As a child I rarely missed church. It was engrained in me that church attendance was essential to my salvation. We were a long way from the understanding that it was God’s grace and not our own efforts that saved us, and even though “our own efforts” included a long list of behavioral expectations, most of them could be negated or elevated by one priority. The priority that superseded all the rest was faithful church attendance.
Of the handfuls of times that I actually did skip a service, one stands out in particular, it would have been the late 1970’s when the movie The Omen made its network television debut. The movie chronicles the arrival of The Antichrist into the world in the form of a scary little boy, one Damien Thorn. A child of mysterious origins, he is adopted into the home of an American ambassador to the United Kingdom. (because things are always more ominous when accompanied by British accents and people driving on the wrong side of the road) The family then experiences mysterious deaths including the suicide of Damien’s nanny and other weird happenings including strange packs of ravenous Rottweilers, shadowy photographs, and a perennial favorite of the horror genre; the Catholic Church. Through a series of events the adoptive parents come to realize that their beloved boy is indeed the Antichrist as his birthmark of three sixes hidden on his scalp makes undeniable. In an effort to rid the world of this evil, Damien is forced into a church by his adoptive father who intends to kill him. But before he is able to follow through the police intervene killing Damien’s father. A role powerfully portrayed by Gregory Peck. The movie concludes with the President of the United States attending the funeral of the fallen diplomat with a close up of Damien with an evil smirk. Far fetched? Sure. But in the mind of a pre-adolescent boy in rural Arkansas who had been conditioned to believe that the themes of the book of Revelation were literally true, and who had chosen to skip church on the night that The Omen was on tv. Let’s just say I was traumatized. I was convinced that this was God chastising me for my opting out of going to church.
Fear can be a powerful motivation for beliefs that may not be supported by fact. Some of my earliest memories are those of hearing my pastor preach that the church may have to go “underground” because of persecution. I had difficulty understanding how attending church in some dystopian labyrinth of connected caves and bunkers was a practical response. Among my chief concerns, was what this new reality would mean for the cookies we were served in Sunday school? But the cumulative effect this kind of rhetoric had on my childhood and subsequently on me as an adult is still the subject of much contemplation. And therapy. And a general avoidance of movies depicting apocalyptic themes. But have you been to the movies lately? This is unavoidable.
Our collective fascination with the Apocalypse seems to suggest a deeper yearning for things to end. Culture as informed by literature and media play up these themes in important, albeit, predictable ways. Thematic tropes informed by religious prophecy, science, and philosophy, though thought to be at odds, actually conspire to bring us these different visions of acceptable ends. If you’ve paid attention in church or at the movies, you know the end of the world will either a) happen, b) not happen, or c) has already happened or more precisely the end of “known world” has already happened. Generally, these warnings serve to challenge humans to change their behavior or elevate their consciousness to avoid and/or facilitate the end of the world.
I believe these themes resonate with all of us, because we want our lives to have significance. And what could be more significant than being present for the end?
The philosopher Jean Baudrillard makes this point, “Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there at the beginning. How could one not wish for that with all one’s heart? How could one not lend one’s feeble resources to bringing it about? To have been there at the beginning would have been fantastic. But we arrived too late. Only the end remains.”
In my estimation there is only one motivation that is stronger than fear and that is love. Love is what preoccupies my attention these days, and because I know that my Savior loves me and isn’t motivated to punish me, my perspective on whatever fate awaits me and the world is certainly different from what it once was. Maybe this is what John was attempting to communicate in his first letter to his friends?
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now it is already in the world. 4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore, they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. The one who knows God listens to us; the one who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.7 Beloved, let’s love one another; for love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:2-8)
If I could talk to that freighted seven-year-old me, I’d repeat what Jesus often said, “Don’t be afraid.” And “Enjoy your Sunday night at home with your Dad, but maybe don’t watch tv.” And of course, “You are loved by God.”
What advice would you give to him? To me?