Christian Formation in Our Apocalyptic Age
Every summer brings another string of apocalyptic blockbusters to the movie theaters. Godzilla rises from the sea. A meteor smashes into the earth. Volcanoes threaten towns; viruses spread like wildfire; aliens invade. Robots take over, evolving into ex machinas. Terrorists storm the White House. Superheroes do their superheroics against the backdrop of inky Gotham cityscapes. Zombies occupy Pemberly, of all places, so it's a good thing Elizabeth Bennet is a ninja. It's as if every Hollywood studio has hired Left Behind creators Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins as script consultants.
If we can trust the signals coming from pop culture, we live in a world charged with what one film critic, following Kierkegaard, calls "apocalyptic dread."
Dystopian film is hardly new. Fritz Lang's Metropolis was released in 1926, the Cold War haunted Hollywood for decades, and the 1970s produced formulaic disaster films. What's new is the scale of the threats, and the frequency of apocalyptic drama. Nuclear families are still the focus of many stories—Tom Cruise wants to reunite his already-broken family when the Martians invade in Spielberg's War of the Worlds—but the family is trying to survive a global catastrophe now, not a burning building or a crashed airliner. As for frequency: Film scholar Kristen Thompson writes that "twenty-five disaster movies appeared throughout the eighties. But in the nineties fifty-six disaster movies were released, with fourteen films released in the peak year 1997." Wikipedia lists over 60 "apocalyptic" films and television shows from the period 2000–2009, and nearly as many for the period 2010–2016.
Elite culture betrays a similar level of anxiety. Cormac McCarthy's The Road took the dark foreboding of No Country for Old Men several leagues further. Serious analyses of contemporary civilization employ the word "end" with unsettling frequency. Francis Fukuyama got ahead of the pack with his pre-9/11 The End of History. One of Rene Girard's last books was Battling to the End, and David Goldman, writing under the pseudonym Spengler, warns about coming demographic disaster in a book with the faux-reassuring title, It's Not the End of the World, It's Just the End of You. Survivalists and investment advisors explain how to survive and even profit from the end of the world as we know it. Political writers speak of the "end of the nation state," and Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow warns of the "end of marriage."
Writers who don't use overtly apocalyptic language still warn that we are in an age of catastrophic change. Zygmunt Bauman has argued in several books that we now live in a "liquid" society, in which all formerly sure ground has become unstable. Distinctions apparently rooted in the nature of things—like male and female—are deconstructed, and moral principles once thought to be inescapable are flouted. All that's solid melts into air, into thin air.
Threats come from every direction at once. Depending on your politics, you might spend your sleepless nights worrying over Islamic terror or over global warming. Depending on whom you to talk to, either (or both) threaten to bring about TEOTWAWKI, "the end of the world as we know it." For some, declining birthrates pose a quieter, but more decisive threat. That, combined with the surge of immigration, has sharpened questions about the fate of Europe: A generation from now, will Europe still be populated by Europeans? The recession of 2008 added to our doomsday fears. The prospect that our greatest technological achievements will lead to our downfall produces its own brand of nightmares: of robots taking over the world, of our brains becoming little more than nodes in a Google network, of inescapable surveillance and the "end of privacy." (I found five books on Google with that title). A tiny minority are energized by all this, for they see the end of humanity as cracking open the door for trans-human existence.
Some will want to cut through the details and answer the question "Do we live in an apocalyptic age?" with a one-word affirmative: Trump.
The Gift of Calm
I don't wish to belittle these fears. Many of the threats are real, and cumulatively they seem all-encompassing. And we are singularly ill-equipped to grapple with them. As Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson point out in How to Survive the Apocalypse, moderns think that these disasters are entirely of our own making and that salvation is therefore entirely in our own hands. If we face an end, it's not a divine judgment, but the result of our technological or political failures. We can't look to heaven for help; we have to find technical and political solutions to problems created by our technology and politics. We are not the first civilization to be jolted by apocalyptic dread, but we are one of the first to experience the dread of secular apocalypse.
In these circumstances, the Church offers the gift of calm. That may occasion some surprise, even among Christians. After all, the Bible is one of the chief sources of apocalyptic; the last book of the Christian Bible is the first book ever to bear the title "Apocalypse." Few texts present as relentless a parade of terrors as the book of Revelation. Stars fall from heaven and poison water supplies. Dreadful locust-scorpions arise from hell to torment men. A beast like a dragon comes from the sea to prey on the saints, to overcome and kill them. Earthquakes and lightning and hailstorms come in the wake of the pouring out of vials of wrath-wine.
But these disasters don't make the Apocalypse apocalyptic. In the Olivet Discourse, indeed, Jesus repeatedly says that the things we think of as signs of the end are not signs of the end. Wars and rumors of war—but the end is not yet. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, famines and earthquakes—but these are the beginnings of birth pangs. Persecution, false prophets, and apostasy move closer to the end, but the end that Jesus is talking about comes only after "the gospel of the kingdom has been preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations" (Matt. 24:4–14). The keynote of Jesus' apocalyptic teaching is the keynote of his post-Resurrection appearances: Do not be afraid. As Jesus tells the Twelve in the Upper Room after warning them of tribulation: "These things I have spoken to you, that you may be kept from stumbling" (John 16:1).
"Apocalypse" means "unveiling" or "revelation." It's from the same Greek root used in the Septuagint of Leviticus 18 to describe the uncovering of a woman's nakedness, and the Hebrew verb behind it describes the stripping of the land when Israel goes into exile. An apocalypse is not only or even mainly about destruction. It's also, primarily, about revelation. An apocalyptic age is one in which hidden things are revealed, secrets are uncovered. Apocalypse brings disasters and these are divine judgments, but the disasters are as much for revelation as for retribution.
The signs and wonders that accompany apocalyptic events are theophanic, manifestations of God's arrival. Wars, famines, and earthquakes announce the advent of the Judge, who shines light into dark places. The Church can remain calm, and counsel calmness, because the Judge's parousia is good news. In a world where wickedness dwells in safe houses, nothing is better news than Jesus' words, "There is nothing hidden that will not be made known . . . whatever is whispered will be shouted on housetops" (Luke 12:2–3). Apocalyptic announces an ending, the end of illusion and cover-up, and thus the unveiling of truth.
Biblically speaking, the question "Do we live in an apocalyptic age?" means not only "Is the world coming to an end?" but also "Are hidden things coming to light?" Postmoderns answer yes. Few words are more popular among postmodern theorists than "unmask." They claim to be unmasking the totalitarian aspirations of Enlightenment reason, and the brute machinery of its political/economic expression in liberal capitalism. We don't need to accept the nihilism at the heart of postmodern theory to agree that recent events have exposed the moral bankruptcy of our politics and the cruelty and greed that drives the global economy. Every other day, the sexual revolution reaches a fresh level of absurdity. Like Europeans reeling from the Great War, we stare into the abyssal emptiness at the heart of the modern order.
The Church also offers the gift of calm because we know that there is life after apocalypse. No end is final, not even the end, for the final judgment clears the way for the descent of a new heaven and new earth. Like all endings, the end, too, is a new beginning. If we face TEOTWAWKI, we can be confident that this will lead into the beginning of a world we don't yet know. And we can be confident that this world, too, belongs to a Creator who has not let go of his beloved creation.
Signs & Agents
Martyrs play a critical role in all biblical apocalypses. The Greek martus/martyria means "witness," most commonly a witness in a courtroom. Jesus' disciples are martyrs because in the great lawsuit that is human history they are witnesses to God's kingdom come. In the New Testament, martus edges toward our word "martyr," especially in apocalyptic texts, where witnesses face opposition that can turn murderous. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warns that the disciples will be delivered to tribulation, hated by all nations for Jesus' sake. The pressure will grow so great that many will abandon Jesus to follow one or another of the false prophets that will arise. This persecution is linked with what Jesus calls the "abomination of desolation," the "abomination that causes desolation." In Revelation, the harlot Babylon is the mother of abominations (ch. 17), and her central abomination is drinking martyr blood.
Martyrdom is more than a sign of impending doom. Martyrs are agents of apocalypse. Martyrdom strips away pretense to expose the true face of the world—the harlotry of the harlot and the bestiality of the beast. Martyrs also bring about apocalyptic endings. When Babylon drinks holy blood, she becomes drunk and ultimately falls.
In every age, the Church is called to martyrdom. Every disciple is called to be a witness to Jesus, no matter what pressures he faces, no matter what the cost. Some disciples are called to give their lives for their witness. In an apocalyptic age such as ours, the call to martyrdom is intensified because the stakes are higher. While we shouldn't court persecution, we must be prepared for it.
Jesus warned his disciples not to prepare a canned witness, but to speak the words that the Spirit gives in the moment. The Spirit makes martyrs, conforming disciples to the original Witness, Jesus. But the Spirit makes martyrs through means. Formation in an apocalyptic age must prepare believers for that moment of crisis. In every age, but especially in an apocalyptic age, Christian formation means making martyrs.
Revelation presents martyrs as priests, kings, and prophets. Those beheaded for Jesus, who have replicated the witness of John the Baptist, are "priests of God and of Christ" who reign as kings for a thousand years (Rev. 20:6). Like John himself, they are among the Lord's servant-prophets (Rev. 10:7). Martyrs are priests after the order of Jesus, offering their own lives as sacrifices to God.
Martyrs are also holy warriors who fight the enemies of the Church with their witness, and by courageous witness expose and overcome the powers. What Jesus said about his own death applies also to martyr deaths: Now is the judgment of this world, now is the prince of this world cast out. Martyrs speak a prophetic word that destroys and makes new, a word that tears down and builds up, not only in their verbal witness but also in the testimony of their self-sacrifice. Martyrs are priests, kings, and prophets, and making martyrs involves the formation of priests, kings, and prophets.
Catechisms and theologians typically lay out the offices of Jesus as prophet-priest-king, but the order priest-king-prophet is more deeply rooted in the Bible. That sequence sets out the movement of Israel's history. Israel begins as a nation of priests, with a sanctuary and a high priest as its focal point. With Saul and David, a king is added, and the king becomes the main figure in Israel. During the turmoil of the divided kingdom and especially during and after the exile, prophets take center stage. This is not a bare historical sequence, but a maturation in godlikeness. Priests operate in temples; kings build and repair temples; but prophets receive and communicate temple designs from God. Priests are caretakers of the sacred house; kings are protectors and repairers of the house; prophets are sacred architects. Priests follow prescribed temple rituals; kings bear swords and have to make wise judgments; prophets speak to tear down and build up worlds.
Healthy formation is never done solely one-on-one, a single spiritual director authoritatively guiding an individual disciple. The formation of individuals takes place within the communion of the Church. It takes a village to make a martyr. And what we're after is not the formation of single outstanding heroic witnesses. We are striving to form communities of witness, martyr churches. We form pastors to equip them to form others, to form churches. What we hope for is not just a village that will form individuals. We hope to form a village of martyrs.
What disciplines are implied by the priest-king-prophet sequence? Let's take each in turn.
Virtually every act and movement of the priest is prescribed. When he sprinkles blood, he has to do it with the index finger of his right hand. He can't decide to do it with his left pinky (Lev. 14:16). When he puts an ascension offering into the altar, he has to stack it in a particular way: fire, then wood, then head, then suet, then entrails, then flesh (Lev. 1). He can't decide to put the head in last to break the monotony. He can go to certain places, but he can't go other places. He can touch and see many things no one else can see, but he's not allowed to touch or even to see the ark. Priests are under orders, and must learn obedience.
Much of the Torah that governs priests is ritual law, prescribing what the priest is supposed to do under -particular circumstances—whether they're governed by time (morning and evening offerings, prescribed new moon offerings, festival days) or by circumstances (when someone sins in this way, offer this; when someone becomes impure through this means, purify in this way). A priest's life is taken up doing the same things over and over and over again, day in and day out.
Nothing seems more pointless, boring, and useless to us than scripted ritual behavior. It doesn't appear to make us wise or discerning but to turn us into mindless robots. It's a supreme example of heteronomy, submission to the law of another, and we prize autonomy above all. As Dru Johnson argues in his recent Knowledge by Ritual, however, the Bible directly connects ritual with knowledge. When Abraham asks how he can know he will inherit the land, Yahweh doesn't give him a lecture on divine immutability. He prescribes a ritual, so that Abram will "come to know" what he doesn't know (Gen. 15), so that he will be confident of something he has doubted. Israel keeps the feast of booths so that later generations will "know" (Lev. 23:42–43).
Behind the ritualized obedience of priestly training and ministry is an assumption about authority. Authority is not a necessary evil. It is a necessary good. Without authority, we could not achieve all that we can achieve as human beings; we would not live up to our fullest reality. As Victor Lee Austin points out in his wonderful Up with Authority, a musician reaches higher levels of skill when he is coached or put into an ensemble under the hand of a conductor. The conductor leads him—as all conductors do—into a destination he might not have anticipated.
In an apocalyptic age, authorities are shaken and their flaws exposed. We are tempted to strike out on our own, suspicious of all who command. Churches and seminaries have been far too accommodating to this cultural penchant for autonomy. Professors are reluctant to teach with authority; we want students to make up their own minds. Pastors are so spooked by the abuses of authority in previous ages that they rarely do anything with even a passing resemblance to the authoritative. Churches and seminaries are often reluctant to impose even the most basic of liturgical disciplines on members and students.
Churches, seminaries, and discipleship programs that eschew authority cannot make martyrs and so are not prepared for our apocalyptic age. Parishioners are formed in prescribed ritual; pastors must be liturgically formed so they can lead formative liturgy. That cannot happen without a willingness to take on the responsibility of authority. It cannot happen unless those authorized to rule believe they have the right to be obeyed.
The central ritual of the Christian Church is the Eucharist. It's the one thing that Jesus said to "do" in our gatherings, and Paul hints that every gathering of the Church was a gathering for a meal. At the Lord's Table, we offer a sacrifice of praise, and so are patterned to be living sacrifices. At the Lord's Table, we share bread and wine, and so are formed as a body of grateful givers and receivers. At the Lord's Table, we become one body because we partake of one loaf, and a body that has consumed Jesus together is resilient when threats arise. Thomas Aquinas taught that while natural food turns into us, spiritual food turns us into itself. As we eat and drink Jesus the martyr, the Spirit makes us over into martyrs.
The Eucharist is the one ritual that Jesus told us to do, and yet many churches do it only rarely. This is as true in "high" church congregations as in "low" ones. Nothing is more important for the formation of a community of witnesses in the age of apocalypse than regular participation in the Eucharistic feast.
Martyrs learn obedience. Martyrs are made by the liturgy. Martyrs also sing. Witnesses are made by music.
It may seem odd to connect music and singing with kingship. Most of the musicians in the Bible are priests. When the priesthood was reorganized in the time of David, many were deployed as musicians and singers. Yet throughout the Bible, music is linked with kingship. The first references to music occur in Genesis 4, where Jubal is named the "father of those who play the lyre and the pipe," and is the son of Lamech, the first king. David is the sweet Psalmist of Israel and the founder of Judah's dynasty. David fights Goliath with sling and stone, but when he faces spiritual enemies he fights with a lyre. "Blessed be God, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle," he writes at the beginning of Psalm 144—hands to grasp a sword, fingers to strum. Jehoshaphat is a king in the Davidic mold: when threatened by Moab and Ammon, he assembles the choir and orchestra and fights with music (2 Chr. 20).
Music is part of the spiritual armor of the church militant. The Spirit equipped Israel's judges and kings for battle, and Paul's exhortation to be "filled with the Spirit" is immediately followed by "speaking to one another in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:18–19). Music is so closely allied with the Spirit that we may say that the Spirit is the music of God, the breath of the Father that glorifies the eternal Word. Singing in the Spirit, we are filled with joy. We do not sing merely because we are joyful, but (as 1 Chr. 16 puts it) to become joyful. Singing in the Spirit, we become courageous, as we are filled by the Spirit who clothed Gideon, Samson, Saul, and David.
Music plays a central role in the making of martyrs in the book of Revelation. We first see martyrs under the altar, crying out for vengeance and vindication. They are told that there need to be more martyrs, and immediately 144,000 are marked with the name of God as sacrifices and priests. When we next see the 144,000, they are standing on Mount Zion around the Lamb, learning a heavenly song that only they can know. After they are harvested, we see them above the firmament, standing on a sea of glass that looks like fire, singing the Song of Moses and of the Lamb.
In an age of anxiety, the Church sings songs of gladness. In an age of fragmentation and loneliness, singers are bound together in one vibrating, harmonious body. Singing in the dark, martyr-kings anticipate the joys of the dawn to come.
Whether it is good or bad, well- or ill-conceived, music is formative. Churches whose music is drawn from pop music are being formed, but I doubt they are being formed for witness. Contemporary Christian music is more likely to produce consumers and lovers more than martyr-kings. As for lyrics, I make the humble suggestion that we start with the Bible's own songbook and then move from there. Let's learn the Psalms, all 150 of them, even the hard and mean ones. Once we've done that, we'll be in a position to make the music that will make us martyrs.
As Abraham Heschel argues, a prophet is a member of the divine council. Prophets are officers of the divine court. They are admitted to the court of the heavenly Judge, where they hear the Lord's word so they can speak it to the people. Prophetic words are effective not because of their superior rhetoric, but because they are the words of the Creator. Prophets speak the world into the grave because they pronounce God's No, and they bring new worlds into being by speaking God's powerful Yes.
As council members, prophets also have the privilege of the floor. They are prosecutors, reading the indictment against Israel, but they also intercede, presenting Israel's case to God. Abraham is called a prophet, the first prophet in Scripture, when he intercedes for Abimelech (Gen. 20). As Heschel points out, prophets respond to a death sentence for Israel not with "Thy will be done" but with "Thy will be changed" (especially Amos 3).
Prophets are made by priestly ritual and royal music. In modern theology, prophet and priest have been set in opposition, the prophet being the charismatic free-church preacher and the priest the Catholic ritualist. That doesn't fit the biblical record, where many of the prophets are priests as well. Prophets are formed in priestly ritual, by obedience to God's script; they are also formed by learning the music of kings. Indeed, one of the words for singing in the Hebrew Bible is "prophesying" (1 Chr. 25:1), and Elisha calls for musicians when he is asked to give an oracle. Song itself is prophetic, since it embodies the joy of future deliverance in the present.
Prophets are mainly made by the word—by the discipline of listening and by the more challenging discipline of speech. They absorb God's word, and they are bound to speak only that word to Israel. In our apocalyptic age, the church can make prophet-martyrs only by a pedagogy of the word. Seminaries will form shepherd-martyrs when they train future pastors to accept the rebuke of the word rather than subject the word to crucial scrutiny. Pastors will form churches of martyr-prophets only when they communicate the whole word of the Lord without hedging or apologizing or softening the edge of the Spirit's sword. Only witnesses made by the word are capable of speaking prophetic words that destroy and heal, that kill and make alive.
Prophecy is also a ministry of prayer. Prophet-martyrs pray to commune with God, but more commonly to appeal to God on behalf of his people. Prophets pray for relief from judgment, but they may also pray for judgment, as agents of apocalyptic exposure. Prophetic prayer is a function of formation in the word, through immersion in the prayers of David and the intense lamentations of Jeremiah, and in imitation of Jesus' dawn withdrawals to the mountain. Hearing God's word equips us to speak his language.
The Final Unveiling
The world will live on after the end, and that world we don't know belongs to the martyrs: to priestly witnesses trained in obedience and formed by consuming the body and blood of Jesus; to royal martyrs who learn to fight with tongues and fingers; to prophets who have so deeply listened to God's word that they can speak it to God, the Church, and the world. It will belong to those with the courage of the Benedictines who rebuilt on the ruins of Rome, and to those with the cunning of the Reformers who renewed Christendom after it had become a graveyard.
Apocalypse means "unveiling," and the Apocalypse is about the unveiling of Jesus. For us, too, the ultimate outcome of our apocalyptic moment will be a fuller, deeper revelation of the Christ. In Revelation, Jesus is already glorified at the beginning of the book. Before the falling stars, before the beasts and the harlot, before the battles, Jesus stands unveiled before John. The Apocalypse climaxes not in the unveiling of Jesus but in the unveiling of his Bride. It is about the revelation of Jesus Christ in his Bride. What will be unveiled in the world after TEOTWAWKI is the glory of Jesus shining through his witnesses.
Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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