The Last Days & the Church
Walker Percy’s novels, I am sure, are not intended to be read as apocalyptic literature. Yet, one of the pleasures of his recent The Thanatos Syndrome is the playful and relaxed way in which he alludes to many of the eschatological themes that have become staples of popular apocalyptic. The author seems to go out of his way to discuss the special significance of the Jews and Israel in the Last Days, the “deluding influence” spoken of by St. Paul (because of which “words don’t signify” anymore), the suggestion that everything will occur by the end of the century, and other such matters. These are the things one might expect to hear late at night over cable television from an urgent preacher with elaborately styled hair. Percy nowhere baldly endorses an eschatological explanation of what goes on in his story. The end-of-the-world themes are stated by a priest of demonstrably unsound mind, and through a disgraced psychiatrist who seems determined to misunderstand them. It is the humble and disreputable who can prophesy, because no one will take them seriously. It is hard to fault this approach. Unless one intends to write a “prophetic novel,” the only way to address these issues in fiction is to go lightly. However, on the principle that fools rush in where wise men fear to tread, I will assume here that the intimations Percy offers are more than contemporary literary coloring. The bluntest possible interpretation would be that some adults now living will see the Second Coming. If this is the case, what should the Church be doing? How should it relate to the world? What do you do when apocalypse becomes more than a literary appreciation of certain biblical texts?
One way the Church neglects its responsibility to propound this aspect of Christ’s message is to affect total disinterest in the possibility that the Scriptures in question might really have something to say about the future. The writers of Daniel, II Thessalonians, and Revelation no doubt had particular persons and events in mind when they set down what had been revealed to them about the culmination of history. One suspects that their private surmises about the meaning of these revelations were disappointed. But to dismiss the predictive prophecy in these and other texts because the world did not end when their writers seem to have assumed it would simply ignores the way correct forecasts work.
Information about the future is not all that hard to come by. But it is very dangerous to try to paint a total picture. For instance, the “technical” stock-market analysts are surprisingly good at forecasting how certain aspects of the market will perform over a period of months. But they can tell you nothing about what particular real-world events will be the proximate causes of the transactions that move the market to act in accordance with their forecasts. They don’t even purport to say what the economy, which the market is supposed to represent, will do.
Take a spookier example. Back in the 1890s, some British war correspondents collaborated on a book called The Great War. The book is a novelistic presentation of their best guess at how the coming general European war would break out and what its course would be. The only arguably prescient element in the book is the way they have the war start: as a response to the attempted assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in the Balkans. The interesting thing about this forecast is that it is not required by the logic of the analysis, and indeed they quote a foreign-affairs expert in a postscript as saying that the war was far likelier to break out on the Franco-German border. The rest of the book, in which the war is described based on the best information then available, is absolutely wrong. The war lasts 10 weeks, and England, though officially neutral, leans toward Germany.
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We travel under the pretense of being receptive, really looking for what we think we already know. Yet we are occasionally genuinely surprised.