Saturday, June 7, 2014

There's a New World Coming

My uncle passed away recently, after succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis.

And so, one afternoon, I found myself back in the attic of his little house in Beaufort, South Carolina.  It was odd, being there, because it had been decades.  Odder still, it felt much the same.  It had been cleared out, mostly, but there were still memories there from when I was a little boy.

Specifically, the boxes of comic books.  He'd been a collector, which meant that I spent many an hour as a lad sorting through the boxes upon boxes of old comics he kept.  They were there in his house, and also at my grandparents house in Athens, Georgia.  They were neatly kept, carefully sorted and stored, and like catnip to my boy-mind.

By the time he passed, most of the best ones had been sold, the old horror-comics and the mint condition stuff.  But the three tidy boxes that remained were neat.  I remembered the covers, some of them, the images still etched into my mind after almost four decades.

Old war comics from WWII.  Old Archies, and a bunch of superhero mags.  There were even a handful of classic Will Eisner "The Spirit" comics...not the comic books themselves, but the newspaper supplements, from 1940 and 1941.  Not in great shape, but still pretty dang cool.

So on that afternoon, I leafed through them, one by one, in the heavy, familiar mustiness of that attic.  Then I encountered an odd one.

It would have slipped right by my ten year old mind years ago, as I moved quickly on to some comic about barbarians or PT boat captains.

But now, now that I'm a pastor, this just jumped right on out at me.  It was a comic penned by Hal Lindsey, author of the peculiar apocalyptic book The Late Great Planet Earth, which was to the evangelical Christianity of the 1960s and 1970s what the Left Behind Books are to evangelical Christianity today.

The comic itself was peculiarly plotless, as some wide-eyed and bell-bottomed Jesus People mouthed their way through the trippy interpretive bizarreness of Lindsey's theology.  That theology had one purpose: adapt the fever-dream of John of Patmos to the sociopolitical realities of today.

Or, rather, the sociopolitical realities of the early 1970s.

It was peculiar for a range of reasons, not least of which was the radiant Seventiesness of the whole thing.  On one page, a drawing of white man Jesus at the second coming, his hair perfectly parted in the middle and feathered back. There's the comic book's exclusively honkey-American vision of the Rapture. Because when it comes time for Jesus to bring home his chosen ones, they'll evidently look like they're the cast of some Off Broadway version of "Brady Bunch: The Musical."

It's a bizarre little comic, because it's radically a product of its era, as all apocalyptic literature tends to be.  The assumption in this bit of Jesus psychedelia is that the moment of the "new world" coming will look and feel exactly like the world of that very moment.

And so now, four decades later, the 1974 vision of the end of things starts feeling more and more like the end of things in some alternate universe timeline.  The predicted standoff between Jesus and the Soviets and the Communist Chinese, all dressed in olive drab?  Didn't happen.

The rise of the occult, led by a New Age Hippie-Chick of Babylon?  Not in this universe, I fear.  The rise of the internet and globalized industry?  Not a peep about it, not a mention at all.  And the image of cartoon-Christian-raptured America, 99.9 percent white, and not a single person carrying an extra pound or ten?  We're inhabiting a different world.

A generation has passed, a full biblical 40 years, since this comic would have been handed out to youth groups in the seedling megachurches that were beginning to blossom all around America.  The young evangelical teens who would have had this placed in their hands are now in their late fifties.

That's the challenge, always, of taking a universal and eternal message and trying to cram it into the peculiarities of a particular time and place.  We want to do this, of course, but it's peculiarly selfish of us.  We seem to think, for no reason that I can see, that we are the whole and entire point of what Jesus taught.  The entirety of creation revolves around the fulcrum of us, our moment, our time, our way of being.

This is not true, at least, not in the way we think it is.

Is the message Jesus brought relevant and transforming and urgent now?  Yes.

But it was also equally relevant and urgent the first day it was preached in my little church, way back when in 1847.  It will be similarly urgent when I am a hundred years gone.

There is always a new world coming.