Millennial studies suddenly hot 2000: Academe is embracing experts in a field that until recently was considered too nutty to acknowledge.

Sun Journal

June 07, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON -- Amid "Blues Brothers 2000" movie posters, tabloid front pages ("Is Bizarre Winter Weather a Sign of Jesus Second Coming?") and shelves of books with titles such as "Nostradamus 1999" and "Armageddon 2000," Professor Richard Landes warns not to pin too much on the new millennium.

"When people believe they are at the dawn of a new age," he says, "they do extraordinary things. There's a megalomaniacal rush. God has chosen you to be there. And that impulse can create a lot of violence and horror."

A similar impulse is responsible for the third-floor office in which Landes sits. The medieval historian is the founder and director of Boston University's new Center for Millennial Studies, one of the most obvious symbols to date of the growing academic obsession with the year 2000.

Scholars of millennial and apocalyptic movements, once viewed as too nutty for Ivy League lecture halls and prestigious academic journals, suddenly find themselves in demand.

Yale University is sponsoring a lecture series on millennial topics. Ted Daniels, a long-ignored independent scholar in Philadelphia, receives dozens of inquiries a day at his Millennial Watch Institute. Two new anthologies of millennial-related material have been published in the past year.

The College of Notre Dame of Maryland is among dozens of schools that have added courses on the millennium over the past year. And writers such as Harold Bloom, Stephen Jay Gould and even Mel Brooks have recently issued books on the subject.

In a field that includes aspects of history, psychology, literature and religion, Landes' office has become the place for millennial scholars of all stripes to come together. The center counts 32 academics among its board members and associates. It offers a full schedule of academic conferences through 2004 and publishes a newsletter, Millennial Stew.

The center's most ambitious project -- and its most urgent, Landes says -- is a drive to collect and catalog all millennial material, from scholarly books to cult-produced pamphlets.

Last year, Landes sent a team of researchers to Washington to videotape the Promise Keepers' rally, where several speakers predicted that Jesus' Second Coming is just two years away.

It is upon this "harvest" of apocalyptic thought, Landes says, that future academics will feed.

"It may seem like overkill now," says Hillel Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Millennium Institute in Arlington, Va.

"But if you wait to study millennial movements once they are over, a lot of material may be gone or destroyed, particularly when the prophecies don't prove true. And academics need the evidence, because we have tended to trade stereotypes about cults and groups, without knowing the facts behind them."

Landes first became interested in the millennium 30 years ago. Then a Harvard undergraduate, he was repeatedly struck by the apocalyptic visions of many radical 1960s groups.

As a graduate student during the 1970s, Landes began researching the Year 1000. He soon learned about the Peace of God movement, a series of huge public, religious gatherings in France 1,000 years ago that resembled Promise Keeper rallies.

And he kept a close eye on current events, tracking millennial and apocalyptic rhetoric in movements from the Iranian Revolution to America's religious right to the environmental group Greenpeace.

Landes says he eventually came to believe that classically trained historians, wary of tackling religion and group psychology, have underestimated the power of millennial impulses.

The U.S. government is compounding the error, he says, by failing to consider the implications of millennial rhetoric in its responses to crises such as Waco and Bosnia.

"There's something about a round number, and the idea that we're at the dawn of a new age, that is basic to human psychology and motivation," he says.

"Why does Bill Clinton talk about a bridge to the 21st century? Why did Hitler in his speeches always evoke a 1,000-year Reich? Because they know, instinctively, that to have enormous change, people must feel that they are approaching a new era."

Until recently, such views were largely ignored in academia. Landes' early efforts to create a millennial center were routinely rebuffed by potential financial supporters, including his own Boston University.

Syracuse University's cult expert, Michael Barkun, says his colleagues "have never said to my face that I'm wasting my time. But people do treat you like you're doing something a little bit bizarre."

Now, however, bizarre is hot. The Andrew Mellon Foundation has begun funding millennial research, including Yale's lecture series. The American Historical Review, which had routinely rejected pieces from Landes, requested articles on millennialism.

The avalanche of millennial publications is moving so quickly that Carnegie Mellon history professor Peter Stearns, author of "Millennium III; Century XXI: A Retrospective on the Future," has recently expressed concern about collateral damage.

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