What makes a life meaningful?

One theme running through the posts has to do with what makes a life meaningful. And, lo and behold, the Philosopher’s Stone series in the Times has an article today on that topic. It strikes me as a good example of non-apocalyptic thinking. Take a look: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/the-meaningfulness-of-lives/?ref=opinion&nl=opinion&emc=tya1

Apocalyptic Suffering Recast

When one reads the Book of Revelation, as was our task last week, it would seem that at the end times, everyone will suffer.  Yet a peculiar recasting of this apocalyptic scenario took place in the Western world between the time of John’s strange visions and our modern moment, to the point of which only some suffer, while great numbers of others are totally excluded from the apocalyptic horror, and instead given something akin to a stadium box seat above the action, as the are “raptured” into heaven just before the things which must shortly come to pass, actually do (Kirsch 190). Continue reading

Accepting Anticipation, Ecstatic Expectation, Purposeful Planning: Attitudes towards the (Inevitable?) End

Is the word “apocalypse” overused? Has it become a part of our lexicon in a way that degrades its meaning? These questions, touched upon in both class and Kirsch, seems especially relevant today, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The New York Times special collection of articles and media on the attacks is entitled “The Reckoning.” One of their articles, a sampling of first hand accounts from September 11, 2001, is called “Witness to Apocalypse.” Continue reading

Interpreting Revelation

For two thousand years, people have attempted to uncover the true meaning behind the Book of Revelation. Yet can there really be just one “true” meaning that takes precedence over anything else? In A History of the End of The World, Jonathan Kirsch reviews several dozen different interpretations of Revelation that each have their own followers and critics. These interpretations seem to change as the centuries progress and often reflect upon societal conflicts. When all we have left to go on is a piece of literature (if some even dare to call the Book of Revelation literature), we must accept that each reader creates his or her own interpretation, which becomes their own “true” meaning. Continue reading

Culture Wars

Kirsch notes that throughout the history of apocalyptic belief, the Book of Revelation has often been at the forefront of what he calls ‘culture wars.’ John, when he wrote the Book of Revelation, was himself embroiled in a cultural war against the Roman Empire as well as other Christians, who he believed were not properly devout. Later, the Book of Revelation was used by both reformers within the church to criticize the church bureaucracy and by the papacy to denounce and persecute its critics. Revelation was also used to justify actual wars, ranging from the Crusades to the Civil War to World War I and II. The culture war that energizes current apocalyptic belief is fought ‘between fundamentalism and the modern world’ (219), where Christian fundamentalists imagine themselves to be at odds with an increasingly godless world. For true believers today, everything from feminism to the Masons to the United Nations is seen as a tool of the Antichrist and a portent of the end of the world (220).

I believe that the Book of Revelation, and apocalyptic belief as a whole, is particularly appealing to those that believe that they are involved in a cultural war. For the talk show evangelists that rail against everything from gay marriage and abortion to Barack Obama and big government, the black and white morality of Revelation is a convenient way to demonize their enemies. For conservative Americans who believe that their way of life is increasingly threatened, the language of persecution that John employs makes the Book of Revelation an effective propaganda tool. And for all those that perceive themselves as the victims of a changing political and social order, the lurid revenge fantasies of Revelation assure them that they won’t have to suffer the affronts of the modern world for long.

The fear and anxiety about the changing world is not limited to religious zealots. Kirsch describes the proliferation of ‘godless apocalypses’ in recent years, where the end of the world is a product of human folly; those that believe in these apocalyptic scenarios must also seem themselves fighting a culture war against forces such as globalization and the spread of new technologies. While technology is regarded with great suspicion by the religiously devout (in one reinterpretation of the Book of Revelation, barcodes are depicted as the ‘mark of the beast’), it is also often depicted as the enemy in ‘godless apocalypses.’ In these scenarios, human beings struggle against the threat of nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, robots, and supercomputers. One of the key aspects of globalization is the transnational movement of information, goods, and people, but this same movement can also lead to a global pandemic, another deep-rooted fear in current apocalypse scenarios. Finally, a recent article in the New York Times Book Review entitled ‘The State of Zombie Literature – An Autopsy‘ explored the recent popularity of zombie fiction, proposing that is driven by a ‘general anxiety, particularly in the West, about the planet’s dwindling resources,’ leading to the disturbing conclusion that “these nonhuman creatures…might be serving as metaphors for actual people – undocumented immigrants…or the entire populations of developing nations.”

One of the questions that Kirsch raises in his book is why, after 2000 years of the world resolutely not ending, that apocalyptic belief continues to be so popular. I think it taps into fears that afflict both the religious and the general populace, and the imagery contained within the Book of Revelation, of war and chaos and a final battle followed by triumphant peace, has gained broad cultural approval.

Apocalyptic Reign in a Cultural Era

In the second portion of Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World, we learn a great deal about the cultural uproar of the Book of Revelation and all the events that have ultimately contributed to our understanding of apocalyptic phenomena. It is clear that many more prophets, besides John himself, have taken the Revelation into their own hands and retold the end of the world as they envisioned it. It is precisely the people and circumstances under which the Book of Revelation was read and interpreted that have so greatly shaped the timeline of our world as we know it today.

The change in Christian apocalyptic perception over time is pertinent to our understanding of the ideology that surrounds John’s text. Originally, the world was heavily centered around the Christian fundamentalists who believed that only the saints and martyrs would prevail through the Rapture and make it to the New Heaven and Earth. At this time, there was a divisive line between what qualified one’s lifestyle to be worthy of salvation and the habits that did not. Its interesting to note how clearly defined the extremities of good and evil, godly and satanic, and right and wrong were upon the early stages of this end of world speculation. Naturally, however, these realms lost sight their strict margins, as did the belief in the Book of Revelation. Some interpretations and understandings certainly spilled over and blended with each other over the course of apocalyptic history. This corresponds with the growing tendency and encouragement to read the Revelation symbolically rather than carnally.

We see early on how interpretations of the text were contorted according to societal circumstances. For example, the mosaic in the western European church initially consisted of Jesus and his twelve disciples. Once Rome imperialized under Constantine, the mosaic was re-adorned to include a throne and golden halo, as well as the city of Jerusalem, all which resonate with images depicted in the Book of Revelation. This coincides with the “apocalyptic invasion” as coined by Kirsch. And as Kirsch continues to emphasize, the popularity of the Book of Revelation and manifestations of its iconography all came about at the same time as Christianity became a formal state religion of the Roman Empire. Once again, we must not forget to question the authenticity of a text that thrives in an environment of pervasive religious and social changes.

Kirsch also comments on the cultural war that has spawned from the Book of Revelation. While the religious disparities among apocalyptic believers have greatly lessened, the social debate over this issue is still in full effect. In the beginning, the end of world discourse mainly differed among premellenialist and postmellenialist, who were both essentially Christian fundamentalists whose opinions diverged at the “when” factor of the apocalypse. The contemporary debate is far more extensive, consisting of many branches of skepticism of how the world will end or if in fact, there will be an ending at all. It is understandable that so much more disbelief is present in our society today, considering all the history of disappointments and false predictions of doomsday. After all, with all our wars and struggles, the world has indeed proven to withstand more destruction than the human mind would have thought possible. Moreover, there is far more complexity and technology present in our current world, which has triggered further doubt. Can God really be responsible for the end of a world that can revitalize life and land after the atomic bomb hits it? Though all science may point against it, the strong faith in God has been enough to sway people to believe so.

I agree that the Book of Revelation has become heavily utilized as “language arsenal” for opposing sides of the apocalyptic spectrum. Some may see this as God’s way of preserving the text in our society. On the other hand, the text may have been so ingrained into our cultural backbone, that we cannot simply filter its past admonitions out of our future plans. But if we are subconsciously holding on to these theories to sustain the Book of Revelation, then we are also summoning doomsday to us. Why else would we fight so hard to keep alive a tradition that may be the end-all of all other traditions and spur the death of life itself? Perhaps we are exactly the structural race that Kirsch depicts in the finality of his text, “the men and women who continue to wait, and have always waited, for the world to end on time”. (256)

A Lasting Market for Apocalyptic Anxiety

While reading Kirsch I often noted how cultural anxiety plays a key role in apocalyptic thinking. Apocalyptic anxiety has opened up a huge market in pop-culture. It’s important to note that this market didn’t just succeed without the presence of some need; people buy into it. I would argue that apocalyptic consumers aren’t just successfully targeted bystanders, but rather they have an anxiety-driven fascination with the legacy that originated with The Book of Revelation. Kermode addresses further how this market of anxiety succeeds because of the very human need for a comprehensible end to the human “story.” Continue reading