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Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience [Hardcover]

Richard Landes
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

8 Sep 2011
Millennialists through the ages have looked forward to the apocalyptic moment that will radically transform society into heaven on earth. They have delivered withering critiques of their own civilizations and promised both the impending annihilation to the forces of evil and the advent of a perfect society. And all their promises have invariably failed. We tend, therefore, to dismiss these prophets of doom and salvation as crackpots and madmen, and not surprisingly historians of our secular era have tended to underestimate their impact on our modern world. Now, Richard Landes offers a lucid and ground-breaking analysis of this widely misunderstood phenomenon.
This long-awaited study shows that many events typically regarded as secular—including the French Revolution, Marxism, Bolshevism, Nazism—not only contain key millennialist elements, but follow the apocalyptic curve of enthusiastic launch, disappointment and re-entry into "normal time." Indeed, as Landes examines the explicit millennialism behind such recent events as the emergence of Global Jihad since 1979, he challenges the common notion that modern history is largely motivated by secular interests. By focusing on ten widely different case studies, none of which come from Judaism or Christianity, he shows that millennialism is not only a cultural universal, but also an extremely adaptive social phenomenon that persists across the modern and post-modern divides. At the same time, he also offers valuable insight into the social and psychological factors that drive such beliefs.
Ranging from ancient Egypt to modern-day UFO cults and global Jihad, Heaven on Earth both delivers an eye-opening revisionist argument for the significance of millennialism throughout history and alerts the reader to the alarming spread of these ideologies in our world today.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 520 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (8 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199753598
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199753598
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 622,499 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

[A] fascinating survey of millennialism and apocalyptic beliefs. (Paul Richardson, Church of England Newspaper)

an immense and wide-ranging book ... My imagination urges me to approve Landes's ambition and taste for experiment, for breadth, for a well-turned phrase, a striking image, and for challenging existing orthodoxies (Andrew Gow, American Historical Review)

About the Author

Richard Landes is Associate Professor of History and directed the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He is the author of several books, and editor of The Apocalyptic Year 1000 and the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb thesis 17 Oct 2011
By R. Gill
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What is so compelling about this work is that the author has looked at the modern world through the medieval lens and found deep similarities of behaviour, assumptions and outcomes. Richard Landes is at his most impressive in analysing the Communist and Nazi revolutions as two different sort of apocalyptic movements and provides the framework for a complete revision of those two periods.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Millennia of Millenialist Beliefs 29 Aug 2011
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Do you remember when the world ended on 21 May? Well, it didn't really end, but do you remember how Jesus returned and delivered his last judgement on those remaining after his followers were raptured away? Well, that didn't happen, either, despite the predications of a California radio evangelist and despite the sincere beliefs of his followers. It surprised some that the "The End of the World Is Near" philosophy should be powerful and thriving in the twenty-first century; it did not surprise Richard Landes, a scholar of apocalyptic movements who directs the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, and is the editor of the _Encyclopedia of Millennialism_. He has written extensively on the topic, and now brings out _Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience_ (Oxford University Press), a review of apocalyptic actions of huge scope, starting with Akhenaten's failed revolution in Ancient Egypt and continuing through the current day. While we may be familiar with Christian predictions of an end of times, one of the surprising things about Landes's book is that Christian versions are not emphasized here. Other religions, sometimes bizarre ones, have their apocalyptic ways, and sometimes an apocalyptic message comes with no religious strings attached. Thus, you might find mention here of Christian-related predictions of disaster like "The Great Disappointment" in 1843 when thousands of Americans ditched their fields and families to greet the returning Jesus, or the series of _Left Behind_ novels that depict an end times in which millions sincerely believe, or Jim Jones's suicide cult in Guyana. They are just mentions, though, and Landes seems to think the Christian version of apocalypse has been covered enough elsewhere. He also thinks that millennial lore is just too broad a strand of history for one religion, and that it reflects a basic human need, our sense of our own importance. It is not just comforting but exciting to think that you are living in the most spectacular of times, when all the mysteries of existence will be solved and paradise is just around the corner. He warns that historians who do not take into account these millennial ideas are going to miss big chunks of explication.

Millennialism, broadly defined here, means a belief in an apocalyptic time when there may be disasters but they presage the installation of a perfect and just society on Earth with collective salvation for all its inhabitants. The attempt of the revolutionarily monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten is not usually regarded as a millennial event, but Akhenaten was seized by a monotheistic fervor that led him to a millennial zeal to construct Akhetaten, the city based on the worship of the Sun, and of the Sun's representatives, him and his wife. His self-absorption and lack of realism brought disaster to Egypt. Landes returns frequently to the "tribal millennialism" exhibited in spectacular fashion by the Xhosa in Africa, among whom in 1856 was a girl who was hearing prophecies. The tribe was strained by the colonial impositions of the British, but, with the assistance of her uncle, the girl promised a salvation. All that the Xhosa tribes had to do was to give up witchcraft, abandon the planting of crops, and kill all their cattle. Of course, disaster, not paradise, followed, and the British took advantage of it. Even more grim was the "agrarian millennialism" of Taiping in China in the mid-19th century. The prophet Hong Xiuquan thought himself the younger brother of Jesus. With the unquestioned authority given to him as Jesus's brother, he set up a radically egalitarian land reform program and he also set up a court with a vast harem for himself. The result was a mad decade of unprecedented slaughter, with at least 20 million people killed. It is interesting to view the Papuan Cargo Cults as millennialist. Natives came to believe that if they cleansed themselves of old religious beliefs and took up western consumables (sometimes they had to carve models of these) then a steamer full of cargo would be coming for them. In a book displaying examples of astonishing irrationality, this looks especially silly, but Landes never trivializes. In fact, he usefully compares the cargo cults to the current UFO cults. After all, the Raelians may not believe that steamships bearing commercial products will lead to paradise, but they do advocate building an embassy in Jerusalem to welcome the extraterrestrials who will thereby come to redeem the humans they created in the first place thousands of years ago.

Landes's book is astonishingly broad, and takes in many movements that we do not usually consider apocalyptic. Hitler's is one of these. Landes says that we all regard Nazism as so evil we are uncomfortable finding it comparable to other apocalyptic projects. Hitler did, of course, literally propose a thousand year reich. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Global Jihad are all covered here, as is the scientific worrying over global warming. _Heaven on Earth_ is an academic work; some of its pages are half full of footnotes. Landes leavens his obvious vast erudition with references to Chicken Little, the Emperor's New Clothes, _The Day the Earth Stood Still_, and plenty of other popular tokens for comparisons. Landes emphasizes throughout that although apocalyptic ideas may be wrong, they are not without consequences. It is an impressive introduction to the idea that millennial movements, sometimes mere silly fantasies, can spark world change and that no culture and no time is uninfluenced by them.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterfulful, Thoughtful and Enlightening 5 Aug 2011
By Dr. Jeffrey R. Woolf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Richard Landes is one of the very few historians who possess a winning combination of breadth of knowledge, depth of insight, and critical perception of historical continuities. His command of the field of millennial expectation, language and the results of millennial disappointment is awesome. Of special note are the convincing parallels and consistencies that he elicits between different movements, thinkers and the present day. Indeed, the magisterial nature of his study and the convincing contemporary parallels he discerns must cause the thinking reader to sit up and take notice.
Truly, an incredible Tour de Force.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating History of Bad Ideas 7 Aug 2011
By D. W. MacKenzie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Books on the History of Ideas are often a tough sell, especially ones that are over 500 pages long. Heaven on Earth is an exception to this rule. HoE examines the 'millennial' ideas that motivated a number of epic and self inflicted human tragedies. The historical events covered in this book are interesting on thier own (though mostly familiar to students of history). However, the puzzle as to why these things happened is more than interesting. Understanding these events is key to not reliving history in the new millenium. This is a worthwhile read, strong in terms of content and writing syle.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars history we need to know 5 Dec 2011
By Eco-capitalist - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Richard Landes' brilliant tour through millennial utopian movements from ancient Egypt to contemporary jihad illuminates a broad historical landscape. His subjects are religious (the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten, Islamist jihad), secular (the French Revolution, Communism, Nazism), tribal (Xhosa cattle-slaying, Papuan Cargo Cults), and contemporary (UFO Cults). By tracing common and contrasting threads among these movements separated by time and geography, Landes untangles a historical web with an impressive breadth of erudition.

Modern minds may find it easy to dismiss the irrationality of Xhosa killing their cattle to bring prosperity or Papuans waiting passively for airplanes to bring worldly treasures. But the cataclysm of Nazi and Communist barbarity (all in the name of achieving a bright shining future) should focus our minds on the threat of millennial ideology. Landes' final chapter on the "Enraged Millenialism" of global jihad is a clarion warning that many still dream of mass murder as a necessary means of achieving paradise on earth.

Livening the deadly serious subject, Landes uses four metaphors to draw parallels between disparate historical events. The "rooster" is the apocalyptic herald who crows "Dawn breaks, arise for the Day of the Lord," while the anti-apocalyptic "owl" hoots "Quiet! It's still the middle of the night." "Bats" are historians who view apocalyptic movements from a distance, awakening and hovering when the events are already done, often using the documents left by the owls, whose prejudice is that the apocalyptic movement was inconsequential to begin with. "Turkeys," on the other hand, among whom Landes includes himself, are down in the barnyard with the other animals trying to figure out what the noise is all about.

In sum, Landes' Heaven on Earth is a challenging, provocative dissection of the anatomy of human catastrophes based on sweet dreams. If we fail to heed the wake-up call implicit in its pages, we may risk drowning in the tidal wave of an Islamist millennial movement whose clear goal is to dominate us all.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fresh and refreshing approach to history 23 Sep 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Heaven on Earth is a serious work of scholarship, yet engaging and accessible to anyone with an interest in new ways to understand history. Professor Landes uses the case study approach to demonstrate that his theory of Millennialism can apply across a greater variety of human situations than generally thought - from cattle slaying among the 19th century Xhosa of Southern Africa to Fascism and Communism and on to more contemporary movements. This approach puts the focus on concrete examples and keeps the narrative moving. Although he is a specialist in Medieval history, Landes exercises an earthy sense of humor often absent from academic works. He labels those who announce the Millennium as 'Roosters', the nay sayers as 'Owls'. But I wont spoil the fun - you'll have to read the book to find out who the 'bats' and the 'turkeys' are.

While Heaven on Earth is both revealing and critical of the excesses of Millennial movements particularly when they result in massive death and human suffering, it is not a polemic against Millennialism. Rather Landes makes the case that Millennialism is a universal human tendency that commonly arises in both entire societies and also smaller social groupings and one that moreover takes on a variety of recognizable forms. For example, Landes classification helps distinguish 'passive transformational' movements such as the Shakers from 'active cataclysmic' ones that end is tragedy, like the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo. After reading the book I think it would be a rare reader who would fail to observe traces of Millennial thinking in their own responses to the various case studies as well as see outer events both past and present in a new light.

Landes examines in detail how movements try to create heaven on earth. And when they fail, pretend it didn't happen! Landes argues convincingly that most Millennial movements are derailed before they involve large numbers and are quickly erased from memory not only because the nay sayers (owls) want to suppress them but also because the participants (roosters) are embarrassed by the failure of their Millennial expectations. To give a small example - no one, not even our press, constantly reminds us of the Y2K disasters that never happened. However, Millennial movements are not all trivial - some mushroom into major events involving millions of deaths like the Nazis or the far less well known Taiping rebellion in 19th Century China. But perhaps Heaven on Earth's most instructive illustration of how Millennialism can move like a wave through our collective lives comes in Landes' chapter on the French Revolution. Even after two centuries the French Revolution resists easy understanding because of the extreme contrast between the early idealism of 1789 and the ensuing descent into coercion and 'the terror' four years later. But Landes shows that it follows the typical pattern of movements that achieve real power but can't deliver and 'up the ante' to force the Millennium to come about. He shows how Millennialism plays a role in many current day movements without engaging in culture wars, skillfully walking the fine line between shedding light on contemporary hot button issues while staying within the bounds of civil society discussion. Landes is very good at making a robust argument without insisting that his own position is either the only explanation or the absolute truth. I found myself free to partly accept or reject particular aspects of the book without losing sight of the overall value of Heaven on Earth as a cautionary tale.
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