Friday, June 15, 2012

The Apocalypse and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
and Music shall untune the sky!
—"A Song for St. Cecilia's Day," John Dryden*

"The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live."
 —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It's hard to deny that the apocalypse is a current cultural obsession. It's in the movies and tv shows we watch and the novels or comics we read. And it's been on my mind recently. 

Let me back up, briefly and define my term. When I say "apocalypse," I'm talking about an event that sweeps away the old order of things and replaces it with something new. Often, this involves the deaths of many, many people, and typically, the thing that replaces the old order is simple dis-order: a lack of society of any kind. There are plenty of exceptions; there's a whole sub-genre of post-apocalypse dystopias, where some horrible sweeping event like nuclear war or a sudden drop in birth rates leads to a dramatic change in the organization of society for the worse. At all events, the apocalypse is arguably real, real bad. Like, the worst thing ever, or close.

Yet we appear to be thinking about it, in one form or another, a great deal. On the surface, this seems healthy: it's important to be concerned about the possibility of the end of things, to consider that possibility and seek to avert it or at least confront what it might mean. And it's possible that this is what some apocalypse-focused culture is about: I would hold up, say, Soylent Green or The Road as at least partly if not primarily about warning people about the end of things as they are and getting them to face that possibility.

If that's all that we were doing by obsessing over the apocalypse, I would wipe my hands and declare everything to be okay, or at least acceptable. It's not all we're doing, though. It's certainly not why I saw, say Zombieland, or why I liked Y: the Last Man. I think we obsess over the apocalypse because (1) we're worried about the state of things as they are; things are clearly changing all around us, and it's unlikely they are changing for the better, and (2) we want to know that things will be okay anyway. When I see that Jesse Eisenberg survived the zombie apocalypse by being slightly neurotic and having a gun, I'm not thinking about how to keep the world from getting terrible; instead, I'm helping myself feel like everything's going to be okay: if this guy made it through something that awful, then I can too. I don't need to do anything about the state of things as they are.


I have a theory about where this impulse comes from. The U.S. is either a Christian society or a post-Christian one, depending where you are and who you ask. Either way, the impulses of Christians, positive and otherwise, are our society's impulses, or the ancestors of them. And one huge impulse in Christian history (related, in fact, to a similar impulse in many religions) has been to hope for a capital-A Apocalypse in bad times.

The classic, and probably earliest, example is the Book of Revelation in the Bible. When this book was written, Christians were the direct target of some very serious persecution. To be a Christian anywhere in the Roman Empire was a capital offense. So Christians in the Roman Empire needed some comfort; one way they received it was from this book, Revelation, that said that someday there would come a time when God would wipe away the old order of things and establish a new one, where everything would be great and you wouldn't have to worry about someone cutting your head off for thinking Jesus=God or drawing a fish in the sand.

And Christians have been returning to that hope, and to Revelation specifically, ever since, especially when things look rough. The question I want to raise is: is that a healthy thing to do? Is it really okay to say, "everything's going to be okay someday" in response to trying times? If so, is it okay to pair that with, "so we don't need to do anything about the way things are now"?


I want to answer by offering an alternative example. It's arguable that there have been few times or places worse than Germany under the Nazis. A series of changes over the course of a few short years led to a severe restriction of personal freedoms, imprisonment and death for dissenters and minorities, and compulsory participation for many in a war of aggression, earning the ire of the rest of the world. It was a bad time. 

Enter Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian born and raised in Germany before the rise of Nazism. I am not an expert on his life or theological writings, so I will try to be brief in my descriptions of his life and actions.†

Basically, as a pastor, Bonhoeffer had several options when the Nazis came to power. He could go along with the German Lutheran Church, which was taken over by the Nazis, expelled non-Aryans from the church and looked to Hitler as its leader. But he could also, I want to point out, have taken a traditional Christian route: preaching that the Apocalypse was near or that death and martyrdom were the best way to confront Nazism.

Instead of doing either, Bonhoeffer addressed the situation as a problem that he and his fellow Christians could address through active, open resistance and, failing that, subterfuge. During the Nazi years, Bonhoeffer helped start a Christian movement called the Confessing Church, which opposed the corrupt theology and policies of the German Lutheran Church at the time. He founded illegal underground seminaries, instructing students in them and traveling to encourage his fellow believers to resist and not give up hope. And in the end, Bonhoeffer joined a group that attempted to assassinate Hitler, for which he was later executed. 

Bonhoeffer's martyrdom is beside the point, though; what I want to say is that he had the opportunity to retreat into an apocalypse end-of-everything mindset and to encourage others to do so. But instead, he looked for ways to resist what was happening around him and to build something good in contrast to it. He was not concerned with his own well-being, but with "how the coming generation shall continue to live." 


I think that our impulse to consume and enjoy apocalypse-oriented culture is one sign among many that we have not learned from Bonhoeffer's example and that of people like him. And I wonder where that failure to learn will lead us.

*I first encountered this poem in a book (The Thirteen-Gun Salute) from one of my favorite book series, the Aubrey-Maturin novels (Master and Commander is the first; a pretty great movie was made in 2003 with this title, based on the novels). In it, the song is quoted to describe an unbelievably powerful storm's approach:
'Brother,' said Stephen, when the clerk had staggered off with the files clutched to his bosom, 'what is afoot?'
'I am not sure,' said Jack, 'but it may be your St Cecilia:

And when that last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.

Look out to the east, will you?' They gazed through the stern window, where deep purple was massing beneath the coppery glare.
†To those with further interest in Bonhoeffer's life, I recommend this volume, which I'm in the middle of. It's written with a great deal of clarity and insight, and it will give you a much better picture of the man's life than I have.
Photo notes: 
Photo 1 source:
Photo 2 source:
Photo 2 translation: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resistance worker and pastor, preached and confirmed believers in this church in 1932. Born February 2, 1906, killed April 9, 1949 in Flossenbr├╝ck concentration camp.  

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