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Dan Cohn-Sherbok: The Politics of Apocalypse

 

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Politics of Apocalypse: The History and Influence of Christian Zionism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006), xv+221pages, ISBN 9781851684533.

Recent years have witnessed a notable scholarly interest in the instrumental role played by some Christians in helping to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which ultimately led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. From an Evangelical standpoint, Stephen Sizer in particular has expressed criticism of early Christian Zionism, while more recently Paul Wilkinson has challenged Sizer’s approach by focusing on and portraying dispensationalists during this period in a far more positive light. For some pro-Israel Evangelicals, efforts by several senior nineteenth century British politicians to create the conditions necessary to secure a Jewish homeland are perceived as an historical ‘Cyrus moment’ whereby God utilised a secular power to restore his people to their covenantal and ancestral homeland.

Dan Cohen-Sherbok’s book likewise explores how Christian Zionists helped establish a Jewish homeland, drawing strongly upon Sizer’s research (which he acknowledges at the outset). Yet whereas Sizer’s polemical (and unnecessarily pejorative) approach is aimed at an Evangelical audience divided over its response to modern Israel, for the most part Cohn-Sherbok offers his readers a more dispassionate and objective appraisal. As such, the historical narrative which unfolds during the first three-quarters of his book is permitted to speak for itself, without constant recourse to criticism of the main actors, thus making it all the more readable and compelling. This is possibly because he sets out to demonstrate how Zionist thinking was central both to emerging and also mainstream, historic British nineteenth-century Christianity, unlike Sizer who arguably portrays early Christian Zionists as a minority on the fringes of orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, there are structural issues concerning how some of the book’s material is presented. For example, the bulk of Cohn-Sherbok’s narrative gives almost equal time to Jewish religious and secular Zionism, rather than focusing on Christian Zionism alone. Clearly, both Zionist camps overlapped to a degree, drawing upon and mutually exploiting each other’s agenda to further their own. Nonetheless, Cohn-Sherbok’s title and stated aim is somewhat misleading as the book does not focus wholly upon Christian Zionism. Moreover, the compelling narrative which unfolds during the first 150 pages or so of Cohn-Sherbok’s book shifts abruptly in the last quarter of the book, suddenly exploring Christian Zionist influences upon Washington’s foreign policy. Particularly noteworthy is how Cohn-Sherbok quotes lengthily from pre-tribulationist Tim LeHaye’s Left Behind books, a dispensationalist Christian fiction series set in an end-times seven year tribulation period which commences after the Church has been raptured, or caught up to heaven. It is quite one thing to discuss how LeHaye’s books were bestsellers that sold millions of copies in the U.S., but it is quite another to extrapolate from this the thesis that Evangelical dispensationalism therefore lies at the heart of U.S. politics and foreign policy. Indeed, British Christianity indirectly helped create the State of Israel, while its North American counterpart contributed (and continues to do so) towards sustaining it. But contrary to popular European opinion, North American Evangelicalism is far from homogenous, and while it is true that many Christians in the U.S. lend strong support to modern Israel, this is not necessarily borne out of a dispensationalist influence upon U.S. politics. Consider, for example, how post-Holocaust theology has contributed to expressions of support for Israel from across Christendom ever since the State of Israel was founded in 1948.

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2009

About the Author: Calvin L. Smith, Ph.D. (University of Birmingham, England), is College Principal and Tutor in Theology at King's Evangelical Divinity School. He is also Editor of the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics. He is the author of numerous books and articles, editor of Pentecostal Power: Expressions, Impact and Faith of Latin American Pentecostalism (Brill, 2011) and editor of The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism: Resources for Christians (King's Evangelical Divinity School, 2009). http://www.kingsdivinity.org/about/17-college/about/75-faculty-calvin-smith

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