It’s not like we weren’t warned. The weatherman said maybe rain, maybe not, and some friends of ours were having a small party on their rooftop deck. They had just moved to the Upper West Side and invited us along with a few others — a couple from St. Louis, a single guy from Texas, a young lady from upstate New York, and two newlyweds from Atlanta. The building was just four stories tall, so our view was sort of curious and attractive: graffiti-stained underbellies of rusting water towers and the tarpapered lesser roofs just below, littered with beer cans and stray plastic wrappings, weirdly bare and lonely like lunar square footage from the dark side. Thus far it was a warm spring Saturday with one gray cloud in the sky — ideal conditions for a housewarming. And, surrounded by cracked brick and steel and glass and the horizon cut jagged by skyline, the ideal place, it seemed to us, for an “End of the World Barbecue.” The date was May 21, and Harold Camping had all of America by the collar: I swear to you this time it’s coming. The End is Finally Here.
Odds are you’ve heard of Camping. He promised an apocalypse on May 21, 2011, almost one year ago, even paid for ads in the subways, and before too long he became a predictably tired punch line. Camping made the nightly news, but not for the same reason he may have last century, just a decade or so prior. Pre-new millennium, if not ignored, apocalyptic prophecy was usually soberly acknowledged. Millennial fever was at an all-time pitch, relatively speaking, albeit slightly tempered by newer and secular techno-fears. Y2K was all the rage and the clocks of the world would stop come midnight, 2000 C.E. Of course nothing happened at all.
And then came September 11, just one year later.
For some, that televised imagery alone was revelation: this is pure American Death, and redemption and deliverance absolutely must lie beyond it. For others — and I know some of them — the planes were belated proof: the End of Days is now. But for most, that great fall was something like a last apocalyptic straw. A terrible collective sigh went out and up with all that shockwave and ash. Death is coming, yes, but at our own hands. A cosmic version of the NRA bumper sticker: Gods don’t kill people, people kill people. That great mutable wish-vision “The American Dream” certainly did not die, but death sure cast a darker shadow on it dreamers.
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Regardless how debatable the religiosity of our founders might be, America, like the fallen angel, the apostate, or the much less invested agnostic and atheist, was made in direct response to God, or at least the idea of one. Specifically a Christian God that promises apocalyptic judgment. From its very beginnings, America has been consumed with religious apocalypse.
In early 1662, New England clergyman Michael Wigglesworth penned what most likely became our first national bestseller, “The Day of Doom,” a very long poem gratuitously describing a vengeful God and those “Who no Peace-maker, no Undertaker, / to shrow’d them from Gods ire, / Ever obtain’d; they must be pained / with everlasting fire.” Countless memorized the nearly two thousand lines like catechism. “The Day of Doom” is pious and powerful, as informed by medieval imagery as it is by Revelation, and it is violent as hell. A real blockbuster, it stayed number one on the charts for over a hundred years. Columbus himself was obsessed with Revelation, notes Jonathan Kirsch in his entertaining compendium “The History of the End of the World,” and “between his second and third sailing to America, Columbus compiled his own collection of apocalyptic and prophetic passages from the Bible…a work that he titled The Book of Prophecies.” Kirsch goes on:
‘God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John,’ affirms Columbus, ‘and he showed me the spot where to find it.’
The “spot” Columbus refers to is of course America. It seems the New World had the End of the World wrapped in its DNA from the very beginning.
And the American imagination was quick to repurpose apocalypse: The Puritans and their glory days of doom; William Miller’s “ancient Jewish reckoning” and ensuing Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844 (when, despite his fiery promise, the world just kept on turning). With every modern iteration there has been and will be of Harold Camping, Americans have cannily turned the oncoming End of the World into gospel, bad news into oddly welcome news. In fact, apocalyptic Christianity and a yearning for pandemic closure, coupled with a personal God (one who actually knows your name), is not only one of our most influential exports, it remains a profoundly singular American invention.
Outsiders often describe apocalyptic religions as vengeance-based communities. Because they define themselves as inherently other, such groups imagine a future “raising up to their rightful place.” In The American Religion, one of his best and more original books, Harold Bloom asserts that apocalyptic religions are “childish” and especially dangerous with regard to their “lurid and cruel” fantasies of divine retribution. They remind him “of why very small children cannot be left alone with wounded and suffering household pets.” Ouch.
There may be something to this, however, even something inherently, dare I say, American. After all, we don’t like getting pushed around, or left out, or told what to do. That’s why we revolted in the first place. Americans like to think they’re special, that they are right. They want to be and will be better, and one day everyone will know it. This might come off as a little ugly or cocksure or entitled or stink a bit of the fascistic, but, depending on your definition of “better,” it can also be read as entirely optimistic, lovely, humane, and downright constitutional.
Please recall: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” (the italics are mine). America is about betterment, about bettering what it means to be human. America is process, horizon, the temporal frontier, a dream. We are all about getting there. Kennedy and Reagan were wrong: we are not that “city on a hill,” hijacked from the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, we are forever climbing, ever-forming a more perfect place for people to spend their days. Which, come to think of it, sounds not just particularly Christian, but plain apocalyptic. Because on the other side of Armageddon waits only one thing: perfection. The crucial difference, though, between the American pursuit and the pursuit of American Christianity is that Christianity wants to End; it wants The End. It wants to one day no longer be human, whereas Americans are only human. The day that “perfection” is claimed on the floor of Congress I may just run for the hills.
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With so much attention paid to the fire and brimstone of it all, to the “Hollywood ending” of apocalypse, we often forget what the great hubbub in Revelation is about: perfection. What comes after The End has such considerably less cinematic potential that we tend to gloss over it: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says the more dramatic parts, the fight scenes and bloody messes, which make up the majority of Revelation have “every element that Michael Bay could want.” The occasion for the observation is a review of Elaine Pagels’ latest, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. I cannot recommend the book enough, even if her particular take on what happens after all the action is a bit rosy. Even Gopnik takes her to task: “‘This worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world’… Well, yeah, but this happens only after millions of heretics, past and present, have been burned alive and destroyed.” Perfection, after all, is inhuman, and perfecting can be utterly inhumane. Who among us are the unclean? Who requires cleansing, removal?
Countless generations of apocalyptic Christians, however, have found a stark black-and-white answer rather easily in Revelation. In a colossal misreading, they have labeled “the Jews” unclean, a “synagogue of Satan.” You can almost hear a threatening film score cue the subsequent millennia of prejudice. But Pagels points out that the scripture clearly says the enemy is those “who say they are Jews, but are not” (Rev. 2:9 and 3:9). In an ironic and convincing reading, Pagels clarifies that the enemy in Revelation, “the synagogue of Satan,” is actually referring to the “Christians” of its day. (The word was not in use at the time – Christianity was simply a new form of Judaism.) She wisely reminds us that Revelation is a Jewish document written by a Greek-speaking Jew about Jewish life under the increasingly threatening influence of Roman culture and “Christians,” who were sort of the Mormons of their time. It seems a lot of evil behavior over the last few centuries, the worst of which committed in our twentieth, may have been avoided if someone had just been a tad more careful with syntax.
Wigglesworth, on the other hand, casts a much wider net in his poem: “They put away the evil day, / And drown’d their care and fears.” Seems simple – just get rid of evil. For without evil there is no need for apocalypse. Apocalypse unveils a divine process of restoration to a state of human perfection, returning us to where we were before “Original Sin.” The pertinent question then is how do Americans define evil? The Campings of this world—and there are more of them than you would like to think—would answer as variously as they would quickly: Islam, Iran, Jon Stewart, Barack Obama, Planned Parenthood, etcetera. Take your pick.
As for the rest of us, evil has historically had several faces in American literature, but the Devil has been a long time favorite. Which makes sense, since Revelation casts Satan as the first cause of our every trouble, and it’s not until he’s bound in chains, imprisoned, and eventually destroyed that everything will be okay. But as attracted as Americans are to the Horned One as the ultimate scapegoat we still tend to complicate his persona. We problematize.
Consider our American Faust: published in 1824, Washington Irving’s story, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” which at first reading appears to be a moralizing tale about money lending. Tom Walker sells his soul to the Devil (here called “Old Scratch”) and makes bank. Then one day he realizes this may not have been such a good bargain after all. Yawn. But wait: Irving’s Devil is more complicated than that. This Devil is and is not both “negro” and “Indian,” and dwells among the forest remains of “one of the strong holds of the Indians during their wars with the first colonists.” There he “now and then roasted a white man in sweet smelling sacrifice,” an oddly specific echo of Yahweh in Genesis. And this in a time “of paper credit,” when
the country had been deluged with government bills; the famous Land Bank had been established; there had been a rage for speculating; the people had run mad with schemes for new settlements; for building cities in the wilderness; land jobbers went about with maps of grants, and townships, and Eldorados, lying nobody knew where, but which everybody was ready to purchase…and everybody was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing.
Even two centuries later, this eerily relevant passage reminds us that we are often our own worst devils. Evil is a house of mirrors, and the Devil perhaps nothing more than the imagined embodiment of our every devilish inclination.
In his powerful and disturbing study What Evil Means to Us, political philosopher C. Fred Alford explains: “The root of evil is the experience of uncontained, undifferentiated dread. We are evil when, instead of knowing our dread, we become it, trying to inflict it on others as though it were a thing.” Dread of what exactly? “We dread what it is to be human.” And to be human, of course, is to die.
To regard evil as action, as a mode of behavior, a thing you do rather than a thing-in-itself, is fairly commonplace now. And yet this still does not stop us from wanting to personify the thing, to see its pitchfork and tail, and, for all too many Americans, await its final eradication by way of religious apocalypse. I’m thinking now of what might be called the American Trilogy of Evil: The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist. Rather than their scare factor or the quality of their prose (which is considerable), the genius in these three works lies in their domestication of evil. Not only does Stephen King’s The Shining focus on an evil house, but an evil hotel – a house of leisure where you aren’t even safe on vacation. Ira Levin’s gleefully creepy Rosemary’s Baby fixates on familial evil, where you cannot trust your friends or even your spouse. And William Peter Blatty’s quite terrifying The Exorcist centers on the evil in a twelve-year-old little girl. I should point out that, famously, King did not appreciate Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining, partly because Kubrick changed King’s decidedly more apocalyptic and American ending: the hotel explodes, turned “to emptiness, notness, crumbling.” The 20th century American imagination most popularly envisions evil as familial, inhabiting the home, family, and child. I would argue this by far is a most frightening vision, for if evil is indeed “within us,” there are but two possible scenarios: that of the “evildoing” sibling, spouse, or child (and if this is the case, you have my sympathies), or, I’m afraid, it’s you.
In the case of The Exorcist, and Rosemary’s Baby, the “you” is relatively restored: twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil turns out just fine, in fact, she can’t remember a thing; and Rosemary Woodhouse pokes the tip of her baby’s nose on the very last page, and says, “Can you smile for Mommy?” In The Shining, however, and its blatantly apocalyptic vision of evil, the “you” never stands a chance. In the novel, Jack is blown up to smithereens. And in the film, he freezes to death, one could imagine from that same cold demonic wind that blows through Regans’ room during her possession. Either way, imagination makes easy way for gore and violence. But what of literal apocalypse? And of the bloodbath it promises, flowing in the streets like a red river? And what of those dreamers who actually eagerly await such a thing?
* * * *
Evil is but one of two core elements in apocalypse (for without evil there is no need for apocalypse); the second is dream. In fact, by definition, the apocalyptic text must be a dream-text, one that presents the dream plainly to a reader, and reports the transcendent experience. A dream frame allows for the necessary “spatial and temporal dualism,” so the dreamer can tell what he saw. In his work The New Testament in its Literary Environment, David Aune further explains that “the author himself flashes back and forth in time and place, sometimes finding himself in heaven and sometimes on earth, sometimes here in the now and sometimes in the end-times.” While studies on Revelation, including Pagels’, always consider its dream aspects, I have yet to see a discussion of Revelation’s unique place in the genre. That is to say: unlike all other apocalypses (and there are hundreds) the author of Revelation constructs a dream-text while rarely making explicit reference to the dream. The style allows readers to participate in a sort of “fever-dream” experience while reading the book as a “reality.”
One quick example: The Book of Enoch, considered by most scholars to be the first apocalypse – the seed from which all others, including Revelation, grew – is plainly presented as dream. “Behold,” Enoch says, “in the vision, clouds invited me and a mist summoned me…and the winds in the vision caused me to fly and lifted me upward, and bore me to heaven” (14:8,9). Compare this image with its counterpart in Revelation: “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice…said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven.” (4:1,2). The difference is subtle, but telling and representative of the book’s whole style. John makes no mention of his dream – while Enoch flies, John is suddenly “there in heaven.” John’s dream is more showing than telling, a performance of dreaming, and two millennia later, that dream is still alive and well in America.
At our “End of the World Barbecue” on that roof in the Upper West Side, we drank beer, ate hamburgers, and marveled at our host’s wireless and bass-heavy i-Pod speaker, how it fit in the palm of his hand, and how only ten years ago we could not even have imagined what inventions awaited us in the very close future. And then the sky quickly got Golgotha-dark . A slate gray cloud came rolling in, thunder clapped like great metal bells, and the curtain of the dark sky rent in two before pouring down on all of us.
I can only imagine what Camping or his followers were thinking as they fantasized about a great rain of fire, of inclusion in Camping’s “200 million saved.”
Or what the nearly one hundred million American evangelicals were thinking. Likely some version of maybe not now, but soon, for sure…
Or what the nearly eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses were thinking, or the nineteen million who attend their annual observance of Christ’s death and resurrection, or the 42 million readers they have, in 192 languages, of The Watchtower, printed in New York. I recently happened onto a February 1, 2012 issue, entitled “Armageddon, What is It, When Will it Come?” The cover is emblazoned with a hellish explosion and a fiery mushroom cloud, looking more like some relic from Cold War America than any kind of reporting from the frontiers of modern day religion. On the first page, beside a highly realistic picture of what appears to be a typical American city bombarded by exploding missiles and lightning, was this: “The truth about Armageddon can free you from needless fear, brighten your outlook on the future, and influence the way you think about God.”
* * * *
That weekend, when the rain came down, we gathered under a picnic umbrella and made jokes about how the party was over and how it looked like we were going down with the ship. Yet I could not help but wonder who among us had neighbors, or friends, or siblings, or parents, who looked up and happily saw some heavenly portent. I certainly have such people in my life. And if they have it their way, the day will come, and this world will die, saving only them and other chosen. Apocalypse allows us to imagine a prosperous future in a failing world, and that can be healthy. But far too many Americans have abandoned imagination and metaphor for the stony, immovable comfort of literalism, refusing to consider what it actually means when they read these words:
And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. (Rev. 9:4-6)
To do battle with evil is more than American; it’s human. But apocalypse, as many Americans see it and continue to share as gospel, is a profoundly un-American dream. If evil is the inability to know your own dread, to own your humanity and thus accept mortality, to inflict that dread upon others, then apocalypse, as millions of Christians now see it, is just plain evil. I cannot speak for you, but come Armageddon, if there will be such a thing, I will certainly not be among the saved. And I’m fine with that. Unfortunately, so are millions of Americans, our good neighbors, friends, siblings, children, and parents, eagerly awaiting The End. I wonder if they’ve given any real thought to what that means.