I've spent lots of face time with a grab bag of millennial and utopian players over the past 10 years, trying to understand what they're all about. The major categories included Christians who believe in the Last Days prophecies outlined in the Book of Revelation (by far the largest group, numbering in the tens of millions); New Agers who think the Earth itself is angry with mankind and is stepping up the severity of natural disasters to kill us off (this is called "Earth Changes"); UFO enthusiasts (specifically, ones who think flying saucers are piloted by infinitely wise Ascended Masters); Y2K panickers (also prone to survivalist measures); far-right hotheads; and various political separatists.
Along the way I made many fascinating new friends, including an emergency-room doctor who's convinced he was tapped by fate to be the first human to hug an extraterrestrial; a guy who thought he was "the new David Koresh"; and members of a UFO religion who expect spaceships from 32 planets to land in a stack near San Diego next year.
Strange stuff, but it rarely amounts to much, and when you dig down you find that millennial beliefs are usually a fantasy substitution for some other larger or smaller gripe, à la: The government sucks; I hate the sluttiness of celebrity culture; I am unhappy, so I want to be taken away by loving Space Brothers.
For most believers, the tricky part about such enthusiasms is what to do with them. They can't do much, so they hunker down, hoot, and anticipate. And if the prophecy fails, they discover that the tension of waiting was so much fun that they rewrite the rules and start waiting again. I witnessed this over and over:
Jesus is coming back! When? Uh, the Bible says "could be any time." What will you do until then? Wait!
The Space Brothers are landing in 2001! What if they don't? That means they're landing in 2002!
When millennialists are "active," they typically come up with bizarre but meaningless ways to work off their energy. My favorite person of this ilk was a Christian evangelist named Arthur Blessitt, who years ago was told by God to carry a 40-pound cross to every nation on Earth before 2000, to prepare the way for the Second Coming. He did it, too, along the way weathering deadly assaults from "a green mamba snake in Ghana" and a Nicaraguan firing squad. (Jesus saved him every time.) Arthur's work is done, and these days he's taking it easy with long-distance cross-hauling victory laps here and there.
For you who missed my book on millennial subcultures--and hey, it's not too late, there are still a few shopping days left before Jesus comes back at the head of his Armageddon cavalry--here's the gist of what I think about fin de siècle madness.
1) Mostly, you shouldn't worry about it. Millennialists are usually harmless; some are even endearing. So if an apocalyptic "wacko" turns up in your immediate family, be open-minded. Ask questions. Dialogue.
2) Y2K probably won't be that big a deal, but you never know. The other day I heard a top spokesman for Los Angeles County's Y2K preparedness effort say, essentially, "We're completely ready and we expect no major problems, but you never know." My current thinking: Since roughly $365 per person has been spent in the United States to ameliorate the Y2K problem, why not kiss off $150 more and lay in a few extra candles and Slim Jims? I was shopping with my wife at Target recently and we impulsively bought a stack of D cells and many, many extra jugs of water. Our rationale? That we were filling in the blanks on our "earthquake kit" (we live near the Hayward fault), but we both knew the truth. Y2K OKness doubt had briefly crept in.
3) A tiny but significant fraction of millennialists are dangerous. I was reminded of this not long ago when an eerily labeled FBI report, Project Megiddo, came to light. The report warned of likely violence from any one of several fringe elements: Christian Identity (a far far right anti-Semitic kook-ball religion), Black Israelites (racial separatists who tend to preach that whites are devil-babies), and bomb-happy militia members. To that I'd add fringe Christians and Jews who think the Temple Mount in Jerusalem would be a lot more scenic without the Dome of the Rock, because they want to build a "Third Temple" up there. So, if the apocalyptic wacko in your immediate family says any of the following--"ZOG must be destroyed!"; "Whitey must be destroyed!"; "The Muslim pox on the Temple Mount must be destroyed!"; or "I am the Antichrist--everybody must be destroyed!"--don't dialogue. Call the FBI. I guess 3 sort of negates the cheerfulness of 1 and 2, but I still hold out hope that we'll get to 2001 without any major millennial disruptions. Call it crank calculus, but I just have this faith that the benign spirit of most millennialists will outweigh the evil guys and gals, and we'll all muddle through.