The Long View 2005-03-21: Eschatology: Personal, Universal, and Musical

In a remarkable coincidence, I happen to be fairly close to Point Pleasant, NJ today. I have noticed a lack of apocalyptic activity.

I also note that anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, can be used to describe the plot of Last Call.


Eschatology: Personal, Universal, and Musical

 

In the Star Trek movies, there are references to occasions (never shown on screen) in which people who were beamed up by the transporter were seriously garbled in transmission. Something like that could be what will happen in the Terry Schiavo case. If this matter is subsumed into the federal system, there is no way to predict what it will look like when it appears at the district-court level, and on the various levels of appeal. This is not a good test case, if for no other reason than that the facts, even the biology, are unclear. It is particularly not a good case for the right-to-life position: we know from experience that the federal courts do not adopt a position of "first, do no harm" in the face of uncertainty.

I have not yet seen the phrase, "bill of attainder," appear in this debate, but I await it hourly.

* * *

Something else I note with dread is the possibility of a fashion for television series with a biblical-doomsday premise. Doomsday in one form or another is always with us, but the public's long love affair with asteroids and viruses has faded. In these latter days, the strong delusion has gripped the nation's network television executives that there is a huge religion-market that they have been missing, and that they can access it by adapting the Book of Revelation. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on one of these efforts: Apocalypse Now, and for the Next Five Weeks:

With a premiere set for April 13, NBC's "Revelations" follows the efforts of Sister Josepha Montifiore, a globe-trotting nun played by Natascha McElhone, and Dr. Richard Massey, a Harvard astrophysicist (and religious skeptic, of course) played by Bill Pullman, to determine whether the end of the world is indeed near...Most notably, the entire series rests on the premise that the two lead characters can somehow forestall the final clash between God and Satan - an interpretation anathema to most end-times literalists.

Though of course the series has not yet premiered, and NBC has not offered me review disks, it is hard to avoid the prediction that this series will have about as much to do with any recognizable form of Christian eschatology as orange-flavor drink does with orange juice. Even the characters are wrongly constructed. Astrophysicists are often quite metaphysically minded: if the screenwriters wanted a skeptic, they should have used a psychologist, or perhaps an evolutionary biologist.

The really interesting point about the the NBC series is that it is already derivative, of the appalling FOX series, Point Pleasant. This is yet another series with 30-year-old high school students, with the twist that one of them is a potential teenage Antichrist. A bare-midriffed girl Antichrist. Some of the creators of the old Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise were involved in this fiasco, thus providing yet more evidence for the proposition that the worst mistakes can be made only by the smartest people.

Aside from the general cluelessness of the premise, I noted the series chiefly because the title blackens the name of an unoffending town on the Jersey Shore. Just the other day, I heard someone refer to New Jersey as "the Hell State." I thought that excessive, but maybe I have not been paying attention.

* * *

One can only repeat that every film with an apocalyptic premise need not be a horror movie. To appreciate the artistic potential of the apocalyptic texts, however, one must first understand what sort of thing they are. Stephen O'Leary addressed the question at length in his book, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. I summarized his observations in a review:

Arguing the Apocalypse amplifies the long-standing thesis that apocalyptic is essentially a form of drama. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Revelation, which looks for all the world like a classical Greek play; it even has a chorus.) Now drama, according to Aristotle, comes in two flavors. There is tragedy, which features good and evil characters who proceed to an inevitable catastrophe. Dramatic plots tend to be about how sin is met with revenge. Comedy, on the other hand, is about foolish or mistaken characters who stumble into a happy ending. Error is cured by enlightenment, eventuating in reconciliation.

There are, of course, both tragic and comedic elements in Biblical eschatology. The wicked are really and irredeemably wicked. On the other hand, even the best of the good are more than a little confused, so much so that they are not saved by their own efforts. Thus, in Anatomy of Criticism, the great Northrop Frye could go so far as to characterize the literary form of the Bible as comedy. As he explained:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypical theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

The matrimonial metaphors of comedy, of course, are among those that characterize the parousia in Revelation.

As I have noted before, and probably will note again whenever the subject comes up, the progressive-rock group Genesis made good use of these insights many years ago in the song-cycle Supper's Ready, which appeared in the album Foxtrot.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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