Polishing Brass at the End of the World

By Mark RodgersEschatology is the field of theological study concerned with the final events in human history.  The term may be hard to pronounce and appear spiritually and future-focused, but what one believes about the future has an impact on today.

A recent Atlantic cover story explored the Islamist group ISIS' eschatological motivation to create a caliphate.  Although Nigeria's Boko Haram may not be as focused on the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world --- it shares ISIS' effort to establish a caliphate that, from their perspective, approximates Allah's "kingdom on earth." Hardly the Kingdom of God that most of us have in mind.
Pop Culture Apocalypse
Children of MenThrough creative storytelling, popular culture also explores contemporary views of the end times.  In the current USA Network mini-series Dig , a group of Christian and Jewish collaborators work together to reinstitute the Temple's sacrificial system, and prepare the Red Hiefer for its first sacrifice. From some Christians' perspective, this is a precondition for the return of Christ.In fact, end times scenarios dominate our popular culture today.  Often, religiously-inspired eschatology explains the how and why of dystopian and catastrophic fiction futures, from Seth Rogan's This is the End, Roland Emmerich's 2012 and P.D. James' Children of Men.  Although not always well produced or ironically "faith-friendly" they are often commercially successful ... or not.
In fact, an entire Zombie industry has been built on our fear of "the next", and the gaming industry in particular has cashed in the use of apocalyptic-future scenarios,  often involving the living dead.
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The silver lining of all this popular culture attention is that, if it aligns with your eschatology, it is preparing you for the inevitable end of the world as we know it. Even agnostics are fascinated by Doomsday Preppers. How many of us keep The Book of Eli handy just in case we need a refresher on how to survive the Apocalypse?
Better or Worse?
But why are we so down on the future?  Aren't we safer now than ever? Isn't the world actually getting better, not worse?  Why all the doom and gloom?
My tribe is pro-life conservative, which laments how quickly our country has moved away from traditional values, but often glosses over the fact that abortion is at its lowest level since 1975 ... down to under a million from a high of 1.6 million in 1990.  Still too many, but from a pro-life perspective, society is moving in the right direction.  But you wouldn't know this talking with most of us.I have found in the Christian circles that I operate, the dominant eschatology is summarized by "the world is going to hell in a hand basket" and, other than to alleviate immediate human suffering, the sentiment "why polish brass on a sinking ship?"  Save our souls, we say, but don't worry about saving the ship.  The pessimistic view that the world has to get worse before the Messiah or the Mahdi return is a relatively modern view, but there are several factors that may be fueling its growth.
First, our immediate access to global news (to be newsworthy most is tragic), gives us the impression that there is more violent conflict, deadly disease and increased threat to our well being than ever before.  Second, in light of worldwide Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 3.40.16 PMreligion thriving not decliningreligious conviction and modernity are increasingly in conflict.
And third, the world overall is changing, fast, and it's unsettling. My friend Kevin Kelly concludes that on the time scale of decades and longer, information is the fastest growing thing on this planet.  And it feels like it's spinning out of control.
Kingdom Now or Not Yet?
One of our family's favorite films is Blast from the Past with Brandon Fraser and Alicia Silverstone, about a family who bunkered down in the 1960's, thinking that mutually assured destruction was taking place, to come out thirty years later and discover that society had changed so much that there could be no other explanation.  Of course, society had changed, for the better and for the worse.Blast from the Past
My own belief aligns with that of historic Christendom ... that there is a grand narrative to history, and that it will culminate in a rebirth that will make all things right.  But I also believe that we are in a "Kingdom now but not yet" time, that there is evil to be confronted, and there is good to be advanced.  How we work this out requires prudential judgment and spiritual discernment, but I know that we can make the world a better place  for everyone through reconciliation and restoration, and in this way advance God's Kingdom on Earth. Planting gardens, as the prophet Jeremiah called the Jewish people to do while in Babylon.  Author Walker Percy called these efforts "posting signposts in a strange land."
As REM sang, "it's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)".  How do you feel?