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Room 115 in Stearns Hall on the campus of Dallas Theological Seminary could be a classroom at any American college. The long, pale blue countertops dotted with laptop-friendly outlets are arranged in tiers rising away from the lectern at the front of the room. Most of the 70 padded seats are filled with students, somewhat dressier than a normal college class but otherwise unremarkable. Only the light fixtures on the walls, whose clean metal pieces form stylized crosses, hint at the fact that this lecture hall is part of one of the most conservative institutions of American evangelicalism.
The course instructor, Associate Professor of Theological Studies Glenn Kreider, speaks softly and with frequent pauses, occasionally crossing his arms over his stout torso or stroking his graying goatee. At the moment, he is expounding on one of his favorite subjects: Bono, the outspoken front man of the Irish rock group U2. "In post-9-11 2001," Kreider says, "Bono became America's pastor." A few chuckles are quickly stifled, because Kreider is dead serious. He explains how the singer used the song "Walk On" to deliver a message of hope to a country reeling from the terrorist attacks only days before and then goes on to play the music video from his computer onto a big screen.
Bono is best-known as a rock star and social activist but, along with most of his bandmates, he also claims to be a devout Christian. It's a claim that some American evangelicals would dispute, those who take exception to being harangued about their faith's inaction on AIDS and Third World debt by a man who, by all accounts, hasn't attended a worship service in decades.
Kreider's use of Bono to illustrate his points is apt in more ways than one. The theologian is a huge U2 fan, and as a professor he is always looking for ways to engage his students. But on another level, Kreider and a group of his fellow DTS professors are, like Bono, confronting skepticism from their fellow believers--in this case, believers in an influential framework for interpreting the Bible called dispensationalism.
Outside of the conservative wing of the evangelical movement, dispensationalism is virtually unknown, but some of its tenets have captured the imagination of a broad swath of the American public, most notably the idea of the Rapture. Based on the Latin word for abduction, raptio, the Rapture is the concept that the Christian faithful will suddenly disappear from the earth as a harbinger of the end times--a spectacle to be followed by seven years of horrific warfare known as the Tribulation. First popularized by DTS graduate Hal Lindsey in the 1970s, the idea found its biggest venue in the Left Behind books, the blockbuster Christian fiction series conceived by dispensationalist preacher Tim LaHaye. A 2004 Newsweek poll showed that 55 percent of Americans believe in the Rapture.
Dallas Theological Seminary has long been the premier center of dispensationalist thought, exercising an intellectual influence far out of proportion to its relatively small size. The Scofield Reference Bible, dispensationalism's seminal text, first published in 1909, was the work of colorful Dallas pastor Cyrus Scofield, whose protégé Lewis Chafer founded DTS in 1924. DTS graduates are at the helm of many conservative Christian churches and schools such as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Prominent dispensationalist and DTS alumnus Craig Blaising is now provost of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the largest Protestant seminary in the world.
More important, the conservative dispensationalist views taught at DTS have been adopted by influential figures, from Jerry Falwell to U.S. Representative Tom DeLay. Among the roughly one-third of Americans who are evangelical Christians, it has become the majority view, whether they know it by name or not. "We might have a class on [dispensationalism], but I'm not sure it's a pulpit topic," says DTS graduate and Dallas pastor Neil Curran. "It wouldn't pop up on a Sunday morning, probably."
But even as dispensationalist ideas have gained stature in the popular realm, they have attracted harsh criticism from mainstream theologians and social activists. "It sounds biblical, but it's a made-up framework," says Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran seminary professor from Chicago. Rossing says that dispensationalists distort the meaning of a handful of Bible verses to justify wild theological conjecture. A common charge is that dispensationalists' obsession with end-times prophecies makes them look forward to wars and disasters rather than work to prevent them. Comments by dispensational televangelists such as Falwell and Pat Robertson suggesting the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina were acts of divine judgment drew public fury, but in some quarters there was quiet agreement. "It's not a very productive worldview, if your objective is to solve problems via compromise and negotiation," says social historian Paul Boyer. "None of those things are encouraged by the apocalyptic worldview."
In response, over the last 20 years a group of DTS dissidents led by Blaising and Darrell Bock have developed a variation of the system that they call progressive dispensationalism. Progressives argue that, in spite of the Rapture, Christians still have a stake in earth's future. "I think what you're seeing in the recent dispensationalism is a more reflective kind of engagement," says Bock, a DTS professor, "even a more nuanced kind of engagement with current culture in which it isn't all necessarily seen as bad, even though there is a lot to criticize."