The National Catholic Review

The first reading for the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1st is from Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14. I thought that it might be worthwhile over the next two weeks to take a look at Revelation in particular and at apocalyptic thought in general. For if it is true that biblical literacy in general is waning, the knowledge of Revelation and of apocalyptic literature is waxing. Let me qualify that: the knowledge of some things regarding apocalyptic thought and literature seems to be growing, while the actual knowledge of Revelation and apocalyptic literature might be on a precipitous decline. There is a great love of things apocalyptic in popular culture, but the macabre fascination with apocalyptic thought in movies, books, heavy metal, video games and on the Internet hides a lack of true understanding of the purposes and goals of this ancient mode of thought and its best known example, the Revelation of John. I actually think that the popularity of apocalyptic thought tells us something serious about humanity and our deepest goals, even when it is misunderstood, but I often wonder how passages from the Revelation of John are received by people in the pews in light of its ubiquitous use in popular culture. Does it seem odd or out of place to all of the sudden interject apocalyptic symbols that seem oddly reminiscent of Bladerunner into the liturgy?

A few years ago I wrote a book on apocalyptic thought in movies and on television, The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television, as a response to my students who came to take a course on apocalyptic literature, often after watching variations on the theme in the latest movie to imagine mass destruction, terror and the power of evil. The most recent entry into this crowded genre is 2012, supposedly based on Mayan predictions about the coming end. Yet, if you go to the site, you can actually vote on who you want to lead the post-2012 world. (There’s not a woman amongst the candidates, which might indicate a sexist post-apocalyptic world or a real world in which women have better things to do.) That is, the apocalypse does not bring an end to human history, just disaster, great death and a crumbling civilization and infrastructure.

The post-apocalyptic scenario is common in the movies. Think of The Road Warrior, Mad Max, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Postman, Waterworld; all of these films imagine that the apocalypse will strip from humanity any sense of civilization and reduce us to a primitive state in which the trappings of law, justice, love and religion are shown to be thin veneers covering up our barbarity. But it does not imagine the utter end to humanity - which admittedly would make for a blank screen and not much else to entertain you. Those who are left in the post-apocalyptic world struggle to make sense of life reduced to constant violence and foraging for food and other necessities. It is true that in this context some people struggle to build a common life, but it is in the teeth of unrelenting brutality. Is this what we today imagine civilization is? It is possible and, frankly, there are good reasons for thinking humanity is always on the edge of destruction, especially when we remember Auschwitz, Rwanda, Treblinka, the Killing Fields…unfortunately, I could go on and on.

Yet, it is important to note that biblical apocalypses, Revelation and Daniel specifically, but also the scenarios given us by Jesus and Paul, and those found in other Jewish apocalypses of the Hellenistic period, do not precisely see a "post-apocalyptic" period. They do imagine great destruction, terror, horror and persecution, but they also imagine a time of peace, when tears and suffering are no more. Why do modern (or post-modern) visions no longer grasp this? Do they no longer believe in the possibility of peace? Or is it more that they believe too much in the reality of horror and unrelenting destruction? Is it that a God who loves and cares for humanity is no longer believable? Or has God, as he often does in the movies, gone missing in action? We no longer believe in God, or if we do, he is a God who does not care, who has left us to our own devices. If that is the case, these movies present a hard-bitten realism about humanity and its fate: by the evidence, destruction is all we have to hope for and the evidence seems clear that the civilizational détente we have reached amongst nations and peoples can no longer hold. Mere anarchy has been loosed.

What happened to hope? What happened to God’s love? It is there in the biblical apocalypses and next time I want to talk about ways to read and understand apocalyptic literature in light of our own times.