Troubleshooter for the Millennium

Suddenly, as the year 2000 approaches, Phillip Arnold's study of first-century apocalyptic Christians is more than a scholarly pursuit

At the end of time, the Book of Revelation says, the rivers and lakes will be bitter and poisoned, the stars and sun and moon will dim, monsters will roam the earth, plagues will wipe out huge populations and the living will wish they were dead. The Whore of Babylon, dressed in purple and red and adorned with jewels, mounted on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, will wage war with the righteous few, who will emerge victorious and live in a walled city containing the tree of knowledge, with Christ and his angels ruling.

Many, perhaps most Christians take this terrifying and compelling vision of the apostle John symbolically. But for those who take it literally, there is work to be done. If you are a Branch Davidian, you withdraw from the world behind walls and arm yourself against the unrighteous who will be pounding against your gates when the stars fall from the skies. If you are a Freeman, you also arm yourself and organize a new political order that will reign when God restores the world to his original principles. As the year 2000 approaches, the odds are great that other apocalyptic groups will take similarly radical actions -- sometimes against others, sometimes against themselves -- believing that this earthly life is about to end and something new and wonderful will replace it. And if not, well, better to shuffle off this mortal coil than to live in Babylon.

To most of the outside world, the beliefs of apocalyptic groups may seem like mere lunacy, hardly worth worrying about, but religion scholar Phillip Arnold has devoted his career to helping the secular world understand and maybe even value the beliefs of believers so at odds with what we call normal. After the FBI surrounded the Freemen in Montana this spring, it turned to Arnold for scholarly perspective on the group, which seemed both religiously as well as politically inspired. The Freemen eventually surrendered peacefully. It was a far different story, of course, in Waco.

Not that Arnold was an expert on the Branch Davidians. He had never heard of them until reports of a shootout between the Davidians and federal agents flooded the news in February 1993. Arnold was a scholar of first-century apocalyptic Christians whom he calls the Teachers of the Law. Emphasizing that Jesus had fulfilled Jewish prophecy, the Teachers of the Law believed that Christian converts should strictly adhere to 613 ancient Jewish laws, including circumcision and diet. Their beliefs eerily echoed those of David Koresh.

It was as if the ancient characters of Arnold's doctoral dissertation had come to life and danced across the stage of television, and perished in flames, their prophecies scorned and ridiculed, their leader treated as nothing more than a con man. The deaths of 80 Branch Davidians, as well as those of four federal agents, would change Phil Arnold's story forever.

It was not just that Arnold felt he understood David Koresh and his followers in a way that few others could, or that he thought he could have saved them if the FBI had only listened to him. And although he is a man of faith, Arnold is not bent on saving souls. Rather, in an age of specialists, Phil Arnold has a mission to preserve the lives of the outcasts and the misfits of the religious world, the questioners and the obsessives. He treasures them as fellow seekers, and wants to ensure them the freedom to practice their beliefs, misguided though they sometimes may be. And what Arnold wants is something he has seen too little of: a society that is patient and tolerant of people whose faith is different, whose beliefs are emphatic, whose commitment to inspiration is too extreme for the secular world. Although he bears all the academic credentials of a scholar and historian, in his heart, Phil Arnold, too, is one of them, out of the mainstream, both a believer and a questioner.

More religious energy must be concentrated in the two-block area around Chaucer Street near Rice University than anywhere else in Houston. At the head of Chaucer on Rice Boulevard sits the two-storied white brick house of the Maryknoll Order, a society of priests inspired by liberation theology to fight the political and economic oppression of the Latin-American poor. Only a couple of houses away on the east side of Chaucer sits the tidy brick headquarters of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group dedicated to preserving the spiritual and moral authority of the papacy. Further down from Opus Dei is the Aquarian Age Bookshelf, a source for Eastern religion and New Age works. At 5508 Chaucer opposite Opus Dei is the rose-brick duplex where Arnold has set up the Reunion Institute, his nonprofit foundation for the scholarly study of religion. Before the Reunion Institute bought the building in 1991, it was occupied by a group devoted to transcendental meditation.

The Reunion Institute is pretty much a one-man religious think tank and resource group, inspired by Arnold's calling to help others obtain nonjudgmental information about religion. Arnold does the fundraising, arranges classes and lectures, conducts scholarly research, networks with other scholars and counsels with people who want information about religion.

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