January 8

Reading Apocalypse

As we hear predictions of the End Times, and as people compare the President to Jesus (or certain apocalyptic characters from Daniel 7), it’s important to examine how we read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. These works are not easy to read. They are heavily symbolic, confusing, and easy to misconstrue. For example, over least a thousand years, people of each generation have tried to apply the events of Revelation to their own time. So far, Christ has not returned.

Ian Paul, in a thought-provoking post, describes the conventional view of the book of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation is a divinely inspired prophecy of the end times in which we now live. Although John didn’t understand what he was seeing or describing, events which were far distant from him in time, we now know that he was accurately predicting events that are happening in our lifetime. Because of this, we need to get ready for Jesus’ imminent return.

Yet, while Paul debunks some of the flaws in our reading of Revelation in particular and apocalypses in general, his interpretation still has some shortcomings. There are particular themes and methods in apocalyptic writings which we easily miss, and this leads to flawed interpretations.

Time

As human creatures, we experience a linear existence. We thus expect the Bible to provide a linear narrative. This experience of time was called by the Greeks chronos time, or sequential time.

But God isn’t linear. God is all, including past, present, and future. Early Christians described God’s time as kairos time–experienced by us as the moment when God breaks into chronos time. The apocalyptic writers understood this concept well. We can see it clearly in Revelation’s references to the fall of Babylon:

God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (Rev 16:19b). Here, Babylon seems to have fallen already.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2). Here again, Babylon appears to have fallen. The Greek uses the aorist tense, which indicates a past action or an element of a continuing action.

Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (Rev 18:6). This appears to put the fall in the present tense, even though previous passages suggest it has already happened.

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning… And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore…” (Rev 18:9, 11). The Greek uses the future tense in the first passage, and the present tense in the second. Here, the lament over Babylon is both future and present.

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more…‘” (Rev 18:21). Here again, the Greek (like the English) uses the future tense.

In this narrative, then, the verb tenses to the opposite of what might be expected: Rather than being seen as future, then present, and finally past, the events begin as being described in the past, then move to the present, and finally the future. In a linear sense, the story is moving backward. But the writer is not envisioning a linear sense of time. This is God’s time, kairos time.

Patterns

Related to the apocalyptic sense of time is the apocalyptic sense of history. In biblical writing, one can trust God in the future because of what God has done in the past. The Exodus is, of course, the pivotal narrative: the God who saved Israel from Egypt will save Israel again. Nearly every Old Testament book references the Exodus as proof of God’s love. We can see this also in the psalms: Even the plaintive Psalm 13, “How long, oh Lord?” ends with the recollection of God’s favor in the past as assurance for the future. “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Ps 13:6).

Apocalyptic writings take this one step further. Daniel, for example, is set in Babylon during the Exile, but its prophecies are not about Babylon. They are about the Seleucids, several centuries later. The message is clear: as God destroyed the historical Babylon, so God will destroy the oppressive Seleucid regime.

Likewise, Rome was referred to as Babylon because, despite Rome’s apparent power and its destruction of Jerusalem (like Babylon before it), God had destroyed Babylon, and thus God will destroy Rome. We can see, as Robert G. Hall writes, that the apocalyptic author “is clearly interested in the future, and in how the determined plan of God touches his present…”[1] But more importantly, John  J. Collins notes, “The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of historical events, but on recurring patterns.”[2] What has happened before will happen again.

This suggests a cyclical rather than linear view of history. And it helps explain the verb tense confusion in the Babylon narrative. Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall– because, so long as history endures, there will always be a Babylon, and God will always intervene.

Reading Faithfully

As we read Revelation, Daniel, or the apocalyptic sections of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, we should keep these characteristics in mind. Apocalyptic writers do not see God’s time as linear. They see history as cyclical. Yes, there is an end to history toward which God’s plan moves. But their concern is not the imminence of that plan’s fulfillment, but its meaning for us today.

As we read Revelation, we ought not to interpret the events of our time as portents of an imminent Second Coming, nor of the New Jerusalem appearing in our lifetime. Rather, we might interpret events and divine interventions consistent with God’s character and what God has already done in human history.

Above all, the message of the apocalypse is that what appears to us as chaos does actually have order to it– and it is an order instituted by God. Yes, we should be concerned when our actions (and those of our nation) are destructive and oppressive. This is what “Babylon” and “the nations” were judged for. Yes, we may expect divine intervention. It may even be the end of the world as we know it– just as the fall of Rome was the end of the world as many knew it. But the end of time is probably not yet here. As Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36).

Babylon may fall, but we still must plan for the future.

 

Notes

[1] Robert G. Hall, Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 43.

[2] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2016), 62-64.

August 31

The Ordinary World Story

BookCover

I live in one of the most prepared states in the country: Utah. The Mormon Church, as it is called by non-members like myself, has taught preparedness for decades. Most families here have a year’s worth of food in storage, an abundant supply of ammunition for their firearms, and a seventy-two hour kit in case of evacuation. Outsiders seem to find that strange. Evacuation? Why prepare for that? They have already forgotten about hurricanes that hit the Gulf and the East Coast, floods in the mid-west, wildfires in California and Texas, and any number of other natural disasters that displace tens of thousands of Americans each year. Since 9-11, the federal government has gotten on the preparedness bandwagon. Homeland Security advises us to be prepared, to have an emergency plan, to keep a supply of food on hand. But I wonder how many folks outside of Utah and the Mormon Church are listening? –“Zombies and Boy Scouts,” Ordinary World

Ordinary World was my first published novel. I was surprised how well it did, selling over 3,000 copies and garnering 73 reviews and an average of 4.4 stars on Amazon.

The idea for the book began several years before I started writing it. When I moved to Utah, and especially during the financial crisis of 2007, I adopted the local preoccupation with preparedness. I began stockpiling food and ammunition. I went to the annual Preparedness Fair in Cedar City. I listened to experts talk about the Spanish Flu Epidemic. I read military strategist John Robb’s analysis concluding how vulnerable our centralized system is to terrorism or acts of God.

I began to wonder, if any of these events actually happened, what would life look like for us? I mean, we have some medical supplies, lots of wheat, guns and ammo, sleeping bags and cots for refugees, and backup kitchen supplies. But how prepared are we really?

I first conceived Ordinary World as a fictional blog, posting the chapters in real time. I posted several chapters. The problem was, no one read it.

I thought the story was a good one: a family struggling to survive as the economy slowly melts down around them. I wanted people to read it. So I turned it into a novel.

This is the third winter since the collapse began. In the first, Gracie and I did pretty well because we were prepared. In the second, after Rita, Bernard, and Weylan joined us, we were helped by mild weather and supplies left over from before. This time, we have to face a winter relying on our own resources. It’s the first time that has been true. Coming as I do from old New England stock, the phrase “First Winter” strikes a chord of fear in my heart. The cultural memory of the hardships the first settlers faced is ingrained deeply within me. —“The First Winter,” Ordinary World.

I read it to my family as I wrote it. The characters Bill, Gracie, and Joe, became real to us. We cried when Sunflower the goat died, just as we cried when our real-life goat Christie died. I think my wife was as nervous in real life as Bill is in the book about whether Gracie would recover from her injuries. (She actually threatened me that I better not kill Gracie!) Ordinary World became a labor of love for my whole family!

When the time came to publish it, I chose Amazon’s CreateSpace as my platform. My history with query letters to publishers is dismal. And I really wanted people to be able to read it.

Even before publication, my family had encouraged me to think about an audio book. With the book’s success, I began to take the idea seriously. I was fortunate that narrator Scott Pollack became interested on the project. He did a fabulous job, and the audio book is available on Audible and Amazon.

(Sample the audiobook here:)

Fans have encouraged me to write a sequel. I’ve tried. But Ordinary World is in my opinion a great story with some of my best writing overall. I haven’t been able to come up with an idea for a sequel that measures up to the original. For the time being, Ordinary World stands alone.

We ran out of meat two weeks ago. When I say that, I mean we cooked our last stew bone. There is nothing left… Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.

So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home. But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.

I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.–“Desperation,” Ordinary World

Ordinary World is available from CreateSpaceAmazon and Kindle, AudibleSmashwords, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers.

August 22

Canning Peaches

canning peaches 2015

“I love to can fresh vegetables and fruits.  When winter comes, I’d much rather eat our own tomato sauce, for example, than something out of a can or jar.  Pickles, apple sauce, chutney, and more spice up our winter diet.  Gracie likes it, too.  But the weeks of produce-covered counters, stacks of pots and pans, and spills on the stove sometimes combine to make her grumpy.  She loves the result, but hates the process.  So this time of year, there’s tension between wanting to can, and not having enough time.”

So writes Bill in my novel, Ordinary World.  And it’s true!  I love to can, and my wife Carrie dreads the mess in the kitchen.

This week, we found a box of locally-grown peaches at a really good price.  Last night, I washed and sliced them, sanitized jars and lids, and filled ten quart jars with peaches and “syrup.”  My syrup contains very little sugar, since I make it with fructose and coconut sugar, and I reduce the comparative amounts of those, too.

February 25

What Inspired Ordinary World?

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Our family is pretty serious about preparedness.  Yes, we have a year’s supply of wheat stored away, and a hand grinder so we can make flour.  We have solar power and solar hot water; they don’t provide everything we need, but they help.  We have medical supplies and ammunition.  This seems like common sense when you live out in the middle of nowhere.  The power used to fail regularly, and at times the road has been impassable.

As an accountant, I love numbers.  Some of the numbers I find are pretty scary.  For example, from 2000 through 2012, the U.S. GDP grew by 25%.  Over the same period, the money supply, as measured by M-2, grew by 125%.  The national debt more than tripled, from $5.6 trillion to $16.1 trillion.  And it grew from 55% of GDP to 98% of GDP (IMF puts it at 106% of GDP).  That puts our nation in the company of such stellar-performing nations as Greece, Italy, and the Sudan.

As the real estate crash rippled through the economy, the possibility of a complete economic collapse seemed very real.  We began to wonder how prepared we really were.  What would we do if the trucks stopped delivering to our local Walmart?  What would we do without cell phones and internet?  Would we survive?  How?

Thus was born the idea for Ordinary World, the story of a family living much like we do, facing the collapse of the U.S. economy.  Some of the challenges they face they find solutions for without too much difficulty, often because they were prepared.  They are also fortunate to live in a community that helps each other, and they often find the right person or idea at just the right time.  But for some challenges, there are no easy solutions.  The world they live in is much less comfortable than ours, though they often describe it as far more rewarding.

I wrote Ordinary World mainly for my family, and have read it to my wife aloud several times.  It has helped us look at preparedness more seriously.  I can’t explain how surprised I was to find that so many other people were actually reading it!  If you’re one of those people, thank you – I hope you enjoyed it.  If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll consider it.  Whether or not you find it likely that the economy will collapse any time soon, this may suggest some new ideas for being prepared.  And even if not, I hope it’s a fun read.