The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

Infinite but Expanding

What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.

The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.

Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Biblical Hurricanes

Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.

Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.

In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.

Eclipse 2017

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.

Survival Instructions

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.

Apocalyptic Dreams

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.

Living Challenged

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.

Sleepy Holy

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.

Ultimate Superlative

“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

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.

Biblical Script

The popular perception of the Bible generally does not match the actual contents very well. Like most books, the Bible has its highlights: Creation, Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jesus, the Apocalypse. Between all the fascinating narrative, however, come the instructions. More instructions, in point of fact, than most people would care for. Nevertheless, over the centuries the Bible has acquired an aura in western civilization. It has become what some colleagues call an “iconic book.” It is this aspect of the Bible that stands out most clearly in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. I wrote a post about Sleepy Hollow as I began to watch the first season on DVD. The headless horseman is an agent of the Apocalypse, and clergy and witches play a prominent role in the story. I wondered if the role of the Bible would diminish once the audience was drawn into the conceit of the four horsemen thundering out of Revelation into Sleepy Hollow. Just the opposite, in fact, occurred.

Sleepy_Hollow_-_Title_Card

As the series unfolds, the Bible is drawn more and more into the story. Demons and detectives both want to get their hands on it. Not to read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but because the Bible contains esoteric information. Those “in the know” can unlock its secrets and thereby save society. Ironically, this is a subtextual version of the biblical metanarrative. It is all about (from the Christian perspective) salvation. The means, however, are quite different. Jesus is not really part of the Sleepy Hollow story. The Bible belongs to George Washington, cryptically bringing politics into the story. The text is not secure; there are extra verses in Washington’s Bible, just as there are many excised bits in Thomas Jefferson’s. Washington leaves instructions for saving his fledgling nation from the evils that roamed its shores during the Revolution. Or is that Revelation?

Right up to the cliff-hanger ending of season one, the Bible comes back time and again, focusing the viewer on its magical qualities. It is a book of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile in the real world, biblical studies positions are being slashed from universities as if the horseman’s axe were anything but fictional. We don’t want to know about the real Bible. Politicians, real ones, use it as their own sword to force their personal faith agendas onto the electorate, but we generally do not even understand what the Bible really is. We’ll fund economics, that dismal science, and business, and maybe even actual science. The humanities, however, the stuff that makes us human, we will gladly call luxuries and deny them fiscal security. So the Bible grows in stature even as it diminishes in stature. Those who don’t know the factual Bible can easily be swayed by the fictional one. Are those hoofbeats I hear in the distance?

Good, Evil, and Normal

GoodOmensTo date I’ve read a fair number of Neil Gaiman novels. One of my students started me out on American Gods and I pursued his others on my own after that. I was a little unsure about Good Omens, however. I guess I’ve always been dubious about the quality of co-written books. Terry Pratchett, an accomplished novelist in his own right, paired up with Gaiman on this one, and it took the wisdom of another student, albeit recently graduated, to assure me that it was worth the effort. Given that it’s about the apocalypse, or perhaps an apocalypse that doesn’t quite take off, there seemed to be no reason not to give it a try. It is, at the end of the day, a charming book with colorful characters and an Antichrist who gets switched at birth and grows up in a normal household and herein lies the tale.

One of the most common religious themes in novels is the end of the world. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are one of the most striking literary tropes of the first century, if not of all time. The real question about the end of the world, it turns out, is—why can’t it be funny? For those who’ve pondered that, Good Omens is the book for you. It actually does help, however, if you’ve read the Bible. It adds to the cumulative effect. Subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Witch, the book revolves around the certainty of the written word. Prophecy, however, just as in the book, only achieves verisimilitude in retrospect. The prophets didn’t always get it right, even in the Bible. Human choice often causes a breakdown in divine plans. In Good Omens, you’re pretty sure from the beginning that the world won’t end, but you’re not quite sure how it won’t end. The unfolding of the story eventually addresses how a prophecy can fail.

Free will, those who specialize in theology and philosophy will say, is among the more difficult of phenomena to pin down. Some predestinarians would say it’s all an illusion. We are programmed to do what we do. Ironically, some reductionistic materialists would say the same thing. Each of us, however, trudging through out days of toil and play, feels like we’re making our own decisions. True enough, sometimes circumstances decide for us, but if we were given the choice of good or evil, wouldn’t we approach it the way we approach just about everything else? Along the way, the demon Crowley asks a pointed, poignant question: why would God make people inquisitive and then forbid them some obvious, desirable fruit? Isn’t the conclusion foregone? Any writer today would know the outcome before the first sentence was finished. And so, free will is off and running. I hope that the fact that the world doesn’t end won’t be a spoiler for anyone, because I also hope that others will read Good Omens and learn a great deal about how demons can be good, angels can be naughty, and people will always just be people.

The Last Word

The end of the world, it seems, never goes out of fashion. My wife shared a story on the BBC about CNN (such self-referential media hype may be a sign that society is collapsing already) having a video ready to release for the apocalypse. In a bit of end-of-time sangfroid, it is rumored, CNN’s Ted Turner ordered a last-second video to be made so that loyal CNN viewers would be ushered out with his version of the last word. The media, of course, is a powerful segment of society. Occasionally schools and businesses are shut down due to their meteorological predictions. The media tells us who the experts are, and why we should listen to them. The media provides us with some of the only fact-checked material from far-flung ends of the globe—or even outer space—to which we, the people, would not normally have access. The media, in other words, determines reality.

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Meanwhile I wonder, as I often do, what gives those who own media corporations the right to determine reality for the rest of us. For example, if the rumor of Turner’s video is true, what would give the rich and powerful the right to determine what flashes before our eyes as the world winks out of existence? The apocalypse, after all, is a religious concept. Although largely developed from biblical scripts, other religions do occasionally have their end-of-the-world myths, just like most religions have beginning-of-the-world myths. If you have billions of dollars, does that mean you have the right to determine end-times viewing? When money determines the truth, the world has already ended.

Nevertheless, the idea lives on. We are constantly reminded that one or another religious sect has declared that the end is nigh. We’ve heard it so often that we’ve ceased to pay attention. In a world where the media has largely dismissed the rest of the Bible (except when blockbuster movies come out featuring a biblical story) why does Revelation still hold such currency? After all, the apocalypse takes its very name from the final book of the Christian Bible, and without Revelation we might be none-the-wiser about the looming end of all things. Revelation was very much a product of its time. Despite the progress of science and technology that gave us the media corporations we blandly recognize today, we still harbor doubts deep down about the longevity of it all. Even those who write the news look to other media giants to get some hints of the truth. Ironically, they don’t seem to want to ask scholars about it. After all, sensationalism is news. At the end of the world, we really don’t care what scholars have to say, as long as we’re entertained.

Biblically Literate Ichabod Crane

I’m trying to pace my viewing of Sleepy Hollow, but autumn is never long enough for me. In many ways the FOX series exemplifies the current love-hate relationship popular culture has with the Bible. While its dictates and commandments seem tedious and petty, its prophetic view is so very full of possibilities. The millennium has passed but we’re not weary of the apocalypse yet. Even from the pilot episode with its cringing reference to “Revelations” three or four episodes into season one tidied that book title down to the proper singular and have begun to introduce other biblical characters along the way. Since the conceit of the series involves the four horsemen, the Bible is never far from view. Forensics can’t figure out what’s climbing out of the woods of the Hudson valley, but we already know that the demon is Moloch. Many fingers, I trust, have been scampering across keyboards to investigate this biblical figure.

Moloch_the_godMoloch is a “Canaanite” deity. He is also one of the least understood of biblical archenemies. Scant references to making children “pass through the fire” for Moloch have led to widespread assertions of human sacrifice. Others have argued that the passing was just that—kind of like racing your finger through the flame of a candle—to appease the angry god. We don’t know that Moloch was angry. No extended myths about him have survived from antiquity. His name means “king,” an epithet fit for most gods. The vacuum left by the historical records allows imagination to fill in the gaps. Sleepy Hollow does that nicely, and although I haven’t reached the end of season one yet, I have my suspicions that he’ll be showing up for some time to come.

The Bible, viewed so disparagingly because of the ministrations of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their intolerant ilk, remains a mystery to many. Let’s face it—it’s a daunting book. Even with onionskin paper, it is a massive undertaking to read it all. Many a spiritual soldier lays slain on the beach-head of Leviticus, and that’s only three books in of the Protestant 66. What Leviticus doesn’t finish, Chronicles will polish off. And yet we have such colorful characters as Asherah, Resheph, Leviathan, and Moloch scattered throughout. Sleepy Hollow has brought back the dead. I regret that I no longer have classes of students to ask about such things, because I too, through the magic of television, am beginning to believe in resurrection again.

The Problem with Apocalypses

Over on The Daily Beast, Joe McLean points out “How the Tea Party’s Apocalyptic Politics Are Destroying the Republican Party.” I say good riddance. Let me explain. It’s not that I have a problem with apocalypses. (Zombie apocalypses are especially fun.) My problem is that the mythology of one religion endangers us all. This is not some leftist-leaning rant, or at least not a leftist-leaning rant that’s uninformed. I grew up in a very conservative, apocalyptic Christianity. I was looking for the end of the world before I considered a college major. Even my (limited) choice of classes in high school were determined by a kind of eschatological laissez faire: the world’s going to end any day now, so why plan for a career? I was a true believer. In my Christian college I majored in religion. If the end is near, it pays to be ready for it. I know this doctrine inside-out. If Christ is returning any day now (can’t you hear the hoof-beats?) then we should pillage this poor old earth for all its worth. That’s what it’s here for. Do we want him coming back and saying we’re poor stewards? Besides, if we can ramp up the crisis in the Middle East far enough, Jesus will have to return. Won’t he? And these are “rational” adults thinking this way.

There was likely a naive cynicism on the part of the Republican Party when it realized that aligning itself with what was considered the religious fringe would boost their numbers. After all, the fringe surrounds the whole of the cloth. Apocalyptic Christianity is very popular because it appeals directly to the emotions. Although our society believes the study of religion is pointless, those of us who’ve persisted have noticed a few things. The religions that are really taking off are the ones that appeal to the emotions. Many Spock-like scientists intone their message of materialism only in the face of massive crowds of true believers. Who do you think is likely to win out? We have had presidents in the Oval Office who believed that triggering the apocalypse was a presidential prerogative. When society finally shook off its goofy grin and slowly pressed the electoral brakes, the Tea Party took off. Guess what? Apocalypses are all about destruction. If you invite apocalypticists to your party, the results are pretty predictable.

In the article McLean uses the word “zealot.” Rationalists might find the use of their dictionaries helpful here. Zealots do not respond to logic. Zealots are driven by emotion. Have you ever tried to argue with one? I have had years of experience teaching religion in a variety of classroom settings. Long ago I learned to lay down the sword when a zealot spoke up. Logic is not spoken here. The media, the scientific, the academic, they scratch their heads. How can any rational person believe this? The answer doesn’t require much effort to find. It might mean consulting someone who understands a bit about religion, though. Otherwise, the smart money is on stocking up on canned goods, gas masks, and a good supply of water. This could take a while.

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?