round three: What's unique about our current time period here on the cusp of the year 2000?  How are millennial or apocalyptic expectations different today than in general, or at past millennial markers?  And finally, what do you expect to happen as we cross the threshold in a few months?  What might we be reading or seeing in the news?
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Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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I think we need to be careful about seeing the present historical moment as "unique." This is the pitfall of "presentism" that it is all-too-easy to fall into. Certainly the advent of the year 2000 is bringing with it a certain quickening of "apocalyptic" interest--and a mountain of media attention (including the Frontline program that has spawned this roundtable!).

There may be a mass suicide somewhere in some cult group, but I suspect that once January 1 comes and goes, we will see a dramatic drop in media attention, but a continued torrent of end-time TV preaching and paperback publishing, and the continued flourishing of what Michael Barkun nicely calls "millennial communities." These communities can, indeed, represent a kind of "millennium in miniature" for those who belong to them--as I can testify, having been part of such a community, in a little city mission in Dayton, Ohio, half a century ago.

michael barkun

Barkun is a professor of political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and serves on the board of directors of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

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In the first place, awareness of the millennium has become so pervasive in the culture that it's turned everyone into some sort of millenarian, regardless of the degree or kind of religiosity. As the New York Times puts it, we're surrounded by "millennium schlock"--trinkets, gimmicks, slogans, publications, etc. While there have been other times when much smaller societies experienced such pervasiveness, I'd be hard pressed to think of another case involving a large, developed society--although a possible exception might be a society in the throes of revolution. Second, the millennialism is extraordinarily diverse. It includes religious millennialism from a variety of traditions, as well as political millennialism on both the Left and the Right. Most strikingly, it involves what seems to me a new variety of millennialism--what I have called "the improvisational style." By that I mean groups that appropriate symbols and ideas from a wide variety of sources, both religious and secular, to create novel and quite idiosyncratic new belief systems.

As to how this will play out over the next few months, the very multiplicity of millenarian visions makes prediction almost impossible. This is in contrast to past periods--for example, the 1840s, when the Millerites were active--when millennialism might be large-scale but developed within a single, well-defined religious tradition. The millennialism we're seeing isn't constrained by the shared texts and concepts of a single tradition. That's especially true of the improvisational variety I mentioned, which operates outside of any single tradition.


Landes teaches history at Boston University and is a Director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies.

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"What's unique about our current time period, here on the cusp of the year 2000?"

The intensity of the technical in our apocalyptic imaginations--from the two classic modern tropes: 1) fear of self destruction (the green movement) and catastophe (y2k, UFOs) and 2) the hope for redemption in this world thru technology (techno-utopia).

Added to which are the post-apocalyptic fear of technology out of control and the potential "brave new world." techno-dystopia.

What makes this round so powerful is the linking of technology and gloablization. Even the author of Ecclesiastes would have had to acknowledge that this global community is something new under the sun. Whether this leads to a global civilization in the next millennium, or a return to the kinds of martial relations that have characterized the interaction of political entitites for most of human history, is something that depends on us.

"How are millennial or apocalyptic expectations different today than in general, or, at past millennial markers?"

In the past you had to believe in God to believe in the apocalypse. Now we have good 'scientific' reasons for expecting the End. Y2K is therefore an ideal trope for both millennial (largely new age, but also evangelical) and apocalyptic (survivalist, fundamentalist) tropes.

Some past millennial markers (500/6000 AM I, 800/6000 AM II, 1000, 1033, 1500/7000 AM I) have been widely known and anticipated as millennial in the culture keeping the count, others (1800/7000 AM II, 2000) have either been unknown, or resolutely not assigned millennial meaning by the cultures that keep count.

2000 is the first openly "millennial" date to occur in the context of an officially "post-Christian" culture of skepticism. We won't really know what difference this makes for at least another decade or so. There are certainly all the strands of millennial expectation active and available for spreading if the right circumstances come together.

"What do you expect to happen as we cross the threshold in a few months? What might we be reading about or seeing on news?"--

Obviously y2k. Hard to call. The likelihood is nothing really serious, which is what everyone not only expects, but is counting on. But if there are troubles, we are not very well prepared for handling them, and then we will see what kinds of "civic" virtues emerge where, and what happens when they don't emerge.

Catherine Wessinger

Wessinger is a professor of the History of Religions and Women's Studies at Loyola University.

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Dogbert in the Dilbert comic strip said that 2000 is scary because it is a "BIG ROUND NUMBER." I think that is a good observation. The number itself excites the religious imagination. It causes people to imagine that we are making a transition into a new era. It seems to be related to how people react to certain types of numbers. Note the fears about 9-9-99 that were expressed in relation to possible computer problems, but nothing significantly devastating happened on that date.

I am afraid that we are already seeing events in the news related to heightened millennial expectations around the number 2000. Buford Furrow's recent attack on a Jewish Community Center in L.A. and his murder of a mail carrier because he was a person of color was aimed at sparking the "Second American Revolution."

jerusalem. dome of the rock

the dome of the rock, jerusalem
The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 appears to have been fueled by a similar hatred of the federal government because of the events at Waco in 1993. I am afraid that we will continue to see terrorist attacks in the United States committed by individuals stimulated by heightened millennial expectations who are part of the diffuse Euro-American nativist millennial movement. Many people in this movement are peaceful, but I think some individuals will be stimulated to take violent revolutionary actions. An important focus of millennial expectations is Jerusalem, and right-wing Jewish groups would like to remove the Dome of the Rock, which is sacred to Muslims, to rebuild the Temple on that site. The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem feeds into Christian Dispensationalist predictions of the events that will take place leading to Armageddon and the Second Coming. The political ramifications if the Dome of the Rock is destroyed are truly terrifying to contemplate.

I hope that, on the positive side, more people will be motivated to give thought to peaceful ways to effect social change. This is the approach of John Paul II to the millennium. We may see examples of progressive millennialism in the diffuse New Age movement, but it also contains expectations of cataclysm, but not, to my knowledge, revolution. I wish everyone a peaceful millennium.


Gallagher is the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College.

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On the issue of what is different today, at the top of my list has to be the extensive media attention to millennial groups. Whether they are marketed to the general public as news or entertainment, millennial groups are more in the public eye. For me, that raises the question whether there is actually more millennial activity in the contemporary period or whether more people are simply more aware of more of it. We need also to consider carefully how media attention influences small, often fragile, millennial groups. Groups like the Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate, for example, knew that they had to counter the media-borne impression that they were wacky cults. Promulgation of Chen Tao's message through press conferences left Teacher Chen with egg on his face after his prediction of God's imminent arrival was not literally fulfilled and had to be reinterpreted. The use of the internet, fax networks, and short-wave radio by many of the groups on the far right that Michael Barkun has studied so well is another dimension of the issue.

If nothing spectacular occurs around the turn of the year, I expect the media to manifest "millennial fatigue." Without a major story to indicate that media attention was warranted and without the simple hook of the three zeroes, the high profile of the topic will begin to diminish. Significant millennial activity that happens after the year 2000 will initially confound and surprise observers who laid too much importance on the date. I don't think, however, that the media's millennial fatigue will indicate anything about the prevalence of millennial activity. It will go back to flying under the radar.

Stephen O'Leary

O'Leary teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, and is a Director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies.

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What's unique about our current time period, and how are millennial expectations different from those of the past?

I return to my particular hobby-horse for this one: the media are crucial to answering this question. Both broadcast media and cyber-communication have fundamentally altered the cultural and social situation for apocalyptic discourse, by 1) increasing both the amount and the types of information available for millennialists to construct their webs of meaning; 2) standardizing calendar and clock time to an unprecedented degree, and habituating us to measuring time in smaller and smaller units, thereby increasing our awareness of time's passage; and 3) making possible the formation of new types of communities united not by geography but by shared interests and media access.

Consider two of the traditional signs that have always been supposed to accompany the apocalypse: "wars and rumors of wars" and earthquakes. Human nature being what it is, there have always been ongoing conflicts taking place around the globe at any one point in time.

But now we have CNN to be there with the television cameras, and images of death and destruction appear in everyone's living room; and Internet users may log on and be treated to live or nearly instantaneous personal reports of such events as a coup in Russia, or bombing attacks in Israel. Likewise, in the natural flow of geologic time, we see that earthquakes have always been a daily occurrence around the world, and that their frequency may ebb and flow according to natural processes, such as plate tectonics, that we dimly understand. But major tremors that once would have gone unreported, or about which we might previously not have learned for months if not years, are now reported on the nightly news; and geological data from around the world are now posted to Internet sites and monitored carefully by millennialists anticipating both "Earth Changes" and the return of Jesus.

The unique capability of Internet users to simultaneously monitor multiple events and processes in the global theater creates a new awareness of time and of the weight of historical action. This experience of time and the associated expectation of a moment of singularity is sharply manifested in the contemporary apocalyptic mood. For example, there is now a web site that offers a continuous video image of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, placed strategically so that believers will be able to view the Second Coming of Jesus via live Webcast when the proper moment arrives. A prominent mass-media platform for apocalyptic preaching of a more New Age flavor is provided by radio talk show host Art Bell. His programs "Coast to Coast" and "Dreamland," which focus on millennial predictions and psychic phenomena, are broadcast over more than four hundred radio stations; these programs incessantly promote his published books and web site, around which a dedicated Internet fan community has arisen.

Through the links on the Art Bell site and other related pages, one can find hundreds of communities of apocalyptic believers, devoted to the prophecies of Nostradamus, Christian fundamentalism, the so-called Mayan prophecy, the return of the aliens, or various mixtures of these and other traditions, engaging in dialogues that move freely between Web pages, Internet chat rooms, obscure magazines and newsletters, and talk radio programs. Many of these have focused on the so-called "millennium bug," or Y2K computer crisis, as the objective manifestation of apocalyptic anticipation. Regardless of the actual consequences of the problem--the inability of computer systems to process four-digit dates--the dire predictions of both religious prophets and technical experts have converged on January 1, 2000, a millennial moment that is a direct consequence of the global standardization of computer time.

What's going to happen?

I think that the millennium as a marketing opportunity is going to be a huge flop. A lot of people who invested in the production of millennial souvenirs and tchotchkes will lose their shirts. There is a pervasive cynicism about the whole topic among those who are not inclined to view the millennium in religious terms or as some type of spiritual event; it seems like nothing but hype to these folks, and they will actively resist the hype. For those who are inclined to view the year 2000 in religious terms, well, I expect that there will be a variety of resolutions. Some will keep on making predictions and postponing the date, in classic millennial fashion: we can already see some groups setting their sights on 2003, 2007, 2012, and I'm sure we will see 2033 as another major apocalyptic deadline. Others will be more inclined to take matters into their own hands, and we have already seen how this can spin out: terrorism (a la Aum Shinrikyo and Oklahoma City), reform and revitalization movements, cult suicides...given human ingenuity and the wide array of options that our culture makes available, the number of possible responses to apocalyptic disappointment seems unlimited.

We don't know how the Y2K problem will play out or how bad it will be (I remain a cautiously optimistic agnostic on this question), and we also can't predict the timing and location of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Barring serious Y2K breakdowns and any ill-timed catastrophes that could fan the flames of millennial fever, I expect that we will go through 2000 with a lot of cynicism and irony about millennial marketing hype, and some joking (perhaps with a nervous edge) about oddball cult hysteria. The really interesting part of this for me is the aftermath: what will people do after we've come through 2000 unscathed, what will they make of the millennium after we're actually in it and no longer anticipating it? This is the most creative period of millennial ferment, and I think it will be exciting to watch in the decades to come.

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