Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances

By Catherine Keller. Orbis Books, 2021. 176 pages. $26/paperback; $21.50/eBook.

Catherine Keller has been absorbed by planetary crisis since publishing in 1996 Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. But the power of her theological writings doesn’t simply lie in her application of feminist and environmentalist perspectives to sacred documents. Her new book, Facing Apocalypse, offers a vibrant display of her “dreamreading” technique, which goes beyond academic analysis to unpack the poetic imagery in the Book of Revelation—perhaps the most famous section of the New Testament after the gospels themselves.

Like many recent authors taking on Revelation, Keller is quick to point out that John of Patmos was not predicting the future. His elaborate “waking nightmare” should not be read as a literal blueprint for the End Times, and any similarities we think we see between Revelation’s contents and current events is strictly coincidental. John was a prophet, however, in the fuller sense of the term: he saw that the society around him had fallen out of alignment with God’s values, and delivered as emphatic a warning as he could of the consequences, if this were allowed to continue. And, of course, that misalignment has been allowed to continue over the last two millennia: “A destructive pattern of global power already at work in John’s time has undergone epochs of dramatic change,” Keller warns. “But it has not been laid to rest.”

In Keller’s “dreamreading,” we see John struggling to cope with life under an unbearably corrupt imperial power. The intense imagery of scenes like Babylon the Great riding atop her scarlet seven-headed beast, to take one famous example, was a way of processing that trauma—and of imagining a way out of it.

Keller is also careful to point out the ways in which John’s fantasy contradicts Jesus’s good news. For example, after presenting the New Jerusalem as, in Keller’s words, “a systemic structure of joyful justice, an architecture of cosmic care,” an angel tells John it is not an all-access utopia. Only those who toe the line “may enter in through the gates into the city.” The angel advises, “if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:14,19 KJV). John was as susceptible to resentment as any other human, Keller reminds us, and his story reflects a desire to see his persecutors suffer as much as it reflects his optimism.

Optimism is key here. Certainly in the early decades of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a moment where the end of the world as we know it seems not merely possible but increasingly probable, particularly given the reluctance of the corporate beasts of capitalism to change their destructive behavior in anything but the smallest of ways. But people have long lived with similar anxieties. Rather than attempt to purge them from our collective consciousness, Keller recommends an attitude of “apocalyptic mindfulness,” a full recognition of “the unspeakable catastrophes that may become inevitable if we do not speak.”

Being mindful of the risks posed by the climate crisis, or the rise of fascist political movements, does not mean accepting such catastrophes as faits accomplis. Instead, Keller urges us, the goal is “to move out of isolating paralysis and into healing action.” Direct action is, of course, essential, but we should also keep an eye out for the contemporary prophets who are dreamreading current events and spinning out their own recuperative visions. Perhaps some of us might even be those prophets, our revelations waiting to be brought forward.

Ron Hogan is the audience development specialist at Friends Publishing Corporation and the author of Our Endless and Proper Work: Starting (and Sticking to) Your Writing Practice (Belt Publishing, 2021).

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