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Vatican to Emcee Apocalypse

In supermarket tabs, giant babies, aliens and Elvis are outdone by the greatest scoop on Earth

By Kelly Luker

The Apocalypse is near, Jesus is back on Earth and the Vatican knows all about it but ain't telling.

That, in a nutshell, is what millions of Americans plunk down a buck and a quarter each week to read, according to Michael Dresbach.

Dresbach, who is a transitional deacon for St. Phillip's Episcopal Church in east San Jose, decided to study the phenomenon of "tabloid eschatology"--how supermarket tabloids endlessly obsess on signs pointing to the end of the world. Researching a year's worth of headlines from Weekly World News and The Sun, Dresbach found enough material to put together a final project for his senior class on eschatology, the theological study of end times.

Dresbach admits he had been buying those tabloids for years, in part because of their dire predictions and faux biblical prophecies.

"I was raised in the Pentecostal Church, where they really focused on the Second Coming, so I've always had this eschatological theology surrounding me," says Dresbach, who is working on his master's degree at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. "And right now, with the millennium coming, it's everywhere--it's a big focus for evangelical churches."

Dresbach sifts through a thick file of tabloids at his cozy home near the UC-Berkeley campus, where he lives with his wife, Mona, and two daughters, Tara and Anne. He pulls out some favorite headlines--"Christ's Lost Gospel Bombshell," "Christ's Secret Diaries Found!" "What Really Happens After You Die" and the ever-popular "Repent! The End of the World is Near!" Although Dresbach didn't do a comparative count of various headline themes, he opines that religiosity--particularly of an eschatological bent--managed to outdistance the miracle cures (usually some combo of vinegar, olive oil and apple cider), the abducted-by-aliens theme and the world's fattest (or smartest or ugliest) baby theme. Not that they don't sometimes overlap. In tabloid land, the Dead Sea Scrolls often have a miracle cure and E.T., the Prez and the Holy Son can be sitting around the Oval Office plotting those Final Days.

Christianity, when viewed through the fractured funhouse mirrors of these pages, moves papers. But why? Dresbach thinks he knows.

"It's a part of American folk religion," he says, defining that as "what people put together from Sunday school, from TV and from parts of the culture." These folks are de facto members of what Dresbach likes to call "Homer Simpson's church."

Then there's the "Vatican Conspiracy"--the Pope and his cohorts are suppressing important knowledge about the Second Coming or Armageddon, but the investigative reporters for Weekly World News manage to squeeze a little info out of Rome for the tabloid readers. Dresbach theorizes that this subtext of eschatology in the newsmagazines finds its popularity because American folk religion tends to be anti-Catholic and more representative of North American Protestantism.

After studying them informally for years and then closely for his class, Dresbach notes one minor detail about the oft-quoted "biblical experts"--"We never heard of any of these people," he chuckles. And though he rarely saw the same "expert" quoted twice, he couldn't say the same for the photos, which often did double duty for entirely different articles.

Granted, Dresbach got to turn in a class paper that offered up a much better read than most bone-dry academic forays, but did he actually learn anything?

"I learned that there's a natural hunger to know when things are going to end," Dresbach says. "People are comfortable when they have a date like April 18, 2055, that Jesus is coming back--even though they won't be alive.

"People like to see things tied up neatly," Dresbach figures.

He also believes that the apocalyptic nature of tabloid headlines bespeaks a deeper need. "I think there's also a hunger to know the origins of Christianity," he adds, noting that many of the eschatological messages are allegedly found in Jesus' "secret diary" or the "lost" gospels.

Dresbach's fascination with tabloids comes about honestly, if not unusually. He was in a successful techno-pop band and recorded a song called "Let's Start a Rumor." Someone told him about gossip tabloids, which led him to the Weekly World News. He was hooked, and even though the project is over, he still can't help but pick them up now and then.

"I have no shame," he admits. "I just throw [the paper] in the shopping cart and embarrass my wife and children."

Well, we know he reads it. Who else does?

"I don't know," Dresbach responds, "But I know they sell out really fast in Berkeley."

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro.

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