The millennium is poised to spring upon us all, with angels -- and more

August 25, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Our old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines "millennarianism" as "The doctrine of or belief in the coming of the millennium." Its second definition of millennium is "The period of one thousand years during which (according to one interpretation of Rev. 20, 1-5) Christ will reign in person on earth."

I would sooner wrestle crocodiles than interfere with anybody's personal interpretation of Revelations 20.

But don't let anybody fool you. The millennium is coming (in the year 2001, not 2000), and all sorts of increasing alarums and angelology are coming with it. Now comes a mighty shield with which to gird your loins and other assorted anatomy -including, perhaps, your head - against the onslaught.

It is "Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection," by Harold Bloom. (Riverhead Books. 255 pages. $24.95.)

Who, you might ask, is Harold Bloom? Unequivocal hyperbole can be a bit dicey, but if there is a critical mind alive today and writing in the English language more important than Harold Bloom's, I have not heard the case made effectively.

His "The Book of J" was a best seller, a strange fate for an intensely scholarly examination of, among other things, the idea of God and the origins of the Bible. His "The Western Canon" was to my mind a definingly important book, for if read with reasonable care it deals a powerfully effective death-knell to most of the trivialities that have bedeviled the academic abuse of genuine literature for the last generation or so.

Few cynics

"Omens'" purpose is to examine, in historical and serious theological frames, the immense variety of millennium- connected phenomena - for "without a context that can serve as a spiritual standard of measurement, we will drown in New Age enthusiasms and wish fulfillments."

Bloom cites respected public opinion polls that record 69 percent of Americans believe in angels and only 25 percent do not; 46 percent believe they have their own guardian angels; 21 percent deny that anybody has a guardian angel. There are other statistics, serving the same persuasion. There's a lot of believing going on out there, whether or not you find it in your immediate neighborhood.

Bloom is warmly accepting: "Our passion for angels is not surprising in a nation where one of the ongoing mottoes is 'God's country and mine!' If God loves us individually, then it follows that most of us should have an angel of her or his own. To find your angel is not necessarily to find yourself, though most quests for the angels seem nowadays to suppose that a guardian angel is rather more like a dog or a cat than like a husband or wife. ... Questing for resurrection, we turn to ancient virtues, to ideas of order that may aid in stabilizing an anxious time, which will extend itself at least until Millennium, the advent of the year 2001."

Egged on by millennarian expectations, the modern faux mystics who speak for the "New Age" are filling bookshops with #i prattlings about out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, outer-space alien abductions, angelic visitations and more. Bloom traces the origins and genealogy of those phenomena with wit, humility and erudition.

Its core joy is the exquisite logic and discipline with which Bloom treats, astonishingly politely, questions of the mystical and their often too-easy answers. With the characteristic, sublimely casual, wit that he brings to the most startling truths, Bloom asserts that "America ... is inevitably the most millennarian of all nations, even though so far it has avoided the two extremes of modern millennarianism, fascism and Marxist-Leninism."

And, turning popular social prognosticator, he further asserts:, "2000-2001 will not be a comfortable years in the United States of America, not because we will experience either rupture or rapture, but because there are extremist groups among the premilllennialists, and their disappointment could lead to violence. The Aryan Nation and similar fascist apocalyptics could seek to assuage unfulfilled expectations by terrorism, in a familiar psychological pattern."

Worth the effort

I don't remotely suggest this is an easy book to read, a beach diversion, an entertainment. But it is so beautifully written, so sparely argued, so marvelously full of the revelation of an acute mind at work, that it is not hard to read: That is, it never falls or wanders into obscurity. It demands labor, but it does not demand prior knowledge nor provide punishment.

So why read such a book? To celebrate the mind. Here is an exquisite intellect working with exquisite discipline to produce exquisite clarity. Witness:

"Our popular obsessions with angels, telepathic and prophetic dreams, alien abductions and 'near-death experiences,' all have their commercial and crazed debasements, but more than ever they testify to an expectation of release from the burdens of a society that is weary with its sense of belatedness, of 'aftering,' a malaise that hints to us that we somehow have arrived after the event."

A major virtue - among many - is the book's overpowering demonstration of the durability of speculation about the spiritual essence of humankind. Concepts, formations, accepted usages that are easy to think of today as quite modern existed, Bloom demonstrates, hundreds of years, and in some cases thousands, before the Christian era.

And except for the mind-killing myrmidons of multiculturalism - for whom anything that was not invented yesterday (preferably by one of them and for their own political purposes) is useless - there is deep nourishment in that truth.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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