Are We Living in Apocalyptic Times?
One more reminder: I’ll be inaugurating a new lecture series this coming Saturday, October 10, for Desert Garden UCC Church in Sun City Arizona. The title on my Saturday lecture is “How To Live When Things Fall Apart.” The event is free. You can register to participate via zoom by going to the church’s website, scroll down on the homepage. My presentation will run from about 10: 15 to 11:00. The event starts at 10 with welcome, music and introductions. After the talk there’s a break and then a Q. and A. time. Clergy who register and participate are eligible for two CEU credits. Also clergy will get a running start on Advent as I talk about the synoptic apocalypse(s). The rest of this blog is a kind of sneak preview of the lecture.
Perhaps you too have noticed that we are hearing the word “apocalyptic” or “apocalypse” much more often than we used to?
It seems to be a way of saying “things are terrible.” Or “things are way out of control here! Yikes!” A related way of talking or writing lately is to describe events as “biblical.” Just today the sub-head on NYT columnist, Maureen Dowd’s column was, “In a moment that feels biblical, the implacable virus has come to the president’s door.” People speak of storms or disasters as being of “biblical” proportion. Words like “Apocalypse,” hitherto reserved for use by either religious scholars or the lunatic fringe are creeping into the mainstream.
The word “apocalyptic” means “disclosure” or “revelation,” which doesn’t tell us all that much, does it? The idea is that some veil is being torn off. Hidden things are now revealed. In the Bible, apocalyptic literature generally intends to tell us, by looking behind or beyond appearances, what is really going on. Mostly it comes from times of upheaval and is written to and for people who are suffering, who are on history’s underside.
In the Old Testament, Daniel is considered an apocalyptic book, as are parts of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. In the New Testament, each of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, has a chapter that is often termed a “little apocalypse.” (Can any apocalypse be little?) The surpassing example is, however, the final book of the Bible, The Revelation of John. (Note: to those who wish to display their biblical savvy: it is not “Revelations” plural but “Revelation” singular. Although “Revelations” perhaps sounds more ominous or dramatic, it is incorrect).
In common and contemporary usage “apocalyptic” and “apocalypse” seem to mean something like “oh shit, everything’s going to hell,” and “the end is at hand, run for your life.” Trigger scenes of tidal waves, raging fires and buildings collapsing (which isn’t hard to do, we have plenty). By and large, this seems designed to both magnify fear and anxiety and also to confirm it as the most appropriate way to be responding to whatever the hell is going on. Be afraid, be very afraid. In this material, one of Jesus’ recurrent warnings is “beware of false prophets” and phony messiahs who will, in times of upheaval, play upon and harness people’s fears for political and financial gain.
When you look at actual apocalyptic texts of the Bible, as I will be doing in the aforementioned talk, they actually have a quite different message and purpose. It is not a message of fear and anxiety. Rather the message is one of hope. These passages intend, while looking clearly at hard and scary stuff, to inspire hope and confidence. There are no date-certain predications of the end, only cautions like, “Of that day and hour, no one knows.” Rather than setting off alarm bells, the purpose of Jesus’ teaching is help people be less alarmed, and to experience what might be called a certain Christian calm and confidence amid trying times.
So the increasingly common use of terms like “apocalyptic” and “apocalypse” is at best partly correct. It does fit times of upheaval, suffering and outbreaks of evil. But the message at least in the Bible is not “be afraid,” but rather what Scripture says countless times, “Be not afraid.”