Children of Ezekiel: Aliens, UFOs, the Crisis of Race, and the Advent of End Timeby Michael Lieb
Are Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program, our culture’s fascination with UFOs and alien abductions, and Louis Farrakhan’s views on racial Armageddon somehow linked? In Children of Ezekiel Michael Lieb reveals the connections between these phenomena and the way culture has/i>/i>… See more details below
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Are Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program, our culture’s fascination with UFOs and alien abductions, and Louis Farrakhan’s views on racial Armageddon somehow linked? In Children of Ezekiel Michael Lieb reveals the connections between these phenomena and the way culture has persistently related the divine to the technological. In a work of special interest at the approach of the millennium, Lieb traces these and other diverse cultural moments—all descended from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a fiery divine chariot in the sky—from antiquity to the present, across high and low culture, to reveal the pervasive impact of this visionary experience on the modern world.
Beginning with the merkabah chariot literature of Hebrew and Gnostic mysticism, Lieb shows how religiously inspired people concerned with annihilating their heretical enemies seized on Ezekiel’s vision as revealing the technologically superior instrument of God’s righteous anger. He describes how many who seek to know the unknowable that is the power of God conceive it in technological terms—and how that power is associated with political aims and a heralding of the end of time. For Milton, Ezekiel’s chariot becomes the vehicle in which the Son of God does battle with the rebellious angels. In the modern age, it may take the form of a locomotive, tank, airplane, missile, or UFO. Technology itself is seen as a divine gift and an embodiment of God in the temporal world. As Lieb demonstrates, the impetus to produce modern technology arises not merely from the desire for profit or military might but also from religious-spiritual motives.
Including discussions of conservative evangelical Christian movements, Reagan’s ballistic shooting gallery in the sky, and the Nation of Islam’s vision of the “mother plane” as the vehicle of retribution in the war against racial oppression, Children of Ezekiel will enthrall readers who have been captivated, either through religious belief or intellectual interests, by a common thread uniting millennial religious beliefs, racial conflict, and political and militaristic aspirations.
Children of Ezekiel is testament to the importance of taking seriously the religious significance coded into our popular culture, and of studying popular books, films, and speeches with the rigor once reserved for reading poems, novels, and even the Bible. . . .
Lieb has performed important intellectual and political work by tracing the long genealogy of these various 'children of Ezekiel' and the profound connections between technology and religion in the modern world.
Cithara: Essays in the Judeo-Christian Tradition
“This exciting book interrelates urgent topics in ways never before imagined. While replete with information, teeming with insights, and relevant to the major concerns of present-day society, this book is written with dramatic immediacy and gratifying clarity. More than ‘essential reading,’ this book should be at the top of everyone’s list.”—Albert C. Labriola, author of Milton’s Legacy in the Arts
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Children of Ezekiel
Aliens, UFOs, the Crisis of Race, and the Advent of End Time
By Michael Lieb
Duke University PressCopyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Technology of the Ineffable
Any consideration of the appropriation of Ezekiel's visio Dei in the modern world might well begin with the most crucial of poetic renderings that this vision assumes. As an expression of the visionary imagination, the rendering in question is that of "the Chariot of Paternal Deitie," the sublime vehicle that represents the centerpiece of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Emerging at the very midpoint of this great epic, the Chariot of Paternal Deitie accrues to itself both narrative and cultural implications of seminal importance to the work as a whole. As it rushes forth "with whirlwind sound" on "the third sacred Morn" of the War in Heaven, the chariot is described as
Flashing thick flames, Wheel within Wheel undrawn,
It self instinct with Spirit, but convoyd
By four Cherubic shapes, four Faces each
Had wondrous, as with Starrs thir bodies all
And Wings were set with Eyes, with Eyes the wheels
Of Beril, and careering Fires between;
Over thir heads a chrystal Firmament,
Whereon a Saphir Throne, inlaid with pure
Amber, and colours of the showrie Arch.
Within this vehicle, the Son of God, armed "in Celestial Panoplie," sets out to overwhelm the rebel angels: "At his right hand Victorie / Sate eagle-wing'd, beside him hung his Bow / And quiver with three bolted Thunder stor'd, / And from about him fierce Effusion rowld / Of smoak and bickering flame, and sparkles dire" (6.748-66).
More than any other poetic construct that distinguishes the visionary imagination, this chariot represents a defining moment in the history of representation through which the vision of Ezekiel is manifested from the seventeenth century to the present time. To gain an understanding of the meanings that accrue to the Chariot of Paternal Deitie in the history of representation, one must at the outset address the Reformation underpinnings of the Miltonic chariot. Through a reconstruction of those underpinnings, it is possible to come to terms with the import of the chariot not only to the narrative from which it springs but also to the afterlife that it engenders. This afterlife includes all those phenomena that become the staple of the children of Ezekiel: locomotives, automobiles, tanks, aircraft, unidentified flying objects, and the wonders of cyberspace. Manifested in religious movements ranging from the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Nation of Islam, it is an afterlife distinguished as much by the anxieties that beset a civilization on the verge of annihilation as by the marvels that distinguish the technology of the modern world.
The Reformation underpinnings of the Chariot of Paternal Deitie are already discernible in Milton's antiprelatical tracts, such as the Apology for Smectymnuus (1642). There, Milton conceives of "Zeale whose substance is ethereal, arming in compleat diamond" and "ascend[ing] his fiery Chariot drawn with two blazing Meteors figur'd like beasts, but of a higher breed than any the Zodiack yeilds, resembling two of those four which Ezechiel and S. John saw, the one visag'd like a Lion to expresse power, high autority and indignation, the other of count'nance like a man to cast derision and scorne upon perverse and fraudulent seducers." Armed with these weapons, "the invincible warriour Zeale shaking loosely the slack reins drives over the heads of Scarlet Prelats, and such as are insolent to maintaine traditions, brusing their stiffe necks under his flaming wheels" (YP, 1:900). In his depiction of this chariot, Milton considers himself a poet who soars to transcendent heights.
Through his reformulation of the throne-chariot as a polemical device, Milton demonstrates not only the centrality of the biblical antecedent to his outlook but also the extent to which that antecedent permeated his own Reformation sensibility. At the same time, his reformulation becomes a pivotal moment in the anticipation of its epic counterpart. Because it is conceived specifically as a poetic rendering within a polemical context, the chariot of the antiprelatical tract suggests how the chariot of the epic is to be read. TheChariot of Zeale, in effect, provides a hermeneutic for the Chariot of Paternal Deitie. That hermeneutic is one in which the Chariot of Paternal Deitie will be viewed most profitably (if not inevitably) as a Reformation conceit. To understand the full significance of this idea, one must explore the Chariot of Zeale in greater depth.
Of immediate significance is Milton's citing not only Ezekiel but also Saint John the Divine as the primary source for his conception of the Chariot of Zeale. Milton has in mind here Revelation 4, which is commonly looked on as a New Testament redaction of Ezekiel 1. That it was so viewed among Reformation theologians maybe seen in Henry Bullinger's A Hundred Sermons upon the Apocalypse (1573). Responding to Revelation 4, Bullinger observes: "The goodliest beastes do drawe the triumphant chariotes of Princes. Therefore by a lyke kinde of speache as is used among men, beastes are set to the throne of God. For God in hys Prophetes is caryed upon Cherubin, that is, in hys heavenly chariot. And Ezechiell ... nameth openly Cherubin, beastes: and the whole texte proveth, that the place must be understoode of Gods chariot, drawen by beastes." Milton's own association of Ezekiel's throne-chariot with the apocalyptic setting envisioned by Saint John the Divine is wholly consistent with what Katharine Firth sees as a major trend in Reformation thought. Among other crucial texts, Ezekiel and Revelation serve as the basis for the outlook espoused by the Reformers.
In the Apology for Smectymnuus, the specific occasion that prompts Milton to invoke the Chariot of Zeale is his desire to defend his stance as Reformation polemicist. Having been castigated for using language unbecoming an orator, Milton maintains that his "vehement vein [of] throwing out indignation, or scorn upon an object that merits it" is supported not only "by the rules of the best rhetoricians" but also by the "true Prophets of old," on the one hand, and "Christ himselfe," on the other. Indeed, this "fountaine of meeknesse found acrimony anough to be still galling and vexing the Prelaticall Pharisees." Christ's "sanctifi'd bitternesse against the enemies of truth," in turn, inspired the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, "whom God made choice of before others to be of highest eminence and power in reforming the Church." Luther, comments Milton, "writ so vehemently against the chiefe defenders of old untruths in the Romish Church, that his own friends and favourers were many time offended with the fierceness of his spirit." As antiprelatical polemicist, Milton becomes the heir to the Reformation fervor that inspired the "sanctifi'd bitternesse" of Luther. Infused with this bitterness, Milton transforms Ezekiel's throne-chariot into a polemical weapon that drives over the heads not only of the prelates but also of all who are "insolent to maintaine traditions" (YP, 1:899-901). In this respect, the Chariot of Zeale is used as a means to explode tradition. Under the flaming wheels of the chariot, the stiff neck of conformity (cf. Exod. 33:5; Acts 7:51) gives way to the new spirit of a reforming zeal.
For Milton, that zeal assumes meteoric proportions in the blazing figures that emerge from the zodiac of his imagination. Reducing from four to two the number of creatures envisioned in his sources, Milton singles out the lion and the man as best suited to his polemical purposes. Whereas the lion expresses "power, high autority and indignation," the man signifies "derision and scorne" (YP, 1:900). These qualities embody the essence of the Reformation fervor that Milton attributes to the chariot as a polemical device. Upholding the cause of the Reformation, the polemicist assumes at once the role of lion, the regal symbol of military prowess, and the role of man, the rational symbol of intellectual superiority. In this manner, the polemicist embarks on an enterprise of the most exalted sort, one in which the Chariot of Zeale is his ultimate weapon. It is his engine of destruction, and he wields it with a vehemence befitting one whose calling is to do battle with idolaters and corrupters of the church.
In Paradise Lost, the spirit of idolatry, corruption, and blasphemy is, of course, dramatically manifested in die enemy of God, Satan, whose "argument blasphemous" Abdiel excoriates as a prelude to the War in Heaven (5.809). This blasphemous argument, in turn, assumes concrete form in the conduct of the war itself. Indeed, at the very outset of the war, Satan as consummate Blasphemer emerges in a vehicle that represents both an anticipatory parody of and an affront to the Chariot of Paternal Deitie. So the Blasphemer is beheld approaching in idolatrous splendor:
High in the midst exalted as a God
Th'Apostat in his Sun-bright Chariot sate
Idol of Majestie Divine, enclos'd
With flaming Cherubim, and golden Shields.
By means of this "Sun-bright Chariot" Satan exalts himself in his idolatrous quest to unseat the true God, the true Lord of the Chariot. Enthroned in his own vehicle of blasphemy, the Blasphemer enters the fray in what might be called the Chariot of Satanic Deitie. From the perspective of Reformation polemic, the scene recalls Milton's castigation of the prelates in The Reason of Church-Government. As an example of their "profane insolence," the prelates, says Milton, have mounted the church as a false idol on a "Prelaticall Cart," "drawn with rude oxen their officials, and their owne brute inventions" (YP, 1754-55). At the sight of Satan so mounted, Abdiel, newly returned from his first encounter with the Blasphemer, reasserts his zeal by delivering a blow to "the proud Crest ofSatan," who recoils backward in amazement (6.188-94). As the first official act of physical retribution, Abdiel's blow anticipates that of the Son, just as Abdiel's zeal foreshadows the full manifestation of that attribute in the coming forth of the Son within the Chariot of Paternal Deitie. The conflict as a whole, in turn, is framed by the parodic chariot at the beginning of the battle and by the divine chariot at the end of the battle. Within the parodic chariot, Satan is enthroned as the very symbol of Idolatry; within the divine chariot, the Son is enthroned as the very symbol of true worship. So framed, the conflict is waged by the adherents of idolatry, on the one hand, and the adherents of true worship, on the other. Ascending the Chariot of Paternal Deitie, only the Son himself can settle the conflict. In the portrayal of that event, Milton's Chariot of Zeale is transformed into a poetic construct.
The language that portrays this remarkable event is replete with nuances that are endemic to the Reformation frame of mind. In fact, in the very wording of the argument to book 6, one hears the polemicist of the prose tracts speaking: "God on the third day sends Messiah his Son, for whom he had reserv'd the glory of that Victory: hee in the Power of his Father coming to the place ... with his Chariot and Thunderdriving into the midst of his Enemies, pursues them unable to resist" (italics mine). It is the rhetoric of the potentia Dei that infuses both the language and the syntax here. The fiery zeal of the Reformation enthusiast inflames even the prose description that precedes the poetic account.
What is anticipated in the argument is amply fulfilled in the poem. There, the rhetoric of power and might so crucial to the Reformation point of view is already present in God's commissioning of the Son: "Go then thou Mightiest in thy Fathers might, / Ascend my Chariot, guide the rapid Wheels ... / Pursue these sons of Darkness, drive them out / From all Heav'ns bounds into the utter Deep" (6.710-16). Obeying his Father's command, the Son responds in a language infused with zealous indignation: "Scepter and Power, thy giving, I assume" for "Whom thou hat'st, I hate, and can put on / Thy terrors, as I put thy mildness on / Image of thee in all things" (6.730-36). As I have established elsewhere, the Son's response is consistent with the transformation of the ira Dei (the Son as an embodiment of his Father's anger) into what might be called the odium Dei (the Son as the embodiment of his Father's hatred). Perfectly in keeping with Reformation theology, such a transformation is viewed as the ultimate manifestation of a divine zeal to overcome all who would blaspheme God and his ways. The odium Dei is the transcendent expression of God's anger: it is anger divinized as hate. The servants of God who possess it are empowered to exercise it to its fullest: "Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? ... I hate them with a perfect hatred" (Ps. 139:21-22). As Milton avers in De doctrina Christiana, the exercise of such hatred, as occasion warrants, is "a religious duty; as when we hate the enemies of God or the church [odium etiam pium est; ut cum hostes Dei aut ecclesiae odio habemus]" (YP, 6:741-43; CM, 17:258-61). Rendered indomitable as an expression of the zeal to rid God of his enemies, such hatred assumes the form of utmost power by one who is commissioned to go "Mightiest in [his] Fathers might" as he ascends the Chariot of Paternal Deitie and drives out the "sons of Darkness" from "all Heav'ns bounds into the utter Deep." Assuming God's scepter and power, the Son as embodiment of both the ira Dei and the odium Dei accordingly puts on his Father's terrors and, armed with God's might, sets forth to "rid heav'n of these rebell'd" (6.730-37).
The vehicle in which he rides is the dynamic embodiment of God's omnipotence. "Instinct with Spirit," the chariot rushes forth "with whirlwind sound." "Careering Fires" envelop the vehicle, which emits a "fierce Effusion" of "smoak and bickering flame and sparkles dire." Under the "burning Wheels" of the chariot, "the stedfast Empyrean" trembles. The propelling force is the Spirit of God, which infuses the fourfold creatures and gives them life. Their eyes glare lightning and shoot forth pernicious fire (6.749-850). This is an engine to be reckoned with indeed! As much as Milton spiritualizes the Chariot of Paternal Deitie, the language that is used to describe it ironically causes the vehicle to find its profane and debased counterparts in the very weapons of destruction invented by Satan and his crew. With its emphasis on "careering fires" and the "fierce Effusion" produced by "smoak and bickering flame and sparkles dire," the divine chariot becomes in effect God's answer to Satan's cannons. God might be said to counter demonic technology with a divine technology all his own.
Once again, the idea is already present in the argument to book 6 of Milton's epic: Satan "calls a Councel, invents devilish Engines, which in the second dayes Fight putMichael and his Angels to some disorder." The faithful angels respond by pulling up mountains to overwhelm "both the force and Machins of Satan," but, of course, the tumult is not resolved until "God on the third day sends Messiah his Son" to conquer Satan through the power of the divine chariot. Clearly, the pulling up of mountains in a kind of Hesiodic titanomachia is not sufficient to destroy the forces of modern warfare in the form of those cannons. The clash of "ancient" and "modern" methods of warfare results only in chaos. To resolve the conflict, divine intervention is called for. In the very conception of that intervention resides the awareness of an engineering feat that finds its debased correspondence in the kind of perverse machinations that consume Satan and his crew as they set about to invent the implements of modern warfare, the technology of the new order.
Probing deep beneath heaven's soil to discover the "materials dark and crude" with which to fashion "hollow Engins long and round / Thick-rammd," they forge combustible weapons capable of sending forth "from far with thundring noise" such "implements of mischief" that they "dash to pieces, and orewhelm whatever stands / Adverse." Satan hopes that the effect will be one of causing his enemies to fear that he and his crew have "disarmd / The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt" (6.469-91). When completed, Satan's chariots of destruction are revealed disarmingly to the faithful angels, who suddenly behold "A triple-mounted row of Pillars laid / On Wheels." As these pillars are discharged, "immediate in a flame / But soon obscur'd with smoak, all Heav'n appeerd, / From those deep-throated Engins belcht" as they foully disgorge their "devilish glut, chained Thunderbolts and Hail / Of Iron Globes" (6.572-89). In this manner, the wheeled conveyance is brought forth to overwhelm the enemy.
Excerpted from Children of Ezekiel by Michael Lieb. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Michael Lieb is Research Professor of Humanities and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His previous books include Milton and the Culture of Violence and The Visionary Mode: Biblical Prophecy, Hermeneutics, and Cultural Change.
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