(and why that's not such a bad thing...)
For a long time, dystopian novels, movies, and TV shows have been a minor guilty pleasure for me. I know, the standard tropes of zombie horror, post cataclysmic society and the like are hardly high art. I prefer high drama to high gore, certainly. Much of the zombie genre is unapologetically terrible. And even some post-political holocaust type productions (for example, NBC’s Revolution in 2012-2014) eventually cave in for ratings and get fantastical and sci-fi instead of relying on the real drama of humans finding their core selves through the collapse of cultural cover. That’s the drama that really compels, especially for someone interested in spirituality, interior work, and psychological ideas like confronting the shadow in our selves.
But I like it. Sue me.
Still, I have to admit that our current circumstances are a little too reminiscent of that dystopian genre for my comfort. Empty streets, closed businesses, empty store shelves (less frequent as the panic buying has subsided) are great atmosphere on the set of The Walking Dead, but not so much in my neighborhood.
In the course of my limited trips outdoors over the last weeks I’ve heard more than a few people, looking around at a hauntingly vacant Times Square, commenting, “It looks like the Apocalypse!” Indeed it does. And, with a major disruption like this, it’s almost inevitable that some people will assert that it really is the End of Days. Prophecies get quoted, doom gets said, and sometimes even the most skeptical and level-headed among us may ask, could it be? Is this, in fact, the Apocalypse?
I will avoid any great theological debate or recitation of signs and portents, and I’ll skip directly to the plain and sensible answer: Yes, of course it is. This is it. The Apocalypse.
Okay, to be strictly correct, I should say this is AN Apocalypse, rather than THE Apocalypse. And, to avoid stringing you along the anxiety path for too long, I should also say that what I mean by that has very little to do with fire and brimstone Left Behind scenarios. But then, the Apocalypse has virtually nothing to do with any of that either.
The word apocalypse comes into English as a near direct transliteration of the Greek name for the last book of the Christian Bible: we call it the Revelation. And that’s a very accurate translation of the Greek word, although we’re so accustomed to associating it with the same types of catastrophic imagery that we may well overlook the more ordinary meaning, which is important here: an apocalypse is simply a revealing, an unveiling, an uncovering. It has to do with making something known that has been hidden, with showing something as it really is, with shining light on a reality. And COVID-19 has certainly done that!
People are often surprised to hear that the Revelation is one of my favorite books of the Bible. That's probably because they don't associate me with the typical doomsday approaches to understanding that book. And I'm glad. To really unpack the imagery of the Revelation, we are wise to tap into interpretations and approaches supported not only by modern scholarship, but that have been around in the church well before the rise of doctrines like the “rapture” or “premillennial dispensationalism” (extremely recent ways of viewing the Biblical text). Too many approaches spend their time trying to match every catastrophe in the headlines to a prophetic sign, struggling to break the codes that will reveal the true identity of the Antichrist, and performing the complex calculus of “Biblical numerology” in an attempt to find the true date of the end of the world. Thus far, every such calculation has failed. And so they always will, because that’s not the point.
The point of the Revelation is to shine light on the truth. It has much to say about living as God’s people in a world governed by very ungodly values. It has much to say about hypocrisy and the allure of power (including power wielded in the guise of religion). It speaks to justice and injustice, and to striving for peace. It speaks of the transcendent power of worship to set our eyes right. And, it sings repeatedly of the passionate, healing love of God. It reminds us of the Christ who comes again, not just sometime out there in the future, but right now, restoring and making God’s people whole. And these are themes that resonate in every time and place of human history. That’s why so many generations of Christians have been certain that they were living in the end times, that they were witnessing the Apocalypse. And they were.
This is not, of course, the first ever apocalypse. It’s not even the first of our lifetime, though it may well be the most dramatic in scope. God’s apocalypse, God’s revealing, isn’t a one time event. God is being revealed all around us, all the time. The apocalypse is simply an invitation to open our eyes.
To be clear, I am not asserting that God sent the novel Coronavirus to get our attention or teach us a lesson. And I’ll leave the debates about God’s sovereignty and human suffering to others: I no longer find that debate useful or amusing. Life’s circumstances are here. Period. Some are trivial and some are tragic. The COVID-19 crisis, with all its suffering, death, and disruption, is not in any sense good. The question at hand is whether we will be alert enough to see what is being revealed, and to learn from it.
C-19 is revealing much, on a broad scale and on very individual ones. It has revealed, once again, stark inequities in our social order, as our poor and minorities suffer disproportionately from its various affects. It has revealed limits and shortcomings in our healthcare system, especially with regard to equal access to healthcare. It has revealed nature’s amazing resilience as the earth rebounds with enthusiasm during this break from our endless polluting and encroaching.
It has revealed the best and worst in us. We see the best in all those stepping up to help, from healthcare personnel and essential workers risking their health (many for minimal pay) to quieter expressions like getting groceries for a neighbor or simply staying home to help “flatten the curve.” We see the worst in those seeking to take advantage of fear for personal gain, in political gamesmanship from all sides, in mistrust and misinformation, and in virulent and heavily-armed hatred posing as a stand for personal freedom.
And we see much being revealed in ourselves: our patience or lack thereof, our anxieties and fears, our ability to be alone with ourselves and with God. We are facing uncertainties in our finances, our health, our relationships, all too aware of the fragility of it all, and yet noting our own resilience. We see both our impulses for self-preservation and for selflessness, and realize that both have a place in our life. We take note of people and things we miss most, and of things we thought we couldn’t live without, but can. We find what we look like (literally and figuratively) when there’s no one around to impress.
You could add many many more examples where light has shown on us, individually and globally. You’ve seen it too. Apocalypses are good that way.
After all this revealing, if we are really very wise, we may even find that (with apologies to R.E.M.) it’s the end of the world as we know it. Because if we’re very wise, we’ll remember what has been revealed, and we’ll never be satisfied to go back merely to the “normal” we once knew. We will envision a new way forward, having learned just a bit more about how to take care of ourselves, and others, and the world in which we live. We will go forward seeing God more clearly and trusting God more fully because of where we have walked together. We will keep the light shining on Jesus and his way of pure love, seeking to unite, not divide. We will have a brand new world, unlike any we’ve known before.
Much has been revealed. Much remains to be revealed. So yes, friends, this is the Apocalypse. And I feel fine.