Kim Mitchell writes in response to my post on Glenn Beck and the end of the world: “I really appreciate what you had to say in this article about needing to have discernment and allowing any conversation or interaction between people be a chance to let God speak to both of us…So, may I ask how you’ve come to the conclusion that Revelations is “not a dime store almanac for future events”? Please do not read any sarcasm or condescension into my question – I really want to know.
I grew up with movies like A Distant Thunder and seminars from traveling “experts” with tribulation maps and have heard these people claim that the New Age movement and Care Bears were all signs of the “end times” – yeah, really, Care Bears. I came away for the movies scared – even though, as it was explained to me, I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be “left behind”. I spent time thinking the Devil might be able to fool me if he was so innocent looking as Care Bears. I have since come to my own conclusion – in a very small nut shell – that I don’t have to waste anytime worrying about when all that stuff is supposed to happen and that my responsibility is to be found loving God with all I am and my neighbor as myself regardless of my position on the time line of this world. And, in regard to what the Revelations are meant to reveal – in an even smaller nut shell – I’ve come to feel all those dream-like metaphors will be understood when they need to be.”
Thanks Kim - I too grew up with 'A Distant Thunder' and its sequel 'A Thief in the Night', in which, if I recall, the antichrist’s minions drive around the Midwest on motorcycles carrying portable guillotines to use on Christian necks; and I well remember a preacher saying he would 'stake [his] faith on it' that Jesus will one day return with traffic chaos and dead people in his wake. We were taught to be suspicious of almost everything - heavy metal, Coca Cola, and, yes, right there with you, Care Bears. This fear of the unknown was simply that: the anxiety of ignorance, mingled with a lack of confidence in our own identity.
There are many reasons for this - and we may get into them some day; but I wouldn't want to minimise the role of the socio-political tensions in the Northern Ireland of my youth as factors contributing to a fear-based experience of religion. As for why I no longer believe that Revelation is 'a dime store almanac'? Three reasons that I can think of just now. There are surely more; and I won’t know all of them – you’d need to ask people who know me what they think.
The first was a gradual shift in my understanding and experience of Scripture. I grew up among lovely, passionate, kind, often wise, beautiful people, most of whom also believed that the Bible gathers words that God literally told ancient Hebrew stenographers to type up. I didn’t know that there were other ways to read Scripture, that there are worlds to discover that you will never enter if you only read the Bible literally. Whatever else it may be, Scripture is poetry. It needs to be read therefore, as poetry; maybe it will become something else in the reading; but if we don’t begin by reading it as a genre of literature we may either write it off as insane, or end up taking the eschatological Kool Aid. This would be a tragedy, because I have a strong feeling that what we are supposed to be doing is to let the light shine in our darkness, realising that the darkness has not overcome it.
The second reason is linked: I realised that so much fear was, ironically enough, doing nothing but making me afraid. It took several years of good friendships, life experiences, a bit of therapy, and falling among people whose spirituality had become, or was becoming, a way of being rather than intellectual assertion. Questions about the existence of God or the meaning of doctrine or, especially, the end of the world just didn’t seem to fall within the category of argument or belief. These people – and you know who they are if you read this blog enough – are making space within themselves for what we still call God, despite the utter inadequacy of that word; they know that what that means is that they are allowing what is already happening in the universe to become realized in them: that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The third reason was encountering writers like Walter Wink and NT Wright who suggest that seeing Revelation as predictive in the way of a weather report reflects a mindset that characterised the medieval period: seeing the world like a three storey department store - hell in the basement, the here and now on the first floor, the afterlife upstairs; Revelation becomes then an ancient guy predicting the future 2000 years ago, and we get to live in the story right now, with the sands of eschatological time frittering away by the second. Wink, Wright, and many others make it far easier to see Revelation as macro-poetry: the world as it is: written to a violently persecuted church, but speaking today, a simple, but profound word: the light shines in the darkness, the darkness has not overcome it, and one day the darkness will disappear. Now, who knows what in practice that would mean? Who knows if my sense of this is correct? Who knows if ‘correct’ is even an appropriate theological category? Well, the anger and zeal of my earlier life was so destructive that I think I don't really mind. Not that anger or zeal are inherently bad - we need them, in healthy proportions. But whether or not I am certain about any of this?
For now, at least, the trick, as Peter O'Toole would say, is not minding. This may sound naïve or self-serving; but that’s not my intention. I’ll say it clearly: it seems to me that one of the marks of mature humanity would be to stop minding most of the things that we use as reasons to feel pissed off, grumpy, unnecessarily angry, or somehow divided against other humans. Every day presents reasons to get knocked off the path. Every day. We are not here to live in fear; and each day has enough opportunity to make us imagine all kinds of horror just waiting to pounce - the terrorising imagination of what Revelation might predict is just a larger, older version of this. I spent too much time being frightened by Revelation; and then probably too much time also trying to argue with people who may be obsessed with it. At this stage, however, I think the trick is not minding.