World on the Scales: The Apocalyptic Season of the Church Year

King CrimsonBy Ched Myers

Note: These thoughts were shared on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost at Farm Church to give context for the readings and theme of the service. They are germane to this long but informative issue of the BCM Enews.

Yesterday Elaine and I attended the memorial service for my oldest friend’s mother. She was the last of the parents of our tight-knit neighborhood group to cross over during the last year, a string that began with my mom’s passing. We gathered at the venerable old St. James Episcopal church in South Pasadena, where I was baptized as an infant. The memories shared yesterday were about the halcyon days of our little suburban community—and it was by all means a very privileged and insular context in which to grow up. But as I listened, I was mindful of the fact that actually, from puberty onward, I was a pretty alienated kid. In 1970, I was 15, a vegetarian, and already marching against the Indochina war, to the great exasperation of my father, a veteran of two wars. This was on the heels of the 60s, and my older brother was stuck in Vietnam, sending me coded antiwar letters—in Elvish script!

Like all of us socialized in this culture, one of my escapes was music. The chart-topping songs of that year reflected to some degree the widespread social turmoil: the Beatles “Long and Winding Road” for example, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” But I was listening instead to underground FM radio, and had become a fan of so-called British progressive art rock, especially the infamous band King Crimson. What attracted me to their music were two things: on one hand they combined elements of jazz, classical, and symphonic music (unusual for rock at the time); on the other, they riffed intensely on dark apocalyptic themes. Here you can hear an example: a lyrical but mournful tune from their second album. The band even hired a visionary poet named Peter Sinfield to write lyrics. So this song says in part:

Air, fire, earth and water, World on the scales
Air, fire, earth and water, Balance of change
World on the scales, On the scales
Bishop’s kings spin judgement’s blade
Scratch “Faith” on nameless graves…
Whilst in the aisle the mad man smiles
To him it matters least…
Whilst all around our Mother Earth
Waits balanced on the scales. (“In the Wake of Poseidon,” 1970)

The image above is the cover of King Crimson’s first album; it is a painting inspired by the album’s tune “21st Century Schizoid Man” by Barry Godber (1946– 1970), a computer programmer who died from a heart attack shortly after the album’s release. It’s what originally caught my eye at a record store in Pasadena. A mix of foreboding and terror is etched onto this face in vibrant red and purple, with a distended ear straining for—what? Good news? This fearful image somehow captured what I was already feeling at age 15: a gut sense that something was profoundly wrong from which suburban insulation could not protect me. It was in a sense the beginning of the end of my adolescence, and of my class, race and gender illusions of security and entitlement.

Obviously, we continue to live in apocalyptic times. But today the three specters famously named by Dr. King a half century ago—war, poverty and racism (see my 2008 analysis here)—have been joined, and perhaps even overtaken, by a fourth horseman of the apocalypse: climate crisis. Which brings me to the ancient rhythm of our liturgical calendar. This Sunday we enter into what I call the “apocalyptic season”—the last two Sundays of Ordinary Time and the first two Sundays of Advent. During this season the readings turn toward turning, as “end of the world” themes clear space for the new beginning of the church year in Advent.

Frankly, it feels again like a season of apocalyptic signs and dark wonders: ten days after the Thousand Oaks shooting, followed closely by the climate-driven Woolsey fire, and 2 weeks before the first anniversary of the start of the Thomas Fire (both set statewide records of destruction). And that’s just our local story, on top of all the craziness going on in this country and world. So there is lots to both mourn and ponder, and while our culture would rather have us rush past it to the next consumer spectacle (i.e. Thanksgiving and Christmas), we do better to slow down and reflect on what we’ve been through, and on what we are carrying as a small community of faith trying to makes sense of “all these things,” as the disciples in today’s gospel reading put it in their bewildered question to Jesus (Mk 13:4).

LDN-L-WOOLSEY-FIRE-1110-9AHConsequently, it seems appropriate that we provide another space, is Farm Church did last Sunday, to reflect together on the twin episodes of the last 10 days in our county, which express respectively the two great public addictions of our culture: to the gun and to fossil fuels. Disaster—etymologically it is an apocalyptic term in English, from the Greek “the stars falling.” (Left: The Woolsey fire produced a foreboding mushroom cloud.)

It’s difficult to grasp the hopeful genius of ancient biblical apocalyptic, because pop post-apocalyptic culture has become so ubiquitous. For example, in searching for images of “apocalyptic turning” on the web, all I found was pictures from Zombie films and “The Last of Us,” described as an “action-adventure survival horror video game” distributed (and making huge profits) for the decidedly corporate Sony Computer entertainment division. There’s something very cynical and thin about these pop cultural expropriations of apocalyptic, in which plots inevitably revolve around heroic survivors navigating the law of the jungle in a smoking dystopian landscape, survivors fighting for scraps from the table of capitalist collapse.

To be sure, biblical apocalyptic shares this grim realism about the prospect of systemic disintegration. But unlike pop culture, it names clearly why. These texts indict the contradictions and hubris of an oppressive order, unsustainable in the purview of both Creator and Creation. Moreover, the Bible’s point of view could not be more different than that of alienated suburban white dudes taking refuge in their man caves to make sport and entertainment of disaster. Our biblical visions are the product of the prophetic imagination of traditional people at the margins, struggling to survive the travails of empire. And that is why ultimately these biblical texts are not only about collapse, but moreso about giving birth to a new world of justice and sufficiency and healing. So for example our reading from Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” ends with the counterintuitive description of war and chaos in terms of “birthpangs” (Mk 13:8). This is why the lectionary also celebrates today the prophetic visions of pregnant women.

The Hebrew Bible reading today is the defiant song of Hannah at the birth of a son who would become the great prophet Samuel. This song, you will recognize, is the basis for Mary’s Magnificat, intoned centuries later by another peasant woman under a different empire, in celebration of another child destined to become a prophet who would wage a nonviolent struggle with Caesar for lordship over the whole world. So today we will sing songs inspired by the Magnificat, not to try to jump start the Christmas season early, but rather to recognize that these biblical songs of revolutionary turning capture the essence of the radical hope envisioned by apocalyptic seers of our tradition: especially those of Hannah and Mary. Welcome to the Apocalyptic Season of endings and new beginnings!

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