Kathleen Norris on Apocalyptic

Kathleen-NorrisIn her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes a chapter entitled “Apocalypse,” that sheds light on the journey we have been on at Eastbrook in our series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” She begins with a quotation by poet Czeslaw Milosz: “I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century . . . My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair” (from an interview by Robert Faggen, “An Approval of Being,” in Books and Culture).

Not long ago, I found myself preaching to well over a thousand people on the apocalyptic texts in Daniel 12 and Mark 13. I would not have chosen to do this, but in a sense the words chose me. I use the lectionary when I preach; I find that it’s good discipline, as it forces me into situations such as this, having to confront hard Bible texts that I would just as soon skip over.

The literature of apocalypse is scary stuff, the kind of thing that can give religion a bad name, because people so often use it as a means of controlling others, instilling dread by invoking a boogeyman God. Thinking about the people who would be in church that morning, I knew that many of them would very likely be survivors of such painful childhood images of God and would find the readings hard to take. So I decided to talk about what apocalyptic literature is and is not. It is not a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world. It is a wake-up call, one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world.

The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek for ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing,’ which makes it a word about possibilities. And while uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect, the point of apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission. Although it is often criticized as ‘pie-in-the-sky’ fantasizing, I believe its purpose is to teach us to think about ‘next-year-country’ in a way that sanctifies our lives here and now. ‘Next-year-country’ is a treasured idiom of the western Dakotas, an accurate description of the landscape that farmers and ranchers dwell in—next year rains will come at the right time; next year I won’t get hailed out; next year winter won’t set in before I have my hay hauled in for winter feeding. I don’t know a single person on the land who uses the idea of ‘next year’ as an excuse not to keep on reading the earth, not to look for the signs that mean you’ve got to get out and do the field work when the time is right. Maybe we’re meant to use apocalyptic literature in the same way: not as an allowance to indulge in an otherworldly fixation but as an injunction to pay closer attention to the world around us. When I am disturbed by the images of apocalypse, I find it helpful to remember the words of a fourth-century monk about the task of reading scripture as ‘working the earth of the heart,’ for it is only in a disturbed, ploughed-up ground that the seeds we plant for grain can grow.

[Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 318-319.]