Posts Tagged ‘the Rapture’

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

September 20, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

 

 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

——Mark 13:32

 

 

I don’t know about you, but personally, I hate going on a trip. It’s not that I hate being away from my home more than average, or that I worry incessantly about my home or that I hate being in unfamiliar settings. In fact, while I do think about my home, I’m generally curious about being in a new place. I enjoy noticing the differences, like what animals and plants I see or don’t see, how the architecture changes from place to place, what different foods are local favorites. What I hate, really hate, is actually leaving. I am always afraid of leaving something behind. And if I pack in a hurry, or even if I don’t, I almost always do leave something behind. Once it was the charger for my electric toothbrush. Once it was my child’s favorite toy. At one gamers’ convention I left a bag with over $100 worth of games and accessories in a hotel room, and only by sheer luck did I find it again. Several times it’s been the phone charger. So I hate leaving my home for a trip, I hate checking out of a hotel, every time I have to change locations I wonder what I’m going to leave behind this time. And I get more anxious when I have to leave in a hurry. If someone is threatening to leave ME behind, yet I don’t know what I might myself be leaving behind, I simply hate it.

I sometimes wonder if this says something about my spirituality. After all, a Christian is supposed to be a sojourner and a wanderer on the earth, traveling towards a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:13-16).   What does it say about me if my heart is with my treasure that I might be leaving in a Days Inn outside Eire? (Matthew 6:21).

Other people, it seems, are always eager to hit the road, or the airways or whatever. They count the days to their next vacation, when they take off on another trip to anywhere, as long as it’s out of town. And they must be having a great time, if 5000 selfies on Facebook are any proof. And sometimes I wonder what it says about their spirituality, too. Like Yoda said of Luke Skywalker, I might say of one of these eager travelers: “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” They always seem to be dreaming of vacation, or of when the kids leave home, or of retirement, some future away from where they are, from the ties that bind.

While my spirit seems troubled by what I might leave behind, theirs is preoccupied that they might be “Left Behind.” Or more precisely, they’re preoccupied with the pop theology franchise “Left Behind.” It’s an interesting phenomenon, this theology. It goes back much further than the series of novels published beginning in 1995. In the 1970s we had the would-be prophecies of Hal Lindsey and movies like “A Thief in the Night.” In the 1800s we had the Great Disappointment, where more than 1 out of every 200 people sold all their property and waited for Jesus to return on October 22, 1844. Other estimates suggest as many as a half-million people were buying books, attending mass meetings and joining churches preaching this coming Rapture, at a time when the entire nation’s population was less than 20 million. That would be one out of every twenty people looking forward to the end of the world, attending sermons and lectures about the Rapture, and not putting anything on their calendar after October 21 because there wouldn’t be any point. Then and now, people search for meaning, meaning for their lives, meaning for the world, and specifically the meaning of the most obscure, colorful passages of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Jesus found that his followers, too, were eager to know the future. They knew the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Zechariah and of the Essenes living in the desert. So when Jesus began to speak to them of the future, and to warn them not to get too tied down to this magnificent temple Herod was building, they asked him for prophecies of what was to come. And the three Synoptic Gospels do not disappoint. Although most the teachings of Jesus deal either with ethical teachings for the here-and-now, or with teachings about sin and his own redemptive work, Mark reports that he took time in the last days of his life to give his disciples a glimpse into the future, cloaked with apocalyptic imagery of the Sun and moon and stars being blotted out, the whole cosmos undone, and the Son of Man returning in glory.

Later, as persecutions of Christians got worse, the great apocalyptic book The Revelation of John was written by a prisoner on the island of Patmos. Like past apocalyptic writing, John wrote at a time when God’s people were being persecuted and it seemed as if evil ruled the world. John wrote to reassure the faithful that God is always in charge, no matter how it appears now. Like Daniel and Zechariah and other books that didn’t make it into our bible but which were known in his day, he wrote using imagery and even symbolic code, a style that the faithful would understand but outsiders would think was gibberish.

In the 20th Century, as science and journalism developed a new standard of objective truth, passages such as these became troublesome and fascinating for many Protestants. It was not always so. For most of Christian history, the literal truth of the Bible was largely assumed but wasn’t seen as terribly important. What mattered was the spiritual lesson God was conveying through the written word. But as some Protestant evangelists started making Darwin their scapegoat for all the world’s ills, they more or less adopted the scientist’s definition of what “truth” is, making the factual claims the bedrock on which the reliability of the spiritual teachings rested. How could we trust the word that Jesus died for our sins, they asked, if we find that God did not in fact cause the shadow on Hezekiah’s step to go backwards (Isaiah 38:8)? So instead of the mutual dialogue between science and faith that had dominated much of our history, war was declared on Science. Rather than argue that religion was a different sort of truth, expressed differently than scientific textbooks because it was too big to fit in those narrow confines, the Fundamentalists put their truth on the same level as scientific and factual truth-claims, and simply declared that their science was better than the scientist’s science.

This new theological insistence on factual literalism had another effect: it elevated the apocalyptic writings to the center of Evangelical thought. The early Reformers, like Luther and Calvin, had relatively little interest in apocalypticism; they were too concerned with figuring out how the Church should live and what it should teach here and now. Luther in particular sought to focus on Christ Crucified and Risen and on the grace he offers; there’s little talk of grace in John’s apocalypse. One day the saints will wear crowns and rule with their lord; but now we live very different lives, and that is where we should pay attention. But if you believe that every word of the Bible has to be literally true in order to believe the Gospel message, then you have a mountain to climb when you read John. Monsters with seven heads and ten horns, dragons, women sprouting wings—-the whole thing sounds like a Godzilla movie! But Fundamentalism doesn’t mean literalism; as Jerry Falwell explained, it means inerrancy. So the Protestant Evangelicalism of which he was product and producer focused on harmonizing all the apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and interpreting them so that all trace of factual error was eliminated. These strange images had to be interpreted, harmonized, and brought together into one unified prophecy of the future that hadn’t come, but which was just around the corner.

There’s a problem with this. The writings of Daniel and John are not aimed at the same audience. In fact, scholars claim that the great enemy that they refer to is not even the same; for Daniel it is the Greek tyrant Antiochus, while for John it is one of the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians, likely Nero or Domitian. The language about the world ending, this argument would claim, was never intended as a literal vision of the future but rather as a theological claim that the God who made the world is still in charge, and still in command of the order and the chaos we see, and can make, unmake and remake the world in order to give justice to the faithful. For the 20th century millennialist, this is unacceptable; the world was predicted to end and rather than accept this as poetic or symbolic imagery, it has to be literally true or the Bible contains error and can’t be trusted on any point at all. So we have to keep staring and staring and staring at the Bible, and squinting and sweating over the apocalyptic writings, until we come up with a coherent timeline that ties all the events described together into a future where the world really does end and we faithful really do get to wear crowns and sit on thrones.

But the original apocalyptic writings were written to audiences that were suffering at that moment, not in the future. The message was gospel, “good news,” for the Jews under Antiochus or the Christians under Nero. There is no “Rapture” where the faithful are caught up and spared the tribulations described, because the faithful were undergoing those tribulations as they were writing and reading the books! Elsewhere in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do read about the faithful being caught up to Heaven in an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, to join our Lord when he returns; but those writings have no mention of a tribulation to follow. They are simply inconsistent. Any attempt to harmonize them is a human interpretation, often masquerading as divine prophecy, which is rarely good. In the hands of Evangelicals, the symbolism and poetry and artistry and reassurance of the many Biblical apocalyptic writings became a theological Rorschach ink blot, where each one sees what he or she wants to see and what one sees says more about oneself than the object one is looking at. In the millennialist theology of today, the “Left Behind” theology as it is known (sorry, Omega Code!), the theology intended to comfort the poor and persecuted becomes a message to mostly white, middle-class American Christians. Whether you’re a hotshot reporter played by Kirk Cameron, or an airline pilot, or even a black pastor of a fairly large, nice-looking church, you’re one who up until that moment in the movie was doing pretty darned well. And if you’re the sort of person who buys these books and videos and movie tickets and who believes this message, you’ll stay well-off. All the good people, the ones who call themselves “the faithful,” get raptured out of the book or movie before the Antichrist gets cooking, before the Tribulation occurs; they’re off in Heaven in comfort, watching and munching divine popcorn I assume with front-row seats to the divine drama playing out on Earth without them, until the story ends and they get to take their place on the stage with their golden crowns and white robes. The people who get persecuted, who have to endure the Tribulation, are the ones who didn’t quite believe strongly enough or correctly enough or soon enough, who are perhaps good people but who weren’t sufficiently Evangelical so now they’re stuck until the seven years of terror are ended.

That is not what the Bible says. We may disagree exactly what it does mean, but it doesn’t mean that. Every mention of the Rapture agrees that after it occurs, the world is over. Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes; there is no Tribulation during which the faithful get to finally watch the others suffer and thus avenge themselves on all the people who mocked them or ignored them or had more fun than them. The Tribulation is not a show; it is not a spectator sport. It is now. Now is the time of trial. And all of us are in it together.

One of my teachers, Diogenes Allen, wrote a very fine and very readable book, Finding Our Father, discussing the importance of humility. Humility is both the cardinal spiritual virtue and the cardinal epistemological virtue. That is, we need humility to see God and to see ourselves accurately, and really we need it to see ANYTHING accurately. Without humility, we naturally see the world as a child always sees it: revolving around ourselves, judged “good” or “evil” based on how it makes oneself feel. Allen lists five implications of the sort of humility we are to have, and one in particular seems relevant to my purpose here: “We are not to seek to live in glory before our time.”[1] When any of us realizes some spiritual truth, we naturally want to think “Well, now, I know the truth, I am freed from my old errors and sins, I’m now one of the faithful. Maybe I should seek to help others, or maybe I should just rest secure in my salvation and let God save the others; but at least I know I’ve run the good race.” But we’re not there. We never will be “there” in this life. Every momentary realization of our true place, utterly insignificant in the world and simultaneously God’s beloved, humble yet secure, is the next moment threatening to slide either towards self-importance or anxiety. The Christian life is a paradox (and if you’re a religious person who isn’t Christian, I suspect you’ve also encountered the same truth). The objective reality of the universe says each of us is just a dust-mote floating on the breeze, and accidental collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur. The life-giving spirit assures us that we are, despite all objective evidence, of infinite worth, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called “dignity.” But that feeling of being valued by the source of the universe tempts us to push back against the threatening message of insignificance which the universe sends us with every reminder of our weakness and mortality, by instead thinking of ourselves as more and better and more powerful than we are. And one way we do that is by seeing ourselves as already freed, as children not of this world of pain but of the Rapture. It is hard to wake up every day and remember that Christ calls us to get out of bed and go out as servants to an ungrateful and unknowing world, servants even to neighbors who fundamentally reject the truths we hold dear and which hold us. It is much more pleasant to see ourselves as the world’s rulers already, any moment to take our rightful place in Heaven to look down on those sinners around us while they finally get their comeuppance.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave us these saving words: Of that hour no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father. Your job is not to try to find out what God has not seen fit to reveal even to the Christ; your job is to watch, and wait. For too many Christians, the message of Christ’s sudden return becomes an excuse to not care about the world, or about our neighbors. If they’re worthy, they’ll be fine just as we are; if they’re not, that’s their choice, their problem. Why clean up the world when God is just going to end it any day now? So what if today children are drinking lead-poisoned water, if tomorrow they’ll be sipping ambrosia and eating manna in Heaven? That is pretty much the opposite of what Christ says. He says, I may return tomorrow, or the next day, or a thousand years from now; but whenever I return, you’d better look busy doing the things I told you to do: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the suffering, sharing good news, showing love and respect for the poor, the one with no family, and to the foreigner. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to your Lord.

This world is the one that God has given us as our task, our stewardship, our job. The pay isn’t always great, but the retirement package is out of this world! But for some people, waiting for that final day on the job seems to drag. They go through life as if it were Friday at 4:30. They don’t want to start working on anything new. They don’t want to help one more customer. They’re terrified of being “left behind,” but don’t worry about what they might be leaving behind: tasks undone, suffering people uncomforted, faint-hearted unencouraged, hungry unfed, or strangers unwelcomed. Millennialism wants to be done, wants the work to be over, and reduces the Christian life to simply believing that the Christian life is already concluded. There is no need to serve others as Christ did, to follow in Christ’s footsteps. All you need to do is believe in the Rapture and you will be raptured. Again and again in millennialist movies and novels there is some character who is good, loving, goes to church, believes that Jesus is Lord, but doesn’t expect a literal rapture and thus is left to suffer. The works-righteousness of the Middle Ages was replaced by thought-righteousness, so that even believing in Jesus and loving God and the Church isn’t enough if you don’t love in the right way, with the right theology. That isn’t what Jesus said. That isn’t taking up your cross and following Jesus. What that is, is not doing your job because you’re staring at the clock waiting for time to go home. We need to do the work that God told us to do, and seek to imitate the life of the actual Jesus we see in the Gospels. That is what the Bible tells the faithful people to do. Because whether there’s a literal Rapture ten minutes from now or ten thousand years, I can promise you this: each one of us will end. Your world will end, and you will find yourself alone with God. As Kierkegaard said, this is “the earnest thought of death,” which makes life so serious. It definitely will happen, and it almost certainly be a surprise, the most certain and unexpected of all things. So as Christ says: Keep watch.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (John Knox Press, Atlanta GA: 1974) p. 74

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 31, 2012

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

            With the “postmodern” age, both the confidence in shared truth and in inevitable progress are shattered.  Instead of truth, there are truths, and in the new pluralism it is rude and oppressive to claim that one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.  My belief that individual freedom and self-discovery are merely Western values; the Chinese Communists can claim that individuality is an evil, a threat to social harmony and an intolerable burden for any person; and who is to say which is right?  If I want to say Cleopatra was black because she ruled in Africa and believing she was black empowers my sense of self-worth, who is some historian to point out that her ancestors were all Greek conquerors who never married into the native population, and indeed rarely married even outside the family?  If I want to believe that Washington, Jefferson and all the other Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves, who are you to point out that they and most other Founding Fathers actually owned slaves throughout their lives?  Stop imposing your liberal elite historical facts on my truth!

And if shared truth and shared value have been tossed aside, a shared sense of progress is impossible.  How can we possibly all believe in progress, when we can’t agree on where we are going or where we should be going?  After the 9/11 attacks, people of many different religions, political affiliations, nationalities and social classes felt themselves drawn together.  To many, it seemed as if the world had been changed forever.  From now on, the defining conflict of our society, and indeed of the world itself, would be the conflict between civilization and barbarism, rational debate and violent anarchy, rationality and superstition.  And while we mourned the tragic deaths and the future deaths that were certain to follow, we were united in the sense that there was good and right and that the forces of humanity and life were now aligned together against the forces of death and chaos.  What I for one did not anticipate, however, was how deeply threatening that vision was to the people who now call themselves the Tea Party.  To the hard-core culture warriors, the “Religious Right,” this all was deeply threatening.  These were people whose entire defense against anxiety is based on an entirely different reality than that shared by many others.  Where some see nations coming together as equals to talk through problems, they see Satan attempting to enslave the world.  Where some see peace as good, leading towards a better life for all, they see war as good and inevitable, since only when the whole world is plunged into nuclear conflict will Jesus return to save the righteous and establish his reign on Earth.  Where some see the United States as perhaps the best nation, but still one nation that ought to deal with others fairly and respectfully through persuasion, they see God’s nation in a cold war with virtually the entire rest of the world (except Israel).  Where some see Americans, they see Us and Them, Real America versus Liberals.  And their entire identity is tied up in that tribalism.  The day after 9/11, the leaders of the Religious Right began a concerted effort to fight the growing sense of unity Americans felt with one another.  And they succeeded.

Is that good or bad?  In the postmodern world, there is no “good” or “bad.”  There is no truth; there are only truths, each held by its own tribe.  The modern conservatives are the perfect embodiment of postmodernism.  Once it was the Marxists who said that oppressed peoples had the right to reject bourgeoisie truths, such as adherence to science and history, in order to embrace claims that advanced their political-economic struggle.  Now, conservatives claim they are the ones who are oppressed, and thus claim the right to create their own truths.  Once, I saw myself as conservative, because I rejected the right of liberation theologians to write such things as the claim that Cleopatra was black and that Europeans are innately selfish and vicious “ice people” while Africans are naturally peaceful and generous “sun people,” (ignoring the obvious empirical realities that Cleo was a Greek whose family tree was Egyptian only in that it has as many branches as a Nile papyrus reed, while the history of war shows that Africans and Europeans and Asians are all equally human in their capacities for greed and violence, generosity and mercy).  I saw myself as conservative because I believe firmly that all Americans should learn a core curriculum of shared history and cultural values, and learn the good of even the “oppressor” dominant culture as well as of other cultures.  When liberals laughed at the idea of devoting oneself to the study of dead white males, I saw myself as keeping a flame alive, because while I freely acknowledge the many shortcomings of Euro-American culture, I also see good in it, including a capacity for self-criticism.  But now, I find that I am a liberal, without myself changing one bit so far as I can tell; because now it is the conservatives who reject scientific and historical and empirical reality for the sake of self-empowering myths.  If once I was conservative for advocating a certain core curriculum for high school and college students, now I’m a liberal for advocating college at all.  If once I was conservative for advocating critical assessment of the truth claims of liberals, now I’m a liberal for advocating critical assessment.

My point is that, in the postmodern age, there is no point.  There are only points, points on a compass, and everyone runs as fast as possible in all directions.  One anxious person invests his sense of security in his identification as a “real American and true Christian.”  Another invests her sense of identity in being a “good Muslim,” outdoing all the born Muslims in her adherence to all the external rituals of her newly acquired faith.  Another is gay, another liberal, another Latino and so on.  To varying degrees perhaps, each has his or her own unique truth claims, which he or she believes are beyond all rational criticism or justification.  And to varying degrees, all find the others to be profoundly, existentially threatening, because the mere existence of an Other with other values calls my idolization of my particular values into question.  The other must be demonized; he or she is not real, not human, not part of my country or even my world.  For the postmodern person, the Other represents a call to individuality, because the Other is a living embodiment of the reality that one’s own values are partial and perhaps arbitrary.  We could discuss those values, perhaps find a more inclusive truth or at least ways to work together productively; but when the very presence of the Other awakens anxiety, the natural response is to want to do away with the Other.  Whether that “doing away” is achieved by extermination, self-deportation, concealment, or by dehumanizing the Other as some lazy, ignorant, vice-ridden Them, it is all the same; as long as my idol is victorious, I need not think for myself or awaken my own freedom, and anxiety with it.

I call this “The Age of Anxiety” because our anxiety seems so much closer to the surface, and our evasions are so much more fragile.  Once I had to look over the mountain to see a community whose values challenged my self-security; today, I cannot walk ten feet outside my door, or turn on my television or the internet, without encountering Others whose self-certainty challenges my self-certainty.  Athens had one individual, Socrates, and found him intolerable; today, there are Others everywhere, some individuals and some who are just members of a different tribe or clique, wherever I look, their differentness challenging my trust in my private values.  How can I trust my sense of superiority and control, when all around me are others with different values and an equal sense of their own superiority?  The faithful response would be to recognize that indeed I am not superior to anyone else, and to “leap, then, into the embrace of God.”[1]  As a single individual relating to God as an individual, I would find true faith, what H.R. Niebuhr described as “radical monotheism,” and thus not so much escape anxiety but rather be sustained in it.  But most of us all the time, and all of us much of the time fail to sustain such faith and individuality.  Instead, the all-too-human response is to dig deeper into one’s own idolatrous tribalism, to take comfort in one’s own herd and in its values and choices.  In the words of Isaiah 51:10, “Which of you fears the LORD and obeys his servant’s commands?  The man who walks in dark places with no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and leans on his God.”[2]  It is terrifying to be in the dark; most of us are like those the prophet warns us against, those who light their own light so they can see for themselves rather than letting God lead them by the hand.  Anxiety is that darkness; it is the possible, the not-yet, the undefined.  Life must be lived forward, choosing without a clear guide, trusting God alone to guide us.  Life is only understood in retrospect.  But of course, we want to go where we can see clearly, which means ultimately we always wish to go backwards, away from anxiety, away from possibility, away from the future, towards the safety of the dead past certainties and dogmas.

Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the mark of the individual; the more anxiety, the more self.  In that sense, living in an age where it is so hard to escape from anxiety is a blessing.  The futility of our evasions and the incompleteness of our idols are always before us.  On the other hand, the depth and omnipresence of anxiety also evokes even stronger efforts at evasion, and even more hostility towards Others.  It is natural that an age where technology and politics and social mores and the very Earth itself seem to be in such rapid flux, that we should also become the most tribal, the most partisan, the most fanatical and close-minded.   Many of us cling to our old myths even to our own harm, with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a razor blade.[3]  The inexplicable is not that some should insist on the falsehood of global warming and the truth of trickle-down economics despite all empirical and historical evidence to the contrary.  The inexplicable is that anyone should recognize these truths, recognize the challenge they present to the American myth of inevitable progress and the omnipotence of the rugged individual, and yet still remain ultimately patriotic and hopeful that a better future might still be possible, if only by the grace of God.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  the age of revolution and the present age; a literary review; translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 108

[2] From the New English Bible

[3] Agatha, Christie, Witness for the Prosecution; directed by Billy Wilder, Hollywood CA, Arthur Hornblow, producer:  1957

The Rapture or the Ring postscript: Is Tolkien racist?

September 28, 2011

When I presented this paper, the other presenter raised a troubling criticism of the Middle Earth stories:  that there is an implicit racism in the entire structure of the mythos.  After all, the whole Ring trilogy is structured around a clash of good versus evil, and the evil is not even human–talk about “demonizing the enemy”!  The death of a protagonist is a major event; the slaughter of orcs is treated as not just necessary but as positively celebratory.  Does Tolkien dehumanize and delegitimize the Other in a way that makes genocide acceptable?

I’m not a full-blown Tolkien scholar, so doubtless there are people out there who could write far more about this.  But they aren’t here, and I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have a ready response to that critique of Tolkien.  It is a legitimate concern.  As I see it, there are three questions here:  first, is Tolkien advocating genocide of the evildoers in his description of the wars with the orcs?  Second, is Tolkien perhaps not consciously or deliberately genocidal, but unconsciously or unavoidably so?  And third, is there something inherently racist or even genocidal in apocalypticism, of any variety?  The second and third of these are related, and the third will help to address the second; but I will begin with the first question.

There is something very strange about Tolkien’s treatment of the “bad guys” in his stories.  The orcs are impersonal and thoroughly evil, suitable only for extermination.  The nazguls and the men of the South are little better:  the first were men who were tricked and enslaved by Sauron to become inhuman and immortal ringwraiths, while the second are humans who have sided with Sauron voluntarily and fight beside the orcs willingly.  And then there’s Gollum, a murderer, physically degenerate beyond recognition as a hobbit himself, and literally psychologically dissolute to the point of having dissolved into two separate personalities: one completely corrupt, and the other weak, fearful, still pretty disagreeable, at times infantile and tending towards bestial, but still with some good in him.  Tolkien treats Gollum with a fair degree of sympathy.  There is hope he can be redeemed, more hope for him (even after his centuries of exposure to the Ring) than for the Men of the South or the Hill-Men who trouble Rohan.  Frodo spares Gollum and tries to bring him around to goodness, coming to trust him too much; can we imagine anyone trusting an orc?

After the SECSOR conference I did a little more research on Tolkien’s non-Middle Earth writings, and most relevant here, on his revolutionary essay on Beowulf (“The Monster and the Critics).  Many of us who grew up on Tolkien were unaware that he was first a professor of languages, and well versed in the study not only of ancient languages but also of mythology.  He is credited with reviving study of the epic of Beowulf, which was until then treated as something of a Gilgamesh or Illiad for savages.  Tolkien’s interest in mythology predates Joseph Campbell, and if there was any influence of Jung I am unaware of it.  Instead, his theories were based more on his own sensitivity to the ancient Celtic/British soul as expressed in the language and tales they shared and passed down, as well as his comparison of the ancient tales and priorities with those of his own Catholicism.  To Tolkien, the story of Beowulf, and the story of the pagan in general, is the story of death.  Tolkien likened the ancient self-image with a bird that flies in out of the darkness into the light and noise of a bustling mead-hall, flies the length of the longhouse amidst the sounds and sights and smells of life and conviviality, and then disappears again into the darkness.  That, Tolkien said, is life for the pre-Christian European:  come from darkness, live for a time, enjoy what you can, boast and fight and love, and then return to oblivion.  And that, he said, is what the Beowulf cycle reflects.  Beowulf’s monsters are not just beasties to fight, turning an otherwise good war story into a fairy tale fit for children and barbarians.  They are symbolic representations of the threats to humanity that we all face.  Grendel is humanity twisted by evil.  He has the basic form of a human, but the heart of a beast.  He invades the king’s mead hall, where brave men were supposed to be able to come together in fellowship, to slaughter and plunder, to conquer and spoil the place of community that he his incapable of joining himself.  Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and his mother represent his defeat of those forces in the human soul that would tear our humanity from us.  Beowulf conquers a deadly threat, manifestly deadly in the story and symbolically deadly as an instantiation of all that is cruel, selfish and hateful in human nature.  By contrast, the dragon appears at the end of his life.  There is nothing human about the dragon; if anything, a dragon has traditionally represented the power of inhuman Nature.  This is Death, pure and simple.  There is no way Beowulf can hope to defeat it.  But just as in his youth he overcame fear and cowardice and all that was base in human nature to become the wise, brave and good hero-king, so in his old age he faces his death bravely, setting out to fight the dragon because he must, as a hero and leader of men.

The orcs are evil as the dragon in Beowulf is evil.  In Tolkien’s mythology, elves are equivalent to angels:  the Creator’s first and most perfect creations, immortal, beautiful and good.  The orcs are twisted, mutated elves; if the elves are angels, then orcs are demons.  Evil cannot create on its own, Tolkien believed, (as any Catholic knows, evil is a privation of good, not a positive power), so when Melkor arose to oppose the Creator he had to seduce and distort what was originally created good. Now, however, the beings that he thus seduced are completely enthralled to evil.  They are no longer what they once were.  They are outside of our nature, an external threat of subjection and destruction; to oppose them is to oppose death itself.

Gollum, on the other hand, is more like Grendel.  Gollum represents our nature, fallen and corrupted by the desire for power (symbolized by the Ring).  He was, after all, once a hobbit, and hobbits are essentially human (perhaps humans as they ought to be:  humble, agrarian, enjoying life’s simple joys).  The orcs were never human:  they were superhuman and thus when they fell they had no human nature to lose, so they became subhuman.  To hate Gollum is to hate ourselves, individually and as a species.  We must hope that his redemption is possible, because we need redemption so; and because we need redemption so, we ought to have an essential sympathy with him, and in fact with all those we otherwise think of as evil.  That is not to deny Gollum’s evil, but it is a refusal to deny his humanity.

To accuse Tolkien of racism or genocide for his treatment of the orcs is to misunderstand the symbolic/mythological role of the orcs.  As fallen elves, they are more extensions of evil’s power in the same way that demons are extensions of Satan more than individuals themselves.  The proper way we should think of our fellow humans is the way Frodo thought of Gollum:  he fought when he had to and would have killed him if necessary, but as far as he could he sought to win him over.  Sam’s refusal to trust Gollum or to help the sinner’s repentance may seem to have been validated by Gollum’s final relapse; but at the same time, Sam’s judgmental hostility towards Gollum is his least admirable characteristic and ultimately contributes to Gollum’s failure.  The dehumanizing of the Other can often prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy:  if you say “you can’t trust those types” often enough, you will not be able to trust them and, in fact, you will push them towards the very undying enmity you predicted.

Whether he is unconsciously or inadvertently racist is another question.  First, there is the question of whether as an Englishman born a colonial and raised as a citizen of the British Empire, he might reflect and unconsciously accept the prejudices of his culture. That, however, is not a question that interests me.  Even when we recognize the failures of our culture, we cannot help but be dyed by it.  For example, Tolkien describes orcs as physically resembling the worst example of “Mongol-types;” but that is not intended as a criticism of Mongolians.  It simply reflects that as an Englishman, a fair-skinned person living at the beginning of the 20th Century, his aesthetic preference is for fair-skin, and “swarthy,” dark-skinned, dark-haired, and narrower eyes seems foreign and generally unattractive; so when he sought to describe the orcs he put it in terms of “think of those foreigners and imagine the worst possible physical distortion along that continuum.”  This may be unfortunate, but is not really malicious or dangerous; we can grow out of that sort of thing with experience.

But the question of whether Tolkien was perhaps unavoidably racist or genocidal comes back to the third of our questions:  is apocalypticism in itself dangerous?  And if so, I would ask a further question:  are some forms of apocalypticism more dangerous than others?  The danger that the criticism implies is that anytime we think of the “other” as evil, particularly as cosmically evil, we are in danger of dehumanizing that other, and can easily justify anything we might do to that other.  This is pretty much inevitable in literal apocalypticism.  As I discussed in the first paper, that is the problem with the Left Behind sort of apocalypticism.  The blurb on the back of the film box may ask, “Who will you be?” and invite the viewer to identify with one of the protagonists; but they were all “left behind.”  They were good, too good to fall for the Antichrist’s wiles, but not good enough to be saved. The viewer expects to be raptured away, and to watch these events unfold for others who didn’t believe the right way or the right things.  This lacks earnestness.  It is an aesthetic sort of religiousness, not true faith.  Faith is earnest; faith does not need Nathan to say “Thou art the man,” because the earnest person always assumes that the story is told about the hearer.  The earnest approach to apocalypticism does not have to deny the literal truth of the prediction, but the literal prediction is the least important part of the truth; the earnest truth is only whether it is true of me.  If the Left Behind story gives me valuable role models, shows me how to resist temptation and endure persecution, then wonderful; if they lead me to judge those others who don’t believe and distract me from examining myself first, last and always, then they are worse than useless.

The Tolkien apocalypse lends itself to earnestness better because there is no temptation to use it as a prediction of the future, or to mine it for knowledge to satisfy my curiosity about the past.  I may dismiss it as idle entertainment, but I may also take it as a mirror to examine myself, and see it proposing possibilities that I could dread or aspire to in my own life.  I can imagine myself in that situation and ask what I might do, for good or ill.  I can even imagine that situation as some sort of analogy to my own life.  If I think of the Ring stories earnestly, there seems no danger I am going to attempt to identify “who the orcs are.”  Just as the monsters of Beowulf are paradigmatic of the existential threats of all people (in Tolkien’s theory), so too the orcs are paradigmatic not of some particular person or people, but represent the threats to my life, which I must face with courage and perseverance.  Since the War of the Ring is self-consciously a myth, and intends to be taken as such, it is a lot more natural to take it symbolically and metaphorically.  By contrast, if one believes the Bible must be taken literally, then it is natural to ask, “Who is the Antichrist?’  And that is not an easy question to answer.  For this reason, many millions of believers go beyond the literal word of the Bible, often unconsciously, to accept some one person’s interpretation.  Nothing in the Bible says the Secretary General of the United Nations is the Antichrist; in fact, the words “Secretary-General” never appear at all!  Most likely, original readers would have thought the Antichrist was Nero.  If you reject that theory, then you probably wonder who the Antichrist actually is.  But the earnest perspective would be to say that whomever the Antichrist is, what matters is how I live, how I will face persecution or troubles of any sort, and so on; speculations about whom the Antichrist might be is idle curiosity and a distraction, even an intoxicant.

I believe that Tolkien’s mythology has the elements of apocalyptic writing, most notably in the cosmic good-versus-evil theme; but Tolkien is earnest and his apocalypse is earnest, and thus it avoids the racist and genocidal tendencies of so much other apocalypticism.  However, he cannot avoid the danger of someone taking his writings without earnestness, and thus misinterpreting them as an indictment of “those others” rather than as an invitation to self-reflection.  This is the danger with all apocalyptic, but it is of course worse when it is presented by someone who lacks earnestness or at least lacks clarity about the nature and task of earnestness.  This is the problem with so much apocalypticism today.  To use a particularly notorious recent example, Harold Camping’s predictions seem to be more about the sense of power one feels when one is able to know the future.  It is about control.  I know the exact moment when the world will end, so I know how long I have to enjoy my money and when to give it all away to earn a place in Heaven.  I have special knowledge that makes my wisdom superior to others’, whether I choose to gloat privately or feverishly proclaim the secret wisdom I have to try to convince others.  It is “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders.  The earnest person knows that whether the world ends October 21st or December 12, 2012, or never, doesn’t really matter.  My world will end, because I will end.  Will my death catch me “like a thief in the night,” unready to face my Maker?  How should I live, knowing that the world may outlast me but that either way I will not outlast me?

In earnestness, there is no time or motive for judging “those others,” those outsiders who are a different race or class or politics or whatever.  My concern is not to identify the Antichrist, because as 1 John 2:18 suggests, there are in fact many antichrists, any of which may attempt to destroy my faith.  My search for one is simply my attempt to escape the anxiety of uncertainty, which is the essential human condition.  When I can rest in faith, and sit in the darkness without striking a light for myself (as Isaiah puts it, Isa 50:10-11) then I can wait for the future to unfold without anxiously inquiring what will happen, or looking around for the evildoers to fight (as if there were no evil in my own heart enough to worry about).  I can even avoid that worst sin of all:  looking for others to blame and punish when things go wrong in my life, as when Falwell sought to blame 9/11 on the ACLU, instead of saying with Job, whatever comes from the Lord, is good.

The Rapture or the Ring: Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

September 14, 2011

ABSTRACT: (Originally presented at the 2005 meeting of SECSOR.)  In this paper I intend to contrast Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life, with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or pre-moral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

The Rapture or the Ring:  Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

In this paper I first intend to present Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life.  I will contrast this with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or premoral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine two very different genres in “religious” film today:  the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death

Kierkegaard’s discussions of death were probably leading causes for his reputation as “the gloomy Dane,” and I hesitate to raise that simplistic image again.  However, he felt that the individual’s attitude towards death was crucial to that individual’s own spiritual maturity, so it is impossible to ignore the discussion.  I will begin by comparing two discussions he presents:  first, his upbuilding discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions; and second, his observations under various pseudonyms in “In Vino Veritas” and the first volume of Either/Or.

The Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, unlike his eighteen previous discourses, are distinguished not by their text or topic but by the fictitious setting of each.  Kierkegaard sets his last discourse in the context of a funeral, not for anyone important but apparently for a rather ordinary citizen.  The one distinguishing characteristic of his fictive deceased is that he “recollected God” all the days of his life, and in particular recollected that one day he would die and stand before God.  There is no discussion of pearly gates or such, but rather a vigorous discussion of the significance of death and mortality.  Kierkegaard claims that it is the earnest thought of death that gives this life meaning, and that moves the individual from the “esthetic” life of egoism and shallowness into the rich depths of the religious.

Kierkegaard says a great deal about what the earnest thought of death is, and what it is not.  It is not being somber, wailing at a funeral, being fearful or gloomy; it is not a mood of any sort.  Primarily it is the thought that I will dieI will die:  not just all flesh or those I love but me.  I will die:  not rest from my labors or find peace or any of the other evasions and euphemisms we commonly rely on.  All that I care for, my every project, hope, dream, desire, and fear will be cut off permanently.  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; I know it will happen but cannot know when.  When I truly realize this, much that might have seemed important is shown to be utterly trivial; my career, my fame, my wealth, and more will vanish as if they had never been.  And much that I might have delayed or ignored becomes terribly urgent:  repenting of my sins, apologizing to my neighbor, telling my wife and children that I love them, or finding peace with myself and my life as it is, to name some.  The earnest thought of death relativizes life, but it also renders every moment more precious.  Time is, after all, running out, so one cannot afford to cling to life like a man on a burning roof afraid to leap to safety; and neither can one afford to drift thoughtlessly along as if one had all the time in the world.

Within a day of publishing the slim volume of discourses on imagined occasions, Kierkegaard published the massive Stages on Life’s Way.  Whereas the first is simple, direct, homiletic, and acknowledged, the second is convoluted, poetic and philosophical, and written under a variety of interlocking pseudonyms.  Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms are not mere pen names; they are characters intended to embody the existential views they represent as well as describe them.  The first of the stages, the “esthetic” stage of premoral and prereligious egoism, is presented in “In Vino Veritas,” a collection of speeches given at a banquet.  This chapter, like the discourse at the graveside, is prefaced with a (very different) discussion of the importance of recollection; and like the discourse, the banqueters are summoned by one of them to “the earnest thought of death.” However, for them it leads in an opposite direction.  Where meditation at a graveside led to sobriety, here it is the prelude to drunkenness.  In the discourse, the thought of death leads one to seriously contemplate one’s relationship to eternity; for the banqueters it leads only to greater immersion in frivolity and estrangement from eternity.  And the reason why is fairly obvious:  the earnest thought of death at the graveside is your thought of your death; for the banqueters, it is the thought of the death of everything else.  To them, recollection of death means to be gloomy and cynical, to meditate on how everything dies, and yet somehow to imagine looking on after one’s death as others go through your funeral.  A dead body is amusing, and a dead wife can be the inspiration for her beloved’s poetic genius; the significance of death is that it happens to others to make one’s own life more interesting or creative, to loosen one’s own bonds to the real world of relationships and commitments and moral values so that one may float free in the world of ideas.  The contrast becomes even more striking when one takes the literary hint Kierkegaard builds into the Stages by using pseudonyms from his earlier book, Either/Or.  The first volume of this work is full of meditations on death, despair, and boredom, showing how the esthete fails to take death or life seriously and winds up with a meaningless existence.  To the esthete, life seems interminably boring; to the earnest one (says Kierkegaard) it is not boring precisely because it is terminal.  To the esthete, life is mood and emotion; to the earnest one it is commitment and striving, with joy to be sure but not with the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal.

The esthete considers death third-person, objectively.  While this may evoke a strong mood or emotional reaction, the esthete never really allows death to “get to” him or her.  The religious person, by contrast, considers death personally, subjectively.  Whereas the esthetic and objective way leads to unclarity, lethargy, and beckons one to become lost in mood, the earnest thought of death summons one back to the urgency of life’s task and to the true reality before God which life’s finitudes and illusions otherwise obscure.[i]  The two views of death Kierkegaard offers can together serve the individual as a touchstone for evaluating alleged spiritual insights.  If a poet or orator comes with enthralling words and dazzling insights, and one is taken to see these as signs of true spiritual depth, one can ask:  does this poem, speech or sermon evade the reality of death, or obscure for me my personal mortality?  Does it trivialize what should be paramount, or magnify what death reveals to be meaningless?  Then look elsewhere for spiritual insight, no matter how esthetically beautiful the words may be.  Or, does this sermon, advice, or manner of life take seriously the preciousness of one’s time on Earth, and truly show what really matters and what does not when measured by the decisiveness of death?  Then there is something profound here, even if it is masked in plainness or seeming triviality.

Eschatological Moviemaking and the Earnest Thought of Death

Kierkegaard resorts to eschatological language and scriptures in his discourse on death; but it is significant (and consistent) that he does not interpret these concepts eschatologically.  For Paul, it is the Day of the Lord which comes “as a thief in the night;” for Kierkegaard it is the individual’s death.[ii]  The end of the world is unimportant, or unessential; what matters to you is that you will end, and what matters to me is that I will end.  What happens to third persons, even to billions of third persons, is still not earnestness.  Kierkegaard would probably say that an apostle can use such language, because an apostle is a different sort of existence than an ordinary person, even a “genius.”  But for the rest of us, it is unhealthy and basically esthetic to speculate about the Rapture or the Final Judgment.  Whether Jesus is coming tomorrow, you can’t know; but you do know that God is coming for you, personally, at the day of your death.  That is the fact which should focus your attention.

Eschatology went Hollywood in the 20th century, and the dawn of a new millennium has done nothing to slow this down.  In fact, the general unease that has pervaded American culture since 9/11 seems to have heightened interest in literalist interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation.  In the second half of the 20th century there have been documentaries, feature films, and innumerable books purporting to present the script for the Last Days.  The classic in this genre, which I would describe as fundamentalist Christian sci-fi, is A Thief in the Night, released in the 1970’s by Mark IV Films (an evangelical production company).  During the Christmas movie season of 2000, The Omega Code, produced by Trinity Broadcasting and starring Michael York as the Antichrist, debuted among the top 10 moneymakers for the week.[iii]  Shortly after this, the movie version of Left Behind, based on the amazingly popular book of the same name, was released first on video and then in theaters.[iv]  In this movie, Kirk Cameron stars as a hotshot reporter who is caught up in the middle of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in John’s apocalypse.

Each of these films has slightly different interpretations of scriptural predictions, based partly on the particular “literal” interpretation each follows. But when one considers common elements in all three movies and the various books, T.V. sermons, and other popular presentations, general themes emerge.  There is a general distrust of international multilateralism, since the Antichrist will be a world leader who will unite many nations.  There is an emphasis on believing over action; this is not to say that one isn’t expected to live by the evangelical moral code, but it is clear that it is believing the literal truth of Revelation (or rather the interpretation of its obscure symbolism being offered) which saves, not good will towards one’s neighbors or even moral action.  Often (but not always) the United States is depicted as resisting the Antichrist.  But what is most common and, for my purposes, most relevant is that in virtually all of today’s popular versions of the evangelical Christian apocalypse, the believer is not in fact in any danger.  The millions of believers of these predictions, whether they follow the theories of Tim LeHaye or Hal Lindsey, all expect to be raptured out of the physical world.  They will not in fact die, though the world itself will.  Their focus therefore is not, as Kierkegaard would have it, on the “earnest thought” each individual can have when he or she considers his or her own death; instead it is really where Victor Eremita would have it, on the passing away of the world while you, the viewer or reader, look on from a safe distance.  In short, the fundamentalist eschatology reflects an esthetic worldview.

If eschatological films have such potential to lead viewers away from the religious consciousness and towards the esthetic, is it possible to create films which heighten earnestness instead?  Kierkegaard paid a great deal of attention to religious communication, and his observations on print media are relevant to film as well.  The fundamental (no pun intended) mistake of most Christian science fiction, and indeed of most fundamentalist eschatology, is to imply that the good person will avoid trials and tribulations.  Evangelicals generally do know better, but that is the message that is conveyed. In fact, the Apocalypse of John does not claim that Christians will be raptured away to escape the tribulations he describes; rather, his message to readers is to remain faithful to Christ through the tribulations and to trust that God is Lord of history.  Neither do Paul or the Gospels state that after the Rapture there will be a time of persecution for those Christians who weren’t good enough or evangelical enough to escape, but are still too good to go along with the Beast and his minions; rather, it is assumed that Christians will be caught up to Heaven only when Jesus appears to judge the world, at the end of history.  The Biblical witness is, therefore, that speculations on what will happen “after the Rapture” are misleading.  Nothing will happen; the Rapture is the last event in the world’s life, just as death is the last event in the individual’s life. The lesson of apocalyptic is how to live in the last days.  And from a Kierkegaardian perspective, every individual lives in the last days, I in mine and you in yours.

How might we tell such a story?  Kierkegaard offers some hints in his work, Two Ages.  This short piece is a literary review of a romance novel published in Copenhagen in 1845.  By placing the ethical and religious message in an apparently nonreligious medium, the author gains two things.  First, the message is slipped in on the reader, who likely did not expect to find a call to “leap into the arms of God” in a literary review. When the message comes where it wasn’t expected, it can startle, and perhaps seem fresh and new.  Second, when the religious message comes through a novel or a review of one, it comes “without authority,” to use another of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms.  It does not thunder from heaven; it stands next to you and talks face-to-face, as an equal if not a servant.

How could one make an eschatological movie like that?  The film versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are just such movies.  Instead of writing preachy, avowedly Christian and “prophetic” books, Tolkien wrote “without authority.”  Instead of didactic prose which would require only acquiescence from the reader, he wrote complicated tales of fantasy which demand imagination and reflection, and effort.  It is a gospel that can sneak up on you and suck you in without you knowing what is happening, at the risk that you might wander in and out without detecting the good news offered to you there.  By contrast, the eschatological Christian science fiction is presented as literally true, or about to become true, with fictional elements thrown in to make an interesting story.  Instead of fairy tales, they present avowed prophecy, with the implied threat that if you don’t listen to the warning you will suffer as the characters in the story do.  It would seem as if no two genres could be further apart:  how can one usefully compare them?

Comparing such films as The Omega Code and Left Behind to The Lord of the Rings is further complicated by the fact that the production team for the Tolkien trilogy was not particularly religious. So we have the subtle symbolism and metaphor Tolkien employed in the books being further muted in being conveyed through a secular film project.  The task of comparing these films to the evangelical Protestant sci-fi films would seem to be an “apples and oranges” project which could have no real significance.

The first point of contact between these two bodies of film is that both are literally “eschatological.”  The evangelical films clearly deal with the death throes of a fallen world. The Lord of the Rings is likewise framed in eschatological terms of struggle against cosmic evil and chaos, and the impending death of the world. The more usual claim perhaps is that Middle Earth is “changing,” but this change is a real ending:  the immortal and magical elves are leaving, the days of wizards is passing, and soon the world will be left to Men.  Tolkien’s tales may seem to be more creation than eschatology, as the death of Middle Earth allows for the rise of the world of Men; but this combination is not absent from Scripture or fundamentalist films either, as the overthrow of the reign of the Antichrist clears the way for the New Jerusalem.[v]

The door to comparison has been opened; can we push through further?  Can we find anything meaningful or useful behind that door?  I believe Kierkegaard offers a way we can answer both questions, “Yes!”  First and more generally, there is much for even an evangelical to gain by appropriating Kierkegaard’s individualized use of apocalyptic language.  Kierkegaard himself did not really seek to discredit literal readings of Creation or eschatology or Scripture in general.  However, he did feel that the literal truth mattered less than the personal appropriation. Secondly and more specifically, we can analyze these very different eschatologies the way Kierkegaard compared various claimants to the Christian pedigree in his own day:  by examining their earnestness.  The earnest thought of death is intended, partly, to serve the individual as a touchstone for examining his or her own existential state.  It can also serve as an indicator of the earnestness of a religious understanding offered for one’s approval.  One point that comes through strikingly in the Ring trilogy is the seriousness with which the films take death.  True, in the Return of the King Gandalf tells Pippin of the blessed land that awaits them after death, leading the hobbit to affirm, “Well then, that’s not so bad.”  By contrast though, think of the distress Arwyn shows as Frodo lies dying on the border of Rivendell, or Sam shows as he lies apparently dead in Shelob’s lair.  Think of the profound grief of Theoden at the grave of his son.  Death is always seen as a loss, both for the dead one and those that loved him (or her).  Likewise, the death of Middle Earth is not eagerly or joyfully anticipated as a release from bondage or beginning of a new age; it is a fearful and mournful thing, even if it can lead to a happier future when the returned king will rule in peace and justice.  Tolkien treated (and Jackson treats) death as something which is indeed a loss, even if it is on another level a gain.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that it is by no means certain (at least not to the characters) that the death of Middle Earth will lead to anything good.  The quest of the Fellowship is a desperate gamble, “a fool’s hope” as Gandalf puts it.  Much depends, then, on how Middle Earth dies.  If it chooses shrewdness, caution, selfishness, or arrogance, it will lead to the age of the orc; if it dies fighting for what is good and true, defending the weak and giving to the needy and foolishly hoping and striving, it can lead to the age of Men.  That this Middle Earth will die is certain; the films chronicle only the manner and the results.

Finally, there is the films’ orientation towards their viewer.  Kierkegaard himself devoted considerable attention to the matter of the author’s method and intent if the reader was to be “built up.”   Tolkien came to similar views through his consideration of myth and fairy stories.  Both desired that the reader put himself or herself in the tale, identify with it, learn from considering its values and insights, and personally appropriate what seemed good.  This aspect certainly comes through in the film trilogy as well.  The hobbits in particular are Everyman.[vi]  They are ordinary, and they know it.  Tolkien thought of himself as a hobbit, and there is nothing put-offish about the hobbits to keep the viewer from identifying with them.  But whichever character one might see oneself reflected in, they are examples and exemplars.  They do what is right simply because they refuse to give up.  And it is precisely because of their stubborn goodness that they must undertake the quest, and why they suffer.  As Saruman says to Gandalf and might have said to all of them, “You have chosen the way of pain.”  Because they are good, they suffer, they strive, and some even die.  Evangelical eschatological sci-fi films, by contrast, invite the viewer not to identify with the main characters.  It is only the mediocre Christians who are to be “left behind” to suffer tribulations and persecutions.  For the good ones, the true believers, the death of the world is a spectator sport.

Conclusions

There are a number of films which claim to be earnest Christianity, perhaps even prophecy.  These works claim to be literal Scripture depicting possible, probable or almost as good as certain versions of future events.  Some of thee films are produced for internal consumption by the Church while others are sent into the general marketplace to seek an audience among the unconverted as well.  I have argued that many of these near-future Christian science fiction films fail the test of earnestness, tend to lead their viewers away from the earnest thought of death, and hence are esthetic, no mater how sincerely they are offered as true gospel.  I have also argued that the Tolkien film trilogy, despite the fact that the films are not presented as religious, still contain enough true earnestness within the fairy tale medium to act as evangelium (as Tolkien would say) and to build up the viewer (as Kierkegaard would phrase it). The Tolkien movies use the death of Middle Earth to say something about the life of the individual who must choose whether to struggle to bring something better out of life or simply to surrender to the darkness.  By contrast, evangelical science fiction claims that what you do has no importance to the outcome.  All that matters is if you accept or reject the established will of God.  An oft repeated phrase, in these films and in much evangelical preaching today, is that “you cannot oppose the word of God.”  Whatever has been prophesied will occur, and there’s nothing you can or should do to change it.

The heroes of “Left Behind” are not exactly evil; if they were they would not be persecuted by the forces of the Antichrist.  But if they had been truly good, and particularly if they had believed the theology of the filmmakers, they would be safely in Heaven, watching the Tribulation from a safe distance.  The death of the world has no significance for the truly faithful, except as its onset moves them into the express lane to Paradise.  It is only a problem for other people.  This third-person relationship to the eschaton can lead to a similar detachment from the thought of one’s own death.  And this in turn can have profound consequences for political theology and theological politics.  For example, in The Omega Code 2:  Meggido, we see the President of the United States in hand-to-hand combat with the Antichrist.  By resisting first the blandishments and then the threats of the evil leader of the European Union, the President and most of the U.S. military has remained on God’s side.  The President has tried to personally kill the Antichrist, and of course has failed; but soon Jesus will come to throw him into the lake of fire.  Ultimately, all the actions anyone has taken have no greater significance than to help determine his or her own fate; success and failure are swallowed up in the final Paradise which follows the carnage of Armageddon.  In a report on the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes titled “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” several prominent evangelical leaders are shown repeating the theology of these movies as Christian doctrine, and suggesting (or outright claiming) that it is God’s will and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel should expel the Palestinians from the West Bank, that the Israeli Prime Minister who attempted to negotiate with them was assassinated for opposing the will of God, and that a nuclear world war triggered by Middle East tensions is absolutely unavoidable and is to be welcomed as the prelude to the return of Jesus.  Here we see the final payoff for the esthetic eschatology:  nationalism, reckless confrontation, unconcern for the other, and blind confidence in one’s own righteousness and one’s coming reward.

So the comparison I would draw between these film eschatologies is this:  In the Tolkien films the end of the world is frightful, the good bear an unfair portion of the suffering and may even die, the hand of Providence is often hidden and must be trusted on faith (“a fool’s hope”), and the death of an individual is tragic even if it is not the final end.  On the other hand, in Christian evangelical science fiction the end of the world is frightful only for the bad or mediocre people who do not escape it through the Rapture, the truly good do not suffer at all or bear any burden on behalf of the world, and one’s own actions do not matter in the slightest because the hand of Providence has written the whole story down already for those who believe.  Despite the fact that Tolkien deliberately wrote myth which veiled his Christian message, there can be no doubt that the films based on his writings come closer to the existential condition of the original Biblical writers and readers.  The Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes could hardly have believed that the prophecies of Daniel were intended to suggest that the good people were to be spared suffering.  Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Titus would never have thought the apocalyptic writings in Mark’s gospel didn’t apply to true Christians but only to false believers.  Christians who endured the persecutions of the Roman emperors certainly believed that they were living through the last days described by John of Patmos.  The apocalyptic writings on which evangelical Christian sci-fi is based were all written by and for believing communities which were enduring hardships at that very moment, by and for individuals who faced imminent death for the sake of their faith, who were living in the condition not of the blessed raptured ones but of those “left behind” in the movie.  The existential orientation of the apocalyptic Scriptures is that of the uncertain, powerless, innocent ones in a hostile world struggling to keep the faith with God and one another, even when God seemed far away.  The intent of those writings was to give the audience a message of hope and examples of faithful suffering obedience to imitate.

Despite the secular influences on them, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes closer to putting its characters and its viewers into a situation and state of being similar to that experienced by actual Bible-age people than do the so-called “literal” presentations of evangelical sci-fi.  In that state of being, the viewer is better enabled to make the sort of choices the original readers were called to make.  Fundamentalist sci-fi invites its viewers only to choose whether to believe the theology and thus escape all the hardships, or to suffer like the people in the movie.  It is really a disengaged stance which they are invited to adopt; which is also to say and esthetic stance, or as Kierkegaard also named it, an idolatrous stance.

The stories of the Ring and the Rapture come to us from earlier centuries; and yet both have resonated with the 21st Century American consciousness.  The story of the Rapture continues to offer what it always did:  the assurance that God reigns and justice will prevail, that history means something and is leading towards a beautiful consummation, and that in the end we will see that everything makes sense within the whole.  The Ring stories reassure us differently, by showing that we can make sense, and bring sense out of the senselessness we feel surrounding us.  The first I might call a cosmological consolation, the second an ethical consolation.  Both give reassurance that evil and chaos are not the end.[vii]  American culture has struggled for years to hide from the hard necessities of mortality.  The result is a multibillion dollar industrial complex of health care and cosmetics designed to remove sickness, age and death from our sight.  9/11 dealt a serious blow to that illusion.  It is harder to believe oneself immortal and omnipotent after such a devastating event brought about with such relative ease.  As the insecurity of mortality produces anxiety, the ground is prepared for true earnestness to take root.  It is natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories which seek to place individual lives and apparent chaos into a wider, ultimately rational and benevolent context.  It is also natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories showing how individuals can face and conquer their fear and the chaos of an often hostile world, be good and finally help produce goodness despite it all.

If I had to choose, I would choose the Ring stories over the Rapture films.  I have already discussed my theological and psychological reasons for this preference.  Even stronger are my political concerns.  Rapture theology has been used and is used to demonize “them”  and exalt “us,” rendering self-criticism all but impossible and making the other nothing more than a stock villain in one’s own play.  Rapture theology often inspires not only confidence in God’s final victory, but also a disregard for the present reality and people.  In an age that sees such things as the Tulsa bombing, the Sarin gas attacks in Japan, and the destruction of the World Trade Center, this sort of “religion” (which I, following Calvin and Kierkegaard both, would name “idolatry”) is too dangerous for words.  It is not just a casual concern whether a religious phenomenon is “true” or not; all should be concerned when esthetic, shallow passions masquerade as religion and take on divine prerogatives in order to lay a road of destruction for the individuals to follow.  And it should be a concern for everyone to strive for that true earnestness, and to urge others towards earnestness, which can help each one best deal with these anxious times and best preserve oneself and the whole.


[i] Three Discourses, pp. 83-84

[ii] 1 Thess. 5:2; also 2 Peter 3:10, Rev. 3:3, and others

[iii] The Omega Code:  TBN Films, Inc. 1999.

[iv] Left Behind:  the movie  Cloud Ten Pictures, 2000.

[v] Revelations 21-22

[vi] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World;  (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1983) pp. 134-35

[vii] These are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one can both see one’s fears and burdens as part of a larger story and strive to play out one’s own part in it as best it can be.  Tolkien’s characters certainly see themselves as parts of the greater story, without this leading them away from earnestness.