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The Apocalypse...and Cinema?

C'est moi, again, Zach Cheney. A colleague in the Department of Cinematic Arts heard a rumor that I'd been yapping about a biblical definition of the "apocalypse." Perhaps s/he knew it was a part of my course Film & Social Issues, or perhaps someone overheard a conversation that related "apocalypse" to the current Coronavirus outbreak. The word is being used a lot today, isn't it? It's typically used as a synonym for "doomsday" and "the end of the world." There's something to the second term, but the first ("doomsday") not so much. In a nutshell, a biblical notion of "apocalypse" is—and I'm lifting this from biblical scholar N.T. Wright—"God's future breaking into our present."

Here's the idea: the present age is lousy. It's rife with sickness and death and sin and brokenness and all things bleak and hopeless. The future, however, is a different story. Already, by the third chapter of Genesis, God infuses the present (i.e., Adam and Eve just after their fall into sin) with hope of His future. He promises them that a day will come when he will fix creation, and he'll start to do this by crushing the head of the serpent, the evil one. Throughout Scripture, this hope endures, always despite human failure and the crumbling decay of the world humans occupy. The prophetic books are rich with word-pictures of God renewing not only his people but the earth itself. When Jesus arrives on the scene, he gives countless apocalyptic promises echoed by Paul and the other New Testament writers of a day that will come when God will make all things right.

These promises come to a climax in John's book of Revelation, a book sometimes titled "The Apocalypse of John." In another course I teach, Media Criticism & Theory, I make an argument for the biblical writings of John being cinematic in nature. I'll spare you that breakdown right now but first this quick point: John uses words to paint pictures that are striking, vivid, imaginative, and true. His whole notion of light shining into the darkness (a motif you see throughout his letters) is, I think, fundamentally cinematic. What is cinema, after all, if not light projected into darkness? The Light, as John sees it, is Life and the Truth. Light, Life, and Truth become human in the divine person of Jesus, the one who will return at the apocalypse, bringing his kingdom with him, uniting heaven with earth and, finally, making All Things New.

That's an image. But what does it have to do with the here and now, especially when the here and now is being overwhelmed with fear that "the end of the world" involves nothing but death and destruction? The answer to any question of this sort always, always, always involves turning away from worldly wisdom and toward at the King. The King is the one who broke into this world as an impoverished and unattractive (look it up!) boy-turned-man, baby-turned-carpenter-turned-traveling-teacher, and gave up everything in order to be nothing. He humbled himself, he served others, he healed the sick, he gave of the little he had, and he was utterly faithful to what he needed to do, even when that meant suffering and dying. That, that, is the apocalypse. That is God's future breaking into and shattering the present, in all of its sufferings and all of its evil. The future, God's future, doesn't look like the present. So, when that future breaks into this present, people notice it.

The amazing thing about the apocalypse, in this sense, is (1) that any one of us can be a part of it and (2) that it's actually good news. Rather than a dreaded day of judgment—which it does also necessarily entail—it is a day of hope and promise, a day of liberation and healing and restoration. To those who belong to the King, the apocalypse is empowering, enabling, and life-giving. It doesn't work by being passive, however. Apocalypse—God's future invading our present—only happens when the body of Christ—the hands and feet of the King—get to work by being Jesus to those around us. When we do this, we don't become immune to earthly viruses. Maybe the contrary, in fact. We do, however, show the world what hope looks like, what real apocalypse looks like, what Jesus looks like.

The present is sick. But the present is also shot through with images of the apocalypse, images of the King's people keeping in touch with each other, bringing food and supplies to the weak and sick, donating what they have, praying faithfully, and jumping at every opportunity to do what Jesus would do to usher in the King's rule despite all else.

As I close this out, I'll just say that movies are very capable of creating these images. Not trite, simplistic, moralistic, easy images, but complex and beautiful and powerful images that gesture toward hope for God's tomorrow conquering our today. Without mentioning any titles, I'll offer some such images here. To our Cinematic Arts students: when you recite those words, "Thy Kingdom come," you're praying for God's apocalyptic future to break into our present. So, please create apocalyptic images! Be apocalyptic people! Fix this world by bringing grace into it!


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