The Apocalypse is Always Now
Most books about religion aspire to revelation, divine or worldly. In other words, they’re apocalyptic. For what does apocalypse mean—apokálypsis, in the pagan Greek from which the Bible borrowed the term—but “lifting of the veil”?
Think of it like this. It’s your wedding day, and whether you are man or woman, straight, gay, lesbian, trans, or other, apocalypse promises you a bride. Not, however, of your choosing. It’s an arranged marriage, a match made in heaven, as they say. You are filled with both anticipation and fear.
What will she look like? Will she be beautiful? Will her eyes be those of a dove, as Solomon sings in the Song of Songs, her hair like “a flock of goats, that appear from Mount Gilead” (goat hair being the gold standard of grooming in Solomon’s time)? Or will she be terrifying—eyeballs growing on stalks from her tongue, fangs poking out all over her face, angry red eyes where breasts should be, and parched yellow skin as if made from the paper of an ancient scroll, like the Apocalypse Beast that the Fantastic Four defeated in “Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan #3”? And while we’re on the subject of the Fantastic Four, why is it that only our most earnest literature, scripture, and our campiest, comic books, really care about the end of the world?
By “comic books” I mean not just stories told through picture panels and onomatopoeia but also all the trash, pulp, and pixels expended on that which is fabulous or overblown, the absurd played not for laughs, or just for laughs, but for Art, for Truth, for—Revelation. In this category, we may safely include the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Strange, of course, and “science” fiction, Lost, and 24. But also Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, and Mahler, Wagner, and Aaron Copland; M.I.A., N.W.A. and the CIA as an actual institution; Thoreau’s The Maine Woods (picture the prophet atop Mount Katahdin, too close to God, screaming “Contact! Contact!” like a nineteenth-century Carl Sagan) but not placid Walden; Augustine but not Aquinas; both liberation theology and Left Behind; the white whale, the Black Panthers, the pink triangle, and the yellow star—any symbol or label or term that marks its bearer for death or exile, especially those whose meanings have been inverted; the Golem, the Hulk, and John Henry; Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn, and, more important—most important, perhaps—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who faced the end of the world every season only to start over the following autumn.
Caught between comics and scripture is the stuff of this collection, memoir. Memoir, after all, is a euphemistic label for testimony, a cleaned-up manifestation of the comic book sensibility. Testimony provides the bones and the flesh of scripture, of religion lived, embodied, inscribed, and scrawled; “I was lost, but now I’m found” is one of its most popular story lines. The testimonies gathered here give that formula a twist: “I was lost, then found, but now I’m lost again.”
Which brings to mind, of course, the endlessly looping plots of comic books and scripture, heroes and villains rising and falling, sinners redeemed and backsliding, the Joker defeated by Batman once and for all only to return ten issues later, the Israelites delivered to the promised land only to be sent into exile. It’s always back into the breach or back into the desert—until, that is, The End. The final battle, Armageddon, Apocalypse, the Answer. That’s another necessary cliché of the memoir/testimony genre: “I was blind, but now I see.” Now I get it. Whether the writer achieves this new vision through religion or reason, revelation—epiphany—is the climax of the tale.
It’s not always a blessing, this sight. The bible offers a sneak peak beneath the veil even more horrible than anything dreamed up by Stan Lee: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea,” writes John the Revelator, “and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.”
Cross your fingers. Hope for the best. Lift the veil.
The problem with revelation is that when brought down to earth, secularized, it loses all its grandeur and its absurdity—the inherent kitsch of a beast with ten heads, the melodrama of the end of the world, that campy veil. It is not humbled by secularization, it is hushed. This is nowhere more disconcerting than in stories about religion that assume, in our modern age, that belief is a quality or even a quantity, an option or maybe even a substance, spirituality, the sort of thing that one might buy in handsomely designed organic cardboard containers at Whole Foods. Back in 2000, when Peter Manseau, Jeremy Brothers, and I created Killing the Buddha, from which the stories in this collection are gathered, we announced ourselves with a rejection of all that: “Killing the Buddha,” declared our “Manifesto,” “is a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the ‘spirituality’ section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God.” We might as well have spoken of the “deep sympathy modified by revulsion” with which Susan Sontag undertook her famous dissection of camp as a sensibility.
In 2000, we set out with the notion that our knowing attitudes would allow us to transcend the clichés of The Beginning and The End, the melodrama of religion as “merely” ritual, the tedium of belief as custom. But that belief itself, that Buddha, at least, we have killed; or perhaps that Buddha killed us.
When Publishers Weekly, reviewing the first book to grow out of Killing the Buddha, called our Heretic’s Bible “disjointed and freakish” (they meant it in a good way), Peter Manseau and I argued over which of us was which; the truth was we each wanted to be both. We created Killing the Buddha with the idea that writing about matters of “ultimate concern,” as prim Paul Tillich labels all religion, in the image of his Protestant divine, should be not solemn but subversive. Subversive of what? The very endeavor we were engaging in. Hence the name of the magazine:
After years on his cushion, a monk has what he believes is a breakthrough: a glimpse of nirvana, the Buddhamind, the big pay-off. Reporting the experience to his master, however, he is informed that what has happened is par for the course, nothing special, maybe even damaging to his pursuit. And then the master gives the student dismaying advice: If you meet the Buddha, he says, kill him.
Why kill the Buddha? Because the Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha, but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed he will only stand in your way.
The Buddha you meet, of course, is the answer you come up with when faced with big questions about meaning. Ours are as ready for the ax as any others. Eight years on from our manifesto and, between the two of us, four books that are often shelved, sigh, in the spirituality section of the bookstore (as this one no doubt will be, too, unless we can persuade our publisher to label it “humor,” perhaps, or maybe “automotive”), we’ve been forced to come to terms with our place on the same shelf as Deepak Chopra, Rick Warren, and Chicken Soup for the Soul, all of which sell more copies in a week than this book will between now and Armageddon. We should be so lucky as to be so banal; it is an art, a balancing act, which we have never achieved. But there is surely some wisdom in the awkwardness of the questions to which such books respond. “Avant-garde” writers, meanwhile, reproduce ad nauseam the secular and spiritual assumptions of the mildly liberal middle class; we thought we would trump them with dispatches from the margins. Instead, as the stories that follow reveal, we found ourselves wading through the muck of the ordinary, a mudslide of the mundane, an apocalyptic swamp of What Is—the Word made strange. Marginality, we learned, can’t honestly be chosen—at best, simply recognized as the only ground we have to stand on.
It’s hardly stable turf. And yet, there’s no steadiness to be found in the most common response to the problem of belief in a post-modern age: “Sheilaism,” the personalized religion an informant named Sheila famously described to sociologist Robert Bellah. “Just my own little voice,” she said, reducing her mental jambalaya of received wisdom from half a dozen traditions to a self-satisfied squeak. That’s the “spirituality” that embarrassed us eight years ago when we created Killing the Buddha. We were ashamed of it because we knew it was a virus with which we ourselves were infected. It seemed impossible not to be. We are all Sheilas now.
There are, nonetheless, alternatives. First, there’s tradition itself. When we started Killing the Buddha, we found ourselves fellow traveling with punk fundamentalists, true believers and new monastics, intellectual snobs with vulgar mouths and contempt for the milquetoastery of pluralism. I am thinking here of another on-line magazine, the late New Pantagruel, and of the hipster Christians gathering their forces behind Sufjan Stevens’s pretty warble on his Asthmatic Kitty label, and even, after a fashion, of the hedonistic asceticism of the anti-globalization movement that swirled around us at the beginning. “Environmental druids, anarchist ninjas, union organizers, policy grinders, pacifists, political prisoners, poor people, and squatters like Carlo Giuliani,” we called them in Killing the Buddha after the 2001 murder of Giuliani by Italian police at a Group of 8 Summit in Genoa. “A vast array opposed for various reasons to the neo-liberal attempt to enclose all that is alive and mysterious in a set of trade agreements and holding corporations.”
But the anarchists and their allies, like the new traditionalists, were all too often utopian, drawn like the theologians of the Radical Orthodoxy movement—another inspiration for Killing the Buddha—toward a mythical past. For Radical Orthodoxy, the lure was a moment of pure mind, medieval scholasticism’s anticipation of postmodern theology; for the anarchists at their most sentimental, it was a fantasy of pure flesh, wild men and women living like cavemen, abandoning the corruptions of the world. Even language would be jettisoned, according to the primitivists who swung through the trees around Eugene, Oregon. In the future, as in the past, they promised, we will communicate with clicks and grunts and humps and caresses.
It’s silly enough—and sad enough—to drive you 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Counter to the new traditionalists, left and right, were the new atheists, the revitalized movement of angry rationalists that would bring screeds from Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. No Sheilas they! The new atheism is a movement built on rock-hard reason, throbbing with a weird mix of contempt for and attraction to soft superstition. It is not enough for the new atheists to simply not believe; what matters is making sure that you don’t believe. They are evangelists; and like evangelicalism itself—a faith built around the Great Commission and a hope for the conversion of every man, woman, and child—their cause is hopeless. If evangelicalism is shaded by delusion, the new atheism is propped up by a false posture. As an alternative to Sheilaism, it ultimately offers more of the same, translated into macho: to “just my own little voice” it replies, “my own awesome—erm, brain.”
Which brings me round to the third escape from Sheilaism, the third way. Third ways are a twentieth-century tradition themselves, one that’s usually a cover for something cynical. The third way was the path of Pyle, the violently optimistic spook in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and it was the hope of the real-world CIA when it financed a generation of the American avant-garde, hoping to out-art the Soviet Union, as documented in Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War. The third way, we could argue, was a rhetorical trick of that forty years’ war. Like the bomb, it lingers; like nuclear power, it still seduces. The third way in politics, we’re told by Democrats who vote like Republicans, is an aggressive centrism; the third way in religion, we’re told by evangelicals who vote like Democrats, is a mealy mush of faith and pluralism, neither right nor left nor, apparently, much of anything. It is a rejection of both certainty and secularism, an embrace of tradition without ideas, a commitment to continuity without history, a center without moorings.
Third ways, in other words, tend to be built on false promises, naive realpolitik, compromises that conceal their costs. And yet, too skeptical for new traditionalism, too bored by the new atheism, we had no other chance but to find a third way of our own. Fortunately, we knew what to do with it when we found it: kill it. Because the third way you meet is not the true path but merely an expression of your longing. Thus, Killing the Buddha, a magazine devoted to its own undoing, a disjointed and freakish revelation road that runs in a bumpy circle, all its epiphanies merely echoes of one another, each murmuring the same precious and useless knowledge: the apocalypse is always now. Which means, of course, that the ending of one story is simply the beginning of another. Believer, beware; our condition is incurable.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).