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Letter from the Editor

Apocalypso, Revisited

In the November/December 2006 issue of Books & Culture (a little short of ten years ago), I wrote about "apocalyptic thinking." Something in the air in 2016 made me think about that piece. It seems worth fishing out from the vault, with a few comments added.

No, not Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's Mayan epic. I'm not a Gibson fan. Never saw The Passion of the Christ, and don't plan on seeing his latest either. Apocalypso is a different film—one that you won't find at the Cineplex, alas, since it exists only in my mind, where it has gestated for all of several days now.

The film holds two truths in tension. On the one hand, it's true that apocalyptic thinking often goes off the rails, on scales ranging from the fate of the two-party system in American politics (on Planet Krugman, there has been a lot of huffing and puffing about a Republican Reich, "one-party" rule such as our nation has never before seen) to the Last Judgment (fervent believers keep saying that the Second Coming is imminent, but the world totters on, century after century). So the film starts by establishing the pervasiveness of apocalyptic thinking in many different settings, with some captured footage (à la Michael Moore) mixed in. At the outset, such juxtapositions may give the impression that the point is merely to debunk. The radical imam who rants in Arabic about the imminent downfall of the United States and the extermination of the Jews (we'll be reading subtitles) and the woman who warns about the fate of songbirds will appear along with loony survivalists, right-wing preachers, and tenured professors such as I encountered last year at AAR/SBL in Philadelphia, who deplored America's descent into fascism while they waited in line at Starbucks.

On the other hand, apocalypses large and small are hardly limited to the fevered imagination of doomsayers. Languages die. Species become extinct. Histories are erased. Men, women, and children are ruthlessly taken into servitude, driven into exile, murdered, their villages destroyed, their cities occupied. And we are indeed headed for a Last Judgment, if what we affirm when we say the Apostles' Creed is congruent with reality. Gradually it becomes clear that generic talk about apocalyptic thinking doesn't take us very far. Some "apocalyptic thinking" needs to be taken seriously, for better or worse. (Who else is listening to the imam? And songbirds are indeed imperiled.)

When I wrote this piece in 2006, Twitter had just been launched; at the time, I knew nothing about it. Today my Twitter feed is full of apocalyptic foreboding, but among the people I follow there is no consensus on what threatens us with doom. Two B&C contributors, Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, have recently written a guide for the perplexed: How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans).

Doesn't sound like much of a movie, you say? It looks great in the theater inside my head. (And the sound track is terrific: Rev. Charlie Jackson, Rev. Dan Smith, and of course Blind Willie Johnson doing "John the Revelator.") What got me thinking about this was hearing Bill McKibben speak about global warming (in chapel at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota) just as I was reading Jonathan Kirsch's new book, A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization (HarperSanFrancisco).

Kirsch is a lively writer and—as I learned when I met him at a book convention several years ago—a genial conversation partner. His book, which is devoted to the Book of Revelation and its influence down through the centuries—"the history of a delusion," Kirsch calls it—is certainly worth reading, learning from, and arguing with. He is frank about his distaste for John's vision. "Above all else," he writes, "the author of Revelation is a good hater." Rather predictably, Kirsch contrasts the "black-and-white morality of Revelation" and its "particularly heartless theology" with the love-centered teaching of Jesus, conveniently omitting any mention of Jesus' own hard sayings.

Kirsch appears to assume a readership that will largely share his moral disgust and incredulity at the very idea of a final reckoning such as John envisions. In this he is surely not alone. Many Christians today share his sentiments. (I have at hand a book called The Evangelical Universalist.) But what if John's symbolic narrative expresses a fundamental truth, quite apart from how that truth has been abused and distorted in sometimes absurd, sometimes terrible ways? Can Kirsch entertain that as a possibility? Can we? Reality is not conformed to our specifications, as one of Philip K. Dick's characters observes; rather it is we who must conform to it.

Many people who sneer at alarms about global warming do so because the scenario of global disaster caused by climate change strikes them as simply absurd. They are convinced that the world just isn't like that. But what if they are wrong? What if the world really is as Bill McKibben and many others have described it, quite apart from how "global warming" has been appropriated for this or that agenda? Can we recognize that, just as we individually are vulnerable to all the ills of man, so the Earth itself may be vulnerable on a scale that initially defies our comprehension?

On the face of it, we should have no trouble weighing apocalyptic scenarios. The facts in any given case may be more or less elusive, but we should be past masters at this kind of thinking. After all, we have long been awash with stories, articles, books, and movies in which all manner of apocalyptic events have come to pass. Cunning madmen have held cities hostage; terrorists have deployed weapons of mass destruction; earthquakes and floods and plagues have wreaked havoc.

But maybe we have indulged in too many cheap fictional apocalypses. Maybe we have seen too many explosions, too many people mowed down in languorous bursts of gunfire, too many nightmares fleshed out. Maybe the din of the news, the perpetual hint that Something Is About to Happen, has rendered us numb. Maybe we have a hard time distinguishing truth from fantasy.

I'm reminded of many articles and books I've read since 9/11, in which we're told that, the Cold War having finally been settled, the United States needed to cast around and find another enemy, another Other, to mobilize the populace and keep the military-industrial complex humming. So, the story goes, we picked Islam. Uh-huh.

Sorting out real threats from false alarms, and learning how to take responsibility for what we can and should do while placing our ultimate trust in God—these are tests we have to keep taking in the course of a lifetime, and sometimes we'll fail. This year, as we noted a while back, Christianity Today International is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Christianity Today magazine, founded by Billy Graham in 1956 and edited by Carl F. H. Henry. The magazine hasn't always passed the test (nor has this one you're now reading), but the record over five decades is pretty good.

In 2006 just as in 1956, the editors of CT join with the author of Revelation to say "Come, Lord Jesus!" But in so saying, they are not thereby suggesting indifference to the here-and-now, nor are they—as Jonathan Kirsch suggests—engaged in some hermeneutical double-bookkeeping. Rather they are being faithful to the one who promises transformation, a new heaven and a new earth, not escape.

That's still true in 2016, no matter what you hear to the contrary.

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