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By A. J. Conyers

Antichrist, Our Contemporary

"Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil"

By Bernard McGinn

Harper San Francisco

369 pp.; $32.50, hardcover;

$18, paper

"The Renaissance Antichrist: Luca Signorelli's Orvieto Frescoes"

By Jonathan B. Riess

Princeton University Press

191 pp.; $55

As an interwoven theme in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Hannah Arendt observes that evil as an imaginary thing is fascinating, but in reality one is nearly always struck by its torpor, its lifeless, dull banality. So habitual had become Eichmann's lies and self-deceit that even at the point of death he could utter only cliches; the life-giving touch of reality could not come near him. It is perhaps part of the lesson of Antichrist that the attraction of this topic for modern minds, as well as for medieval and ancient ones, is gained at the level of the imaginary--an imaginary evil that veils its brooding dullness and the dustiness of real death.

Two recent books engage the Antichrist tradition as, for the most part, a current of the human imagination, best captured in legend and art.

A comprehensive attempt to follow the story of Antichrist as it winds its way into modern times is made by Bernard McGinn in his Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. Beginning with Jewish apocalyptic influences, he moves to the early Christian vision of Antichrist, to the coalescing of a generally consistent image in antiquity and the early Middle Ages; from there he studies the changes that take place in the high and late medieval period and in the Reformation, the decline of Antichrist speculation in the modern era, and the residual power of the image of personified evil in our own day.

"Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology," Ernst Kasemann once said. If true, what use can be made of such a notion? How does one move from the highly symbolic Jewish apocalyptic writings to the more or less literal expectations of the Antichrist?

McGinn attempts to chart a "third way" between the literalism ...

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