Time for a quick refresher here…
Apocalyptic is a kind of rhetoric that faith communities deploy at various times and places. Here are some of its basic characteristics: It sees current situations in the life of the community as small events set within the much larger context of a cosmic battle. We’re bit players, but what we do is nevertheless quite important. It’s fundamentally dualistic—the conflict is between the forces of good and evil. There’s no grey area; you’re either with us or against us and it’s your behavior that shows which side you’re on. Things may be bad now (or in the near future) but things are about to get a whole lot worse, usually including world-wide cataclysm. There is good news, though, there is a remnant who will be saved and it’s those who are on the side of good now—who behave correctly now.
Oversimplification, of course, but this is what we see in the book of Revelation, sprinkled throughout Gregory the Great’s homilies, etc.
It’s not a purely ancient phenomenon though, and the faith communities that use it need not be religious. Ideological faith communities deploy it also. Early Communism certainly did with the narrative of the class struggle and the future paradise of the workers. Cold War America did with us against the Evil Empire with the threat of thermonuclear war hanging over it all.
It’s also alive and well today and I catch hints of it in some current discussions of peak oil—like in this broadcast that bls has up.
So, what do we make of this? I’d like to offer two points to keep us on an even keel when dealing with apocalyptic:
- Just because it’s apocalyptic doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Apocalyptic is a form of rhetoric designed to produce results. It uses the concept of future worldwide disaster as a means of increasing urgency and putting day-to-day often very mundane actions as important on a cosmic scale. While the urgency may be misplaced, it doesn’t mean the actions promoted are necessarily out of line.
- Watch the dualism. Apocalyptic tends to derive a lot of its power through the deployment of dualistic categories and this is precisely where its greatest danger lies—in the demonization of those not among the “good” or the “pure”. It’s the “if you’re not part of my solution then you’re part of the problem” mentality.
I’m all for local organic gardening and for folks raising more of their own food. I’m all about teaching my daughters what my parents taught me about gardening, weeding, canning, preserving, etc. There may indeed by a worldwide cataclysm in the coming years based on a lack of cheap oil, but that’s not what fundamentally will drive my behavior. I prefer to root it in something simpler—good stewardship of God’s world.
One of the classic debates over the last half-century in biblical studies is whether apocalyptic comes from prophecy or wisdom circles. I don’t think it matters ultimately, but one takeaway that I see is that wisdom lit often enjoins the same kind of behavior as apocalyptic, just without some of its rhetorical excess. I like to think a more moderate path of living well really is the path of wisdom…