philosemitism and Islamophobia. In many ways, this was a disturbing paper – pulp novels sold on this scale can create pretty distorted views of world politics, and they also reflect a debasement of the tradition of Christian eschatology – we were told that one can even buy eschatological computer games in which it is possible to play the role of Antichrist! Crawford's new book on the subject, Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis (Evangelical Press, 2006), is now available from all good bookshops.
Many thanks to Martin Spence for booking the room at Corpus and helping to make the day such a success. Thanks to Martin, Alana and Crawford for engrossing papers based on cutting edge research. I learnt a great deal from the day, and I know that everyone who came really enjoyed it. Indeed, I hardly minded missing the first half of the FA Cup Final. Thankfully, I was able to catch the closing stages of the most dramatic final of recent times in a crowded sports bar, where I watched Steven Gerrard rescue Liverpool with a stunning last minute strike. The perfect way to round off a worthwhile day.