Behold the White Rider!

Advent began on November 29, for those of us in Western liturgical churches. It’s the first of four Sundays before Christmas, as my Baptist/Evangelical followers might not know (I was a Southern Baptist for 23 years, so I can poke fun at them). But theologically Advent (from the Latin for “coming, arrival”) points not just to Jesus’ incarnational birth–it also looks to the Second Coming, when, as all three (Western) “ecumenical Creeds” state, “He will return to judge the living and the dead.” That is why the Gospel reading for this past Sunday was Mark 13:24-37, wherein Jesus said:

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

Christ makes three major points in this passage: 1) celestial disruptions will accompany His return, so even CNN won’t be able to miss it 2) less overt signs indicating His return is nigh will appear, but no one knows the exact time and date 3) be ready for it!

The White Rider of Revelation 6:2 (from Wikipedia, public domain).

The Orthodox Study Bible (p. 1351) has several interesting and helpful glosses on Christ’s words here. “This generation refers to all believers at all times (i.e., the generation of the Church), and not merely those alive at the time of Christ. Christ’s prophecy is that the Church will continue to thrive until His return, regardless of how desperate things may sometimes appear.” Also, “[t]hough Jesus declares that the Son does not know the day of His own return, St. John Chrysostom [who else?!] teaches that this is not to be understood literally, but as a figure of speech. The meaning is simply that Christ will not reveal the exact day to anyone, and that believers should not be so brazen as to inquire of Him.”

I am reminded, as well of the scene from the original Ghostbusters in which Dr. Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddimore (Ernie Hudson) are riding in the Ghostbustermobile and discussing the book of Revelation (although Ray quotes Revelation 6:12 but calls it 7:12). Besides that, can you imagine a modern movie (Ghostbusters came out in 1984, recall) that explicitly mentions Jesus–and approvingly?

Winston: “Ray, do you believe in God?”

Ray: “Never met him.”

Winston: “Well, I do–and I love Jesus’ style!”

Finally, since I revisited St. John’s final book of the Bible for this post, I’d really like to draw parallels between Gandalf as the “White Rider” of The Return of the King and the rider on a white horse in Revelation 6:2 “And I looked, and behold! a white horse. He who sat on it has a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” But that would be a stretch. Per the excellent (and lengthy) study of Revelation by Dr. Louis Brighton of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (pp. 75ff), the white rider of 6:2 resembles Jesus Christ on a white horse of chapter 19–but the former merely claims the divine right to conquer and does not actually possess it. However, the OSB also points out (p. 1723) in a note on 6:2 that this white rider “probably represents liberators of the oppressed people of God.” In that sense, one is reminded of Gandalf helping lead the beleaguered peoples of Middle-earth to fend off Sauron’s conquest. This is probably a better analog for Tolkien’s White Wizard than the returned Jesus Christ of the latter parts of Revelation. Gandalf, recall, was merely an angel (a Maia), not actually divine. And although he was sent back from death after the battle with the Balrog, his role was not that of Judge; nor did Gandalf defeat Sauron by his own power, as Christ will Satan when He returns.

Bram Stoker and Terrorism

Previously, on Occidental Jihadist [imagine TV narrator voice], I discussed the character Abraham Van Helsing in the novel and play Dracula. Let’s go once more to the vampires’ well, this time to examine a striking line that shows up in both Bram Stoker’s book and Steven Dietz’s stage adaptation. The former has this phrase, uttered by Dr. John Seward in regards to his sanitarium inmate Renfield: “a strong man with homicidal and religious mania might at once be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one” (p. 87). The latter condenses Seward’s observation to “homicidal mania and religious fervor would be a dangerous combination” (p. 20).

With my academic and work background, when I first saw that line during rehearsals for the stage play I assumed that Dietz, writing in 1995, had inserted it as a comment on Islamic terrorism–which in its modern incarnation was quite active in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1983 Hizbullah Shi`i suicide bombers, with Iranian assistance, blew up two buildings housing American and French military personnel, killing 307 in total. In 1993, Sunni terrorists under the direction of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad set off bombs under the World Trade Center, attempting to bring at least one of the towers down. They failed, but killed seven people and injured hundreds. These are but the most notable of Islamic terrorist/insurgent activities prior to 1995.

Then I dug out Stoker’s novel and, as noted, found a very similar quotation. But in his time, religious terrorism of any kind was virtually unknown. He was writing right in the middle of what historians of terrorism call the Anarchist phase, which lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s. Violent anarchists were active mainly in Europe (especially Italy, Spain and France), although one did assassinate US President William McKinley in 1901. They truly embodied what Alfred told Bruce Wayne (regarding the Joker) in The Dark Knight: “some men just want to watch the world burn.” They hated all political structures, and hoped to bring them all down. But if anything Anarchists were irreligious–indeed, even anti-religion, as many of them were Marxists.

Most likely, however, Bram Stoker was taking a jab at the Crusades. The 19th century had seen the the enormous popularity of Brit Sir Walter Scott’s novels such as The Talisman, The Betrothed, Ivanhoe and Count Robert of Paris, which “painted a picture of Crusaders who were brave and glamorous, but also vainglorious, avaricious, childish, and boorish…. The worst of them were the brothers of the military orders, who may have been courageous and disciplined but were also arrogant, privileged, corrupt, voluptuous, and unprincipled” (Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, p. 65). Crusader-bashing was a favorite approach of Enlightenment writers, and this carried on well into the 19th century–both in Europe and in the Middle East, as Riley-Smith unpacks in his informative but slim volume.

But in the 21st century, with the Crusaders long since turned to dust like Dracula, 77% of transnational terrorist groups wage jihad in the name of Allah. So it’s clear where dangerous homicidal and religious mania resides today–and it’s not in Christianity. In this regard, Stoker has proved all-too-prescient.

When the Good Guy Doesn’t Suck

Over Halloween I was privileged to play Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the Steven Dietz stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, put on by the River Arts District Playhouse in Rome, Georgia. Nerd that I am, I did quite a bit of background reading on the character. And before stowing all that resource material in my study, why not share what I learned?

Van Helsing about to unleash a crucifix of whoop-vampire!

Forget the action figure portrayal by Hugh Jackman in the 2004 Van Helsing movie. The protagonist of the novel, as well as most 20th century films and movies, was a scholarly professor and doctor who checkmated the nefarious Count with knowledge, faith and leadership–although he didn’t hesitate to lop off heads, if need be (as he did with Dracula’s three evil vixens).

Van Helsing was both a man of Christian faith and a scientist. His friend and former student, Dr. John Seward, calls him “the most advanced scientist of your day,” and “a philosopher and a metaphysician” who “knows more about obscure diseases than anyone in the world.” Unlike anyone else in the novel or play–all Church of England, or Protestant of some kind–VH is Catholic, and deploys distinctly Catholic weapons against vampires: consecrated bread (wafers) and a crucifix, in particular. He also quotes Scripture quite a bit–mostly Psalm 62 (when confronting Dracula), although a bit of 1 John 1 in the conclusion. In his “sermon” to Seward, Jonathon Harker and Mina Murray, VH calls them to “a steadfast belief in science” as well as “a fierce reliance on faith.” As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I mused early on that an indeterminate “faith” avails little or nothing; I also noted that not once in the stage play is Jesus Christ mentioned, although the crucifix stops vampire Lucy, and even Dracula himself, dead in their tracks (pun intended). Perhaps Steven Dietz, who adapted the play from Stoker’s novel in 1995, didn’t wish to appear too Christian. Still, the play leaves it clear, although not as much as the novel, that Abraham Van Helsing is a staunch Catholic Christian and that that faith is at least half of what enables him to lead the defeat of Dracula and his minions.

Count Dracula, is of course, the main attraction of the novel and the play. Evil always steals the show. But the excellent actor who played Dracula in our production confided to me, backstage one night, that the play should probably be entitled Van Helsing; not only does the Dutch doctor drive the action (see Garcia, “Van Helsing as the Moral Driver in Stoker’s Dracula“), but he speaks directly to the audience several times, explaining what is going on. VH serves a role similar to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: he has more knowledge than anyone else, but doles it out sparingly so as to protect others; he forms the “fellowship” which defeats the primary evil character; while kindly, he also possesses something of a short fuse; and, as mentioned, he sometimes acts as narrator. Indeed, Van Helsing’s “semi-deified role” is that which “carves the moral and religious reasoning that moves the plot forward.” He is “the anti-thesis to Count Dracula” (all quotes from Garcia)–although one might just as logically maintain that it is Dracula who is the anti-thesis to Van Helsing, since the former is evil while the latter is good (albeit exasperating).

Along with the aforementioned description, Seward also refers to Van Helsing as not just friend but as “master.” This is symmetrical to the relationship between the pathetic Renfield and Dracula. The mad Renfield has been bewitched by Dracula and yearns for his coming to England, although just how this happened is never explained in the novel or the play. Renfield several times asserts that “my Master is coming,” and of course eventually invites him into the sanitarium where he is locked up–only to have his “savior” kill him. Contrast this with the Van Helsing/Seward relationship, in which the former saves the latter (from the vampire Lucy), as well as from Dracula, and eventually helps him achieve his personal and professional independence, if you will–as well as comforts him after the death of his dear Lucy.

Van Helsing proves an enduring figure of interest to folks enamored of the horror genre, as shown not only by his many epigones on the screen (both large and small), but by the publication of fiction books about his life both before and after the events of Dracula. In 2004 Allen C. Kupper published The Journal of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, which purports to tell how VH became a vampire hunter. The same year The Many Faces of Van Helsing came out, edited by Jeanne Cavelos and consisting of 21 short stories about the domineering Dutchman, both pre- and post-settling the Count’s hash. Cavelos’ “Introduction” is particularly insightful. Van Helsing represents order to Dracula’s chaos (in this respect, he is thus Batman to the Joker–if the latter literally drank the blood of his victims). “As Holmes is to Moriarity, as ego is to id, Van Helsing is to Dracula” (p. xii). She points out, rather brilliantly in my opinion, that Van Helsing is the archetype for Carl Kolchak of one of my favorite shows from the 1970s, Kolchak: The Night Stalker; and that Van Helsing’s faith-based and scientific sides were split into Mulder and Scully of The X-Files (p. xiii).

Finally, playing Van Helsing and studying him reminded me of the Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon, which I read many years ago. The book is about the (alleged) mass demonic possession of nuns at a French monastery in the 17th century. Huxley points out that “no man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous.” Crusading against that which we hate, rather than defending and promoting that which we love, has become all too common in the modern world. Abraham Van Helsing reminds us that we need both sides of that coin.

But that it wouldn’t hurt to carry a crucifix, as well.

Islamic Eschatology or “Ghostbusters:” Which Makes More Sense?

October 2020 proved a horrible month in France–not because of Halloween, which is only slowly becoming celebrated; but because of two horrific Islamic terrorist attacks. In the first one, a French schoolteacher was beheaded by a Chechen Muslim; in the second, an as-yet unidentified Muslim killed three people at a Catholic church in Nice, one of them by decapitation. (For background on the popularity of this mode of murder for Muslims, see my article “Beheading in the Name of Islam.”) Both sets of killings were allegedly sparked by incessant Islamic ire over the (in)famous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Islam’s founder.

In early November a Tunisia-based terrorist group called “al-Mahdi” claimed responsibility for the murders at the church. For those new to my site, the Mahdi is the “divinely-guided one” of Islamic traditions (Hadiths, alleged sayings of Muhammad) who will come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim, mainly by conquest. This group is believed to have ties to ISIS and/or al-Qa`ida, which makes sense, since both organizations are eschatological themselves–although the former (as I spell out at length in my book Ten Years Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps) is more overtly so.

“Somebody’s comin’….whoa oh!”

Not to be outdone, the Iranians weighed in via regime spokesman Hujjatollah Muhammad Mousavi, who sermonized that when the 12th Imam al-Mahdi returns, he will not merely lop off a few infidel Christian heads; oh no, he will full-bore “annihilate the peoples of the West.” (Twelver Shi`is of Iran, Iraq and a few other places believe that the Mahdi has already been here, in the form of the 12th descendant of Muhammad through Ali’s progeny–and that he will return as the End Times Mahdi. Sunnis believe that the true Mahdi will emerge into history as a great Islamic warlord, but that he has not yet come to earth.)

So we’ve got that to look forward to. When I went to the annual Mahdism conference in Iran in 2008, I heard the same sort of fulminating–as I wrote about in an article in The Washington Examiner, “The Importance of being Mahdist.

In a related story from earlier in 2020, an Iranian professor and former government official said that the Americans never made it to the moon: only after the 12th Imam comes will space travel to other worlds be possible. It’s not clear who will have the technology to do this, since he will also have wiped out all the Westerners with their spaceships. But on the plus side, Imam al-Mahdi will get rid of all diseases–so finally we’ll be able to take off these damn masks.

The contention that “the 12th Imam will wipe out all Westerners” reminded me of the classic scene in Ghostbusters where Louis Tully, possessed by the Keymaster, Vinz Clortho, tells the NYC carriage driver that “you will perish in flames, you and all of your kind!Gozer, Vinz’s boss, does share some characteristics with the Hidden Imam. The former is an ancient deity worshipped by the Hittites and other contemporary cultures which periodically reappears in history from a nearby parallel dimension and destroys entire civilizations with a “Destructor” minion based on a particular civilization’s cultural icons; the latter is a small child who disappeared, in the 9th century AD, into a nearby parallel dimension and will reappear at some point, now post-puberty, and destroy entire non-Muslim civilizations. Who’s to say whether Gozer or the 12th Imam is more fictional–or which one makes more sense?

Can Bad Dates Stop the Mahdi?

The nice folks at Wikistrat–the online analytical group for which I have done some work–sent out an announcement about my new book, in Q & A format. There’s also a link therein to the Amazon page where you can order it.

I explore how the Ottoman Empire, across space and time, fought off seven major groupings of insurgents. So this work is necessarily eclectic, canvassing not just Middle East and African (Sudanese) history, but military tactics, strategy, Islamic theology, Ottoman domestic politics and foreign relations, and–of course–eschatology and Mahdism. And where else would you learn that one Ottoman plan to take out an opponent involved…poisoned dates!? (No, this attempt was not thwarted by the trusty Egyptian side-kick.)

Also, on September 11, 2020 (fittingly enough), the PR department at Reinhardt University (where I teach) did a short article on this being the fifth book I’ve published.

Even Double Falsehoods Can Be Dangerous–If The Mahdi Is Involved

Having spent the previous three months immersed in how the Ottoman Empire dealt with rebels, to include apocalyptic ones, I now return to examining such movements in the modern world. One comes from Bangladesh, where a certain Mustak Muhammad Arman Khan has claimed to be the Mahdi. Or at least that is according to the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. Khan (insert Captain Kirk scene here) has been “claiming that he is a descendant of prophet Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) and that he has been nominated as Imam Mahdi in a dream….” He is said to have moved to Saudi Arabia in 2016, and that he “has served as the leaders of various organizations including [Ansar] Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) where he was previously a soldier.” Back in May of this year the CTTC had arrested 17 members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who “were trying to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet Mahadi [sic].” They were “inspired by his ideals” and “preparing to serve under him.”

Khan is a graduate of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. His videos are available in English and Bengali. The former lays out the usual Salafi litany of woes befalling the Muslim world, and blames most of them on the West. The latter, as near as I can ascertain from the visuals–which include the Qur’an and the written notes in Arabic–seems to take a numerological exegetical approach to the eschatological passages in the former. In neither video did I hear or read any overt claim by Khan to be the Mahdi, however. As for the two groups with which he is allegedly connected: AGH (“Helpers of the Battle of India”) is an apocalyptic-leaning jihadist group, affiliated with al-Qa`idah and the Taliban, which operates primarily in Kashmir; JMB (“Assembly of Muhajidin–Bangladesh”) is a 10,000-man strong jihadist organization that has been killing people in the name of an Islamic state since the early 21st century. It may be that the Dhaka authorities are simply trying to implicate Khan by association, in order to extradite and arrest him. But if seasoned terrorists from one or both of these groups are indeed flocking to the banner of this self-styled Mahdi, then not just South Asia and Saudi Arabia–but the whole world–has a major headache.

But an even bigger potential eschatological problem is brewing in NATO member Turkey. In January of this year, “the founder of Turkey’s influential government-linked private security firm SADAT…resigned from his role as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s adviser weeks after telling an audience…that his company was paving the way for the coming of the Mahdi….” Adnan Tanriverdi is a retired Turkish Army Brigadier General who heads up SADAT, a Turkish military “consulting” group that fills in for the Republic’s actual military in certain foreign operations and training roles. It has been described as the President’s “shadow army.” Another source reported that Tanriverdi, whose speech was delivered at the Islamic Union Congress meeting in Istanbul in December 2019, called for a “union of Muslim states,” as well–a theme that was also pushed by keynote speaker Ali Erbaş, head of Turkey’s Diyanet (religious affairs department). And of course the Turkish participants argue that their President should head up such a Union. The conference is sponsored by a quasi-governmental organization headed by Tanriverdi, called ASSAM–which in Turkish is an acronym for “Strategic Research Center for Defenders of Justice.”

ASSAM logo, from this Nordic Monitor article.

Back in 2013 I wrote an essay on how someone claiming to be the Mahdi might actually take power in the Sunni world. (It’s in my book Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdis’ Camps, pp. 76-83.) I posited that a self-styled Mahdi, in order to pose a viable political threat, would have to gain the support of a major transnational Islamic organization: the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir or Tablighi Jama`at. We can add the Turkish-dominated Islamic Union Congress to those possible platforms.

This Turkish movement is far more serious than a deluded Bangladeshi to whom a handful of jihadists have sworn loyalty. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO, enormous cachet in the Dar al-Islam as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, and the largest non-petro-dollar empowered economy in the Middle East. At least one of Erdoğan’s Ottoman predecessors had Mahdist aspirations. “Süleyman very likely believed, at least until his last years, in his own messianic identity.” Such a figure can be either “the protector of right religion” or “the messianic general who extends its sway over the whole earth” (Cornell H. Fleischer, “Mahdi and Millennium: Messianic Dimensions in the Development of Ottoman Imperial Ideology,” in Ottoman Philosophy, Science and Institutions (Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2000), pp. 49, 51). Perhaps the Turkish President sees himself as (merely) the protector of Islam–but what if his advisors convince him he’s the End of Times Muslim warlord? Tanriverdi was forced out of his public role–but was that because of disagreement with his stated eschatological beliefs, or because he simply jumped the gun in revealing them? According to Pew data, 68% of Turks expect the Mahdi to come in their current lifetime; only Afghans and Iraqis believe that at a higher rate (and the latter are Twelver Shi`is, for whom that belief is central).

It might well be that “religious faith in the ‘Mahdi’ could bring catastrophe to Turkey“–but not before bringing the same to the Middle East, and perhaps the entire world.

The Pen is Mightier than the Plague…Lockdown

I went into “China Virus”/book-writing hermit mode this past March (as per my previous post). But in that five months I did also write and publish 14 articles (as of today, 8.19.2020) over at The Stream :

The Virtue of Plagues: How Epidemics Can Change the Course of History

The Prince of Peace v. the False Prophets of Islam

Atheist NYC Mayor De Blasio Feeds Muslims, Forgets Christians and Jews

Out Like Flynn

Bringing the Gospel to Pakistan: A Lutheran Missionary’s Story

How Middle-earth Can Help Us Deal with the Middle Kingdom

A Byzantine Approach to Antifa

Who’s Your Messiah Now, Democrats?”

A More Perfect Union May Not be Good Enough

Martin Luther Writes against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Antifa

Trumplandia v. Antifistant: What If the US Breaks Up?

Who Can Blame Erdogan for Going Back to the Future?

Mumbling toward Mecca

From Eastern Arabia with Love: the UAE Makes Peace with Israel

Yours truly during “China Virus” Lockdown–Not.
Try “Luther at Erfurt” (Wiki public domain)

Nobody’s Fault But Mine…

I haven’t blogged in five months–for two main reasons. First, the “China Virus” hit in the spring, and like many professors I had to move all my classes online–with the extra, unexpected work that that entailed. Second, once the spring university term ended, I committed myself to finally finishing that book on the Ottoman Empire’s counterinsurgency–which I did! It’s now available on Amazon, in both Kindle and paperback versions. And the paperback checks in at 289 pages, available for the reasonable price of $24.99 (while the e-book is only $9.99). If you’re at all interested in Middle Eastern, especially Ottoman, history; counterterrorism, Muslim v. Muslim jihad, and of course Islamic apocalyptic movements–this is the book for you!