All Eyes on the Apocalypse
From Bible study to big-screen blockbusters, two scholars explain why we can't get enough of the Book of Revelation.
Images and prophecies of the end of days have permeated the public consciousness for centuries, but recent years have seen an increasing fascination with the apocalypse. The 2013 Pepperdine Bible Lectures (PBL13) brought thousands to the Malibu campus to explore the powerful themes of the Book of Revelation, an epic story of the end of the world, sometimes called the joker in the deck of biblical texts. Pepperdine Magazine partnered with lectures director Mike Cope to continue the conversation with two scholars uniquely situated at the intersection of faith and popular culture—Pepperdine’s Craig Detweiler and Rochester College’s Greg Stevenson—who both participated in PBL13.
Greg, it seems to me that Christian communities don’t quite know what to do with the Book of Revelation. For some, it’s almost as if it’s the sun around which all other books of the Bible revolve, while for others, John’s apocalypse is almost completely ignored. Why do you think it’s all or nothing in many churches?
I think this all-or-nothing kind of approach that you get to the book is rather interesting, and I think the group that tends to do nothing with it is a little easier to understand. It really typically boils down to fear. They tend to be intimidated by the images of the book, by the symbolism, by the difficulty of understanding what John is talking about, and they tend to be horrified by what they see other groups doing with the Book of Revelation. So, they tend to just find it a lot safer to simply ignore.
The group for whom Revelation becomes everything, I think, is in some ways more interesting. It brings up the question, Why is the Left Behind series so popular? Why is it that cult groups that make a business out of predicting the end of the world, when they get a prediction wrong, they don’t stop, but they just go back to the drawing board to come up with a new prediction and keep on going?
I think the mistake there is the idea that Revelation somehow contains the plan of God and if we can just pay close enough attention then we can figure it out. It provides people a sense of control, a sense of self-importance, and this idea that somehow they possess divine knowledge that they’re at the center of God’s plan and they have insight of what God is up to that other people don’t have. Particularly for people who don’t feel very in control of their world, I think that way of reading Revelation can become very intoxicating.
Craig, there’s been a lot of interest in the apocalyptic themes of Revelation in recent years. Could you talk a little bit about the interest filmmakers have had in the book, both in the mainstream media and in the limited, Christian filmmaking world?
The pure number of films that traffic in Revelation and the end times is actually staggering—everywhere from broad comedies like This is the End to big-budget films like World War Z and Pacific Rim.
They’re almost all about the end of the world. There’s a British film called The World’s End that’s coming out. There was even a comedy this year called Rapture-Palooza.
So, mainstream filmmakers find it highly dramatic material both for comic or spectacle purposes, and there is an endless fascination and appetite for this kind of thing. There’s even another Left Behind movie being made. It’s being remade on an even bigger budget, this time starring Nicolas Cage.
I think there’s a general understanding both within filmmakers and within audiences that there is something wrong, whether some would put that as societal, political, or environmental. We might call it spiritual. This sense of unease is ripe for filmmakers to exploit on-screen.
Greg, you’ve raised concerns in your book, appropriately so I think, about the way Revelation has been understood in the past few decades. When I hear people kicking around the word “apocalyptic,” it reminds me of the famous line from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Can you tell us more about what apocalyptic literature was trying to do?
Today in our cultural lexicon, the term “apocalypse” is synonymous with “destruction” and the end of the world. But, the Greek term itself actually just means “an unveiling or revealing.” Although many people today take that to mean that Revelation is about the unfolding of a blueprint for the end of days, it’s really more about revealing the nature of this world, human nature, and what God is up to in the world.
One of the examples I tend to use a lot is that of a terminally ill patient. When such a person gets a diagnosis that they only have x number of weeks or months to live, what that does is suddenly clarify their reality and change how they make decisions on a day-by-day basis. I would suggest apocalypses do the same thing. It talks about the future and what God is going to be up to in the future as a way of trying to clarify the present and to talk about how to live faithfully right now.
I think popular culture is a good example of this. In some ways, a lot of popular culture, I think, is more faithful to the original idea of the apocalypse in this regard in that they tend to use these images of destruction and the end of the world and this idea of a war between good and evil as a way of addressing contemporary issues today, whether issues of society or personal life. So, this sort of apocalyptic war between good and evil becomes the backdrop for talking about how we navigate good and evil in society.
Whether it’s X-Men: Age of Apocalypse using apocalyptic as a way to address racism, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer using it to address female empowerment, or shows like Supernatural or Angel using the apocalypse as a way of talking about the struggle between good and evil in ourselves, we’ve seen this explosion in our culture of these apocalyptic-type movies and the drama that they create.
Really since 9/11, we’ve seen an explosion of zombie movies and apocalyptic-type movies where something ended on that day and the way our comfortable world and our comfortable way of seeing the world ended and created this anxiety. I think a lot of these movies are trying to tap into that because these creators understand apocalyptic as a way of getting to the heart of an issue by casting it against some cataclysmic threat.
Where I think they often fail, though, is when they remove God from the equation so that the apocalyptic becomes a way of talking about human behavior, which I think is valid but misses the point that human behavior also needs to be contextualized in the light of what God is doing. Ironically, I think the church does the exact opposite, where we make the Book of Revelation all about what God is doing and ignore its demands on us and our behavior.
Craig, as a believer and someone who knows the power that images can carry, what kind of impact could Revelation have again on the way Christians try to live out their faith in an increasingly post-Christian world?
I hope that, in a sense, our visual imagination can be rebaptized. That was something that was strong for C. S. Lewis. I think TV and some of these examples that Greg cited—even other series like Lost and Revolution—they speak in extreme terms to try and awaken us from a bit of our slumber and sort of call us to action. Whether it’s something like The Hunger Games or World War Z or even The Lord of the Rings, there are serious stakes and battles at hand as a way of calling us to action to be much more alert and cognizant—to not be a zombie in a sense.
I think with The Lord of the Rings we’re reminded that at the end of all of the battles, which are very real and the stakes are very high, you understand that at the end of the day Frodo needed a fellowship, he needed people around him; he couldn’t finish the journey alone. And, the goal of the journey was to get back to the Shire; that there would be peace and strawberries at the end of the journey. It’s worth whatever level of upheaval we may be feeling right now. If we can continue in faithfulness, on the other side of the battle we will find that the banquet that ends the Book of Revelation was worth all of the travail.
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Mike Cope is director of ministry outreach for Pepperdine University, author of five books, and popular blogger at www.preachermike.com
Craig Detweiler is an associate professor of communication at Pepperdine and director of the University’s Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture.
Greg Stevenson teaches New Testament at Rochester College in Michigan and is the author of a new book on Revelation, titled A Slaughtered Lamb.