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This essay is adapted from the new preface of the post 9/11 edition of Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage by MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL (Spring1994/2004).
Dreaming the End of the World was begun before the end of the cold war and finished a few months after the fall of the Berlin wall. The world has changed has it not?
Apocalypse was not on everybody’s lips but now it is. Many people with excitement or dread see this as the time when history and prophecy coincide: The final days. But the book is not about history really. Or rather it is about history as the ritual theater of a rite of initiation fierce and true as any culture might enact. Contemporary history is the place where myth crawls under the skin where that it might transform. The apocalyptic rite of initiation is about the awakening of compassion in a dark time.
In this initiation we meet the Messiah and the Beast, that which would save the world and that which would devour it. This old story/paradigm is at the foundation of Indo-European culture: Babylon was founded when Marduk slayed the chaos dragon, Tiamat. A late version, the Revelation of St. John, where Christ was pitted against Antichrist, was grafted into Christian scripture reluctantly in the fourth century. It seems that the heretic Montanus, rather like some contemporary Christians and Muslims, took it literally, whereas the Early Fathers knew it to be allegory. Montanus was quite sure Christ would soon establish his kingdom in his native Smyrna.
But there is literalism and then there is literalism. On July 17, 1945 north of Alamogordo, New Mexico the Messiah and the Beast resolve into a singular, terrifying, ecstatic image: The mushroom cloud. What had been the legacy of apocalyptic myth became a technological possibility, became the nightmare of the daily news.
This, again, is not only history. It is myth. And because it is myth it is an invitation to initiation. Remember the Bomb was and continues to be our culture hero, our Messiah. It was going to defeat Hitler, after all, and who could argue with that? Many intelligent people, like Oppenheimer believed it could make war itself obsolete. Simultaneously it was and is the Beast, proliferating, hungry.
Not surprisingly the nuclearization of the myth of apocalypse found its way into the dream life of contemporary people. What did surprise was that the patterns of these dreams bear a ritual intelligence consistent with rites of initiation that are hundreds of thousands of years old. As the soul approaches the incomprehensible it is cut away from the community and “common” sense. Stripped bare it suffers the raw truth of the moment, its conundrums and heart break and witnesses the death and rebirth of the self/planet. The images are contemporary but my initiations as a tribal healer in Africa confirmed that the ritual grammar is ancient: Separation, vision, return. If history is a nightmare the apocalyptic initiation is about waking up from its self-destructive imperative.
The end of the Cold War presented the possibility that an epic hallucination might come to an end. What could possibly equal Stalin or Mao, the gulags and reeducation camps, the Khmer Rouge and Sendero Luminoso? What Beast might step forth to contend with the Messiah?
In 1987 an Arab translation of The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey was published in Cairo. Lindsey’s book, first issued in the early seventies, has sold twenty million copies and has had a pervasive influence on the End Times worldview of fundamentalist Christians in America and elsewhere.
Before its publication in Egypt the Muslim apocalyptic tradition had been dormant for centuries. Not so now. Lindsey’s book and the fertile atmosphere of the first Gulf War reawakened the apocalyptic imagination in the Arab world, informing, for example, Al Qaeda. David Cook, the principal scholar of Muslim apocalyptic literature writes, “The contemporary Muslim sees the present world turned upside down by Christian Millennialism. In defense, Muslims make heavy use of the Bible, or one might say the Bible as seen through the eyes of Hal Lindsey….The only difference is that the ‘good guys’ are Muslims, not Christians.”
This postmodern cross pollenization of cultures has assured that the world keep faith with the old story. The impulse towards destruction the Beast now hides in the bloody heart of a myth shared by enemies bent on destroying one another: Redemption through apocalypse. Messiah/Beast has transmuted into a Crusader/Jihadi complex. Two honorable and sometimes radiant traditions are led towards the abyss by their lunatic fringe: Each driven to conquer the world for God, each bearing the sword of unassailable righteousness.
The Crusader/Jihadi makes real its cosmos by drawing to itself final things: The afterlife, the end of the world, the full sanctification of the children of God. This sacred solipsism translated into a religious vernacular the Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War. Without detente.
Its self-convinced righteousness is of a piece with the unspoken, unspeakable, sociopathy that will destroy whatever it deems necessary. The other does not exist, is not quite human, until he or she converts. Cluster bombs dropped into a suburb of Baghdad will deliver the unbelievers to damnation but if the pilot is by chance downed not a small portion of his people are assured that he will rise to heaven. The Jihadi whispering “Allah Akbar” as the plane strikes the World Trade Center knows exactly where he’s going on the other side of death and exactly where he delivers his not-quite-human victims. One commandment forever in stone whatever the bloodshed: Thou shall not for a moment recognize any resemblance between thyself and thine enemy.
It’s almost dawn, the sky lightening to dark blue after a long night. The stellar jays are mad with chatter and the snow is at last beginning to melt. I invite the reader to the wilderness, to the beginning of the apocalyptic rite of passage. My description of the way though is perhaps more relevant now than when I first wrote it down. That being said I offer this book with a single caveat: Beware the seduction of the image, mine and others, for the myth of apocalypse seeks to enthrall us into an epic fiction with very real consequences. Beware the fascination with what is larger than life, this vulgar Passion Play that would crucify the world.
MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is the author of Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage (Spring Publications, Fall 2003) and with Augustine Kandemwa, Gathering in the Names (Spring Audio and Journal, 2002). He can be emailed at Michaelortizhill@earthlink.ent.
Companion pieces to this essay can be read at www.gatheringin.com.