Monday, December 16, 2013

Apocalyptic Reading for Advent

I think I've used this title before--or maybe it was apocalyptic Advent viewing.  A few years ago, felled by flu, my spouse and I spent an Advent week-end watching the complete first season of The Walking Dead;  I wrote about it in this blog post.

Those of you who don't come from religious traditions may not think of the 4 Sundays before Christmas as Advent; you probably just see it as the last week-ends for shopping before the holiday.  Those of you who don't come from liturgical church traditions may not think of Advent as a time of apocalypse.  But we read the ancient prophets, like Isaiah, while remembering to stay alert and watch for the light.  Some years, the texts stress the rebuilding of the ruined devastations of human endeavor; some years, the focus remains on the ruins.  It's ancient apocalypse, but it's eschatology nonetheless. 

Just after Thanksgiving, I began Margaret Atwood's MaddAdddam, the 3rd in her apocalyptic trilogy.  I must confess that I didn't find this book as compelling as the first two.  Is it because it wasn't covering much new ground?  Am I tired of Atwood's world?  Did I not connect with the characters?

I did find the stories of the world just before the crash to be the most compelling part, but even those stories didn't wake me up at night and compel me to read.

I found myself interested in the whole issue of narrative, since this novel utilizes the technique of weaving stories told to a variety of audiences.  It asks how we come to know what we believe to be true.  It's got some implications for religion, which I talk about in this blog post on my theology blog.

It also has interesting implications for those of us who write.  The characters tell stories to all sorts of creatures, from regular humans to genetically engineered humans to the bees.  One character wonders why they do this:  ". . .  it was a reassuring story:  that the dead were not entirely dead but were alive in a different way; a paler way admittedly, and somewhat darker.  But still able to send messages, if only such messages could be recognized and deciphered.  People need such stories, Pilar said once, because however dark, a darkness with voices in t is better than a silent void" (p. 154).

So for those of us who feel that our creative work has no more significance than talking to the bees, perhaps that is solace.  At one point, the same character wonders, "Is that what writing amounts to?  The voice your ghost would have if you had a voice?" (p. 283)  The character is teaching one of the illiterate genetically engineered Crakers to read and write.  What she cannot anticipate is that her journals, scrawled in isolation, will later become religious texts, held in holy awe.

Speaking of that transformation, I've moved on to reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  It, too, has an apocalyptic tone.  I'm only halfway through it, but again and again, Aslan notes the apocalyptic times in which Jesus moved.

Aslan also talks about the culture of first century Palestine as one of a widening chasm between rich and poor, with not much of a middle class in between.  The more I read, the more this world reminds me of the one in which we now live--as does Atwood's trilogy.

When I was younger, I spent time thinking about the end of Rome and its similarities to the U.S. at the end of the 20th century.  But Aslan's case fascinates too.  If we're living in a similar time, will we see apocalyptic fury erupt?  Will we see new religious movements take hold?

How will these developments transform the world so that we're still talking about it two centuries later?

Or will the world be like the one Atwood describes, where it's difficult to imagine that a culture will emerge from the ashes?

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