Who is God? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Every human being on earth has asked themselves these questions at some point, with all kinds of results. Morgan Freeman and Revelations Entertainment have teamed up with National Geographic to release an unlikely documentary sequel to their blockbuster science series Through the Wormhole – a new series exploring religion, spirituality, and epic narratives the world over, The Story of God.
Produced by Freeman along with Lori McCreary and James Younger, The Story of God takes viewers on a trip around the world to explore different cultures, religions and spiritualities on the perennial quest to uncover the meaning of life, God and the big questions in between.
How has religion has evolved throughout the course of civilization?
How, in turn, has religion shaped the evolution of society?
I was invited to screen an episode of the documentary and UNC, with a panel of UNC’s leading religion scholars. It was – appropriately enough, given our interests at Presence – their Apocalypse episode.
National Geographic’s official description of this episode reads: “Violent upheaval and fiery judgment fill popular imagination, but was the lore of apocalypse born out of the strife that plagued the Middle East two millennia ago? The true religious meaning of the apocalypse may not be a global war, but an inner revelation.”
In this episode, the celebrated actor Freeman – who has been known to play God – looks at the tensions facing our world today, particularly wars and natural disasters, and how religious paradigms have frequently viewed such cataclysms both as signs of the world’s limitations, and signs that a particular world-order would not be with us forever. Check out a clip from the episode here:
Implicitly acknowledged is that Western religions have more apocalyptic emphases than Eastern ones, as Freeman’s globe-hopping primarily focuses on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim terrain, only briefly dropping in with a young Buddhist lama.
Freeman and his team dutifully touch on the contemporary association of “apocalypse” with “future cataclysm,” the two virtually synonymous in the popular imaginations of religion and culture alike. But they also do the viewer a great service by acknowledging and examining the historically-rooted nature of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic belief, rooting them particularly in the collective trauma stemming from the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 CE. This religious, cultural, and political desecration was the culmination of four years’ internal civil war, followed by a Roman invasion. The tragic result was leveling Judaism’s most sacred site, leaving nothing behind but a west-facing wall which is known today, appropriately enough, as the Wailing Wall.
This is where apocalypse then meets apocalypse now in some intriguing – and truly tragic – ways. The episode continues:
At Presence, we place emphasis on the meaning of ‘apocalypse’ being first and foremost unveiling before it means any kind of foretelling; more specifically, our founder – Max King, an independent apocalyptic scholar – saw the prophetic language employed by prophetic texts as symbolic language describing the spiritual meanings of temporal events.
The UNC scholars on the panel during the documentary screening night – representing traditions from East to West – were unanimous in agreeing with this working understanding of apocalypse when I asked them about it. The Jewish and Christian scholars further agreed that the temporal events being pointed at in our ancient Jewish and Christian prophetic texts are always in the immediate event horizon of those writing and recording the prophecies.
Why is it, then, that the average ‘person in the pew’ (or viewers of the latest apocalyptic thriller – HBO’s The Leftovers, anyone?) is often led to believe that our ancient prophetic texts are about obscure, difficult-to-understand, and still-future cataclysmic events?
This episode – of necessity constrained by its timeframe – isn’t able to address this at length, but does allude to the high points: the natural human desire to equate all disaster personally experienced with ultimate significance, the usefulness of fear as a means of political and religious control, and perhaps most of all, widespread regarding sacred text and context.
There are many pitfalls with this popular still-future-cataclysm view of biblical prophecy, which this Apocalypse episode makes clear: Namely, religiously-inspired war and terrorism – especially in the Middle East – and the attribution of natural disasters as ‘acts of God.’
To these we’d add another: Disregard for our planet’s ecosystem. Believing that God is going to destroy the physical planet, rather than seeing prophesy as pointing to the end of the world as they knew it – that is, events that were perhaps in their original hearers’ future, but our past – has the disastrous consequence of religious believers rooting for destruction and dissolution rather than being part of what Revelation in the New Testament calls the healing of the nations.
There’s another way of looking at what goes so terribly wrong when prophetic passages are wrenched from their historic (and – we’d argue – fulfilled) context. Apocalyptic literature, biblical scholars agree, is the literature of the oppressed. Whether discussing the Hebrew biblical book of Daniel or the early Christian book of Revelation, these oracles describe bloody battles and swift retribution. These visions were had and recorded by individuals and communities who were virtually powerless as far as temporal power was concerned – while some religious elites had borrowed wealth by being sanctioned by the rulers of the day, apocalyptic prophets were on the fringes of both faith and society, a part of cultures that were under the thumb of empire, be that empire Babylonian or Roman. There was nothing they could do to overthrow their enemies, and they saw God as their vindicating ruler, coming back to set their world to rights.
(Arguably, the same can be said about early Islamic hadith describing their apocalyptic hopes. This was an Islamic community pre-empire and conquest, barely inhabiting Mecca.
In other words, apocalyptic texts are undeniably violent. But this is fierce imagery originating in oppressed groups of people powerless to carry out temporal violence. The divine retribution they envision is enacted by God, not them, in the difficult events of their day.
But as we’ve seen now through a generation of souring fundamentalist attitudes toward and outright opposition to ecological responsibility and global peace-building, there are problems with wrenching this language from its context and appropriating it today. Problems with the contemporary application of apocalyptic texts begin when the prosperous heirs apparent of once-oppressed groups lift the jarring, visceral apocalyptic verbiage for their own purposes, reading themselves backward into the text. This problem is multiplied when they can back it up with something its original seers never possessed: temporal power, be that a true-believing few or disciplined armies. Whether the shocking violence of terrorism or the normalized violence of the State, anachronistically ‘applied’ apocalyptic gets ugly.
At Presence we recognize that prophetic, apocalyptic language is perhaps one of the most difficult features of our sacred narratives: It’s easily misunderstood, and has inspired everyone from atheist mathematician Bertrand Russell to liberal philanthropist and historical Jesus scholar Albert Schweitzer to conclude that Jesus, Paul, and the earliest New Testament writers were simply mistaken about the timing of ‘the end.’
We contend that they were not mistaken about the timing, we are mistaken about the nature. We’ve spent 40 years doing the challenging – but exciting – biblical studies work exploring how the apocalyptic event horizon envisioned by Christian biblical writers pointed toward a near-term fulfillment of its story, leading to the ubiquitous presence (or apocalypse) of God, the tragedy of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction carrying a redeeming message that the truest divine temple is in fact the human body, and creation itself.
We realize we’re making a bold claim: That – properly appreciated – we can, with deep gratitude, let ancient apocalyptics speak from their place of strength: in our ancestral spiritual past, describing not the end of the world but the end of the world as they knew it.
For those of us who consider ourselves people of faith, The Story of God’s Apocalypse and the best biblical scholarship offer us a real opportunity: We can acknowledge that this apocalyptic way of seeing roots our past in a credible, trustworthy narrative that described aright the purposes and promises of our sacred ancestors – in this case, “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Paul of Tarsus and John the Revelator. Taking these purposes and promises to heart, we don’t have to take these prophetic texts as determining our future.
We can, instead, be faithful to what they were pointing toward and our truest spiritual instincts, freed to enter an entirely new potentiality: an open future of revelation without a forclosing apocalypse; a consciously-authored future which we co-create with a God whom Scripture describes as All in all.
In this future I see Freeman’s ending, at the site of a great tragedy with a family that’s learning what it means to dwell in the presence of the present moment. It’s in this space – right here, right now – that we being to see, and work for, a world transfigured.
Can people of faith contribute to this vision, instead?
This would be a revelation, indeed.
Mike Morrell serves as Communications Director for Presence International, where he gets to combine his passions for spirituality, sustainability, biblical studies and storytelling to help create a more creative, connected, and durable world. His background is in author coaching and publishing consulting; through Speakeasy, he has cultivated a hive of over 1,000 avid spirituality and culture bloggers who cross-pollinate quality books and ideas. He is a founding organizer of the justice, arts, and spirituality Wild Goose Festival. Mike curates ‘thin space’ experiences via Authentic World, Relational Yoga, the ManKind Project and (H) Opp, taking special joy in holding space for the extraordinary transformation that can take place at the intersection of anticipation, imagination, and radical acceptance. Mike lives with his wife and two girls in North Carolina.