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.

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

Fire and Brimstone with a Side of Salvation

“For the great day of his wrath is come and who shall be able to stand?”

I think of all the quotable material from the Book of Revelation, this line struck me the most. At first, it was because it reminded me of one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books, The Stand by Stephen King. (I did check to see if this quotation had inspired the title. However, King’s epigrams suggest that honor goes to a Bruce Springsteen song and not the Book of Revelation – though it is certainly relevant.) On further examination however, what struck me about this line from Revelation is that “his” does not refer to Satan, but to God. Continue reading

Apocalyptic Propaganda

Although there are many Christian fundamentalists who consider the Book of Revelations to be an essential part of the bible, many scholars have rightfully denounced the last book as a peculiar and contrived tale of propaganda.

The Book of Revelations may have some religious inspiration, however it is mostly an “intelligent” story that is based on themes John’s potential converts may connect with. In the story, John encounters a book with 7 seals, a sea beast with 7 heads, 7 angels with 7 plagues, and so on. Kirsch argues that the number 7 originates from the Book of Genesis among other parts of the bible in which God creates the world in 7 days. John also borrows language from the Hebrew bible in another attempt to have Jewish readers relate to his messages. Moreover, the 7-headed beasts and the story of the pregnant woman clothed in the sun are themes that Pagans are familiar with. Along with his obsession with numerology and symbolism, these all make John’s story seem to be an artificial attempt to create an “intelligent” story that Jews and Pagans of the time could relate to.

The blatant juxtaposition of grotesque apocalyptic images with a heavenly new earth is clearly a contrived effort to scare his Jewish and Pagan readers into converting to Christianity. Most of the Book of Revelation includes chapters about 7-headed creatures, red dragons and other fantastical themes which remind readers of gory science fiction novels. However, there is a stark contrast in the final chapters in which John describes the new heavenly city that will be created: “the city had no need of the sun … for the glory of God did lighten it”, “there shall be no more curse”, etc. After the previous bloody chapters, John finally creates a peaceful atmosphere for his readers. Before he ends on a positive note, though, John reminds the reader that whoremongers, murders and those that do not follow the commandments would not be entering this city – yet another contrived effort to force this idea of being saved onto the non-Christian readers.

The author of the Book of Revelations and many Christians may have genuinely believed in his apocalyptic messages, however it is evident that John had a not-so-hidden agenda of scaring non-Christians into being saved by converting to Christianity.

Does the End of the World Have a History?

The initial reading of Jonathan Kirsch’s A Hisotry of the End of the World introduces many apocalyptic notions that have grown amidst the culture and spirit of our society since antiquity. This reading paints an interesting picture of the different social practices and how various groups have responded and continue to react to the end of the world phenomenon.

In many ways, Kirsch regards the Book of Revelation and its contents as both the source and supplement to the human fear and anticipation of the end of the world. After all, anything that counters established religious ideology or proposes an interdisciplinary end to theology and universe alike is destined to have some type of grand effect on the public. While Kirsch defines the controversy over the Book of Revelation in a religious scope, he broadens his explanation for our apocalyptic hype with social and cultural realms. He renders this text as a “petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity”; this argument has certainly been validated by the ways in which the Book of Revelation has resonated throughout history. I myself marvel at how events and figures in history gained such prominence using the end of the world as an element of justification. Its interesting and simultaneously, unsettling, how entities such as The New World , the AIDS epidemic, and even UFO invasion can be explained by the Book of Revelation. One can certainly argue that these connections are the natural ways by which the human race deals with such an abstract and intangible issue. Rather than fearing the unimaginable, we look for past instances that fit John’s apocalyptic scenario and then use these past occurrences to gage our anticipation of the future (or lack there of, in this case). This is also seen with historical figures such as Hitler, and even more recently, Osama Bin Ladin, who have been coined the Antichrist in their period of time. Are we to believe that any cultural manifestations of opposing force represent the Antichrist and signify our impending doom? If so, then the line between imagination and reality becomes completely obliterated when culture and politics collide.

Despite my skepticism towards this historical resonance, Kirsch does present a reasonable explanation for our cultural belief in the Book of Revelation. We are the descendants of a time when only the “hearers” of the Revelation were blessed and all who undermined John’s beliefs were “corrupted by Satan” . While these notions are not as prevalent in contemporary society as they were amongst fundamentalist Christians and Jews hundreds of years back, the aftermath of these beliefs still reign among us. Certainly, belief in John’s apocalyptic revelation provided a means of survival for the religious and outlandish zealots of that era.

Perhaps when the day of judgement would come, God may have more mercy on the “hearers” and believers of this revelation. This supports Kirsch’s idea of “morale boosting propaganda” that arises from the Book of Revelation. If we were to live according to this propaganda, its almost as though we’d be in limbo forever, waiting for God’s judgement and hoping that he finds a place for us in his New Heaven and Earth. As we can see here, Dante’s Inferno and John’s Book of Revelation have overlapping elements. Both most definitely possess the same nightmarish, strange, and out of reach elements. Ironically enough, Dante was excommunicated for his ideas, while John’s were added to the holy scripture. Such a discrepancy further debunks this proposed apocalypse.

Its obvious that our society feeds off of cultural pastimes and beliefs. However, we must not forget that even traditional beliefs have been distorted over the years, and we have lost sight of true reasoning. Many do not know why they fear the end of the world, which weakens apocalyptic arguments altogether. In fact, proponents of the Book of Revelation rarely understand the imagery and symbolism of John’s vision. Here, history does not provide any meaningful groundwork since all historical examples have been proposed as theories and have no real connection to the actual scripture. One could argue that Kirsch’s History of the End of the World is really an account of religious, cultural, and political conflict than a true explanation for doomsday.

What Makes a Text “Count”?

As I read through the first portion of Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World, I found myself incredibly frustrated with the controversy over authorship and authenticity. The message of religious texts is generally valued more by those who practice the corresponding religion, but it seems like people are so focused on pulling out what they want to hear, or what they need to hear as the case may be, that they fail to consider where the text they put so much faith in is coming from. I have a background in Catholicism, and in general, the Book of Revelation was avoided, but it does have a place in the Bible, which means that as unsettling as it may be, it cannot just be omitted from the religion. I suppose the biggest question that this controversy raises for me is; if religious texts are considered sacred, but religions and religious practitioners pick and choose what is “most” holy, how is the value and credibility of a religious text maintained?

Kirsch explains in his text that Revelation is theorized to potentially have multiple authors from different periods of time, coming from different backgrounds. For the sake of his own argument, Kirsch goes with one popular theory about the identity of the author, John. I understand that for the sake of any argument one must select a school of thought to work from, but it is still frustrating because there is immediate conflict in terms of understanding the source of Revelation, not to mention the proceeding conflict about understanding the author’s credibility.

I think that my own religious skepticism has created more difficulty in my reading of Kirsch, but some significant claims are made in Revelation, and major movements continue to form because of John’s words; it’s important to think about why so many people willingly accept, fear and live by hand picked selections of a text, rather than the text in it’s entirety.

In my opinion, the authority of the Church has a lot to do with people’s sometimes blind trust in the message of scripture. I am certainly not a religious scholar, but I know that in a religious service, people avidly listen to the words of their religious leader, because there is an understood trust between leader and attendee. In general, I would argue that people who attend religious services enter their place of worship with a certain need. Whether it’s the need for a sign from God, or something smaller like a need for the sense of support and community that comes from attending a religious meeting. The presence of that need makes it difficult, I think, for people to question what they are hearing and what they are agreeing with. In general, the leader’s reading of scripture is not nearly as revered as the leader’s interpretation of the verses he or she recites. The cynic in me can’t help but think about how a person in power uses their position to influence those following them.

The author or authors of Revelation obviously had their own motivation in spreading the prophecy they were sent so vehemently. Their decision to commit to spreading the word suggests some motivation beyond faith, especially when one considers what might have been at risk when the prophets spoke their prophecy. For example, Kirsch explains that their was some degree of competition among prophets claiming that his or her message was the one to listen to, the authentic word of God. He explains that John was adamant about discrediting the prophetess Jezebel. Unless God himself really did despise the acts of this individual woman to the point that he mentioned her in his declaration to John, it seems that John may have tweaked prophecy to serve his own desire to beat the competition. Instances like this, immediately make the scripture less credible for me, because I recognize that it was altered to serve the needs of an individual. It’s not a pure message from some higher power; it is the self-serving “prophecy” of a man who needed to wipe out the competition in order to gain the biggest following.

This seemingly obvious moment of failed credibility is apparently not enough to dissuade the masses that follow John’s words to this day. Kirsch mentions that modern follower’s of John’s message and strong believers in the impending apocalypse are often mentally unstable individuals who have strong persuasive skills. To me, it seems like madness to think that there are people who will follow selections of a message without even knowing where the message is coming from or without making their own interpretations and decisions about the words that they are told.

In John’s time, Christians were persecuted for their religion, so a text that promised to avenge their suffering, obviously spoke to a cultural need, which makes the massive following more understandable. Today’s world has its fair share of problems, but the intrinsic message of Revelation has been skewed and no one seems to really consider it. This constant shifting of meaning and context is frustrating and leaves me asking my initial question. Credibility and source, in the case of religious text (Revelation in particular), don’t seem to be nearly as important as the interpretation and recitation (performance) of the words.