Tag Archives: Apocalypse

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.

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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.