With the world about to end tomorrow, a friend pointed me to a story of a savvy entrepreneur. The idea is so obvious that I’m completely jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Among the Fundamentalist camp it is widely acknowledged that animals don’t have souls. They do, however, make wonderful companions nevertheless. When their good Christian owners are raptured to the skies, Rover is consigned to a cruel death by starvation if his soulless biological form is left inside. Poor soulless, sinless Rover! Reason (such as any theological thought can be called “reason”) and emotion clash. Bart Centre comes to the rescue. His company will break into the now abandoned private property that God had blessed you with, and rescue your pet. For a reasonable fee. As an atheist, Centre is pretty sure he won’t be going anywhere.
At notable—and even some rather forgettable—points in human history, people have guessed that it is all about to end. This is a strange belief when parsed apart from its original context. Ancient mythical thought tended to be holistic. We humans, with our own cycle of births and deaths, have trouble imagining anything that doesn’t follow the same pattern. All things must have beginnings and ends. Zoroastrianism began as a persecuted sect among the Old Persian religious realm. Persecuted sects tend to want an end to the suffering, and so it is no surprise that Zoroastrians gave us the end of the world. When Judaism was under the severe predation of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it too looked for a radical change. Christianity under Nero and Domitian looked for a triumphant culmination of a universal purpose. And no end came. Instead, under Constantine Christianity gained a privileged position. With only periodic outbreaks, concern for the end of all things was pacified.
Today with the ease of lifestyle among most American Christians, it is surprising to see such antipathy toward the world. In the words of the Metatron, “Was Wisconsin really that bad?” Or maybe I have read it wrong. Perhaps this is the final culmination of the Prosperity Gospel: Christians have got it so good that the only way to better their lot is to end it all? Religions have always demonstrated their acquisitiveness either in terms of souls or currency. When you’re on top of that world, what direction is there to go but out? But you can’t take it with you, including your soulless friends. Perhaps that’s the real lesson in all of this: humans struggle to mix reason and emotion into one psyche, despite their diverse evolutionary paths to consciousness. We may readily accept the mythical but still wonder who will take Rover for his walk.
The Ninth Gate, a Roman Polanski film from a bygone decade, portrays a world the director doesn’t believe in. Typical of “devil movies,” the story involves a personified evil that not only seeks world domination, but who also writes books. I’ve been working on a book review for Relegere, the new online journal of Studies in Religion and Reception. In part the book addresses how the devil is portrayed in movies, although this particular film is not cited. Perhaps it is difficult to take seriously a film where the screenwriter is not a believer.
As a young teen I listened with horror as friends described The Omen, a movie that I never saw until just last year. The premise of the movie, that the Antichrist has already been born and is now walking the earth, ready to usher in Hal Lindsey-esque last days, is frightening to those who find a biblical basis for the idea. When finally watching the film the scariest part was viewing the extras. David Seltzer, author of both the book and screenplay, eerily tells the interviewer that he believes the Antichrist to be here now. His acceptance of mythology is admirable, but it is the problematic acquiescence to a modern reconstruction of disparate ancient views that is troubling. Like many late-twentieth century westerners, Seltzer has been influenced by attempts to construct a coherent account of the apocalypse from tattered bits of ancient traditions that never belonged together.
If education included a serious, critical look at how religious ideas developed, the world might be spared this sad predilection for seeking its own end. Apocalyptic ideas thrive in cultures of persecution, such as those very real torments of Jews under Antiochus and Christians under Nero. Their hopes for a brave new world of righteous rule, borrowing freely from Zoroastrian traditions of a new age, offered scraps of expectation of a better tomorrow to those dying today. When nineteenth-century evangelists saw the advances of industrialization and Darwin’s rational explanations of human origins, they felt the need to reconstruct the biblical demise of the world. Modern day apocalypticism, so evident in the Y2K, 9/11, and 2012 scares, is often ready to accept uncritically a supposed future already scripted by a sadly misunderstood Bible. If the world ends it will be our own doing, and maybe Roman Polanski will have to rethink whether or not a devil can actually write a book.
In discussing various polemics against religion, such as those by Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, I have frequently stated that they have a point, but they have ignored the good that religion hath wrought. It is like an Anti-Julius Caesar – the good is oft interred with the bones. Then the news goes and validates their polemic. The arrests yesterday of the leadership of the Christian militia calling themselves the Hutaree (I’m sorry, but it sounds like a happy Boy Scout gathering) highlights once more the danger that religion poses to an already unstable society. I’d not heard of the Hutaree before, and chances are I would never have heard of them had they not plotted an apocalyptic war against the United States’ government that landed them on the front page.
Few people are willing to admit just how dangerous apocalyptic thought is, or how deeply rooted it is in American politics. Tracing the roots of this form of belief is not difficult – apocalyptic first appears in the Bible when revelation through prophecy met and mated with Zoroastrianism’s dualism. The offspring of this union was the belief that a new, and better (!), age was about to dawn. God would usher in an era of peace, but it had to be precipitated by an era of war. Presidents drawn from the Religious Right have held this belief. Some have even eagerly begun wars in hopes that this ancient Afghanistanian religion would lead to the Christian apocalypse. At least the Hutaree were up-front about it: they believed that armed conflict with the government would flush out the Antichrist and usher in the end.
Last night in my Prophets class student questions indicated just how much interest there is in apocalyptic. We live in an era when information is all-too-easy to find, and yet many otherwise intelligent people believe that a hidden knowledge about the future is available in the Bible. It is not. For those who have ears to hear, Daniel was written about Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Revelation was written about a Roman emperor (perhaps Nero or Domitian) who threatened nascent Christianity. The apocalyptic battle was already underway. The future they longed for was peace. Modern apocalypticists see all of this as future prediction and believe that they must start the war. All of this makes me feel strangely vindicated. The FBI and other government officials are starting to demonstrate an awareness that to prevent religious extremism you must understand it. Now if only universities would catch on and realize that the study of religion is vital to national security I might end up with a full-time teaching post after all.
As the economy rolls along like a marble on a pebble beach and the stock market continues its own bumpy road to recovery, apocalyptic thought is again on the rise. It is when times are bad that apocalyptic comes in most useful. Individuals who feel that this world has run out of possibilities generally look to a new future world where things will be radically different. That’s why people flock to movies like 2012 and dream of a new day, a new era.
That’s the way it has always been. Jews being tortured to death under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid tyrant, looked for that day when Michael would take on the “Prince of Persia” and the new world would gush in and overtake this one. Almost two centuries later the early Christian movement, suffering at the hands of Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, reveled in the visions of Revelation — the new world coming. Rental property is free in the New Jerusalem! The earliest exemplars of apocalyptic thinking appear to go back to the ancient Zoroastrians. This early Iranian religion (which may have originated in Afghanistan) took comfort in a dualistic world where good and evil constantly struggled until a cosmic conflict would result in the ultimate destruction of evil. It helped to explain why things could be so bad for good people in the here-and-now.
2012, however, derives from concerns that the Mayan calendar seems to have run out of space at that time slot just over three years from now. Otherwise intelligent people panic; this is an apocalypse of the secular kind! Experts on the Maya (among which I am not) explain that the Mayans use(d) many calendars (there are still Mayans around). Their large-scale, 5000 year calendar may run out on December 21, 2012, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, that calendar only began on August 11, 3114 BCE, about 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth. It was not meant as a road-map to the cosmos. The real apocalypse is in the minds of those suffering from their own private ills in this world. Ever since Zarathustra spoke, people have had an alternative, better future to anticipate.