Aging and the End Times: Evangelical Eschatology and Experiences of Elderhood in the United States and South Africa

Douglas Bafford

Abstract


Recent trends in aging studies and popular U.S. discourse reformulate elderhood as a valuable, not necessarily negative, experience, and these new models of aging have extended to a consideration of religious practices that can make old age particularly meaningful. Among evangelical Christians, a shared cosmological (and specifically eschatological) narrative structure provides solace and semiotic coherence in the face of challenges characteristic of the “third” and “fourth age.” What remains less clear is the interplay between transnational religious forces like evangelical ideology and local social contexts in which they are enacted, a process illuminated only through cross-cultural comparison. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Kentucky and in South Africa, I argue that rather than viewing evangelical rhetoric as narrowly determinative, anthropologists ought to broaden common understandings of Christians’ end-times ideology as something that may, contingent on socio-historical context, alternatively help older congregants cope with the physical effects of aging or allow for reconciliation amid rapid societal change. U.S. evangelical churches often address existential concerns faced by a growing population of elders while downplaying the significance of race, yet white South African Christians employ a similar religious cosmology to place their actions during the apartheid era in a symbolically legible narrative. Both settings indicate the malleability of evangelical ideas to foreground certain concerns while erasing others, challenging assumptions about the uniform effects of global evangelicalism.


Keywords


evangelical Christianity; eschatology; successful aging; race; apartheid

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/aa.2019.197

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