Thoughts on Bestselling “The Harbinger”
First, this is not intended as a “book review”. Just a response to some aspects of the message of the book. I noticed that on Amazon there are over 8000 reviews. I’d point you there to find some good ones if that’s your interest. Full disclosure: I haven’t read even one of them there or elsewhere.
I could tell just from the cover where the book was likely “coming from” in terms of theological framework and “America’s future”. It’s my former bailiwick. Twenty-some years ago now, but I still keep up on it peripherally.
Anyway, my hunches were confirmed (and not happily, though I admit to enjoying the read on certain levels). Basically, it says America is in the process of being judged (for departing from God’s ways) and needs to “return to God”. This idea drives the word “return” to be probably the most repeated word in the book, along with “God”. Right up there also would be “prophecy”, “harbinger”, and “seal(s)”. “Seals” refer to objects at the core of the story; and of course, they are famous in Christianity from the “seven seals” of the book of Revelation, ending of the Bible (not insignificantly last, in the psychology of believers).
While I’ve implied disagreement (and might add concern) with the book’s message, let me quickly “come alongside” with partial agreement. I do believe America (or any nation) is in line for “judgment” when it does evil things. But I see that more as natural and people-driven consequences one might put under a broader “law of sowing and reaping” shared by many religions and philosophies. Not God’s supposedly personal enactment of punishment for misdeeds. Similarly with personal “judgment”. And the things I’d view as most evil would often be either unknown to the author, Cahn, or be way down his list. Seems the decrease of public prayer (probably including the 1962 school prayer decision though he doesn’t name it), continuation of abortion and familiar politically right-of-center issues are key concerns for him, along with materialism and things more broadly recognized as antithetical to spirituality.
Cahn doesn’t spend much time on the personal side of coming judgment. But he does focus sharply on the need to “choose to be saved”, using several familiar Evangelical metaphors like “receiving” God’s gift, “opening one’s heart” “committing one’s life”. And to whom or what? Interestingly, I never noticed “to Christ”. Rather, as a converted Jew, Cahn speaks mainly of Yeshua, the Hebrew form of the more commonly translated “Jesus”. Referring to him, on p. 233, Cahn says, “In the Day of Judgment, there’s no safe ground… no salvation, except in Him who is salvation” [ellipsis and italics his]. He goes on to invoke the “born again” concept taken mainly from the Gospel of John which is, of course, a popular term in American vernacular.
And the nature of personal judgment for not “choosing” Yeshua? Eternal death. I didn’t note references to eternal punishment or burning in hell, but the picture is pretty stark none-the-less. This is distinctly a Christian concept relative to the Jewish idea of salvation as primarily in reference to the independence and godly direction of the nation of Israel (or Judah). In terms of this, Cahn is correct that the Hebrew scriptural quotes he develops so heavily (mainly Isa. 9:10) refer to national judgment for “God’s chosen nation”.
It is not until last couple chapters that he turns the emphasis to personal judgment and the need to avoid it by commitment to God through Jesus. He spends very little time on explaining the theological linkage needed to jump from national to personal. Where he does, it is along the lines of the popular idea of the substitutionary atonement accomplished by Jesus’ death. He of course doesn’t mention (and may not realize) that this view is often seen as problematic even in Christian orthodoxy.
He does develop the linkage of America to Israel as he applies the Isaiah prophecy to current-day America. It’s not a logically nor theologically argued case as much as a matter of quotes from George Washington and other “founding fathers”. He fails to even acknowledge the great differences between then and now, in the milieu and popular concepts of God and theology among many of the founding fathers, as deists. (If one reads things written by even some of the more “traditional” theists such as John Adams, and reads about his education and views, this is readily apparent.) This linkage is not a valid or helpful one in the view of many of us well studied in both the Bible and history. The United States is not the first country to often view itself as the “new Israel”. Great Britain had many citizens and statesmen claiming the same thing before and after this country picked up the concept. And, to my knowledge, Latter Day Saints believe the same for their true “Church of Jesus Christ” – new Israel, with Salt Lake City viewed as the new Zion. (LDS readers feel free to correct me if that’s wrong.)
A question that kept returning to me as I kept reading the call for us (US) to “return to God” was, “What does ‘returning’ involve?” “What does that look like?” I never got a clear answer to that. It seemed to involve, though vaguely, more public acknowledgment of God and more seeking of God for direction, etc. I presume it would require more leaders with personal commitments to Yeshua as well… reinforcing the linkage between the blessings/cursings pronounced upon Israel with those upon America. Via the lead character, Nouriel, Cahn calls on everyone to return to God.
But just what one is expected to believe in doing so he never spells out. Implied, however, is belief in the “standard fare” of traditional Protestantism, and particularly of American Evangelicalism. I suspect that the largest share of his more than 2 million readers are from this large American group, loosely defined. Will the book help to stimulate a new wave of conversions to this kind of faith, or of some more general “return to God”? Ironically, in a broad definition, the increase of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” in recent years may constitute some of which he’s hoping for, though not in the form he’d probably recognize or accept as “returning to God.”