On Apocalyptic Rhetoric

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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…

10 thoughts on “On Apocalyptic Rhetoric

  1. bls

    I don’t think “worldwide cataclysm” is what’s being discussed here, though. I think what’s being discussed is “serious pain during a period of adjustment.”

    If you’re interested, check the graphs on this page that plot the rise of the oil economy against world population. These are what convinced me that this is, in fact, a serious problem.

    Listen, I’m not a “doomer.” I laughed off the so-called “Millennium bug,” but this one is different. Kuntsler, I grant you, doesn’t take into account that we will, in fact, move to new technologies.

    The point is, though, that we are already behind the curve in doing that; new stuff takes time. I think there will be major problems with food, especially in the poorer parts of the world. It’s already happening, in fact. Fr. Nick wrote about the fertilizers problem at his blog.

    If by dualism you mean the references to air travel, etc., and it becoming an “elite” activity only: well, cheap oil really WAS the thing that elevated standards of living in the 20th Century. We may find some new sources of power to replace it, but it won’t happen tomorrow.

    And again, the poor really will suffer. There are almost 7 billion people in the world, as against 1.5 billion at the start of the 20th C. They’ve been fed via the “green revolution” – which depends in large part on oil.

  2. bls

    (Anyway, I guess the point is that I’m so sick of talking about what seem to be irrelevancies to me at this point. This is a big problem that’s going to get worse, and I wish the Anglican world in particular would put down the culture war for about 5 minutes so we could start thinking about how to begin working it out. You don’t hear even a mention of any of this in the Presidential campaign, either.

    Me, I’m already having trouble keeping up with expenses – and heating the house in the winter is starting to look very scary.)

  3. Christopher

    Of course, if one is on the wrong side, no good news attends. And often, when one side is deploying the apocolyptic, so is another back at them.

    Ironically, “apocolyptic excess” (nice phrase) in dualistic fashion is precisely part of the theological problem that has led many Christians to think of Creation as something to be used up. We so easily slip into fighting flesh and blood rather than taking notice of the spirits which take hold of us and lead us that direction in the first place. The end results can be disastrous.

    Fighting apocolyptic excess with apocolyptic excess may be like driving out one only to have a legion return. The danger of this excess to my mind is that once the world is neatly split into pure and impure, good and evil, us and them, we can more easily justify actions that are not Christlike or virtuous as really Christlike and virtuous. As you note ideologies of all stripes, not merely religions, and it could be argued that part of the history of the 20th century is that of apocolyptic movements, not simply in sects and cults, but on the large scale of politics and nations. Indeed, we can find this excess on both sides of the political spectrum.

    I think what truly characterizes both the prophetic and the sapiential, if they are true, is not their harangue, or gloom and doom, or should nots and shoulds, but Good News.

    Apocolyptic excess is fun, but having grown up with a lot of it and still trying to rid myself of its blinders, I also know that when I fall into this way of thinking, I have found if I sit with it, that it tends to be based in fear often linked to a deepdown but consciously unacknowledged recognition of vulnerability and dependence. Fear is not evil or bad per se, and indeed, can warn us, like anger, that something is wrong. I tend to take the view that the passions have a redeemable possibility. But left to itself fear has a tendency to shut down our creative engagement with what indeed may be a real even threatening or crisis situation. But recognizing our vulnerability and dependence as roots of this fear can also lead us to recognize our need for God, for faith.

    By redirecting our concerns away from apocolyptic interpretation of these events (and yes, these concerns can be quite real, and I think matters of Peak Oil and Climate Change are real) and toward theologically sound engagement about Creation and actions that flow from that engagement such as permaculture, microeconomies, localism, etc. we can provide one Christian response rooted in calm faith.

    I think the difference I perceive in the apocolyptic versus sapiential is that the former tends to be about what I/we are against while the latter tends to be about what I/we are for. Both may speak in metaphors and great imagery. This is why I think a sound doctrine of Original Sin is not rooted in the apocolyptic or even the pessimistic, but rather tends toward a healing of dualisms that pit flesh against flesh and leads us to a sense of humility and humor with regard to others and to ourselves.

    Theologically, when I think about our Lord on the Cross and that the whole world went dark (drawing on all of the OT prophecies on the End of Days), I might consider if that was the once-for-all apocolyptic moment. The Resurrection tends to signal that though even the end of the world has come (through whatever means, including old age and the death of the sun), God will not let us down or let us go. And it is out of beholding and being held within the matrix of this new world, this new Creation, revealed in the Resurrection that we Christians are to live our lives in response to challenges. Note that even the words we use for situations, be it “crisis” or “challenge” affects how we will think about the situation.

    James Alison has suggested that the Resurrection signals the end of an apocolyptic mindset, which is similar to the mindset Jesus counters in the disciples when considering the fall of the tower of Siloam.

  4. bls

    I’m really not clear where anybody is finding “apocalyptic” in that video, I’m afraid, or “good people” vs. “bad people” dualism.

    I just don’t see it. Who is the “remnant” you refer to? Kuntsler, for all his possible faults, doesn’t split people into “good” and “bad” categories; he merely gives his opinion about what he thinks might happen.

    Many people agree with him, too, about some of these things.

  5. John-Julian, OJN

    I am remembering someone who said that the difference between apocalyptic and prophetic is that the apocalyptic says, “The world is ending!” while the prophetic says, “The world is ending….unless….”

    And I think this suggests that the apocalyptic is not (as Derek suggests) hopeful – since there is “nothing that can be done about it” – indeed, one can ask further question: “If I change behavior because the end is coming, how is that anything more than the old-line evangelical stock in trade: virtue-out-of-fear — be good or you’ll be damned –“repent for the world is ending!” Not really the finest motive for virtuous living.

    And there is a peculiar link between apocalyticism (is that a word?) and “salvationism” (is that a word?) Only this week I heard from a fundamentalist friend who wrote, “I am not opposed to gay marriage because I hate gays, but because I love them — and therefore I don’t want them all damned to hell — as they will be if they proceed with this.” (That’s part of Derek’s “dualism” to be sure — but, real dualism sets up dark/evil as an EQUAL contestant with light/good, whereas (as Christopher points out) that’s entirely false. The evil has been vanquished, and even when we stare it in the face (as we do now in this crumbling culture of ours) there need be no dread.

    I mean “the world is ending” ought, for a Christian to be “What we call ‘the world’ has already ended, and we have nothing to fear in the Kingdom.”

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    bls, No, I agree this is a serious issue. And of course rhetoric is going to be used—that’s how we convince people of things—I’m just pointing out a use of a particular kind of rhetoric.

    The dualism that I tend to see in the green movement (though not necessarily in the video you posted) is one between Big Oil or Big Corporations and the Eco-friendly Enlightened. The type and degree vary with the speaker up to an including those who believe that if you’re not wearing organic hemp undergarments you’re one of Them. Yes, that’s a caricature…

    In any case, yes, it is a serious issue but, as Christopher notes, using scare-mongering techniques often results in receiving back rather than reasoned consideration. I’m more for the reasoned consideration.

  7. bls

    Oh, well I totally agree with you about the green movement; I don’t think they get it at all, either. I don’t think they will be a big factor, though.

    Yes, we don’t want scare people; or, rather, we don’t want to scare them much. But I think a little bit of scariness might not be such a bad idea. It seems nobody at all is paying any attention, and we’re going to need to do that pretty soon.

  8. Christopher


    I too consider these serious issues, having posted a bit on this earlier in the year and challenging certain forms of theology that lead us to Creation-despisal. We really need to be addressing this in terms of what we can do. Encouraging localism, small farming, new technologies, simpler lifestyles. Laying out the concerns and laying out what we can each do calmly, articulately will get us further in the long run.

    I think part of apocalypticism among Peak Oilers and Greens tend to list out all the facts and worst case scenarios and then offers huge solutions about which we as persons can do little. It paralyzes, draws on our fears and leaves us there. Having grown up in apocolyptic Christianity, it feels too familiar.

    The dualism Derek mentions in his comments is high here in the Bay Area with those nasty evil Oil Corporations versus the good enlightened Eco-people. Of course, they still drive their Priuses to work, cannot completely avoid plastics, etc. It’s too easy. It feels too much like 60s leftyism with a new cause, apologies to Fr. John-Julian in advance. And it turns off potential allies on the more right side of the aisle.

    We don’t have hemp underwear, but we do have organic bamboo sheets. :) Do I feel righteous about that, no, but they’re wonderfully cool like cotton.

    I’m personally beginning to think I’m more part of the Blue Movement.

    I’m again thankful that being more hotheaded, we have someone like Derek who calls us back to reasonable consideration Benedictine-style.

  9. bls

    Well, I think we can do something. We can make sure that people have enough to eat, who don’t, for instance.

    If we are not as badly affected, we can help others who are badly affected. But we have to be attentive to this, and keep our eyes open – which we really don’t do very well.

    We can think of new ways to give this kind of help, and new ways to do other things, too. There are many things individuals can do; most good new ideas come from individuals anyway, not from the government or from other groups or organizations.

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