14 Sep

The Apocalypse: "It's a-comin', and it's gonna be big"

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 09/14/04

Professor Alan Jacobs reviews Left Behind and Father Elijah.

"Moreover, it could be argued that not only the thriller but even the novel itself is fundamentally inappropriate as a vehicle for conveying this eschatological vision—that, as I said at the beginning, the Apocalypse cannot be narrated. The novel is above all a realistic medium, devoted to representing as faithfully and even minutely as possible the textures and themes of everyday life; yet what [John Henry] Newman counsels, and [Michael] O'Brien's Elijah [character] exemplifies, is a loss of interest in those very everyday textures and themes, a dimming of the physical eye so that the inner eye can grow sharper, more discerning of spiritual truth." Alan Jacobs

In an article in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, professor Alan Jacobs calls attention to recent and to older treatments of the Apocalypse, partly in order to explain why the end times are beyond our storytelling abilities. Jacobs, a veteran guest of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, explicates the narrative styles of the Left Behind books and Father Elijah (the first book in a series by Michael O'Brien) in "The Inexpressible Apocalypse," demonstrating that theological beliefs emerge in the form of stories, in how tales are told.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the former, are dispensationalist in their theology—they believe in literal, prophetic interpretations of Daniel and Revelation, that the end of history has yet to begin and that it will unfold dramatically when it does—and thus melodrama, states Jacobs, dominates their novels, turning them into thrillers about the events that bring history to a close. O'Brien, on the other hand, believes that the end times were initiated with the birth of Jesus, have been unfolding ever since, and that Christians need not worry about discerning events that signify the coming of the Apocalypse but, rather, should concern themselves with praying about, fasting for, and meditating on the laying bare of the meaning of history that will occur at the last battle of the end times. For his books this means that, while there are melodramatic elements in them (elements which Jacobs considers an artistic flaw of the works), those elements do not dominate the stories as they do in the Left Behind series.

Jacobs employs his elucidations of these very different works to support his thesis that the Apocalypse cannot be narrated. The Apocalypse, he writes, "is the end of history, and the end of history is the end of narrative; it is beyond our powers of storytelling because it is beyond story itself." While LaHaye, Jenkins, and O'Brien make noble efforts to portray it, older approaches to describing the end of the world—such as the silence Dante depicts when he is faced with "the unveiling of cosmic hierarchies"—may "be our best guide to these vexing matters" of how to illustrate the Apocalypse.

The full text of Jacobs's article is available on-line.