Friday, March 11, 2011

From wrath to apocalypse (1)

What is apocalypse? It is a genre of writing. The best examples in the Bible are the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It was a very influential genre between around 200 BC to 200 AD and it had its roots in political events going on at that time, in particular the rule of the Roman Empire in the Promised Land, and the sense within the Hebrew people that things were not going as they had been promised. Apocalypse as a genre has different forms. There are frequently visions involving specific symbolism, for example beasts with heads and horns, but these are political allegories: the beasts are normally gentile kingdoms, and the horns coming out of the beasts are the rulers of the different gentile kingdoms.  Much of the symbolic language in the book of Revelation can be mapped on to the political environment of the first century.

A useful distinction between different forms of apocalyptic is that they can be vertical or horizontal. Vertical apocalypses are where someone is lifted up into the realm of the angels, into the cosmic heaven and they are enabled to see the truth. Gnostic apocalypses are like this, for gnosticism is all about gaining access to the heavenly realm through understanding the truth and leaving this world behind.  Alternatively there is also a horizontal realm of apocalypse which is much more biblical; for example, Isaiah 24, where God brings the present structures of the world to destruction in order to accomplish his purposes within the world.  Vertical apocalypses, then, are about leaving this world behind, whereas horizontal apocalypses are about the change and reform of this world. The vertical involves travelling up and beyond; the horizontal are about travelling through time.
 
The language of horizontal apocalyptic is that history is coming to a close: there is a cosmic cataclysm and a consummation of God's purposes, and then a recreation, and this has its roots in the prophetic criticisms of the status quo.  Isaiah 24 to 26 is a good example. Biblically, apocalyptic is concerned with criticising unjust political arrangements and seeing God's activity as breaking into the world to act to bring about His purposes. It is not about leaving the world behind and being lifted up into the heavens.

“...within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space time universe.  There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events”. (Tom Wright)

There are many different ways in which elements within our society fasten onto something which leads them to say "this is why we are doomed", "no this is why we're doomed", or add them all together and "this is why we are doomed!". This is simply echoing the cultural legacy of apocalyptic.  Even if we are not aware of it, we are interpreting events and information through the lens of apocalypse. Someone might say "Hang on I cannot be influenced by apocalyptic because I'm not a Christian, I do not believe in it".  This is a little bit like saying, "I've never read any Greek literature, I've never read Plato, therefore my thinking is not shaped by it."  These thought forms are diffused throughout our civilisation.  They are the bedrock of our thinking, the river bed through which our thinking flows like the water, and apocalyptic is very influential in the way that our culture understands the world. There is an historical memory of this promise that the world is going to come to an end, and so, inevitably, part of our community fastens on to alarming portents and starts to replay this process of apocalyptic.
to be continued

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