Thursday, August 9, 2012

One of the wonderful things about the internet is that it levels the playing field in so many ways, so that anyone can make their voice heard on a particular topic and have it, potentially, be seen or heard around the world. One of the least wonderful things about the internet is that so many people can say things from behind a cloak of anonymity, without anyone knowing their expertise on a topic, or personal axes which they might have to grind. As an academic, whatever I write will find critics, whether in person or in print, but these critics are there in person or their names are affixed to their reviews. Some of what critics say I find to be correct, at other times, I might disagree. But I found an anonymous review - at least I cannot locate tjake or anything about him or her anywhere - of my book The End of the World: The ApocalypticImagination in Film and Television at and I disagreed with the review, which I found to be faulty in its basic premise. How should I respond? Should I respond? I decided I would, but before I explain why, let me begin with a story.

A long time ago a student dropped a Synoptic Gospels course I was teaching at the University of Winnipeg. When I asked her why, she told me that I was “too positive” about the Gospels. I was not able to ascertain precisely what that meant and she was not able to put her finger on precisely what bothered her about my positivity or how to define it, but she was certain that I was “too positive.” I handled all of the critical questions that need to be dealt with in a university course: authorship; location; date; two-source theory; Q; Farrer Theory; M; L; oral tradition; and on and on. But I also took seriously the theological significance of the Gospels and what it meant for the first readers and for Christians today. Everything was on the table in terms of our study of the Gospels, historically and literarily, but that included for me the theology of the Gospels. I had a feeling then, and still have the same feeling today, almost 15 years later, that what the student meant by “too positive” was “too theological.” But how can you study theological texts if you do not take seriously theology?

I have the same feeling about an this review of my book The End of the World: The ApocalypticImagination in Film and Television. The reviewer states that my book “evaluates literature and films in the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genre based on the degree to which they conform to a predetermined set of theological convictions; it is not an academic work, but an extended homiletical reflection.” That is the entire review: a contrast between “an academic work” and “a predetermined set of theological convictions.” What the reviewer does not mention, however, is that what moderns know as apocalyptic thought is a set of theological convictions from the ancient world in texts written by Jews and Christians. These texts were not systematized into a category known as "apocalyptic thought" by the ancients, but modern scholars have categorized a variety of ancient  Jewish and Christian texts into a scholarly ideal type, if you will, but with variations, such as those dealing with heavenly journeys and those focused more on historical surveys. The schema with which I lay out the category of apocalyptic thought in the first half of my book follows the category of “apocalyptic thought” and its characteristics as laid out by scholars in the seminal volume of Semeia 14 in 1979, especially J.J. Collins' article  "Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre" and by other major scholars in the field (such as Klaus Koch; Adela Yarbro Collins; Paul Hanson; and the Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism to mention a few and all of whom are found in my Bibliography). The "predetermined set of theological convictions" I follow are the categories laid out by these academics and I follow these categories carefully and closely, though I do not do so slavishly. I get to disagree with modern scholarship, too, and I while I accept the category and the characteristics, I also add to some of the characteristics.

What I then do after the first half of the book in which I examine Jewish and Christian apocalypses, including 1 Enoch and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is compare modern films and television series to apocalyptic thought in the ancient texts, partly to see how well these films adhere to the ancient notions of apocalyptic thought as determined by modern academics. I did this because my students in courses on apocalyptic thought, which I teach regularly at the undergraduate and graduate level, have always asked questions about these films and so, at the undergraduate level, I incorporate films into my syllabus in order to examine them in a scholarly context. I also felt that because filmmakers  tackle the ancient texts in which I am trained and interpret them, I think as an academic I have every right to tackle their visual "texts" and see how well they adhere to the theological convictions of ancient apocalypses and the modern academic categories of study. It is also quite a bit of fun.

I think it is an enlightening comparison, in that when you take these apocalyptic films as a whole it shows moderns less hopeful about themselves and the future of their world than ancients were. The films demonstrate hopelessness about human technology, about the reality and power of God, our use of technology, our ability to maintain civilization and humanity as a whole. Think, for instance, of The Road, book or film. Frankly, most of these films show us on the utter brink of collapse with no way to save ourselves, except for the unrealistic "lone hero" scenario. Yet, I do let the films speak for themselves and even create categories which take account of “post-apocalyptic” films, “alien apocalypses,” and “technological apocalypses,” categories never imagined by the ancients. If taking the academic scholarship on apocalyptic literature and outlining the theology seriously is “homiletical” than perhaps my book is homiletical. If that is the case then every “academic” study which takes theology seriously would have to fit that category.  The better solution is to acknowledge that theology and academic study do and can fit together. Whether one thinks they fit together well or at all in my particular book is a matter for each reader to decide, and I would encourage you to rush out and buy a copy to make your own decision, but it would be nice to know the qualifications of the anonymous reviewer one way or another to judge apocalyptic literature, theology, movies and homilies.

I will say this, though, and perhaps this is what bothered the reviewer, that in the final chapter of my book I compare the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic view to the modern apocalyptic view and I definitely prefer ancient hopefulness to modern cynicism and paranoia. If that counts as a homily, so be it, but I approach both ancient apocalyptic thought and current movies from the point of view of academia, which just happens to take theology seriously.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. I would question if anyone can really understand the gospels without being prepared to live it.

    But perhaps that's just the homilist in me.

    Certainly, an approach from both faith and academic criticism can be very productive.

    God Bless

  2. Thanks Chris,

    I do believe that both faith and academic criticism have proper roles, and I would never want to impose my faith on my students. I am clear about how I approach the Gospels and I make it clear that they have every right to disagree with me and challenge me. I, too, believe that only by entering into a relationship with the Gospels, for instance, or taking seriously the apocalyptic texts and what they say, can you be prepared to understand them. (I became a much better teacher of the Bible after I spent seven years working in a crisis center and realizing that people needed hope more than academic skills.