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Apocalypse? We’ve All Been There} ?> Maybe it’s the recent American election, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. This is not the first time in my life that my thoughts have been preoccupied with this. I recall when I was young, maybe 12 or 13, hearing about some preacher in the US who had proclaimed that the world was going to end. I remember my father, who was travelling on that appointed day, telling me, “I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not, but if Jesus comes know I love you.”
This incident only occasionally comes up in therapy.
As someone who grew up at the tail end of the Hal Lindsay, Thief in the Night brand of evangelicalism, I certainly remember an apocalyptic tone to some of the sermons I heard, but that was the only time I can recall, as an impressionable teenager, wondering, “is this it? Is the world as I know it going to end?”
Since then, various prophecies about the coming apocalypse have come and gone. Some people were sure it was going to happen in 2000 and stockpiled food and supplies. More recently, California-based minister Harold Camping predicted the world would end in 2011 (first in May, then revised to October). I have also learned about the long eschatological tradition within Christianity—starting from the early Apostles, to the end-of-the-world cults pre-1000, to the Seventh-Day Adventists—that certain groups of Christians have been wholly preoccupied with figuring out the details.
Knowing something of this long tradition of apocalyptic thought in Christianity has not made me feel less uneasy when these “prophetic” messages make the news. In fact, it’s usually embarrassing. Some group of Christians makes a big noise about the end of the world and then, when it falls flat (which it always does), the rest of us try like crazy to distance ourselves from such wild speculations.
More recently my attitude about end-times has been shaped in no small part by Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that consciously (and frequently) engages the apocalypse as a plot device. With Whedon’s characteristic wit and acumen, the apocalypse is treated as both very serious and not-all-that serious. Each season has its apocalyptic battle, usually with plenty of post-modern self-awareness—sure, this is a big deal, but it’s something we’ve faced before. This ironic distancing doesn’t completely undermine the potential danger. Characters are put in mortal jeopardy, some even lose their lives (I’m still mourning the loss of Anya). The cost is, narratively speaking, very real.
It’s this fine balance—between taking the end of the world seriously and not-so seriously—that has helped me to better appreciate the apocalypse, something that is treated in the Bible as serious but not the sort of thing we should spend all our time worried about. In Matthew 24, Jesus implores us to keep watch, but only after taking great pains to remind us that no one—and he means no one—knows when it’s going to happen.
Will the end of the world be some literal manifestation of the Book of Revelation? Will it play out like Left Behind? I don’t know. I’d like to say I don’t care, but that’s not completely true. I do care, but not more than living into the world here and now.
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