Welcome to another preview of a conference breakout session. Join us at Mockingbird NYC: Relief, now just three weeks away! April 14-16.

1170481 - This Is The End

We’ve noted before the phenomenon of the surging popularity of apocalyptic film and television (and video-games!), whether it’s zombies, nuclear war, epidemics, or whatever else that causes a breakdown in the fabric of normal society. The appeal certainly springs in part from our highly technological, highly intellectualized culture’s feeling of alienation from the physical, embodied world, where courage and sweat and muscle are the orders of the day. Certainly too they channel fears about threats to our safe, well-ordered world, Cold-War preoccupations revived by the specters of financial instability, regional collapse, or rogue states with the capability to inflict massive destruction.

But another appeal, perhaps, is a strange sort of liberation from our daily cares and preoccupations: when survival is the goal, resumes, professional accomplishments, cocktail-party social acumen, or what college the kids go to is out the window. We’re left with mere personality, subjectivity. When Walker Percy wants to portray an existential crisis, he writes about a successful, well-respected New York lawyer on a golf course at a country club, so the reader knows the problem is not one of circumstance, but a problem of humans. Similarly, though moving in the opposite direction, the apocalyptic writer strips down the problems of circumstance which consume us, strips down everything so that one’s achievements, education, manners, and social status, all mean nothing. Simply the human is left; simply the human must deal and survive.

Something like this is what is meant by the judgment of God, that eschatological event which reveals all our favorite parts about ourselves to mean comparatively little, our achievements and amenities nothing more than “fragments… shored against my ruin” (Eliot). When the ruin comes, the fragments don’t hold: a great number of your accomplishments are close to meaningless, and the same goes even for your morality (in the apocalyptic novel, almost everyone is terrible, because it’s only circumstantial self-interest that used to keep their sin in check). This is perhaps one reason why it’s called the “apocalypse,” which means roughly “unveiling” in its etymology. The veil is lifted on our pretensions, and they turn out to mean almost nothing.

That’s not, primarily, what this breakout is about. Because with the judgment that lifts the veil on who we are, is also the final act of salvation which lifts the veil on who God is: someone not interested in our worldly success, but neither in our worldly failure; not in our mock righteousness, but neither in our painfully real sinfulness. What God is interested in is us, the God who, as Barth said, is always “God for us.” Who are you? I barely know who I am, underneath all the scrabbling for pleasure, achievement, respectability, and so on. Those sources of pride are at every moment waiting to become sources of shame; when you buy into success in X, then the possibility of failure in X starts to haunt you. Maintenance is hell, as Urban Meyer once said. To be known is terrifying, yet it is also a prerequisite to being loved. So the great “unveiling” is a scary thing, but – subsequently – promises to be a freeing one.

We yearn for it, too. So hopefully more than any straight-up theology, we’ll be talking about the Rolling Stones, who implored a girl to “Tell me you’re coming back to me.” It’s a heartwrenching song, and it’s genuinely theological, in places. “What we will be has not yet been made known” (St. Paul), but what we are now is clear: people in as desperate and abject need of someone’s intervening love, and it’s not the theologians, but Mick Jagger, who gets that. Let your hopes and your fears and your need and your guilt run away with you, and then they seem to converge in Revelation, sometime after that puzzling bit about the pregnant woman being hidden in the desert. And despite such good material – and having the jump on the end of the world thing – the Church now seems to lag behind the rest of the culture on eschatological imagination, Left Behind notwithstanding. So we’ll be liberal on sources, and try to get at how, exactly, the end of the world impacts the Christian experience in the here and now. Hope to see y’all there.

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