It’s the day after the eclipse. Perhaps it’s because of the internet, but the excitement about this somewhat common event reached a fever pitch. Maybe it was because we all wanted something other than Donald Trump to talk about. Maybe it was because we hoped that the eclipse might have brought about some profound change. In the days before science was a thing, eclipses were divine events. The sky doesn’t darken at noon. It is an uncanny, an eerie thing. The last eclipse—alas, only partial—that I experienced was at Nashotah House. My wife was still a student in Illinois at the time, and without her to remind me, I went about my classes as usual. When I stepped outside the eclipse was already in progress. Nashotah’s quite rural, but the birds and insects were silent. The light was weird. The shadows of the leaves were scooped crescents on the ground. I could understand why pre-scientific people trembled.
These days we know there’s nothing more to life than scientific formulas and a bit of sloppy chemistry. So why do we bother getting bothered about eclipses? The fact is they remain religious in our minds. This is nature acting in a way not normal. Apocalypses generally include the sky growing dark. One of the plagues of Egypt was darkness. In the ancient mind the sun did not so much cause light (the moon could give light too) but it lived in the realm of light. If something blocked the sun that was one thing. If something invaded the realm of light, that was another. An eclipse was such an invasion. Even as monotheism began to take hold, people thought of the sun as a deity. It, after all, directs our lives.
In New York City I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went to street level with a couple of colleagues about 10 minutes before maximum coverage (about 71%) began. Knots of people stood on the corners on the eastern side of Madison Avenue—those who build skyscrapers don’t think of eclipse viewing on the streets below. What struck me most, however, was a kind of peace and awe. Strangers sharing various viewing devices with each other and looking up expectantly. Clouds had begun to move in, and I found myself talking to complete strangers, sharing out the eclipse-viewing glasses my wife had given me. We were participating in a moment of transcendence. Such moments are rare today. No, an eclipse is more than simply the moon moving in front of the sun. It is a human event as well. And one which, in the absence of the sun, brings out the best in us.
When the apocalypse comes—present political antics assure it more than any biblical prophecy—I fear for the survivors. This post is for them. I presume you’ll get the internet back up and running quickly; it is, after all, humanity’s most important achievement. I know you’re hungry, but first a bit of history. (Sorry, I used to be a professor; it’s how my mind works.) The trendy drinking glasses that some restaurants used to use were called Mason Jars. They were originally for home canning. You see, in summer when the earth was generous, we’d have too much food. Judging from the state of my refrigerator, it’s impossible to keep it fresh for more than a few days. So people invented canning. You’ve probably found a stash of cans, which is why you’re reading this post. These glass cans came with a pretty obvious screw-on lid, under which was a sealed lid that you could pop off with a thumbnail if you were desperate enough. Food awaits.
Then a metal canning process was invented. To open a metal can you need a special tool called a “can opener.” Since I’m sure all electric can openers were destroyed in the apocalypse, you’ll need to know how to open a can with the items at hand. Do not panic. If any Swiss Army knives have survived (and I’m sure they have, if anything has) you can use one of those. Unfortunately, describing how is more a job of poetry than prose. Besides, I don’t have a webcam to record myself, or my disembodied hands, doing it for you. You might find a commercial can opener a better option. Be careful, they break easily. If you find some in the ruins of a store take them all—you’ll need them. Got one? Okay, now here comes the tricky part.
You need to use this device to open the can to get at the goodies inside. I’m writing this during a rather paranoid and poorly educated period of human history, so please bear with me. It is your salvation. Even the simple can opener has to be sold with wordless instructions in my era. I am here posting those instructions. Follow these two simple steps, numbered conveniently “1.” and “2.” You will have food for your starving bellies soon enough. And while you’re slurping down whatever sweet or savory goodness is inside that metal container, maybe you’ll pay heed to a bit of friendly advice from someone who didn’t survive the dread end of the world: when enough of you find each other to need to elect a ruler, please be sure that whoever it is knows what she’s doing. One thing you might look for is someone who at least knows how to use a can opener.
Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”
The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.
Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.
Posted in Bible, Books, Egypt, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Apocalypse, apokalypsis, Elaine Pagels, evangelicalism, Nag Hammadi library, prophecy, Revelation, Revelations: Visions
One of the surest signs of hope for the world is that academics are beginning to notice monsters. A trickle began some time ago and it’s probably best to call it a trickle still, nevertheless, the quality of the trickle is improving. Some serious publishers are now counted among the mix of those who pay attention to the lovable unlovable. Greg Garrett’s Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse is one of the more recent approaches to the undead that looks for religious themes among them. They’ve been there from the beginning with zombies, of course, but few with tenured positions bothered to look. It’s an open question how long the current fascination with the undead might last, but Garrett’s treatment finds them useful sources of theological thought.
Perhaps the aspect of my own fascination that I feel most often compelled to explain is why fear has such an appeal. Garrett makes the point that fear often causes people to make bad choices, and I would have to agree. It is, however, the fear of fear that takes a greater toll. You see, fear is a survival instinct. Without fight or flight we’re all zombie food. Some of us learn this harsh lesson early in life, and if we manage to survive long enough we might even become nostalgic for it. It’s not that I like be afraid, but I do know that if we fear fear—if we avoid looking at what scares us—we put ourselves in danger that the flight response might well prevent.
Garrett’s treatment is helpful in demonstrating that there is a reason for such stories. In fact, according to his analysis zombies can leave you with a profound sense of hope. He uses the living dead as a means of thinking about community, ethics, and apocalypse. Not all end of the world scenarios are that bad. How we treat the living dead may tell us quite a bit about our own rectitude or lack thereof. In other words, zombies are more than their puerile thrills might suggest. There’s something of substance here. I don’t agree with all of Garrett’s conclusions, but he offers a stimulating tour of the current media frenzy around the living challenged and is surely correct that there is more going on with monsters than many of our parents would like to have a religion expert admit. Those childhood years might not have been wasted on monsters after all.
Posted in Books, Evolution, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Apocalypse, ethics, fear, Greg Garrett, Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, Monsters, zombies
Fox recently announced that, after four seasons, Sleepy Hollow is being cancelled. The news, while not unexpected, is still disappointing. The initial success of the series caught just about everybody by surprise. Intelligent, witty, and literate, this program tapped into a number of themes dear to American sensitivities. One of those sensitivities, surprisingly, was the Bible. I sometimes wonder if the Bible might’ve been able to save Sleepy Hollow. In my limited view the first season was the best. It started out with an all-American apocalypse. To survive an apocalypse you need a Bible. George Washington’s Bible featured throughout the mythology of the first installment. Two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse had arrived in Sleepy Hollow. Then something went wrong.
In season two, Moloch—clearly a stand-in for the Devil in the series—was killed off. Apocalypse no. The end of the world, in Scofield’s canonical view, had been cancelled. Even Ichabod and Abbie began to wonder what good it is to be mentioned in Revelation if your role as world saviors has been made redundant. A new arch-villain was needed. The coven that had shielded Ichabod, headless without its horsemen, simply faded away. Ichabod learned how to drive. Where’s an enemy when you need one? Enter Pandora for season three. But wasn’t she rather a sympathetic figure? Sure, she unleashed lots of negativity but hardly with malicious intent. There’s no villain like a biblical one.
Where do you go after the apocalypse is over? What use is the Bible in such a world? Pandora has no book of Revelation behind her. No special effects budget can rival Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. What can make you shudder like that pale horse and its skeletal rider? In a world with ebola and zika it would seem that pestilence still has a place. Famine in a world of plenty is horror defined. Two out of four isn’t bad, I suppose, but when you start off with Death you’re not leaving yourself much room for maneuver. Of course, after the horsemen there are three seals left. Perhaps if Sleepy Hollow had stayed with the script and followed through until just before the final trump, it might still be here among the land of the living. Just like creation, the “end of the world” has multiple versions in the Good Book. The Bible’s a consistent narrative only in the imagination of harmonizers eager for easy answers. The possibilities are endless. Where there is no vision, the people parish.
“Push men too far and they fall off the cliff. Push great men too far and they soar.” The words are those of my novelist friend K. Marvin Bruce. Unless you read this blog you’ve probably never heard of him; his novel publishing record is about as successful as my academic career. Still, I think quite a bit about Marvin’s plight. He seems to be a gifted writer—he sends me copies of his stuff—but publishers take no notice. He’s had a few short stories appear in online journals; two of them even won prizes, but the internet is a very crowded place. It’s not easy to get noticed. Those who try to make a living smithing words often face a dilemma; it feels like all the momentous words have already been taken.
Marvin on a superlative walk
I mentioned in a recent post that we are suffering from a crisis of superlatives. The other day I was in a mall (this is a foreign activity for me—the people all look far trendier than I do, and they seem to think this is the place to be, not just where you have to go to have your laptop serviced). I saw a mother walking by holding the hand of her maybe three-year-old son. His little tee-shirt read “Über Awesome.” I recall when awesome really meant full of awe. And that was rare, reserved for things like towering, severe Midwestern thunderstorms alive with constant lightning, or gray north Atlantic waves crashing mercilessly into the cliffs of Maine. I stood, small and insignificant on the prairie or the coast, utterly at a loss for words. Yes, it was that impressive. My superlatives, however, have all been absconded. We live in a world where “greatest” sounds somewhat ordinary. Even the apocalypse has grown thin from overuse, and that used to be the ultimate end of everything. How weak it all sounds.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the second Star Wars trilogy. While the special effects are impressive, it suffers compared to the original trilogy. One of the reasons, in my idiosyncratic hermeneutic, is that the Jedi knights were reconceived, or reconceptualized. They are action figures, hands on hips, ready to dart into a fight. “May the force be with you,” has become a mere “God bless you.” Was not the real strength of Obi Wan his silence and lack of haste? Was Luke ever more impressive than when he slowly walked into the cave of Jabba the Hut, light saber tucked away, only to be used when such an awesome weapon was called for? It takes a certain placidity of soul to stare long into the abyss. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our superlatives. Calm lives of measured, considered action. This seems to be what the world lacks. To find it would truly be experience simple greatness.