Well, that’s a relief. After years of fanning the flames of religious doomsday fears, television preacher John Hagee, long one of the most prominent banner carriers for fundamentalist Protestant bluster and bombast, has decided to enter the apocalypse sweepstakes for real by giving a specific timetable for — well, something non-specific. But he says it will be “a world-shaking event,” and he says it will happen between now and October 2015.
Hagee is not, of course, alone in this. The blood moon phenomenon has set off an apocalyptic debate among many Christians. And suddenly I’m gripped by memories of myself, at age 17, watching the apocalyptic religious horror flick The Seventh Sign and finding it so cool as a Jewish kid sits translating a famous end-times passage from the biblical Book of Joel — specifically, Joel 2:31, which states that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the LORD” — when he looks out his window and sees the large full moon suddenly overtaken by a wave of crimson that turns it a deep bloody color. Demi Moore, what have you wrought?
But all joking aside, I think it’s important to recognize that the type of apocalyptic religious theorizing advanced by Hagee pointedly ignores certain aspects of the very sacred text that he and his ilk claim to take as absolute, infallible, and unchangeable holy writ. Consider, for example, the fact that the biblical/canonical Jesus’s right-hand man, the apostle Peter, states explicitly in Acts 2 that the Joel prophecy, including the part about the moon turning to blood, is already fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at the Day of Pentecost. Obviously, such a claim represents a distinctly different understanding and interpretation of apocalyptic matters than the model of a literal timetable advanced by the Hagees of the world. Likewise for Jesus’s statement in Luke 17:20-21, where he directly tells the pharisees, who have asked when the kingdom will arrive, that it is not the type of thing that will come by looking for external signs, because God’s kingdom is already within or among them. Call me naive, but I doubt we’ll hear Pastor Hagee addressing the clash between his claims and this subtler view as he continues to spout and tout his literalistic apocalyptic views over the next 18 months.
“The Flood” by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1634/35)
Via Art and the Bible, Fair Use
I recently saw the Noah movie, and I’m pleased to report that I really liked it. The angle taken by writer-director Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel struck me as deeply engrossing and just right for our collective cultural moment. I was pretty well swept away by their deliberate re-visioning of the basic Bible story as an epic tale of antediluvian human civilization and planetary apocalypse, all revolving around the deep mystery of “the Creator” (the only term used throughout the film to refer to the deity) and His inscrutable nature and terrifying intentions for a world that has been thoroughly corrupted and perverted from its original purpose by humans.
One of the more fascinating changes was Aronofsky’s and Handel’s decision to incorporate an explicitly shamanic theme into the story, largely centered on the person of Methuselah. In the Bible, the Genesis genealogy does present Methuselah as Noah’s grandfather, but he is nowhere mentioned in the flood story itself. The film, by contrast, makes him an important supporting character, and it portrays him as a wise and mysterious old shaman-like figure who gives Noah a psychoactive brew to help him gain a clear vision of what the Creator has been calling him to do in a series of horrifying apocalyptic dreams. As described by Drew McWeeny of HitFix, upon drinking the brew
Noah is propelled into a vision of the Garden and the snake and Adam and Eve’s fall and Cain and Abel’s violence, and he sees the flood, and he sees the Ark, and he knows, with one complete revelation, what he is supposed to do. Methuselah isn’t remotely surprised. He knew that this particular brew would give Noah a direct pipeline to the voice of God, and Aronofsky uses a very real-world visual vocabulary to show a direct communion with the supernatural.
It’s a fascinating way to imagine what a prehistoric, pre-flood religion or spirituality in the general context of this particular tale and tradition might have looked like. It also strikes me as true in spirit to the history and probable prehistory of real-world religion. In the world of the Noah film, religion is experiential, not propositional or intellectual, and it involves a direct sense of communication with the invisible deity, along with an agonized struggle to interpret and understand the meanings of dreams and visions with the help of wise old mediator figures and psychoactive substances.
Methuselah is played by Anthony Hopkins, who does a marvelous job in the role. He also does a marvelous job in a recent interview with McWeeny for HitFix, where in addition to discussing the filmmakers’ decision to include Methuselah in the story he discusses the shamanic matters under question and the explicitly philosophical side of the screenplay as he compares its portrayal of Methuselah to the real-world philosophical figures of Socrates, Plato, and Diogenes. Then he ends with a brief comment on the way Aronofsky managed to create a film that presents “a landscape of . . . darkness and horror,” where the main character is “in tune with some inner signal” as “the ground of all being” speaks within him. It all adds up to a rare moment of true depth in a show-biz industry interview.
An online friend named Karl, who runs the antinatalist blog Say No to Life, responded to yesterday’s post about the apocalyptic direction the weather has been taking (“Heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods, superstorms: The future is here“) by giving me a word of caution: “Matt, it sounds like you’re urging on the Apocalypse with all your might and can’t wait for something eschatological in its import to befall,” he wrote. “Bear in mind, though, that people will always be people. The Poles have a saying, ‘Do not expect too much from the end of the world’. Worth reflecting on.”
Indeed, this truly is worth reflecting on. Warnings about “urging on the Apocalypse” are always valuable, so I appreciate this one. And I think it deserves more than just a cursory response in a comments queue.
The “Gods and Monsters” paper itself appears in my imminent next book, Dark Awakenings.
Topics broached in the interview include my reasons for tackling such a subject, the project’s relationship to my writing of the stories in Divinations of the Deep, the three-part test for deciding whether a text should be classified as horror, and the dismay that many conservative Christians may feel in response to a monstrous portrayal of deity.
Many thanks to my friend John Morehead, TheoFantastique’s ever-reliable creator, writer, and proprietor, for asking excellent questions.
A few weeks ago I went and jumped headfirst into the ruckus about Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth over at Oprah Winfrey’s message boards.
Surely you’ve heard about the controversy, haven’t you? Ms. Winfrey recently picked Tolle’s book as the subject for a groundbreaking 10-week video class that streams across the Internet and around the world. Her decision has catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller lists (making it by far the most awesomely popular of her numerous book club picks) and has elicited both great excitement and great negativity from crowds far and wide.
The excitement has come from two types of people, those who already know Tolle’s brilliant work as a spiritual author and teacher and those who are thrilled to be introduced to it for the first time. The negativity has come from legions of fundamentalist Protestant Christians who are filling Oprah’s message boards, and also a lot of the rest of the Internet and World Wide Web, with criticisms of and attacks upon Tolle as an evil New Age deceiver and Oprah as the founder of a proprietary cult that probably has something to do with the anti-Christ and is certainly leading many people away from God, Christ, truth, and so on. It’s as if Winfrey’s decision to promote Tolle’s book has popped a kind of boil on the face of American religion, releasing a flood of pent up, festering nastiness.
You can find out all about it, if you like, by visiting YouTube or Google and entering Tolle’s and Oprah’s names as search terms. You’ll find homemade video segments about Tolle and Oprah that aspire to the status of exposés. You’ll find Pentecostal pastors speaking to large crowds at revival meetings about poor and/or dastardly Oprah Winfrey and her satanically inspired deception of the masses. You’ll find an Internet pastor challenging Oprah to a public debate about religion. You’ll find articles and blog posts by fundamentalist Protestants arguing that Tolle is just America’s “guru of the moment” who preaches a watered-down New Age pantheism and feel-good self-help philosophy, and that Oprah is a veritable she-devil who has made it her mission in life to twist, corrupt, and oppose the (literal, inerrant, non-negotiable, non-interpretable) truth of the Bible.
You can also visit the section of Oprah’s message boards devoted to discussing Tolle and A New Earth, where you’ll find vigorous conversations and arguments in progress about all of these things. If you poke around there long enough, you just might stumble across the following message written by me in response to somebody who suggested that participants in those conversations should consider drawing distinctions between types of Christians, since not all of the self-identified Christians who have been jumping into the conversation at those message boards are writing from a fundamentalist viewpoint.
I happen to know a little something about religion in general and Christianity in particular. I even have the by-God academic credential to talk with some authority about the matter. So here’s what I wrote in response to this very reasonable suggestion:
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You raise an excellent point. Over the past 30 years the words “Christian” and “Christianity” have been hijacked, so to speak, in America’s general public discourse to refer primarily or even solely to fundamentalist Christians and Christianity.
Fundamentalism is the attitude or approach to any given subject or issue (not just religion) that reduces it to a handful of rigid beliefs that are then held as utterly nonnegotiable. They’re also viewed as being pretty much the only points worth talking about. Moreover, in the specific phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, the beliefs are generally held in a literalistic, externalized sense. Anybody who won’t give assent to these rigid beliefs is viewed as an outsider, somebody who’s completely wrong and probably dangerous to those insiders who assent to the beliefs. In short, fundamentalism reduces religion etc. to a dogmatic belief system.
For American fundamentalist Christians this belief system involves a number of standard items, including the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the only Son of God; that his death on a Roman cross was in reality a substitutionary sacrifice where he played the part of a sacrificial lamb according to the old Jewish system of ritual animal sacrifice (an idea that came not from him but from later interpreters of his life, death, and teachings, including, especially, Saint Paul); that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are completely without error, are to be read in a literalistic sense (six days of creation and so forth), and are the sole statement of religious truth, beside which all other purported scriptures are satanic deceptions; and so on. Fundamentalist Protestantism is entirely about “right belief.” It teaches that spiritual salvation is found in intellectual assent to its propositions.
That’s why fundamentalist Christians are so suspicious of competing belief systems: because their entire religion is at root nothing more nor less than embrace of a belief system. Doctrinal purity is everything to them. This means they’re putting intellect in the chief position. Their religion is, as Tolle would say, “nothing but thoughts in their head.” That means they have trouble even recognizing that some religious and spiritual approaches are completely different, that some religious and spiritual paths are not belief-system based but what we might called “way” based, that is, ways of transformation instead of systems of doctrines. For fundamentalists this is generally incomprehensible and often infuriating.
Obviously I’ve drawn an ideal type here. Most fundamentalists aren’t really as rigid as all this. But they are pretty danged rigid, and some of them conform entirely to the broad picture I’ve drawn. Thankfully, there are lots of other Christians who are not like that.