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-by David Lyle Jeffrey

Do You Believe the World Is Coming to an End?

In the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa there hangs one of the remarkable paintings of the pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Hunt is best known among Christians for his representation of Christ in Revelation 3:20 ("Behold I stand at the door and knock"), a painting that is really entitledThe Light of the World. The Ottawa Hunt painting seems charged by an even more luminous apocalyptic aura: It is a vivid portrait of Henry Wentworth Monk, the charismatic midcentury Victorian evangelist. Monk, who actually came to England from a Canadian village just upriver from the gallery, is unforgettably depicted as a fiery-eyed messianic figure, intent upon some future vision, a Bible clenched in one hand and an issue of the LondonTimesin the other.

En route to the European salons in the same gallery, one passes first through a great, high-vaulted glass atrium that contains a single, much more contemporary exhibit. EntitledTrans Am Apocalypse No. 2, it consists of an actual vintage gm Trans Am (early eighties), painted in dull black finish, upon the surface of which, in irregular but readily legible characters running around and over the car from front to back, the full text of the Book of Revelation has been scratched.

Trying to explain these two exhibits to a visiting professor of literature from China, I found myself more than usually taxed for ways to "translate." Nor was my difficulty mitigated by the fact that this gallery visit occurred during an afternoon in which I had already tried to answer her numerous probing questions about the phenomenal popularity in North America of apocalyptic science fiction, about the depth of the influence of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and about a nonfiction book she had encountered,The Coming Plague, with its predictions of catastrophic worldwide epidemics of immuno-deficiency diseases, Ebola viruses, hepatic diseases, AIDS, and endless mutations of Asian flu. My guest, discontent with my thumbnail-sketching explanations, ...

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