There's a grand old Greek word that has been much abused in recent years: "apocalypse." Pressed into service for Y2K and then raised to best-seller status by the Left Behind series, "apocalypse" brings to mind pictures of raving, sign-waving fanatics announcing the end of the world.
But its original meaning is simpler. An apocalypse is something that reveals, unfolds, discloses. The original apocalypses (like the biblical books Daniel and Revelation) were written to encourage embattled religious communities that the imposing state systems (Babylon, Rome) that surrounded and confined them were not, after all, as powerful as they seemed. Those massive and seemingly impregnable empires would themselves soon fall, announced the writers of apocalypse, and those who trusted in them would be sorely disappointed.
If an apocalyptic event discloses or unfolds what is real, upending the usual structures of perception, I suggest that 11 September was indeed apocalyptic. To use Paul O'Donnell's apt image, it was like a flash photograph--catching us unawares and capturing truths that had been hidden.
Had firefighters run into burning buildings before? Of course. But never had so many firefighters run into such tall buildings so clearly devastated and probably doomed. Flash. Were 30-odd-year-olds capable of great heroism before? Sure. But not many 30-odd-year-olds had previously had occasion to voluntarily choose their own fiery demise and tell their loved ones about their plans by cell phone. Flash. Did fathers and mothers love their children before? Absolutely. But who didn't hug their kids more tightly on 12 September? Flash. Was a nearly naked pop star dancing with a snake a transparently desperate play for the attention of a bored public on 8 September? You betcha. Did it seem even more pathetic and empty on 12 September? Flash.
Christians live on eschatological tenterhooks--suspended between a world that seems to go on very much as normal and an earthshaking resurrection that, we believe, has already given away history's surprise ending. What is remarkable in North American Christianity is the extent to which we have become seamlessly interwoven with a culture which we appease, flatter, and imitate under the guise of "relevance"--forgetting our faith's own insistence that history is not as it seems to be, that the world itself derives its meaning and being not from the past but from the future.
If Christianity is true--if every empire eventually will fall, if a slain Lamb will turn out to be the key to history, if power and wealth are no more secure than, well, a building designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707--then 11 September was a tragic but fortuitous snapshot of the real future and, thus, the real present. Love matters. Courage matters. Faith matters. Being entertained, being comfortable, the next promotion, the nice house--and, yes, the luxuries of latte-soaked cynicism and terminal irony--they all wash out in the glare of the apocalyptic flash.
True enough, the afterimage gradually fades and the so-called real world comes quickly--surprisingly quickly--into focus. Perhaps nothing did change on 11 September after all. But if that's true, it means that we have truly, finally, tragically, gone blind. It's happened before. Met any Babylonians recently?