The new year has brought about an abundance of apocalypse-themed television shows. Revelation, Hell, the Antichrist, Nostradamus, Mayan 2012 doomsday prophecies, Armageddon, Satan — this stuff is everywhere. Apocalypse is a big seller just now, as I suppose is to be expected given that this is 2012 and all.
I always watch these shows when I happen to catch one. It’s a kind of morbid fascination. It’s been so long since I subscribed to such a worldview and yet it was so saturating during some of the most formative years of my life that I can still step into that mindset and see through its eyes. It is a very hard life, that kind of fear.
In light of all this mainstream doom, what I want to get back to my real passion and the purpose of this blog: Christian mythology and our relationship to it in the context of our historical moment.
On Background: Genesis
In Cognitive Archaeology of the West, published over at Ribbonfarm last year, I presented my take on Genesis, the first book of the Bible. I believe Genesis is a collection of cultural traditions and histories that accurately reflect the origins of Western will-to-empire. These traditions and histories are not literally accurate, but rather are literarily accurate, and our challenge is to unpack them in accord with their original significances.
The central theme of Genesis is “the Fall,” the moment when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s edict not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the Genesis narrative God told Adam and Eve: “On the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Whatever the literal facts, the story represents quite explicitly a profound cognitive shift in the here-and-now temporal world. It was not something abstract that happened in some invisible spiritual dimension, and it had very tangible consequences. It was what we might call real.
Adam’s and Eve’s immediate reaction upon eating the forbidden fruit was to realize that they were naked, and to sew fig leaves together to cover themselves. This is in sharp contrast to their state just prior to the Fall event, in which “they were naked and felt no shame.” This seems like an odd plot device but it is, in my opinion, the crux of the Fall narrative. Our cultural norm is to reserve no-shame nakedness for times of intimacy. We are, to use Biblical poetry, “one flesh” with our partner; nakedness in front of anyone else makes us feel vulnerable and embarrassed, or possibly even traumatized, as anyone who’s had the nightmare of being naked back in high school can attest.
Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve experienced their environment as an intimate relationship. After the Fall, this intimacy with their environment was severed. The Garden and everyone in it, including the flora and fauna, became an “other” from which they felt compelled to hide their nakedness, in the same way our naked high school nightmare compels us to cover ourselves. The cognitive shift unleashed by the Fall was the perception of separateness, of being no longer integrated with the environment. Adam and Eve had severed their relationship with nature — or rather, they misperceived that they had done so.
God’s punishment for their transgression was to throw them out of the Garden and condemn them to an eternity of farming and all the ills that go with it. From there Genesis presents an account of the growth of settlements, then cities, then empires, all based on farming, that tightly aligns with what archaeology has uncovered of our civilization’s origins. In Genesis, however, these developments are unequivocally not “progress” — they are nothing less than the Fall of man from the grace of God, an irredeemably corrupt psychological virus that was, above all else, illusory — it was not real.
And hanging over the entire enterprise, God’s original warning remains: “you shall surely die.”
Revelation In Context
Any reading of Revelation, the final book in the Bible, must be taken in this context. The Bible as a whole does have a narrative arc: it begins in Genesis with cultural traditions and histories of our Western origins, and it ends in Revelation with dire prophecies of the end of Western civilization.
It is important to note that “the beginning” in Genesis and “the end” in Revelation do not speak of the beginning and end of the physical planet Earth, and I do not believe this was ever their intent. Any thoughtful reading of Genesis will demonstrate that vast amounts of time passed prior to the Fall; likewise, Revelation tells of the “end times,” but after the apocalypse the story of life on planet Earth continues indefinitely into the future. Genesis and Revelation sandwich the shelf life of Western empire only.
What Revelation represents is the logical outcome of the Fall’s cognitive shift. “You shall surely die” was not a threat, but rather an observation — separation from nature is a cognitive dysfunction in which any culture can exist for only so long. Ultimately this falsehood, this not real, will run smack up against nature itself, the real, and the consequences will necessarily look for all the world like the wrath of God. Empire is simply not sustainable, and those who refuse to repent will have hell to pay.
Revelation was written sometime after the 70 AD destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was one of many, many writings from a popular genre of the time, known as “apocalyptic literature.” No one can say for sure which “John” wrote Revelation, but it is clear that the object of his wrath was either Nero Caesar, who had implemented many of the evils described in Revelation, including heavy persecution of Jews; or possibly Domitian Caesar, who ruled in a similar style as Nero Caesar.
At the time Revelation was written, the change from Roman Republic to Roman Empire was still part of living memory; Jews, including the new Jewish sect called “Christian,” were under heavy persecution; and the Empire was engaged in wars of conquest, expanding its territories in all directions. Amid this dire situation, those Jews who considered themselves to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth fully expected his imminent return. Jesus himself stated that he would return in the midst of calamity, in power and glory, arriving from the clouds.
Whether John the author of Revelation actually experienced visions, or if he had a vision in the same way we might have a “vision” of something we want when we envision it, no one can say. But it seems clear to me that John was applying Jesus’s words to his current situation under Roman rule. All of Jesus’s “signs of the times” were present at the time of Revelation’s writing, and it would have made sense to him to expect the apocalypse Jesus promised.
Rome did in fact begin disintegrating not long after, and while the specific bizarre symbolisms may not have applied, the overall message did: empire shall come to ruin.
Fast forward 2000 years and here we are, another in the line of Mesopotamian-based empires on the verge of our own disintegration. The applicability of Revelation in our own time is astonishing, and lends credence to the idea that this book is a prophecy of the end of the world in our time.
But this is, I believe, a function of history’s rhythm, its rhyme, its self-referential fractal unfolding. Revelation was not meant for us; however, it applies because we have insisted on repeating all the same mistakes of our imperial forebears. Revelation details the logical conclusion first put forth by God in the Garden of Eden: “you shall surely die.” This seems mystical and magical to us because it is real, while our lives and worldviews are thoroughly saturated by the not real.
This context radically alters the traditional interpretations of Revelation’s message and symbolisms.
As presented in the History Channel documentaries and in churches everywhere, Revelation is understood as a timeline for the end of the world, culminating in a titanic battle of Good vs. Evil. During the final seven years of life-as-we-know-it, Satan manages to deceive everyone on Earth into worshipping him as God, via his unholy messiah the Antichrist, and the Antichrist’s sidekick the False Prophet. Everyone who refuses to go along with the satanic program — widely accepted as “saved,” born-again Christians and no one else — is persecuted unto death; meanwhile, the Antichrist causes wars of terrible destruction, while simultaneously natural disasters and disease run rampant, imperiling the entire planet.
Into this mess Jesus returns from the clouds with armies of angels. Jesus’s army wages war against the Antichrist, his warrior-demons, and all those who worship him. These armies meet at the battle of Armageddon, where Jesus’s armies are victorious. After Armageddon comes the great Judgment, whereupon Jesus sentences Satan, the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and everyone who aligned with these to an eternity in hell; and those who aligned with Jesus are saved, and live happily ever after on a reconstructed Earth, now permanently rid of Evil.
Needless to say, I do not buy this cartoonish interpretation of Revelation. It is silly on its face. But within the Genesis-Fall context, it makes perfect sense.
In Genesis, the Fall event marked a cognitive shift away from integration with Nature and into a worldview of separation. Integration is what we might call real; separation is what we might call not-real. Taking this a step further, real is what we might call good, and not-real is what we might call evil.
The war of Good vs. Evil can be understood as a war of real vs. not-real, or of integration vs. separation.
And this has indeed been the war in which every empire, particularly those springing from the first Mesopotamian empires, has been engaged. It is a war against the limits of nature, waged with farming, irrigation, fertilizers, and slavery, and later with dangerous chemicals, genetic tinkering, and more complex forms of monetary slavery. It is waged against those who do not wish to be separated; it is waged by everyone caught up in empire on behalf of those who profit in money and power from its continuation.
In our own time, the Mesopotamian strain of empire has grown to engulf nearly the entire Earth. In the past few decades, this process has been greatly accelerated through economic means in the form of global trade agreements, trade blocs such as the “Eurozone,” black-market demand for drugs and other contraband which heavily impacts indigenous peoples, and Western societies’ insatiable need for oil, among other things. Never before has empire had the ability to truly engulf the whole world — economically, militarily, culturally — the way it has in our own time.
The world as we know it has begun its unraveling process. But because our empire is global, and the natural limits against which we have waged war are now planetary, we are leaving nothing behind with which future generations might rebuild another empire in the same vein as previous empires. The final act of Mesopotamian imperial destiny is drawing to a permanent close; the long genealogy of empires that began with the cognitive shift illustrated by the Fall narrative is ending.
This is, I believe, the most relevant lens through which to understand Revelation. Moreover, I believe it is the only way to understand Revelation that doesn’t break from Genesis, and which doesn’t break the Bible’s narrative arc.