The pleasures and perils of apocalyptic literature

Recently I read about a group in Switzerland that's agitating to remove all reference to God from the Swiss national anthem. Since the national anthem of the United States says nary a word about God, Americans are in no position to point the finger of blame at the godless Swiss.

Rather, I mention this factoid from Switzerland because it's a perfect example of modern secularism in its overtly aggressive mode. This same movement to push God out of the picture can be found just about everywhere now.

It isn't new. As I was reading about events in Switzerland, I also was re-reading Robert Hugh Benson's century-old apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, a chilling fictional account of the events surrounding the coming of the Antichrist at a point in the not very distant future.

Benson was a son of an Archbishop of Canterbury who became a Catholic priest and wrote a number of highly readable devotional works and novels with religious themes. Lord of the World is the best known of these. Every now and then someone new falls under the spell of what its author himself called a "terribly sensational" book and offers fresh testimony to its nightmarish power.

Apocalyptic literature--writing about events heralding and accompanying the end of the world--has a long history and occupies its own special niche. Far and away the best known work of this sort is the New Testament's Book of Revelation, attributed to St. John the Apostle. New additions to the genre, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have multiplied since Robert Hugh Benson's day. A very recent specimen from a Catholic author is Paul Thigpen's The Burden (Sea Star Press), cast as a series of verse denunciations in the Old Testament manner aimed at various contemporary perversions and threatening appropriate retributions for each.

Thigpen captures the spirit of this sort of writing in an introduction: "We are a generation of mockers, and we face a calamitous harvest....Spiritually, socially, politically, economically, the consequences of our sin whirl around us today and threaten us with catastrophe."

The message could hardly be clearer: repent and be saved while you still can.

Whether The Burden and other current apocalyptic works will stand the test of time is beyond predicting. Lord of the World obviously has done that, and it's worth considering why.

One obvious reason is that Benson is a very skillful writer, with a rich (some would say overly rich) style and a gift for fast-moving narrative. But there's also a larger explanation than that. He saw and described in compelling detail not only the triumph of secularism--humanism, he called it in his day--but its terrifying evolution into a new religion exalting humankind in place of God.

"It was Positivism of a kind," Benson wrote, "Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity worship without its inadequacy. It was not man that was worshiped but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle." Moreover, as he depicts it, this religion without God it is enormously appealing to the already de-Christianized, secularized masses.

How persuasive individual readers will find this depends on each one's capacity for the willing suspension of disbelief that works of the imagination always demand. Here's one cautionary note. Lord of the World is a powerful antidote to the mindset that celebrates things like experimentation on human embryos and euthanasia. Like other powerful medicines, though, it must be taken in small doses lest it transport the reader to those fever swamps of paranoia that lurk on the fringes of religion.

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

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