Today my crazy neighbor reminded me of why I do what I do.
I don’t know his name or his diagnosis but he knows me, somehow; perhaps he has seen me in the back row at church. Once as we passed on the street he looked at me and snarled, “I know you! You’re nothing but a degenerate sinner!” (Thus he demonstrates that even crazy people can get one or two things right.)
Today I heard him again, as I walked with my daughter through the neighborhood, shouting at sky from his backyard in an almost musical lilt.
“The whole world will perish—yes it will, yes it will!”
I couldn’t make out all that he said, nor did I want to. But I got the gist. Here was apocalyptic fixation, mixed with unhinged fanaticism, or perhaps just simple lunacy and alcohol.
Earlier in the day I had been speaking with my publisher over the phone, hashing out some of the details of my first book launch. For years now I’ve been developing an assessment of biblical Apocalypse from a constructive rather than destructive perspective. To put it mildly, in the real world mine is a niche subject, and often it feels like I’m working in a vacuum of no-one-cares-about-your-stupid-book. It’s been hard enough to find people of a reasonable disposition even remotely interested in book of Revelation, let alone interested in a book about a book no one wants to care about.
Revelation deserves its mixed reputation. Its enigmatic images and fantastical sequences perhaps made sense in an age more mythical and mystical. But many modern readers of scripture want clinical histories and flat, factual reports—not art.
Moreover, the images of the Apocalypse have a long and disreputable association with the dogmatic and the disenfranchised. As Brian K. Blount deftly summarizes,
Unfortunately, in much of our middle- and upper-class Christian circles, Revelation sounds creepy and misguided, violent and deranged. And so, through its lack of use, the language has been surrendered to extremists like David Koresh or fundamentalist groups who misuse it as a literal plan for their kind of future. The crazier the people who use the book, the crazier the book itself seems to be. That is because we are looking at the book through the lens of their realities and issues. We allow those issues to determine how we should understand the book and whether the book should be preached and taught.
John’s Apocalypse is widely recognized as the spiritual intellectual property of the fringe. Although Blount is speaking explicitly in the context of African-American experience and perspective, his description of Revelation’s reluctant reception among Christians applies to virtually every known age of the church.
And because Blount is right, however reluctant to deal with the Apocalypse we might be, we must. It is a major part of our shared Christian heritage. Sincere fanatics and insincere demagogues won’t hesitate to leverage Revelation, to influence the world order in their favor, to whip up their constituencies into violent and unthinking frenzy. It’s up to Christians of a calmer disposition to intervene.
Marjorie Reeves identified apocalyptic thinking as an extension of our individual capacity to anticipate the death of our own persons—individuals extrapolate from the reality of their own impending demise the impending demise of the universe. All things end. We sense it, of ourselves and of others. Because we anticipate the demise of the self, we anticipate also the demise of all else.
If Reeves is right, apocalyptic thinking is not just a religious phenomenon alone. It’s part of the human condition. Christians, atheists, pagans, Buddhists—whatever. We all wonder how it ends. We all have expectations. We all have questions.
Today, quite by accident, my crazy neighbor reminded me that apocalyptic thinking—with its strange fixations and alarming ideologies—isn’t going to quietly fade away.
Today, as I trotted my daughter down the sidewalk, listening to a lonely, angry, fractured mind ranting in our direction about the inevitable apocalypse and the judgment of the wicked, I remembered why I’m doing what I’m doing.
For her, and for those who come after her, I want to leave the world with a sense of hope, to lift up a Christian vision anchored in in the present love of Jesus, and not the rage of a distant and arbitrary God. That’s why I spend time reading obscure books about an obscure book, just to put together an obscure book of my own. The church—and the world it inhabits—deserves something better than the prevailing apocalypticism.
 Brian K. Blount, “The Witness of Active Resistance: The Ethics of Revelation in African American Perspective,” in From Every People and Nation: The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective, ed. David M. Rhoads (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 701/4278.