February 23, 2011

(Relevant) Now?

Heaven, hell, judgment, doomsday, cataclysm, disaster, violence, prophecy, paradise, and Christendom are just some of the associations that are incited once the word “apocalypse” enters conversation. Apocalypse originates with the Greek apokaluptein and is an alternative name of the biblical book of Revelation. Interestingly, politicians, filmmakers, and environmentalists often utilize the potential embedded in the term apocalypse in their public discourse. President George W. Bush heavily relied on apocalyptic axis-of-evil language when setting his administration to work on public relations in the wake of the Iraq war. The 2009 release of another Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is unabashedly apocalyptic—the plot ambivalently balancing evil’s threat to overtake the world and the hope of peace and restoration. In the same apocalyptic mode An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s warning of environmental doom, makes the most “beastly” Revelation seminar slide show seem like a cheerful children’s book.
Apocalyptic modes of language and artistic expression are an integral part of our everyday lives. As I read George Knight’s 2008 volume The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism, I was intrigued by his argument that we are in danger of losing the apocalyptic insight our church is founded on. In comparing his analysis with my own experiences, I found Knight’s observations to be frustratingly acute. Can you sense the irony? Here is the catch: the world outside our church is interested in apocalypse, while we Seventh-day Adventists are not sure (anymore) whether we care for the idea or not.
Apocalypse and Current Culture
Our community of faith has a special historical and theological connection with the apocalypse of John. The Seventh-day Adventist Church was instituted, in part, because of our distinct interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. This knowledge, I believe, is well known in our churches, even though we might not be particularly interested in how, why, or in what way it might apply to our own lives. It was this ingrained consciousness of Seventh-day Adventist identity that caused me to pick up Apokalypse na? Igjen (Apocalypse Yet Again),* by Norwegian literature scholar Simon Malkenes, on my last visit to the local library.
2011 1505 page22 intext 9In his book Malkenes interprets current expressions of politics and popular culture through the lens of apocalyptic rhetoric. According to Malkenes, Western culture is currently engulfed in a mode of public expression based on the apocalypse of the Bible. The idea of living in the end of time is at the core, accompanied by the belief in a gruesome universal enemy or upcoming cosmic crisis—an enemy and crisis whose earthly and contemporary representatives are terrorism and ecological disaster. What struck me (apart from reading about Daniel, Revelation, the antichrist, Armageddon, and apocalyptic disappointment in a secular book) was Malkenes’ insistent emphasis on apocalypse as a rhetorical device. In his conclusion Malkenes warns against the appropriation of apocalyptic concepts and vocabulary, in which opponents are labeled antichrist, and human disagreements and the climate crisis are interpreted into a greater cosmic conflict between good and evil. As serious Seventh-day Adventists, living in a relativistic world, these thoughts provoke some difficult questions that we need to address. First, how is our apocalyptic message not just a rhetorical device, but a credible reality? Second, how and why is it more reasonable than all the other apocalyptic visions? Third, how is it not an expedient of appropriation and abuse of other people?
Apocalypse Is More Than Rhetoric
The idea that apocalypse is best understood not as a reality but as a rhetorical tool is very much in agreement with a postmodern worldview, and an unwelcome challenge for a church built on the prerogative that the apocalypse is real and true. The bad news is that the emphasis on rhetoric convincingly reduces the apocalyptic vision, from a truth that explains the evil in the world and provides hope, to a myth. The good news is that we, the lukewarm church, might just have the right experience, history, and knowledge to attack the challenge in a way credible to a world in which most things have become “relative.”
Here is my take on possible answers to the questions posed above. First, the apocalyptic vision of the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not grow out of just any presentation of apocalypse like those we find in films, novels, or some of the interpretations of the financial meltdown and global warming in the news media. No, it is actually the source of all contemporary apocalyptic presentations surrounding us. Second, and even more important, Seventh-day Adventists have studied the apocalypse for more than 150 years. Our historical record allows us to approach the subject with the humility that comes from having experienced what Malkenes terms “apocalyptic disappointment” (the great disappointment of 1844 and the fact that Jesus hasn’t returned yet) and from a long time of debate, critique, and sometimes even indifference of our own apocalyptic vision. Thus, in a world of fearful apocalyptic visions of environmental chaos and poverty, the sober Seventh-day Adventist approach, at times healthily skeptical of its own apocalyptic vision, can prove to be the present truth of our time. Third, because of our past, we have already tried different approaches to the apocalypse: fire and brimstone preaching, generous antichrist labeling (instead of appropriately focusing on systems rather than people), and some of us have even attempted to fit 9/11 into our prophecy charts. Been there, done that. We know we have made mistakes, and because of it we have a golden opportunity to avoid repeating them.
Finally, do these three issues resolve all the doubts of the postmodern mind and heart? The answer is a resounding no! As a student receiving my schooling in an academic milieu steeped in relativistic ideas, I know firsthand that postmodern doubts are not easily brushed aside. The fact is, relativism has come to stay. The definite idea (!) that everything can be viewed as relative is its foolproof foundation. However, in a world full of apocalyptic rhetoric and dire financial and environmental prospects, what I as a young adult am looking for, more than anything, is hope. Thankfully, the apocalyptic vision of the Seventh-day Adventist Church includes hope—and lots of it. We, as members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, have the unique opportunity to communicate this hope in a sober and levelheaded way to a world drowning in the apocalypse of doom. I wonder: If we are not called to preach and teach the good news and hope of the biblical apocalyptic vision, then who is? In the end, there remains a highly significant question that may require some soul searching: Are we, Seventh-day Adventists all around the world, interested in the apocalyptic vision and ready to communicate it, and if so, are we willing to heed the divine call for this time, and confidently answer with Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8)?
* Simon Malkenes, Apokalypse na? Igjen? (Oslo, Norway: Det Norske Samlaget, 2008).
Linnea Helgesen writes from Tyrifjord, Norway, where she enjoys teaching at the local church school and taking Norwegian classes at the nearby college. This article was published February 24, 2011.